The US is a great source of inspiration when it comes to local news as organisations across the pond often embrace new styles of reporting and technologies.
Journalism.co.uk ran a four-part podcast mini-series recently which looked at innovative ideas around revenue models, audience engagement and newsgathering processes.
Here we share the best ideas and tips on how you can try them out in your newsroom.
Engaged political journalism
When it comes to elections coverage, it is easy to get caught up in minute-by-minute updates of who is leading the way. But one hyperlocal news organisation in Mansfield, Ohio refuses to engage in this 'horserace' style of coverage.
In 2019, Richland Source set up its Talk the Vote listening tour. Across the six wards in Mansfield - each with a local city councillor running for office - they set up a physical event for the public to attend. Those venues ranged from their publisher Jay Allred's own home to community centres. It was a chance to find out what local voters cared about with one question on the agenda: "what do you want candidates to talk about as they compete for your vote?"
Those running for election (from any of the six wards) could attend any of the sessions but were forbidden from campaigning in any way. The Richland Source team then created a "citizen's agenda" off the back of the sessions, summarising the main talking points.
This was published on the website and handed out directly to the local mayor, law directors and everyone on city council. The coronavirus pandemic disrupted the next step in their plan, which was a series of solutions journalism stories on how other cities in Ohio were addressing some of these key concerns, like the rubbish collection.
Talk The Vote has been brought back for this year's elections, which started last week. A key difference this time around is they started much later. The worst attendance in 2019 was on the first night in mid-August, and they realised people were just not thinking about voting this early because it is not happening until November. So this year, they started in mid-September. Venue choice also matters as they found previously that school classrooms did not create ideal environments for discussions. They are now selecting places that facilitate circular discussions, provide comfortable seating and can help to market the events. They are prepared to hire venues if necessary, and always provide food and drink.
Veteran journalist and city editor Carl Hunnell who moderated the talks said that people were often hesitant to be the first to talk, so he came prepared with icebreakers. However, the reverse is also true.
"There can be instances when people have a real axe to grind or a topic that's important to them, and they came there intent on dominating the discussion," says Hunnell. "As the moderator, you have to politely and firmly thank them for their input and ask if anyone else has any thoughts on this particular issue."
Crowdfunding and philanthropy
The US also enjoys a culture of philanthropy that helps local news organisations staff their newsrooms and support their journalism.
In 2019, The Seattle Times launched an investigative journalism fund that encourages the public, from average readers to wealthy philanthropists, to support their journalism so they can remain independent and fund staff roles.
Since then, the fund has brought in $1.6m, funded six newsroom roles and is now seen as a mainstay in the company business model. Donations range from $5 from everyday readers to six-figure injections from wealthy philanthropists. Consistent reporting on police accountability in Washington is one central beat that the team credits to this fund.
It does not stop there. The Seattle Times has also launched a $1m fund backed by Microsoft Philanthropies to expand local coverage, meaning it can afford three new reporters over a three-year period. If that was not enough, in September, it kickstarted a mental health project with four new newsroom roles and that is made possible through $1.1m of funding from The Ballmer Group.
In the latter case, that was an opportunity presented to The Seattle Times because of the group's passion for mental health. But there is proactive work to do too, like calling for readers to donate to fund editorial stories, or reaching out to specific donors for the big cheques. This work is not all sunshine and rainbows either, it requires them to constantly update their supporters large and small on progress. Funders can also become the subject of investigations and that is an important conversation to have at the outset.
"Funders don't see stories in advance, they don't know what topics we're going to cover, they have a broad understanding of themes. We review everything retrospectively, so they have no idea what we'll dig into and have no different access to our reporters than any average reader," says Kati Erwert, the senior vice-president of product, marketing and public service,
"We have lost donors as a result of our journalism either because of things about them or close to them. That's a critical part: we are not influenced by those funders in ways that would ever compromise our journalism."
Do you want a more direct relationship with your readers? You do not get more personal than texting your audience. Subtext is an SMS subscription platform that works only in North America, and news organisations, as well as individual journalists, are using it to connect with their readers. For those outside the US, a similar strategy could work on private messaging platforms like WhatsApp or Telegram.
The San Francisco Chronicle is a long-standing local news outlet covering the Bay Area of San Francisco, and it has been using SMS since June to keep readers in the loop on the Californian wildfires which peaked between July and November. It is an additional perk for The Chronicle's digital news subscribers to up the value. They receive a code upon subscribing and start getting updates. It is an experiment to see if increasing touchpoints with the readers could lower subscription churn.
The publication kept the subscription intentionally low - around 1,000 sign-ups (at the time of interview) - so they could manage the data easily. But it was confident enough that it could easily crank up the numbers if it needed to if wildfires started to spike and there was an urgent need to keep people informed. Journalists can send out breaking news alerts, as well as invite readers to send back questions they want answers to or topics covered.
Staying in California, L.A. Taco is a community-focused news website in the heart of Los Angeles. Lexis-Olivier Ray, its housing, justice and culture reporter, runs a private channel for the beat he covers and the unique audiences who are served by it. This was possible via grant funding from USC-Anneberg School in partnership with Subtext.
Since the start of the year, he has been sending text message updates to the homeless or 'unhoused' community with health information and city cleaning schedules which routinely displace these people. Homeless people are not often checking emails or engaging with other media, but they do frequently have mobile phones and access to the internet so texting is the best way to stay in touch.
Ray will directly ask this community to join the group when he is out and about and had some 80 sign-ups when we spoke. The service is free and although Subtext enables premium subscription to the service, he intends to keep it free for this community and seek alternative funding to sustain it. He also intends to keep the channel private so he can monitor it closely and not get overwhelmed by mass-public sign-ups.
Live solutions journalism
Solutions journalism - defined as rigorous reporting to social issues - does not need to be restricted to the major news organisations. Next City, a US non-profit newsroom based in Philadelphia has a small team of eight but they are the third most prolific poster in The Solutions Journalism Network's authoritative database of solutions stories Solutions Story Tracker.
It reports on cities across the US and examines how local people are trying to solve some of the hardest problems, like public housing or the impact of climate change. It has a specific audience who are actively interested in urban development. This brand of solutions journalism fetches around 2m page views a year.
But it is not just enough to report these stories for the website, it also takes many of these ideas into live venues and webinars. This provides a deeper dive into ideas that have captured people's imagination and warrant a closer look.
During the pandemic, this has operated on a 'pay what you wish' model for a one-hour Zoom call. Hosting duties are rotated by the senior editorial team, and the format is a typical 20-minute presentation by one person providing a 'solution idea'. Then it is opened out to audience and moderator questions. It covers the why and the how, the problems to make it work, funding, potential changes in the future, and so on.
It has proved one of the best ways to monetise and sustain engagement around solutions journalism. Next City has seen up to 500 guests join a webinar and earns around $1,000 or more for each session.
A 'solutions of the year' was held at the end of last year to highlight a series of panels over three days picking out the best stories the publication had seen. That was run alongside a print magazine and it garnered donations.
"The people who come and join these webinars are super interested to get into the nitty-gritty of these solutions with the people that made them happen," says Kelly Regan, editorial director of Next City.
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