The New Year’s Day announcement by Axios that it was going to save local journalism was surprising, to say the least.
Axios, a Virginia-based media startup formed in 2017, last year began producing emailed local-news newsletters in about a dozen cities. It’s now expanding from 14 to 39 cities by midyear.
This comes as newspapers are embracing newsletters to deliver alerts, digests and other material to subscribers. It’s proven to be a successful way for papers to build audiences and it gives subscribers additional options to receive the news.
It also coincides with a renaissance of self-publishing on newsletter platforms with options to sell subscriptions. Some big-name journalists are going solo there or building niche publications of their own.
Then there are a handful of companies producing email newsletters that mostly aggregate news, copying the essence from other sources, and presenting it like a daily briefing.
Aggregators do this with around two reporters per city and are targeting urban areas, such as Seattle and Philadelphia.
Because aggregators produce scant original reporting and they’re coming to markets that already have multiple news outlets, they are not addressing the local journalism crisis.
Axios Publisher Nicholas Johnston told me this is just the start, and local teams may grow and expand into smaller communities if the model succeeds.
“I’m hiring local journalists, why is that a knock on us?” he said in an interview that guaranteed I won’t be working for Axios.
The main Axios newsroom employs 150 and local newsletters employ 40 but should add dozens more this year. As with Axios’ national news site, newsletters emphasize brevity, aiming to be around 900 words. That’s about the length of a newspaper column like this one.
Tim Franklin, senior associate dean at Northwestern University’s Medill journalism school, is positive about newsletter opportunities. He told me the arrival of newcomers like Axios Local “sort of validates the newsletter strategy writ large.”
“Among the lingering questions are, will these newsletters have a depth of local news and information that is satisfying to readers in these markets?” he said.
Competition and innovation are good. But I’m concerned that aggregators extend several bigger trends that decimated local journalism in recent years.
Newspaper newsrooms, which produce the most original reporting, are down about 60% or 40,000 jobs since 2008, and thousands of communities now have zero local news sources.
One factor in the decline is that people were conditioned to think of news as being free online.
This is slowly being changed, but aggregators go the opposite direction, by telling people they can get all the local news they need for free.
Newspapers are partly to blame for the situation. The industry fell for the hype and the con that fortunes could be made online by giving away premium content and getting traffic in return.
A decade after papers began charging for online access, the industry is still trying to get fairly compensated for its work as the biggest aggregators, Google and Facebook, dominate online advertising.
News must undergo an evolution similar to what happened with the music industry, after online disruption created expectations of free music. After a combination of regulatory, technical and behavioral changes, people are now accustomed to paying for music, mostly via subscription.
Some regulators see this evolution as key to saving journalism and democracy. Australia and some European countries are now forcing digital giants to pay for news content shared via their platforms.
Australia’s groundbreaking legislation drew in part on research that found people often don’t click through headlines and snippets compiled by aggregators, so publishers lose out.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell noted this in a 2020 report on the journalism crisis.
Platforms “take local news content under the ‘fair use’ doctrine of copyright law, arguing that the reuse of local news’ headlines, story snippets, and images is a ‘fair use’ of the copyrighted work,” it said. “But the application of fair use in this context, by allowing platforms to take significant and key substance from local news without proper compensation, has made fair use an economic weapon for the online platforms.”
Franklin concurred. “There’s not going to be a new harvest of digital ad revenue from Axios or any other player sending traffic,” he told me.
Perhaps aggregators targeting audiences and advertisers that newspapers need to survive should also pay for news content they use.
Yes, newspapers aggregate content from wire services but they pay for them. I also produce a newsletter that comments on and links to others’ coverage of the journalism crisis, but I’m not competing with anyone by relying mostly on their work.
I’ve been following the Axios Local edition for Columbus, Ohio. On Monday, virtually every leading item was reported by another local media outlet or taken from a news release.
Local journalism is also suffering from national consolidation and extractive investors.
Half the remaining daily papers are now owned by a handful of Wall Street firms. They run shoestring local operations — ghost newspapers, with just a few reporters stretched far too thin to provide adequate coverage — while building a network of local sites they can pitch to national advertisers.
The Seattle Times has around 170 people in its newsroom and it’s still hard pressed to cover a Puget Sound region with 4 million residents.
“Everyone needs — and deserves — high-quality reporting to understand the changes unfolding fast where they live,” Axios said in its announcement.
That part is absolutely true.
I appreciate the hard work of the two reporters per city producing these newsletters and I’m glad they’re employed, but this isn’t watering America’s news desert.