Long before the pandemic, media watchers have been debating the changing media landscape — due in large part to the rise of the internet and the fall of consumers' attention spans — and how those forces have impacted local news outlets. So when the coronavirus outbreak upended businesses across the country, local news outlets braced for additional challenges. However, when Dan Kennedy, Northeastern University journalism professor and GBH news contributor, spoke with In It Together host Arun Rath this week about how local media has fared this year, he offered a surprisingly rosy perspective.
“I’m happy to say it’s been an extremely difficult year for local media, but it hasn’t been as bad as we were predicting a year ago,” Kennedy said. In fact, Kennedy has seen anecdotal evidence of modest growth for some outlets.
Kennedy attributes the industry's optimism to support from federal legislation like the Paycheck Protection Program and the CARES Act, and some outlets' ability to take advantage of a surge in digital traffic.
“The lessons I take away are that independent, locally-owned news sources can do well in a situation like this as long as they are not under the delusion that they’re all going to become wealthy, and they’re just trying to find a way to make a go of it and serve their community,” Kennedy said.
Locally, Kennedy pointed to The Boston Globe as an example of a news source that “seems to have done ok” due to their success with digital subscriptions. Although the newspaper made modest staff cuts at the beginning of the pandemic, it also announced that it had reached 220,000 digital subscribers, an admirable number for a local paper according to Kennedy.
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“At a time when advertising was declining anyway, the Globe was essentially ready for that and has been able to use their strength in digital subscriptions to remain financially viable,” Kennedy said.
Rath noted that the conventional wisdom in media is that digital subscriptions can’t save publications, but Kennedy said they can help organizations to sustain themselves.
“No one is going to have the success of a national publication like The [New York] Times, The [Washington] Post, or The Wall Street Journal,” Kennedy said. “But for The Globe, 220,000 people paying 30 dollars a month is quite a revenue stream, and it’s something they can definitely make a go of it on.”
Kennedy said he has seen similar success stories even at the neighborhood level. When the Dorchester Reporter increased the price of subscriptions, the feedback was positive, as the newspaper locked in more subscribers, got more donations, and brought in more advertising revenue.
“They’ve not only survived the pandemic, they’re doing pretty well,” Kennedy said.
However, Kennedy cautioned against too much optimism, saying that many outlets that are not locally-owned will still struggle as their parent companies make cuts to reach financial goals.
“Local news continues to be dominated overwhelmingly by chain newspapers owned by corporations and hedge funds,” Kennedy said. “That also includes the vast majority of community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. And they’re not doing well. It continues to be not a pretty picture.”