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The Keyword

Google News Initiative

Cultivating digital “oases” in the local news landscape

Editor’s Note: Susan Leath is the director of the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

In my 30 years of working in journalism, I’ve seen first-hand the value of trusted news sources that help citizens connect and engage. As a local publisher for McClatchy, and later regional president with Gannett, I’ve also experienced the significant challenges facing local news in the wake of rapidly changing technology and consumer behavior. 

At UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (UNC CISLM), our mission is to help local news organizations retool for the digital age. We continuously hear from publishers that achieving long-term sustainability requires a fundamental mindset shift, and new types of resources to help them succeed.

That’s why we’re partnering with the Google News Initiative (GNI), LION Publishers and Douglas K. Smith on Project Oasis: a research initiative focused on helping local news organizations navigate the complex choices they face in establishing and growing their digital business. The first step is to develop a database that maps the current landscape of digital native local news publishers in the U.S. and Canada. Then, through in-depth interviews with these local news site founders at key stages of growth, we will develop resources to help others grow, including a “Starter Pack” for aspiring entrepreneurs.

This initiative responds to UNC’s News Deserts Project, led by UNC Knight Professor of Journalism and Digital Media Economics Penny Abernathy, which highlighted the rise of rural and urban communities where residents have limited access to the credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level. 

This research showed that by 2018, we had lost 1,800—nearly 25 percent—of local newspapers that had existed in 2004. In just two years since, that number has jumped to 2,100, while cost-cutting by many remaining newspapers has rendered them ghosts of their former selves.

Despite these stark numbers, we’re starting to see the evidence that local news digital startups can thrive in communities and fill these gaps. Penny’s research has shown that a positive response to the loss of local newspapers has come from the several hundred digital news outlets that now span the country, most of them started in the past decade. Project Oasis will build on a range of programs at UNC CISLM to arm these local news publishers with sustainable practices to help strengthen their digital business models and strategies.

For this project, LION will help us focus our research on the most pressing and relevant questions, and engage with the right news organizations. The GNI will bring digital expertise and inform our research with lessons from the GNI Local Experiments project, where they’re working with global partners to create new digital local news organizations. We’re also partnering with Doug Smith, the founder of Media Transformation Challenge and architect of Table Stakes, which has supported the growth of more than 150 local news organizations in the U.S. and Europe.

This month, we will begin surveying digital native local news organizations in the U.S. and Canada to shine a light on the business strategies that have set some apart from others. If you run a digital native local news publication, we invite you to complete the survey, which we’re making available until the end of April 2020.

I believe local news is an essential element of a strong democracy. These information outlets build trust, inspire civic engagement and bring communities together. Through new research and resources, we believe this project has the potential to help shape a bright future for local news.

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