The Future of Local Newspapers: Q&A with Demystifying speaker Chris Ali

Story by Carleigh Oeth
Video by OR Media

Chris AliIs local news dead? It’s a question that’s concerned University of Virginia Assistant Professor Christopher Ali for quite a while. Last year, Ali teamed up with Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism Damian Radcliffe under a fellowship from Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism to conduct research on the current condition and future potential of local newspapers across the United States.

Ali, who grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, first got interested in news as a child, learning from his mother, who ran a local television news station. “My crib was in her office, so I kind of lived and breathed local television for a lot of my life,” said Ali.

This early exposure to local media is what ultimately led Ali to communications studies and his research, which focuses on communication policy and regulation, comparative media systems and local news.

On March 10, Ali came to the UO School of Journalism and Communication as a speaker for the Demystifying Media Seminar Series. His talk, “The Future of Local Newspapers,” addressed what he and Radcliffe have discovered in the course of their research.

Find out what Ali and Radcliffe have discovered about the fate of local news in our Q&A with Ali below. And don’t miss the first Demystifying talk of spring term this Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. in Allen 141: Stacy-Marie Ishmael, Knight Fellow and former managing editor of BuzzFeed News, on "The 'Flattening' of News and Its Consequences for Trust (Or, How Designers and Developers Have Made It Harder to Tell Real from Fake)."

How did you and Professor Radcliffe get involved in this research?

Professor Radcliffe and I have known each other for about seven years, from when I first interviewed him when I was a Ph.D. student and he was working at Ofcom. I was writing a dissertation on local media policy. We kept in touch over the years, and there became an awesome opportunity to apply for a grant from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. We realized that in all the conversations we’re having about journalism and news and information, we’re talking about the big players: NYT, Buzzfeed, Washington Post, etc., and the new, sexy, emerging online hyper-local media spaces, which are great.

But there was what we ended up calling the “missing middle,” the kind of local, small-market newspapers that are doing the bulk of reporting and representing the majority of American newspapers that are getting left out of the equation. When Professor Radcliffe and I realized this, we thought, “Well, this is what we have to study. We need to tell this story because no one else is telling it.” We ended up getting this grant from Tow, and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last year: living and breathing small-market newspapers.

What were you expecting to find? Were there any surprises?

When we asked newspapers what their two major struggles were, the answers were time and money. This is something we hear, whether you’re a small newspaper or The New York Times.

A challenge I didn’t anticipate hearing is that a lot of these [small] towns have a lot of problems recruiting and retaining young, talented reporters. A lot of this is economic: They can’t pay enough. And a lot is sociopolitical: Particularly minorities and people of the LGBTQ community don’t want to move to a small town in America, because it can be a hostile environment. I think there’s a stereotype that they’re trying to overcome. So this was a surprising challenge for me to hear.

How can small newspapers attract more journalists?

I think journalism students are much more attracted to work at BuzzFeed, Vice or even NYT than a small-town newspaper in Alaska. That’s something [local newspapers] are going to have to work really hard to overcome, and I don’t really have the magic bullet.

One thing we heard from the newspaper industry is that they haven’t done a great job saying, “Hey, look, there is some really important journalism coming out of our newspapers. There are important stories and important connections we’re making to the community that you can’t make if you’re at BuzzFeed or Vice.” That’s something I think the newspaper industry can do: change the image they have of themselves from within. They’ve done a bad job defending themselves and promoting themselves. It doesn’t mean they have to lie and say they’re doing great when they’re not, but they can do a better job highlighting some of their successes and victories.

You said that a vast majority of original reporting is done by local newspapers. Is that one of the successes you’re talking about?

Yeah! That’s a big victory. And some of these small towns, the only place they get information is from their local newspaper. It’s important for us to run our daily lives and to run a democracy, and they’re on the front lines providing this information for us — that’s big.

You mentioned that reading newspapers might increase community involvement and voter participation. What do you think it is about reading a newspaper that has that effect?

The academic literature of those who have done the tests suggests that: (a) reading a newspaper helps you feel like part of a community, and (b) it increases voter turnout. I think it’s because you understand what’s going on in the community: people’s hopes and dreams, who’s running for school board and what’s going on at the community center that weekend. How can that not give you what other scholars have called the “sense of place” or “sense of being”?

You’re also reading about politics — for instance, who your representative is at the local level, state level or federal level. If you happen to read the local newspaper, you’re going to get more of an understanding of what’s going on in local politics or state politics, and you’re probably going to be more likely to vote. Civic engagement happens when we consume local.

So there’s clearly an importance to local newspapers. But would you say that the print medium is slowly on its way out?

We need to separate the future of news from the future of print. I think print isn’t going to survive. It might survive as a niche thing, like on Sundays, or as magazines and books. But they’re going to go through some change. There will be not as many newspapers or printed products in the next 20 years, but this certainly doesn’t mean this is the end of local news. I think that’s something we get confused when we talk about the crisis of journalism or newspapers — we think it’s the death of news.

If newspapers go out of style, is there anything you think might be lost in the shuffle?

If we had this conversation 10 years ago, I would have told you what would replace the newspaper is hyper-local online news. All these sites were starting up, and it was going to be awesome. But that hasn’t really happened. These sites are really struggling because they can’t make the money. Those really haven’t filled the gaps that newspapers have left.

In particular, we are seeing this with statehouse reporting and city councils. There’s been a huge decline in any newspaper having a standing reporter at the statehouse and reporters willing to sit through six- or seven-hour zoning meetings with the city. It’s the stuff that’s not particularly sexy, but it’s nevertheless really important.

So where do you see journalism in 10-15 years, and what can journalism students do to make the most of the transition?

I really don’t think the nuts and bolts of good journalism are going to change. I do think we are going to now see old-school article-format journalism sitting alongside different types of journalism: augmented reality, virtual reality, podcast, video. Rather than say this is the best journalism or the only journalism, it’s now going to have to compete for attention.

The two biggest pieces of advice I would give to journalism students are:

  1. To learn about new technology and growing technologies so that you’re able to promote yourself. A lot of newspapers we saw really want to learn about video, live video and podcasting. These are skills that really matter on top of being able to do the traditional, article-length journalism. If you’re able to contribute to new forms of journalism, I think that’s going to make you that much more marketable.
  2. In an era of fake news and alternative facts, I think there has never been a more important time for journalists to to really know their topics. Really getting to know the community means being present, but it also means doing your homework.

Carleigh Oeth is a senior studying journalism in the SOJC. She is from Portland, Oregon, where she held an editorial internship with the city’s local arts magazine, Artslandia, during the summer of 2016. This is her first year as a part of the SOJC’s Communications team, and she is also working as an associate editor for the Daily Emerald. You can view some of her work on her online portfolio and visit her on Instagram @carleighoeth.

OR Media is a multimedia/video production team housed within the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication that expands on the success of OR Magazine, a student-produced iPad magazine that continues to be acknowledged for its innovation within college journalism. Staffed by current and former SOJC students, it is a laboratory for experimentation and innovation, and a place for the school’s top talent to test their production skills.