February 15, 2017

Social Newsgathering: The Next Opportunity For Hyper-local News

Almar Sheikh by Almar Sheikh

For the better part of a year, the future of media has been a focal point of conversation and controversy. As the public’s trust in established brands reaches all-time lows, companies like The New York Times are seeing hard earned growth, while less familiar organizations like Breitbart are rapidly increasing readership. The media landscape is under constant scrutiny and changing quickly. While this scrutiny may be justified, another conversation regarding the future of media is often overlooked. The truth is, the majority of news distribution in the U.S. is handled by small-market news organizations that are widely trusted and heavily relied upon. These organizations account for 6,851 of the 7,071 daily and weekly printed newspapers in the country. Often times, they are a silent majority, assumed to lack the ability to make an impact, absent from conversations regarding the future of the industry.

The realized impact of small-market news is simply different, not less important, and we believe they will become increasingly influential in shaping the way news organizations adapt to the evolving media landscape. In communities, suburbs, counties, and towns across the U.S., residents rely on their hyper-local publishers to stay informed — especially in areas of little, or weak, local TV news. Local competition dynamics are also different from their metropolitan counterparts. By focusing on their community, small newspapers can demonstrate a clear and distinctive niche. Rural newspapers generally have the local news franchise to themselves and this means they’re not under competitive threat from broadcasters or large online operators. In many cases, local publications stand as the only source of substantive original reporting for their area.

Still, the pivot to digital has been far from easy and they’ll need some help to transition into modern newsgathering workflows and processes. If a hyper-local newsroom is open to adapting their processes, social media newsgathering presents an opportunity to increase output, engagement, relevance, and revenue. Social media drives the news agenda, big and small. It is the foundation of an incredibly rare opportunity to increase content production without the need of massive news agency contracts and camera crews.

To further understand how social media newsgathering could help hyper-local news, we caught up with an early adopter of SAM: the Goldendale Sentinel. The Sentinel is a hyper-local publication located in Klickitat County, Washington, currently using SAM to report on national and local news simultaneously — from stories that were once out of reach, like the Trump Inauguration and Super Bowl, to regionally specific stories, like weather updates and traffic reports.

When asked about the biggest challenges facing local news organizations, Lou Marzeles, Editor & Publisher of The Sentinel, reinforced the need to be able to simultaneously cover both nationally relevant and niche stories, “the biggest challenge facing hyper-local news organizations is the need to bridge macro and micro views of the world, transglobal to backyard, quickly and conveniently. We’re in an age of expediency. Readers are conditioned to do as much one-stop-shopping for news as possible. According to a recent survey cited in Editor & Publisher magazine, 40 percent of Americans get their news from Facebook. That’s not the most reliable source. We want tools that will combine solid reporting with the best of social media.”

The presence of newsgathering tools and social media content have been readily increasing in the metropolitan media industry and it seems that progressive, hyper-local news organizations are now coming around to the same way of thinking. Marzeles goes on to state, “for most smaller newspapers, there is no social media reporting and newsgathering going on. The need for such a thing isn’t immediately apparent yet. We think that’s a mistake, and we suspect once we and a few others pioneer this path, social media newsgathering as a prerequisite for both the editorial and business sides of a newspaper will be abundantly self-evident. It’s going to change things for us because we’ll be the convenience store for news, reliable and timely. It’s a cultural shift. We see it coming, and we’re ready for it.”

With this in mind, we set out to see how SAM could impact the processes and workflows surrounding social newsgathering for hyper-local news organizations like The Sentinel. News Editor, Jess Macinko, was first to get his hands on the tool for live coverage of the Trump Inauguration, “for small-town papers like The Sentinel, national events are typically the subject of wire service reports, op-eds and little else. SAM changed that. Their intuitive but sophisticated search functions allowed us to cover the 2017 inauguration and Super Bowl LI minute by minute, providing a mix of traditional news and social media from live observers. The result was an extended period of reader engagement that would not have existed otherwise. Simply put, SAM let us reach the higher-hanging fruit.”

In addition to increasing their breadth of coverage, Macinko also reflected on how SAM was able to help The Sentinel increase their depth of engagement with local news, “as valuable as it was for us to extend our national reach, we were even more excited to apply SAM to our local and regional coverage. The Sentinel faces a challenge familiar to rural papers: small staff, large territory. We now use SAM to engage readers across our entire region, providing a live feed of weather, traffic, EMS alerts, school sports and other breaking news. This widened scope comes not a moment too soon—our county is experiencing a particularly heavy winter, and weather updates, road conditions, and vehicle collision reports and clearances are of the utmost importance to our readers. SAM allows us to be their source.”

As the daily viewership and publishing output continues to grow, The Sentinel is realizing new opportunities for advertising, which would provide a welcomed boost to site revenue.

We couldn’t be happier with the immediate impact proper social newsgathering workflows and tools have had on this organization’s approach to modern storytelling. Moving forward, we hope to continue working with forward-thinking, local organizations like the Goldendale Sentinel.

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