It can be a tough time to be in news – or a great time, depending on how you look at it. Press freedom is increasingly under attack, government is less transparent and large sectors of the news media industry are suffering financially. But local radio and television news directors are optimistic about the future of local broadcast news – not because they’re facing no obstacles, but because they’re seeing them as opportunities.
Since the days of Edward R. Murrow’s warning of the potential dangers of a new technology called television (and even before that), technology has been a disrupter for the news business. As the pace of change continues to accelerate, technology is changing how news content is distributed and how newsrooms work more than ever.
There is more competition as digital tools enable anyone to be a content creator and news breaker. There is more fake or false information (or it’s at least easier to find and faster to spread). There are more platforms separating news audiences by preferred channel and medium.
These might seem like obstacles for the local news media, but combine technology and innovation and they represent an opportunity. Innovation requires more than a shiny new package for the same old news formats, says researcher Deb Wenger, but it’s tempting to do just that. “The biggest obstacle is history and habit,” says Frank Mungeam, who heads the Knight-Cronkite News Lab.
Research from Wenger, Mungeam and others indicate more fundamental shakeups of traditional local news formats do resonate with changing audiences. New formats can be practical, too, for newsrooms with limited resources, like focusing on “bridge content” which can work well across platforms.
A proliferation of digital tools can also make it easier for newsrooms to experiment with internal communication, data visualization, content production and analytics.
All too often, local newscasts are full of doom and gloom – aside from the occasional lighthearted feature. When news is upsetting in content and overwhelming in volume, news fatigue and even news avoidance creep up. Audiences feel helpless and tune out the news, rather than feeling engaged and empowered.
At the same time, trust in news media overall, while stabilizing, remains at historic lows. Local broadcasters are doing better than most, but research also shows people expect journalists to be part of the solution to dis- and mis-information.
A third threat to the public’s trust in news is that too many newsrooms are out of touch with their communities. When newsrooms don’t look like the communities they serve, they may be missing out on issues and perspectives their communities want to hear about.
The opportunity here is that local newsrooms are perfectly placed to combat news fatigue and misinformation and to provide local perspectives. Local newsrooms can attack these issues head on with new approaches like increased reporting on responses to social problems, more transparency not only about the news but the process behind it and working to better reflect the community being served.
Trauma is an omnipresent obstacle in newsrooms. Repeated exposure to tragedy leaves journalists and newsroom managers at increased risk of anxiety, depression and PTSD. Empathy, one of a journalist’s greatest tools, is also a vulnerability. The opportunity lies in how we respond to trauma.
We know more than ever about how to identify and manage stress and trauma, and we know how newsrooms are still falling short.
Now, news leaders have an opportunity to make our newsrooms better, healthier workplaces overall. Now is the time to be rethinking not just physical safety, but to combat the stereotype of hard-drinking, chain-smoking, tough-as-nails newsrooms and think about how to take care of the whole person of every news team member. Because when news teams are strong, they’re primed to innovate and produce trust-building journalism that better serves the community.
Whether you believe it’s a golden age for journalism or that journalism is more threatened than ever – or both – whether a newsroom dies, survives or thrives comes down to seeing challenges as possibilities.