Yesterday it seems the Palladium-Item newspaper laid off four more of its news department staff, leaving only a small handful of people to report firsthand on what’s happening in the area.
At a personal level, we should send words of care and support to those who have just lost their jobs. Going through a professional transition of any kind can be hard and stressful, and doing so involuntarily with little notice can be gut-wrenching. We should appreciate the time and energy that these folks (and all of the paper’s former staff) have given to bring light, texture and understanding to the stories and news of our community, and hope that they are able to land on their feet with new opportunities ahead. We should also think of the staff who are left behind, almost certainly expected to do more with less.
Sometimes layoffs happen because an organization needs to restructure in order to grow or meet longer term goals. In this case it seems the paper’s trajectory for some time has been toward shrinking its local staff in favor of content assembled, edited and published from elsewhere. There doesn’t seem to be any sign of a rebirth or resurgence in its future, though the advertising dollars and current subscription revenue can probably sustain a meager existence for some time. But we should probably expect the staff reductions to continue until the paper is either sold, closed altogether or significantly changes in format (e.g. becoming a weekly, becoming a section of the Indianapolis Star). My understanding is that when we hear the news that the Pal-Item has been donated to the Gannett Foundation, the company’s charitable giving arm, we will know that a sale or closure is imminent.
I’ve written here before about the options for getting local news in our community and what remains beyond the Pal-Item is limited. There are other people purporting to do local news reporting, but they so often seem to trade in Facebook gossip, sensationalized police scanner activity and arrest logs, and other material that is unattributed, unverified or unbalanced in ways that test any reasonable definition of journalism.
In an era where the public both seems to need high-quality journalism more than ever AND seems to devalue it more than ever, what’s ahead for local reporting is not clear. As I wrote in January,
If the public continues to give our clicks, attention and dollars to the most salacious and distracting stories over ones that cover the complex substance of politics and governance, there may be little hope for a strong fourth estate.
The same is true for coverage of sports, arts, education, the environment, events, the economy, and more. We used to have reporters dedicated to each of those facets of life in our area, and now we have one or two people at a time trying to cover all of them.
If enough Richmond residents have not been willing to pay for the true costs of producing a quality publication in modern times, we can’t very well be surprised or indignant when it becomes untenable to operate one here. We can still be disappointed.
There is occasional saber-rattling about how this person or that person is going to start a news resource that finally competes with the Pal-Item, but they rarely seem to have any appreciation for the work and resources involved to do that sustainably, and the effort either never gets off the ground or becomes just another Facebook page.
I think there would probably be hope for a regionally focused publication that has an online-first (or only) strategy, limited or no reliance on advertising dollars, the backing of a wealthy individual or group with no expectation of significant or short-term profit (and no political agenda to push), and a premium subscription cost justified by consistently high-quality reporting and analysis from experienced journalists.
I continue to think there’s value in having lots of independent citizen journalists sharing information, analysis and resources online through social media, blogs, podcasts and other channels. But ideally that would be happening as a complement to strong local publications that employ professional journalists; it really can’t be a substitute.
Most of all, it’s up to us to decide what we value as a community. If we settle for relatively poor media literacy, gossipy email “blasts” and getting news trivia from Facebook friends, then that’s what will thrive.
If we decide we want something better, even if it requires more of our time and money, then we have to take action consistent with that. Like many newspapers around the world, the Palladium-Item is probably never going to be what it once was, but it may be the best option we’ve got for now. Supporting it with a subscription or advertising buy will help. I suspect the staff and management who remain would be receptive to hearing directly about what’s important to you in local news reporting, so consider dropping them an email or giving them a call.
On Thursday, May 18th, 2017 at Morrisson-Reeves Library, you can learn about skills and techniques for stopping the spread of bad reporting at The Real Scoop on Fake News, an event that’s free and open to the public.
Beyond that, I welcome your comments below about what you think is next for local news reporting in Richmond.
- Where do you get your news? (July 2015)
- What constitutes good local news coverage? (January 2008)
- Recommendations for the local newspaper (November 2009)
- Without media literacy, is there hope for journalism? (January 2017)
- The Palladium-Item Paywall (September 2012)
- Tales of two newspapers (December 2011)
- A push to publish (January 2016)