By David McGowan, President and CEO, WJCT Public Media
The recent round of staff buyouts affecting The Florida Times-Union newsroom provided the latest evidence, if any were needed, that the business model of local newspapers is fundamentally broken.
COVID-19 is playing the role of accelerant on a raging fire initially brought on by changing news consumption habits, an over-reliance on advertising and a reluctance or inability to change. The hedge fund and private equity-driven nature of today’s newspaper ownership groups is also a factor, but the consolidation of declining industries usually attracts a certain ruthlessness.
Despite its staff losses, the Times-Union’s newsroom has shown how valuable courageous, enterprising journalism can be to a community. Under the leadership of Editor Mary Kelli Palka, the T-U, a WJCT News partner, has both broken and doggedly pursued stories that have had real and measurable impact. From JEA to Lot J and lots of other stories, the T-U has engaged us all in the civic life of this region in ways large and small that many readers have come to take for granted. It’s also worth remembering that many of these lines of inquiry were not very popular when investigative reporters began them.
But as papers decline, and evidence continues to mount that the crisis in local journalism is having a wide range of negative effects on American public life, new and innovative solutions are being found as local communities rise to meet the challenge. Nonprofit online news services, often working collaboratively with the for-profit newsrooms in their regions, are emerging at a rapid pace.
The Institute for Non-Profit News reports that there are now more than 250 nonprofit newsrooms across the country, and their growth has been steady. Though these newsrooms now employ only a fraction of the more than 28,000 journalism jobs lost from 2008 to 2018, the sector demonstrates increasing levels of impact and sustainability. Importantly, over 40 percent of revenues to the Institute for Non-Profit News members serving local audiences now come from individual supporters.
The growth in local nonprofit digital news comes as the Pew Research Center found that in 2018, roughly 40 percent of adults preferred to get their local news from online sources, with more than three-quarters (77 percent) saying the internet is important in how they receive local news. This squares with WJCT’s own research in 2018, which found that most locals would prefer new local coverage to be offered online. If trends continue at the current pace, online sources are set to become Americans’ top choice for local news, supplanting local TV news broadcasts, within the next year or two.
At WJCT we have been working hard to ensure that we can drive this exciting nonprofit and digital future for local journalism. Not only are we devoting more radio air time to local news than ever — having recently made WJCT News 89.9 into an all-news and talk station — but we’ve also invested in creating a set of online products like ADAPT (adaptflorida.org) that point in the direction we’re headed.
Now, thanks to significant support from The Arthur Vining Davis Foundation (a national foundation with its headquarters in Jacksonville), we’re embarking on an expansion of our newsroom that will enable us to begin to build the kind of reporting resources necessary to cover the region more effectively while meeting audiences in new ways.
We approach this task with both determination and humility, and with the knowledge that no single local news organization can give this community all of the quality journalism it deserves. But as the region’s leading user-supported nonprofit news provider, we embrace the moment and all that it requires of us.