Our revolution starts with the basics

Saving local news depends on restoring trust between the public and journalists. John Nagy, editor of The Pilot newspaper in Southern Pines, North Carolina, points out that too often people forget what that means in their community.

“Unfortunately, trust and appreciation for what a community newspaper brings to the community table often go unappreciated or unrealized until it’s too late,” he wrote recently. “That is the case made in a new book by Andrew Conte called ‘Death of the Daily News.'”

Those bonds start with telling the ordinary, every day stories of where we live. That might not seem all that important, but it turns out to be perhaps the most significant thing local news does. Nagy says we rightly focus on financial sustainability but we cannot overlook the real reason local news exists.

“Within the newspaper industry, the struggle for revenue is real, and in many communities, it’s insurmountable,” he wrote. “But it’s the self-inflicted wounds — losing relevance, no longer telling stories about your community — that are avoidable.”

For me, it’s a blessing to see Death of the Daily News resonating with the people who tell our local stories in communities across the United States. They’re the ones leading the revolution that maintains and grows local journalism into the future.

Belt Mag: A call to action!

Belt Magazine editor Ed Simon reached out to readers this week with a pep talk that has its roots in Death of the Daily News. He cited the book as presenting an example of how we all need to pitch in to support local news – for ourselves but also for our communities.

“This is, it must be said, an uphill battle – it requires dutiful support from citizen-readers who have a passion to make sure that nuance wins out over the simplification, the factual over the fanciful, democracy over authoritarianism.”

Check out Belt Magazine if you haven’t. And check out the book.

Pittsburgh Quarterly review

“An award-winning journalist and director of Point Park University’s Center for Media Innovation, the author makes convincing arguments for how to fill the societal void as community newspapers continue their downward spiral.”

Great review in Pittsburgh Quarterly by Fred Shaw. Read the whole thing here…

“What can’t be denied is that Death of the Daily News is an important volume that proves that the journalistic proverb, ‘afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,’ remains shorthand for the role news gathering should play in all its evolving forms.”

Editor & Publisher interview

It’s pretty great when an interview ends, and the host asks you to speak at his conference – and buys a stack of books to hand out. That’s what happened when I talked with E&P Publisher Mike Blinder. Now you can check out the vlog for yourself.

As journalists know, E&P has been the mag of record for our industry over many decades. I was honored to talk with Mike, and then to find a strong connection. He ended up asking me to be a keynote speaker for their big east coast conference.

Daily Yonder provides insightful review

“Death of the Daily News, (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2022)  is a rich, fascinating, and necessary anatomy of what a town goes through in the years after its newspaper dies, how it looks at what was lost, and how some people are trying to build a new kind of local journalism.”

Read the whole review here. Former WSJ reporter John Miller spent some time with my book and provided a contextual overview of its deeper messages.

5 Big Ideas for Next Big Idea Club nomination

The Next Big Idea Club has selected Death of the Daily News for its short list of nonfiction books coming out in September. Their curators—Susan Cain, Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Grant, and Daniel Pink—ultimately will select two titles and ask the authors to share five big ideas from their book.

Here are my five big ideas:

  1. Local news creates social capital. Newspapers not only inform people but also bring them together in ways that create and reinforce community. When local news disappears, connections among residents start to break.
  2. Citizens already are doing journalism. We refer to places without traditional news outlets as “news deserts,” but that’s not accurate. News still happens. It’s just that journalists are not there to make sense of it. Instead, in many places, individuals look around, ask questions and report out what they discover. They just don’t do a great job of it.
  3. Journalists should help citizens do better. Professional reporters often dismiss working with the public as too messy and time-consuming. As newsrooms cut back, journalists should help citizens identify accurate information and partner with them to cover more perspectives.
  4. Tweets matter. We act like social media messages are ephemeral and just disappear. They actually make up our shared community conversations. Individuals should embrace the Peter Parker principle: With great power, comes great responsibility. Use social media wisely.
  5. Facebook could revolutionize local news. Thousands of people volunteer their time as Facebook group administrators, trying to make sense of local news and sharing their findings. The social media platform should train these people to do a better job. It would help communities – and it makes financial sense.

