This month, for the second year in a row, I’ll mentor Sacramento State students in the State Hornet Digital Academy, designed to supplement journalism coursework and prepare students for the always-changing media landscape. Based on last year’s experience, these students are eager, dedicated and brimming with ideas. But I worry about what kind of industry they’ll be fighting their way into when they graduate.
Allen Young lays out the rough terrain for newspapers — with a focus on the Sacramento Bee and its publisher, McClatchy — in this month’s cover story (“Breaking News“). Across the country, print revenues are down, digital revenues can’t keep up and reporters constantly brace for the next round of layoffs. Journalists in Sacramento and across the nation are finding themselves out of a job after giving 15, 20 or more than 30 years to the profession. Nationally, the U.S. is poised to lose another 9 percent of its reporters, correspondents and broadcast news analysts by 2026. This leads to massive knowledge loss and a lack of seasoned mentors, while creating space for a new crop of more tech-savvy reporters. What might we hope they bring to the table?
Change must begin within the media ecosystem itself, and a good place to start would be with U.S. outlets moving away from their over-reliance on short-term gratification. The race among different outlets to get the story first ultimately leads to multiple pieces on the same topic delivered in a similar manner. Someone “wins” by publishing first and drawing the most web traffic. Since online ads yield minimal revenues compared to those in print, this race isn’t actually that lucrative. And at its worst, it leads to decreased quality or even misinformation.
Journalism needs to focus more on collaboration. Look at the depth of reporting that came out of the Panama Papers in 2016, when 11.5 million leaked financial documents revealed offshore shell corporations enabling fraud and tax evasion. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists organized almost 400 journalists across 80 countries to cover the story, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. A more collaborative strategy could work on a local level as well when dealing with major multi-layered stories, like catching the Golden State Killer, or ongoing issues like homelessness, elections and housing.
When we collaborate, we stop asking, “How can I get there first?” and instead ask, “How can we best tell this story to our community?” Meaning: What are the components of this story (video, data, storytelling) and what are the angles (what happened, why did it happen, who is involved) and who is best positioned to tell that portion? As newsrooms shrink and specialize, radio and broadcast, magazines and newspapers all have a role to play. This also provides consumers with a reason to subscribe to multiple outlets within their market, and maybe at a discounted rate made possible through the partnerships.
Media outlets need to re-evaluate their relationship to their consumers. Understanding one’s audience, what they need and how to best serve them is more important than ever. With the flood of content across media platforms, no one has to watch the news or read the paper anymore. And no longer are news outlets competing just with one another; now they’re up against cat gifs and heated debates over “yanni” and “laurel.” Social media has upended the distribution model, and algorithms now have more influence over what reaches readers than editors. News outlets have endured massive losses in ad revenue in the era of digitization, being hard pressed to compete with both the reach and rates of places like Google and Facebook. This means that outlets are relying more than ever on their readers for revenues.
To their credit, McClatchy is following the signposts of emerging and popular technologies, and leveraging user data to become as relevant as possible to their audiences. But the publicly-traded company still sits on the shaky ground of the newspaper industry. Meanwhile, fresh-faced students like those at Sac State carry all the intelligence and energy needed to produce great journalism in the 21st century. In order to ensure our region can provide them a career upon graduation, our local media outlets need community support and constructive criticism from consumers — because ultimately, we’re all in this together.