Journalists Rethink Local News Infrastructure at UM Summit

Challenges, opportunities facing local journalism discussed at new event

Five people sit underneath a large projection screen at the front of a conference hall.

OXFORD, Miss. – Journalists, lawmakers and news investors must focus on a more innovative, collaborative business model to strengthen local journalism across Mississippi, industry experts agreed at the inaugural Local News Summit at the University of Mississippi.

The panel-style event, which ran Thursday and Friday (June 6-7), was funded by a $30,000 MacArthur Foundation grant. It convened a variety of journalists, academics and investors to brainstorm a path forward as the industry faces mounting challenges, including staffing and reaching rural communities.

"In communities where there's no local news, you have people who've checked out completely," said Evan Smith, of the Emerson Collective, a for-profit and nonprofit hybrid business that invests in journalism and other social justice initiatives.

"They don't participate in elections. Or worse, they do anyway, where they have no information as the basis for the votes they cast. ... Local news is critical and ultimately it ladders up to a healthy democracy."

In the spirit of bridging gaps across news platforms, the event invited journalists from digital, print and broadcast backgrounds. They were asked to question the historically competitive infrastructure of the local news industry.

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Evan Smith, from the Emerson Collective, discusses the importance of local news in helping people make informed decisions about government during the Local News Summit at Ole Miss. Photo by Srijita Chattopadhyay/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

"We don't spend enough time thinking of ways to be more efficient," Smith said. "We are not being smart about this as an industry; we're being selfish."

Acknowledging the state's news deserts and gaps in journalism funding, organizers prioritized inviting some of the nation's largest investors in innovative journalism, said Andrea Hickerson, dean of the School of Journalism and New Media.

"It's pretty clear that traditional business models of relying solely on paying subscribers or advertisers are struggling to find new audiences and just don't have longevity," she said.

"There's an acceptance from large funders that they have to play a role there and they want to play a role there, but there's an acknowledgment that they don't understand the local communities that they're serving."

Advocating the importance of journalism to lawmakers is another important step toward a news renaissance, said Lori Henson, of Rebuild Local News, a nonpartisan nonprofit advocating for public policies that help local journalism.

"News is a public good, and public goods deserve public support," she said. "The public policy piece of this has to be part of the discussion. It can't just be on newsrooms to find revenue somewhere.

"The truth is, if our citizens and our lawmakers want good information, reliable information, it's going to have to put resources in that direction."

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Dale Anglin (center), from Press Forward, makes a point during a panel discussion at the inaugural Local News Summit. Photo by Srijita Chattopadhyay/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Future advocacy efforts need to illustrate to the public the importance of journalism and the struggles the industry faces, said summit moderator Jim Brady, of the Knight Foundation, a nonprofit providing journalism grants.

Brady referenced 2024 research finding that 63% of Americans believe their local news outlets are doing very well or somewhat well financially, despite thousands of shuttered local newsrooms in recent years.

"What's missing is a nuanced dialogue about how journalism helps communities, how it helps democracy, how it informs people and how it creates social ties," Hickerson added.

"Those are the conversations we need to lead, and the university is a great place to lead that as kind of a neutral party that can provide research and development."

The Local News Summit concluded Friday night with a kickoff celebration for the Jordan Center for Journalism Advocacy and Innovation. The new center aims to restore news integrity and help everyone better discern accurate reporting.

The school will begin a search for the center's director this summer, Hickerson said.

"We really want a dynamic leader in there who's going to come and do interesting programming because, as journalists, we're not really good at telling people what our value is; we just tell them the news," she said. "The public makes a lot of assumptions about us that are erroneous or misleading. They've fallen for the rhetoric.

"We're really hoping that at a flagship place that really cares about educating, that we can educate people about the value of journalism."

By

Marvis Herring

Campus

Office, Department or Center

Published

June 09, 2024

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