Death of the Daily News comes out in September, with pre-sales taking place online now.

Great early review!

Booklist, the American Library Association’s monthly magazine, has given Death of the Daily News a great review. This is particularly good news because librarians typically use this magazine as a guide for what they buy to lend. Publishes September 2022. Pre-sales available now

“Conte exposes the weaknesses of both traditional top-down journalism and the ‘citizen gatekeepers’ who have since filled the breach, while arguing that the answer resides in the public truly understanding the value of knowing about their community, and then leaning hard into the media still available to them, including Facebook groups, blogs, local gatherings, libraries, even flyers. A lifeline for communities who have lost, or are in danger of losing, their local papers.”

The full Booklist review by Alan Moores is here.

Have and have-nots of local news

Communities with at least a little bit of wealth have local news, while those struggling economically also tend to be news deserts. That’s the perhaps-not-entirely-shocking finding of a recent report about news deserts from Northwestern University. Under the traditional news model, journalism depends on advertising for revenue – and advertising depends on local businesses.

I recently wrote about how two communities near Pittsburgh have the same name – Sewickley Borough, an upscale suburban community, and Sewickley Township, a poorer rural community – but vastly different types of local reporting…

“What worries me the most is that we have a growing divide in the U.S. around journalism that mirrors the divide we have politically, culturally, economically and even digitally,” Penny Abernathy, the lead study’s researcher, says. “The loss of news creates a crisis for not only our democracy but for society and community cohesion.”

In communities like Sewickley Township, the crisis in local news means that residents are losing touch and that political leaders face little accountability. People who attend public meetings often get frustrated and lost because they do not understand what’s going on. The government posts its meeting agendas and notes, but no one reports out the nuances or background information.

At the same time, people who are ill-informed share their opinions on social media — but often get the facts wrong.

Read the full column here.

This summer, I came across The New Canaan Advertiser in Connecticut’s Fairfield County, once described by CNBC as “the most affluent county in one of the most affluent states.” Owned by Hearst since 2018, the weekly newspaper features stories about a local chef selling gourmet ice cream, a lighting bug sanctuary, legislative candidates debating gun safety and more.

How can this one little newspaper afford to provide so much coverage? Check out the ad at the bottom of the front page…

A newspaper that serves readers who might afford to purchase a $34.9M teardown in Palm Beach probably has enough of an economic base to support local journalism. The challenge remains how to bring back local reporting in all the communities whose readers cannot.

Historic Setting: Penn-McKee Hotel

McKeesport’s Penn McKee Hotel, left, when it opened in 1926 (via the Post-Gazette), and now with graffiti, broken windows and chainlink fencing (by author).

Death of the Daily News opens with an historic moment in the nation’s history involving a public debate between two future presidents:

Two first-term members of Congress, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, boarded the Capitol Limited train at Washington’s Union Station on the Monday morning of April 21, 1947, headed to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, the economic and spiritual center of the Monongahela River Valley and home to 100,000 unionized industrial workers. As the two newest members of the House Labor and Education Committee, the lawmakers were scheduled to appear that night at the Penn-McKee Hotel before more than 100 people at an event sponsored by the local Junto Forum, a business-minded civic group.

Like much of the Mon Valley, the Penn-McKee Hotel has seen more glamorous days. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently ran a story highlighting what has been lost in McKeesport, block by block. The closure of The Daily News takes place against this backdrop of a community in crisis.

Many news deserts exist in places that suffer a variety of economic losses. A study by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism points out one more growing divide across America: Places that are relatively well-off tend to have robust local news while those that are struggling often also lack original journalistic reporting. Lead researcher Penny Abernathy put it like this:

“The people most likely to live without news are those in communities that need it the most, those that are economically struggling communities, those communities that have been traditionally underserved. We’ve had a collapse of the for-profit, business models that sustain local news organizations in those communities for a number of years.”

Community leaders in McKeesport have been trying to decide what to do with the Penn-McKee: Tear it down to remove the eyesore – or attempt to salvage what’s left? For now, the building remains standing, albeit with broken windows and graffiti. A historic market memorializing the day of the debate sits behind a chainlink fence.