BY ROSS MCDUFFIE | JUN 06 | 2023
RURAL JOURNALISM IS A BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY
The challenges facing local journalism are well-documented, but nowhere are those challenges more acute than in rural America. With more than two newspapers shuttering a week across our country, small population areas stand most at risk of becoming news deserts—often resulting in the erosion of civic engagement, governmental corruption, and fracturing of the identity of place.
While innovation at national news outlets and digital startups across our nation's mid-metro markets has gained worthy attention, rural news organizations likely possess the best opportunity to chart a new path for local journalism.
I was struck by a recent study about revenue and readership in rural journalism, which highlights the gap between rural publishers' willingness to experiment with new revenue streams and their communities’ willingness to support those alternative revenue models (spoiler: Co-authors Teri Finneman, Patrick Ferrucci, and Nick Mathews conclude that rural news consumers have a greater appetite for change in their news consumption habits then many rural publishers are capitalizing on).
The path toward sustainable local journalism in America requires challenging common perceptions about rural journalism coupled with honest reflection on their capacity to seize a role as incubators of change.
RURAL COMMUNITIES ARE WILLING TO PAY FOR LOCAL NEWS
While increased cost pressures and declining advertising revenues have caused large increases in subscription prices at corporately owned metro newspapers, many rural publishers have kept subscription prices flat or at modest increases for years, often to the detriment of their bottom line.
The relatively recent emergence of membership models, explored most broadly at nonprofit news organizations, offer an uncharted pathway to sustainability in rural America. While philanthropic resources in rural communities do not equal those of major metros, altruistic motivations are not exclusive to larger cities and their daily news products. In the rural journalism research referenced above, the co-authors noted that “many respondents said they would financially support their newspaper simply because they wanted to be of help.”
What’s more, younger audiences (ages 18-54) are more willing to pay for news as compared to their older peers (age 55 and older), according to the study. This suggests there’s room for a healthy pipeline of potential audience growth.
RURAL NEWS ORGANIZATIONS ARE FERTILE GROUND FOR DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION
Rural publishers, despite small-scale operations, excel in cultivating close relationships with the communities they serve, making them ideal for digital news transformation. This may rub against your perception of small-town publishers, where digital storytelling is too often an afterthought, and digital presence—and basic access to the internet—is often woefully inadequate.
Yet because of how much the local news field has learned about how to reach and expand digital audiences, investments in rural news now will allow for proven infrastructure like Newspack to reach and leverage the nimbleness of these beloved small-scale news operations.
RURAL NEWS CONSUMERS ARE FLEXIBLE TO NEW KINDS OF CONTENT MONETIZATION
The future of rural journalism may depend on the ability of local news publishers to be as willing to adapt to the changing times as their audience. Finneman, Ferucci and Mathew’s research found a chasm between rural news consumers’ willingness to support alternative revenue streams and rural publishers’ willingness to experiment with those revenue alternatives.
For example, only 1% of rural news publishers use a membership model to generate reader revenue, while more than 40% of rural news consumers indicated their willingness to support a membership model. About half of respondents indicated their willingness to support e-newsletters, while only 13% of rural publishers are using them.
So how do rural publishers explore membership models without alienating readers from different socioeconomic backgrounds? By creating models that offer entry points accessible to all. Richland Source in Ohio, for example, offers memberships starting at $70 per year all the way up to $1,000 a year.
A recent feature in Editor & Publisher magazine emphasized the altruistic motivation at the root of the Source’s reader revenue model: “Members may not always take advantage of all of the benefits, but the regular reminders about a new event, etc., keep the Source top of mind and emphasizes how their membership is an investment in the newsroom.”
Despite the advantages they offer, diversified revenue streams for rural publishers must not impact the fundamental mission of local news. Rather, the litmus test for new revenue streams must be their ability to engage rural readers and increase the perceived value of rural news, acting as a motivating force for change and growth in the rural news business model.
RURAL NEWS ORGANIZATIONS CAN SEED THE NEXT GENERATION OF AMERICAN JOURNALISTS
As compared with metro newsrooms, smaller newsrooms can continue their historic role as a training ground which generates bigger opportunities and more responsibilities for cub reporters. The lower costs of living in small and rural communities can make for a more sustainable quality of life for up-and-coming reporters and editors. The success of Report for America’s training program, which places journalists in newsrooms across the U.S., offers an opportunity for more expansion across rural news organizations.
"SMALL J" JOURNALISM IS ESSENTIAL TO THE SOCIAL COHESION OF RURAL AMERICA
Accountability journalism is a critical component of a functioning democracy. But we valorize accountability journalism and downplay the importance of “small j” journalism at our own risk. Finneman, Ferucci and Mathew’s research reveals that the content preferences of rural readers mirror the threads of social cohesion in America’s rural communities: obituaries, birth and marriage announcements, event calendars, feature stories, and crime reporting. Small “j” journalism is our most powerful antidote to the polarization infecting our communities, and with their small scale and track record of building relationships, rural news organizations are at the front lines of repairing our social fabric.
WITH PATIENT CAPITAL AND EXPERTISE, RURAL NEWS ORGANIZATIONS CAN TRANSFORM THEMSELVES INTO A DRIVING FORCE FOR POSITIVE CHANGE AT THE BASIS OF OUR DEMOCRACY
Revamping the approaches of rural news organizations is imperative, given the harm historically inflicted on underserved communities. I firmly believe that the future of local news rests with rural publishers who are willing to adopt new practices and established technologies alongside partners like the National Trust for Local News. By challenging assumptions, prioritizing mission over medium, and fundamentally transforming how they deliver value to communities, rural news organizations can be a driving force for positive change and an integral part of the broader local news ecosystem. The success of these efforts is not only vital for the advancement of local news but critical for our democracy.