Journalism is saved by moving beyond tradition, lecturer said

Speaking to a crowd of media professionals and journalism students, Penny Abernathy discusses her research into the future and viability of community journalism Wednesday morning in the K-State Alumni Center ballroom. Abernathy delivered the 18th installment of the annual Huck Boyd Lecture in Community Media. (Rafael Garcia | Collegian Media Group)

The Huck Boyd National Center for Community Media in the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications invited former Wall Street Journal and New York Times executive Penelope Muse Abernathy to discuss threats facing community journalism in the modern media landscape.

Abernathy’s 2014 book “Saving Community Journalism: The Path to Profitability” shared research that she has gathered over the last 10 years about the disruption that has been going through the media business with a focus on how community journalism can cope with the economic and social issues from within the industry.

“It is critical that community newspapers survive because, increasingly, in the late the twentieth century, and certainly, in the early twenty-first century, in most rural and isolated communities, the local newspaper is often the prime, if not the sole source of which the community gets their information,” Abernathy said.

Abernathy, the current Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina, said there are specific ways community newspapers serve their communities such as encouraging economic growth and nurturing community relations.

Throughout the lecture, Abernathy cited a 2011 study done by the Federal Communications Commission looking into the plight of newspapers, where it was reported that 85 percent of the democracy focused news comes from newspapers.

“This is true because, historically, newspapers have had more boots on the ground which allows them to write in length and detail where they are not limited to broadcast restraints,” Abernathy continued.

Typically, news deserts are considered to be determined on a county by county basis, where a county without a newspaper to cover local happenings would leave a geographical void in journalistic coverage. Abernathy said that in her research, the issue of defining a news desert is more complicated than what is typically considered.

“In areas where there is a significantly limited ability to access credible and comprehensive news and information that effects your community and feeds democracy. This means that not only towns without newspapers, but towns with diminished newspapers also leave a news desert,” Abernathy said.

In her research, Abernathy said she has found that the leading cause of the rapid decline in democracy fueling community newspapers is the increase in cost it takes to produce a newspaper publication compared to the lack of sufficient advertising and subscriptions, which continues to lead to the consolidation of ownership of many newspapers since the 2008 economic recession.

Abernathy explained that before 2008, the investment to purchase a community newspaper cost 13 times the newspapers annual earnings, which forced investors to be committed to the community because they had to operate the publication for 13 or 14 years to make a profit. After the 2008 economic crash, it only cost 3 to 5 times the newspapers annual earnings to purchase a community publication.

“Today, the top 25 newspaper owners control more than 50 percent of all newspaper circulation in the country, and around 40 percent of daily and weekly newspapers” she explained.

She noted that of the top 10 newspaper owners, five are not publicly traded companies. Rather, they are run by hedge funds, private equity companies, or pension funds.

These investment firms often purchase community newspapers in low income rural areas and are more focused on cutting costs or merging the publications with regional news providers rather than operating with community sensibilities that previous owners had, Abernathy said.

Since discovering the trend of news deserts, her research has been focused on finding ways to develop new business models for nurturing community newspapers by breaking the legacy media mold.

“The main steps are to shed legacy cost,” Abernathy said. “Grasp the excitement of the audience to build the community with not only getting the attention of the geographic community, but also special interest communities.”

Abernathy said that with the proper entrepreneurial skills of networking, openness to experimentation, the ability to associate, constant questioning and optimism, the next generations of journalists can end the spread of news deserts.