Local news may never be the same

Small and mid-size print/digital news operations — the lifeblood of community and regional news coverage in the US and across the globe — will turn a corner in 2015, making a wobbly but complete landing in the new digital frontier.

In 2014, the major chains completed a series of high profile maneuvers that saw them separate their publishing assets from their digital, broadcast and other more profitable operations. Corporate-owned newspapers had been deeply cutting resources for more than a decade. But for the larger companies — such as Tribune, E.W. Scripps, News Corp. and Gannett — narrowing profit margins were partly absorbed by the companies’ other assets; without those buffers, the cuts would have been deeper.

Now those newspaper operations must stand alone. As such, the year ahead will likely be the first real test of the industry’s ability to survive in a digitally-dominated playing field. Print will continue to matter, but digital audience and the revenue it generates rein paramount. If those new revenue streams don’t grow quick enough to offset continued print advertising revenue declines, more expense cuts will be needed.

2015 is do-or-die time

But a bell will ring in 2015: Publishers can’t cut news staffs much further. The content that’s being diced up into fragments and sent out across multiple platforms to grow a digital audience, is losing its primary source, the reporter.

While newspapers have been building apps, equipping journalists with smart phones to shoot 60-second video bites of town board meetings, and developing website templates to facilitate bulk national advertising sales, they have not been investing in meaningful coverage.

Instead, a decade-plus of divesting in news coverage has created the era of selfie journalism.

Selfie journalism, as we have dubbed it, is coverage that is measured by the individual audience a reporter or content producer can grow to support overall audience growth and subsequent advertising revenue. With increasing frequency, how individual journalists feed digital niches will be the measure of effectiveness. They’ll be judged according to spreadsheet numbers that reveal their social media/digital footprint.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using these tools to extend reach. But these demands are being pressed when staffing ranks are at historic lows. Feet on the beat are dangerously low. Moreover, in this new arena, the quality of writing, depth of reporting and management of a beat are overshadowed by the values on a spreadsheet.

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