Over the past several weeks, I’ve spoken to several folks about our industry and where we’re headed. These conversations have yielded common themes, from how artificial intelligence will impact our industry to the continued need to invest in infrastructure and technology.
Woven through those chats was what role philanthropy will play in supporting local news, how readers will need to step in dramatically to sustain it, and the precarious nature of ad-supported journalism.
When I asked OpenAI to make a case for local news, it spit out this response:
Local news serves a vital role in informing communities about the events, issues, and developments that affect them on a daily basis. Here are some key reasons why local news is important:
- It connects people to their communities: Local news helps people stay informed about the happenings in their city, town, or neighborhood. It provides a platform for community members to share their stories, ideas, and concerns, and fosters a sense of belonging and shared identity.
- It promotes accountability and transparency: Local news outlets play a crucial role in holding local officials and institutions accountable by investigating and reporting on issues of public interest, such as government spending, corruption, and public safety. This helps ensure that those in power are held accountable for their actions and that the public is informed about important decisions affecting their lives.
- It provides essential information: Local news outlets provide critical information to residents, such as weather alerts, traffic updates, and school closings. They also cover local events, such as concerts, festivals, and sports games, which help people stay informed about what’s happening in their community.
- It supports local businesses: Local news outlets help support local businesses by providing advertising and promotional opportunities. This, in turn, helps boost the local economy and creates jobs.
In summary, local news plays a crucial role in informing and connecting communities, promoting accountability and transparency, providing essential information, and supporting local businesses.
One has to hand it to AI — its ability to return such a deft response is remarkable.
But one word that gave me an “a-ha” moment stuck out to me. The word “it” at the beginning of each of the key reasons why local news is important. But what is “it?”
Local news is defined by the people who live it. Who are impacted by it. Who can see it. Read it. Consume it. Support it. Engage with it. And the it requires someone to guide it, cast its eyes on it, and to shine a line on whatever it is. There’s a lot of it. Often too much of it.
If we understand “it” to mean “news,” I’d like to see equal or greater time spent discussing the it vs. the wants or needs of what’s adjacent to it.
That’s not to take away from any of the myriad important needs for it, but often we’re too romantic about it, speak in a bubble about it, and some think that the tax status of it trumps all of it.
This past week offered reminders, such as when a colleague was impacted because a local story about her child’s school went national; or when my wife began to question whether we should change banks after seeing a story, or my son, who wakes every morning to our local NPR station via a smart speaker, waiting to hear the weather for the day and deciding what he’ll wear to school. And for me, I was on the road, tuning into the local news station, just to feel connected to the place I was visiting. All local news and people are acting on it.
At no point in any of those transactions did the audience ask about our business model. Or ask about how the news would get to them. Nor did they stop during their busy lives to get it. It was there when they needed it.
I say this at a moment when across our industry, layoffs are accelerating. More newspapers are disappearing. And understandably, some are fed up with it.
The case should be clear about local news. People need it. Want it. And daily, have to have it.
So it’s the “it” we should be focusing on. Let’s not lose sight of it. Let’s make sure people keep coming back for it. Without it, we’re not news. We’re history.