Does local journalism have a future? – CNN International

Austin Beutner is the former Publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune. He was dismissed this month by the Times’ parent company, Tribune Publishing, in a management dispute. He served as first deputy mayor and jobs czar under L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and founded Vision to Learn, a nonprofit that provides free eyeglasses to children in low-income communities in California, Delaware, and Hawaii. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Veteran reporter Bob Schieffer was recently asked what he thought posed the greatest threat to the future of journalism. His answer, surprisingly, was not the hostage-taking of journalists by ISIS in Syria or the polarizing programming on Fox News or MSNBC, but the death of local journalism.

He said that, “unless some entity comes along and does what local newspapers have been doing all these years, we’re gonna have corruption at a level we’ve never experienced. … So many papers now can’t afford to have a beat reporter. … To cover city hall, you have to be there every day and … know the overall story, not just report what happens on a particular day.”

Austin Beutner Austin Beutner

I agree. Without the beat reporters who know the ins-and-outs of the stories and communities they live in, local readers will lose important coverage. But I disagree when he says we need a new entity to come along to replace or centralize local papers. That view overlooks the broader role that local papers now play in connecting their hometown communities to the world around them.

In California, for example, Dodgers fans don’t only live in Los Angeles. Diners in Santa Monica restaurants, shoppers in stores on Rodeo Drive, concertgoers at Staples Center and home buyers in San Marino aren’t all local residents; many of them are tourists from China and elsewhere in the world. And, for every Angeleno interested in national education policy, there’s someone elsewhere in the nation who wants to know what is actually happening at schools in L.A.

Interest in the stories of Los Angeles and California extends far beyond the physical boundaries of our community. And, the interests of those who live within those physical boundaries extend beyond the stories of Los Angeles and California.

We exist in interest communities just as much as we exist in our geographic communities — our newspapers should too.

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    People now curate their own virtual publication from a variety sources. But, we have lost something of the newspaper experience along the way: Stories no longer find us.

    An average newspaper reader spends about a half-hour with a print paper. They open it for baseball scores, or analysis on the presidential debates — and they find it. They also find a wonderful story about Mark Bradford, an artist in their community, or a hard-hitting piece on corruption in Bell, a city in Los Angeles County. There’s a serendipity to print journalism that has not been replicated online.

    Online, an average reader spends less than 10 minutes with any one source and they read fewer stories. If they read a story about the drought in California they can be directed to another story about the drought in California. But if they want variety they’ll have to look for it; it won’t come to them as easily.

    A reader can’t search for “expand my world” or “an interesting story to talk about at dinner.” The online experience doesn’t yet serve the reader — or the advertiser — as well as it could.

    As Bob Schieffer noted, the need for local journalism has never been called into question. But these papers have to adapt to this new reality and change, rather dramatically, how they do business.

    Cost-cutting alone is not a path to survival in the face of continued declines in print revenue and fierce competition in the digital world. New sources of revenue will have to be developed and no single one will be the answer.

    Newspapers must recognize that their strength lies in high-quality content developed by world-class journalists who have the tools they need to be successful. Successful digital media organizations will have fewer managers and corporate executives, and choose instead to invest in journalists and technologists.

    If local papers unbundle their coverage, they can extend beyond their physical community to countless virtual communities and find a new way to succeed. My vision for the future of my hometown paper was one where our stories were read in Los Angeles and around the world, on every platform, by anyone who had an interest.

    It’s a vision that involves taking calculated business risks, not with the quality of the journalism, but with everything else. It’s a vision that requires patience and investment to build these new revenue streams. That could mean publishing restaurant reviews in Mandarin or finding new platforms for distribution.

    When the Los Angeles Times covered the Mayweather-Pacquaio fight, we created a guide titled “The Fight of the Century,” and published it on Flipboard in English, Spanish, and Tagalog. It was viewed by a million people around the world — many times the Times’ website viewership on the fight.

    When we started building our digital house, we knew the foundation needed to be the story of the community in which we lived. We created Essential California, an email newsletter to share the pulse of California. We gained nearly 100,000 subscribers in just a few months. We built newsletters for other communities of interest, including restaurant critic Jonathan Gold and food, political editor Christina Bellantoni and California politics, and many others.

    The high percentage of subscribers who read these newsletters each day showed we were meeting the changing needs of our readers. Equally important, we showed the business model could work — creating a high-value, targeted community advertisers could reach with more than just banner ads.

    Using the convening power a local paper holds, we produced events for our community. In our conversation about the drought, Gov. Jerry Brown had a platform to answer questions with more than a 20-second soundbite, our most engaged subscribers got to witness history, our sponsors invested in a connection with the audience, a TV audience of 1 million households across California learned about a complicated policy issue, and the Times created content for print and the web which was read by more than 1.5 million customers.

    Quality journalism must be at the heart of any local paper. Owning the conversation in Los Angeles about issues in our community and how it connects to the rest of the world started a virtuous circle. As we began to re-engage the community, the community began to re-engage with the Times — as subscribers and advertisers.

    For a newspaper to regain its business standing, it has to regain its community. Smarter and deeper journalism combined with community involvement will lead to new revenue streams.

    That is the future of local journalism — high-quality journalism that engages the community, reaches interested readers everywhere, and generates the revenue to support the enterprise.

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