US local newsrooms facing hard times have a new resource at their fingertips to address growing concerns over their sustainability.

As pressure mounts on local news organisations to stay afloat in the digital market, the common question is: do newsrooms need to look at adopting new business models to survive?

To help them address this concern, Northwestern Local News Initiative has brought out a new article series reporting the emerging trends from their two-year research and development project, announced back in April.

It aims to help local news organisations better understand the behaviour of their digital audiences and provide industry insights into key factors such as what leads people to become and remain subscribers.

“The digital revolution has shattered the business models of local news organisations. Two-thirds of US newspaper advertising revenue has vaporised since 2006 and a large percentage of newsroom jobs have vanished along with that advertising revenue,” said Tim Franklin, senior associate dean, Medill School, who is leading the initiative.

"This means that new sources of income must be identified to preserve local news, which is essential for an informed citizenry in a self-governed democracy.”

Moreover, the first piece in the series writes that as US newsrooms have tumbled by a quarter since 2008, the industry seems to be coming to a consensus around the idea that subscription models and reader-first alternatives must be sought out as the main source of revenue — mooting suggestions such as micropayments, bundling and unbundling.

As the research findings unfold, the series will monitor online tendencies of subscription retention and trending topics of coverage, as well as taking a look at the examples of non-legacy start-ups and the debate between collaboration and competition.

“We want to gain new knowledge and insights about local digital news audiences, and then share those learnings with the world. We want to create new digital tools and products that will help local news organisations boost citizen engagement and become more financially sustainable,” said Franklin.

The founding media research bodies, the Medill School, Spiegel Research Center and Knight Lab, will conduct research using the 'terabytes and terabytes' of anonymous reader, customer service and subscriber data supplied by local news organisations, the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Indianapolis Star to find general trends in audience engagement across different US newsrooms.

The $1million of funding from the Lilly Endowment, the McCormick Foundation and The Indianapolis Foundation will be put to use for data mining, analysis research and product development.

By sharing the research with media organisations, journalists, technologists, scholars and students from around the country, Franklin hopes that news organisations can learn from and adopt the findings to improve local news sustainability.

“It comes at a time when many local news organisations simply don’t have the bandwidth for research and development, and is critical in this time of rapid transformation of the news industry,” he added.

“I firmly believe that fact-based, credible news and information is the oxygen of a self-governed democracy. Without it, citizens can’t make informed decisions about their local government and institutions, and our society would lose a shared sense of community.

"Local news is essential in holding local government and institutions accountable, in keeping our communities safe and in providing a shared sense of belonging.”

Come along to our upcoming Newsrewired conference on 7 November at Reuters, London, where will be discussing what business models news organisations should be adopting to survive.

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