I recently participated in a panel discussion sponsored by the The Village Square titled, A Local Press: Healthy local journalism and our deepening national divide.
I joined the former publisher of the Tallahassee Democrat Skip Foster, Miami Herald reporter Mary Ellen Klas, and former Miami Herald reporter Bob Sanchez.
The discussion was moderated by Tallahassee Democrat reporter Jennifer Portman and revolved around two related topics. During the first part of the program, the panel of Mr. Foster and Ms. Klas put into real terms the financial challenges faced by the legacy media and how it was impacting journalism.
As someone who enjoys a print newspaper, it was difficult to listen to these veterans of the industry discussed the demise of a craft they had devoted their professional lives to making better.
These two veterans made it clear that journalism is changing and the changes present new challenges that no one is sure how to address.
The second part of the discussion focused on the future of local media and a sustainable business model. Ms. Klas, who has spent time researching and writing about the current challenges in media, mentioned the rise of non-profits, but was not optimistic that this is a workable or sustainable solution.
As the Tallahassee Reports Editor and someone familiar with the local media landscape, I see an opportunity amid the media disruption. An opportunity to reshape local journalism and provide the accountability reporting that is essential to foster a responsive local government.
In my view, we need “competitive collegiality” among local media outlets.
Hear me out.
Ms. Klas, during the discussion, recalled at the state level years ago when newspapers had the resources to hold elected officials accountable by not letting a story die. If one paper broke a story, another paper would jump in and build upon the original research. Elected leaders, at the time, knew the resources were there to keep digging, so behavior changed.
Klas says this is no longer the case. Now state leaders know that if an investigative report breaks the odds are it will simply disappear from the news cycle in a matter of days. This is because the state-wide media does not have the resources to build upon or follow-up with an “old story.” Politicians make the decision to just wait it out, no other action required.
Now jump to the local scene.
It used to be in cities and towns there was one main legacy paper that drove the agenda and the investigations. Given enough resources and enough reporters this arrangement met most local news needs. However, now with obvious cuts in resources in local newsrooms something must change.
The change is that the local media outlets, which include print, radio, and television must forge a relationship driven by “competitive collegiality.”
This concept basically says that outlets should compete to break a story, but when the initial story is written two things must happen. First, given the magnitude of the story, other local media outlets should cover the report and give credit to the journalist and the media outlet. This gives credibility to the original report and gets the attention of local officials.
And second, again where warranted, other media outlets should devote some resources to following up on the original report and provide new information.
This approach will keep important stories alive and in the long run will let elected leaders now that they can’t rely on the news cycle to avoid questions or addressing issues.
The question is how do you get people in competition to work together. That topic is for another day.