When we talk about ‘the newspaper’, are we using too broad a term to describe a variety of different beasts? Given that the difference between national, regional and hyperlocal papers is so great, is it unfair of us to blithely state that each is facing the same ecological problems? Should we take a leaf out of animal bioscientist’s book and realise that there isn’t a single species of giraffe, but rather that different types of newspaper are different enough to be appraised in their own right?

That’s the question posed by Christopher Ali, assistant professor at the University of Virginia, at a recent talk on the future of local newspapers in the US (minus the laboured giraffe analogy). Speaking to a class at the University of Oregon, Ali began by revealing the extent to which the conversation about the future of newspapers is disproportionately skewed towards national titles:

“For the moment the most important thing to understand is that small-market newspapers, which are newspapers we’ve defined as being with a circulation under 50,000 a day or week, represent 97 percent of all newspapers published in the United States.

“When we talk about the newspaper industry we tend not to think about small-town papers, we tend to think about how the metro/national newspapers are doing. We’re getting one particular narrative… ‘your medium is dying’.”

He suggests that the broad categorisation of ‘newspaper’ suggests a homogenised experience, whereas in reality the difference between the situations of the New York Times and the Franklin Favorite couldn’t be more different. For instance, in 2008 daily metropolitan-area newspapers in the US saw a revenue decline, on average, of around 15 percent, while small-market newspapers only saw a decline of around two percent. 

That, along with some notable successes in increasing paid circulation among some of the local newspapers the research authors spoke to, has led to an air of what Ali described as ‘guarded optimism’ among the local publishers:

“We asked ‘how secure do you feel in your job’ and ‘how positive do you feel about the future of local newspapers’? And 50 percent of our respondents indicated they felt very secure or quite secure in their job. 61 percent of our respondents were very positive or slightly positive. This didn’t begin from a sense of naiveté.”

Ali argued that the optimism, and the financial successes he highlighted, were as the result of a number of factors, including the trust local communities place in their newspapers as a result of being the only consistent news presence focused on that area, as a corollary of which they continue to occupy a space that has been usurped in many other areas by search engines: “The newspaper has become [Google]” as people ring for directions, phone numbers and even to find restaurants.

He stated that many local newspapers are moving from a daily to a weekly model, and have an advantage of providing “the whole story” and a context because the time pressures of a “sunrise to sundown” publication strategy have been removed:

“They also tend to move at a different pace. The experience for many metro and national newspapers is quite different; they face a lot more competition, not only for eyeballs but for advertising. There’s reduced competition which has allowed [local papers] to learn from their metro and daily counterparts.”

A second advantage the local papers have over digital native publications (not a sentence you typically expect to write in the media analysis game, to be honest) is a sense of place, a tangible connection to the territory in which they operate. Ali explained:

“We found that the most successful small-market newspapers were the newspapers that brought people together physically, in a room, hosting events. Events to talk about community issues, hosting local awards shows, fostering roundtables to talk about what matters to the community and also opening up their editorial meetings to people in the community.”

And, as Ali noted, those local events can have a significant effect on the paper’s bottom line, with one respondent saying that his paper makes between $500,000 and $750,000 a year just doing events. Even with that financial incentive in mind, it’s clear that constant interaction with an audience in a physical way is an advantage local newspapers can make the most of.

The executive editor of the Daily Coloradoan spoke to the research team about its efforts to do just that, saying that despite its small newsroom engagement is so important it has created a ten person engagement team “which includes folks charged with communicating when talking to readers across of the platforms that we operate on and that our readers operate on, but also connecting with how people interact in the real spaces”. 

While local newspapers also have a reputation for being slightly behind the times when it comes to new technology (which Ali acknowledges is justified in some cases), they also frequently have a “robust” social media presence as part of their mission to remain engaged with their public. Ali explains:

“In our research… we encountered a community really eager to learn and to experiment with new technology. This is in addition to having this robust social media presence on Facebook, Instagram and Slack.

“Many are also implementing video and live video to complement existing reporting. Many are keen to learn about video and podcasting, for instance. 84 percent of our respondents said they used video, 67 percent said they did live video, 25 percent said podcasts. 4.69 percent said they took advantage of virtual reality.”

That’s similar to what we’ve heard from regional and local news outlets in the UK – Trinity Mirror regionals digital innovation editor Alison Gow told us about her own aspirations for live video on our latest podcast.

However, while many local newspapers in the US are less exposed to the existential threats that are hitting their national counterparts, they are still undergoing being destabilised by changes in how their communities get their news. Consequently, says Ali, many are having to rethink what ‘local journalism’ looks like:

“I’ve already spoken about how in addition to their watchdog role small town newspapers perform the [role] of ‘good neighbour’. They look for solutions to community problems. This is a departure from traditional journalism’s detached mode. At small-market newspapers this is something they’ve always done, they’ve always done this service journalism.”

(We’ve seen that transition to service-oriented journalism at some of the larger ‘regional’ publications in the US, too. The Dallas Morning News, for instance, which is part of the 3 percent of US newspapers that has a circulation over 50,000, has been moving to providing services for a while now.)

In addition to the universal challenges of revenue and resource management, Ali also elucidated some issues facing local newspapers particularly. He stated that many are having trouble recruiting young journalists, even at a time where we’ve seen thousands of journalism jobs cut, because it’s “hard to pitch and sell a small town”.

More seriously still he notes that the diversity and sense of place that comprise local newspapers’ greatest strengths is potentially threatened by the ownership structure of media in the US:

“We’re seeing a concentration of the newspaper market, and by concentration I mean we’ve got a company like Gannett who owns something like 205 newspapers, 149 of which are non-dailies. You’ve got Newhouse, that owns 438 newspapers. Is that a benefit in that you can have best practices and streamline copy editing, but is that also creating homogenisation? What is lost when the owner is no longer embedded within the community?”

In the UK, accusations that regional publishers are threatening that strength by moving reporters and editors to hubs many miles from the towns they purport to cover are frequently levied at the regional owners like Johnston Press and Newsquest. The economics of local publishing in the UK are obviously very different, but we’ve argued before that retreating to a satellite hub strategy risks removing the sense of place that comprises the publishers’ biggest strength. It would be a huge shame to see the same happen for US publications as well.

Earlier in the session, Ali had argued that despite all the differences between national, regional and local newspapers, they still have a shared mission, to inform and provide services that enrich the communities they serve – and it’s not a position that is easy to usurp:

“Newspapers… position themselves as this connection between the local and the global. They take these global events and localise them for us and help us contextualise.

“Somewhere between 45 percent and 85 percent of all original reporting is done by the newspaper and then picked up by other media. As much as we can say ‘well the hyperlocal blogs will pick it up’, these blogs haven’t been taking it all up and don’t usually exist in smaller communities.”

So it’s vital that local publications continue to trade on the strengths that they’ve developed over the course of their history – relevance, engagement and reputation – if that mission is to continue.