“Legacy” media. We use the phrase as shorthand for “media that have failed to change with the times.” I get that. Lost, though, is another aspect of the meaning of “legacy”: what you are known for — your reputation earned over time for your work.
A news organization’s legacy matters in three important ways, and they’re the reasons we need to support healthy legacy media now more than ever as we reinvent business models for the future of local news.
But first, a confession: I know a thing or two about being dismissive of so-called legacy media. As a veteran in local broadcast media, I’ve been especially judgmental about the ways traditional publishers missed the early signals and opportunities related to digital, and did not adequately transform in the face of ultimate digital disruption.
It’s absolutely fair to call out media organizations for not adapting to digital disruption as quickly as their audiences and advertisers. In this respect, media is no different than other disrupted fields, from academia to health care. Traditional news outlets need to accelerate their transformation. My LMA colleagues and I work with many community-committed publishers looking to do just that. And we should all be concerned where ownership, hedge fund or not, makes decisions that reduce civic journalism.
Dismissing these existing publishers, however, is a misunderstanding of “legacy.” Their legacy is also their history. That history includes three essential elements today’s news startups typically lack: a team of experienced journalists, a recognized and trusted name in the community, built on a track record of years or decades of community service reporting. These traditional news outlets often have sizable audiences, enabling their reporting to have impact. These assets are all also part of their “legacy.”
During the past two years, as chief innovation officer at LMA, I’ve had the opportunity to work directly with and often coach more than 80 different local publishers. Almost without exception, they have impressed me with their overriding commitment to community service, their desire to evolve and grow with their audiences — and to better serve audiences they’ve missed — and their mission-driven approach to local journalism. I’ve previously written about this “sweet spot” where community needs, the strengths of journalism and the goals of the funding community align around this unity of purpose.
That also includes publishing “chains.” While there are legitimate concerns when hedge funds take over media companies, at the local level the reporting is still done by people. And in my experience, those people are just as dedicated, regardless of ownership structure.
Think about the short list of the most impactful pieces of locally initiated journalism in the past five years: Two that have to be at the top are the relentless reporting by Julie Brown at the Miami Herald (McClatchy) to expose Jeffrey Epstein; and the work by a three-person investigative team at IndyStar (Gannett) to bring gymnastics abuser Larry Nassar to justice. I’d add to that list the reporting by the Times-Union of Albany, New York (Hearst), which led to corruption charges and the resignation of New York’s Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin.
In my experience, the most important metric for measuring the value of a news outlet to a community isn’t its tax status (for-profit vs. nonprofit), size, or even primary publishing format. It’s the degree to which its reporting serves and reaches local audiences.
Through that lens, we need the emerging mix of media players like ambitious digital startups, community-funded news initiatives, and news collaboratives. We also badly need the strengths that legacy media bring in terms of experience, track record, trust and audience reach.
These strengths are particularly essential to appreciate when difficult decisions must be made about how to allocate and invest resources in local journalism.
I hope we take a holistic approach to the future of local information ecosystems, one that supports complexity and diversity. That ecosystem can include for-profit as well as nonprofit news outlets, digital as well as traditional formats — and should be centered around the communities we seek to serve and how they choose to get their information, rather than our journalistic preconceptions about content platforms.
Our most important legacy is the essential reporting we do to serve and inform our communities.