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Tennessee’s shrinking journalism industry concerns Gov. Bill Haslam because fewer people get news from local sources and it is scary how little people know, he told a national commission tasked with trying to forge a sustainable media model.

Haslam worries the erosion of media outlets means that important, complex state and local issues will be overlooked as hometown papers shutter, metro papers shrink and readers look to national sources.

Journalists need to be not only watchdogs — reporting into wrongdoing by government, business or non-profit entities — but also the people who cover issues unfolding at the regional and local level and explain why those trends are important, he said, as the keynote speaker at a panel hosted by the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy on April 27.

“It is critical to me that people have (local news). It is scary to me how little people know,” said Haslam. “Fewer and fewer get it from local sources.”

The Knight Commission is a project from the Knight Foundation and The Aspen Institute. It’s comprised of 11 commissioners from a variety of companies ranging from Google to Frontline PBS, CNN to Facebook, and the MIT Media Lab. The commission has convened three sessions, the most recent one in Nashville at the Hermitage Hotel.

One portion of the commission’s agenda was open to the public and invited speakers touched on the plethora of problems that plague journalism.

Delivery methods are changing as fewer people subscribe to print editions and digital reading habits constantly evolve as technology advances, especially with the advent of tech giants reforming algorithms that sort and disseminate news.

Newsrooms are shrinking — layoffs happen somewhere around the country seemingly every week — so staff is spread thinner while beats and issues get more complex in a news cycle that almost necessitate a 24-hour presence.

During 2017 in Tennessee, layoffs and staff reductions hit newsrooms across Gannett’s USA Today Network – Tennessee, which stretches from Memphis to Knoxville, and The Nashville Scene. (Disclosure: Holly Fletcher left a reporting job with Gannett in Nashville in December 2017.)

The sleepless news cycle combined with the everyman platform of social media has fundamentally changed how some decisions are made.

Haslam rehashed the online outcry over the University of Tennessee’s plan to hire a defensive coordinator from Ohio State University as the head football coach in Knoxville. Historically, coaches, and other government officials, he said, would have had the chance to “win the press conference” but “you don’t even get to that point anymore.”

Yet, there’s a discrepancy in what people say they want to read and what (or if) they will pay for it. Despite gains in digital subscribers at many outlets across the country, digital subscriptions don’t sustain business models.

Penelope Abernathy, Knight chair in journalism and digital media economics at UNC-Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism, worries about metro areas, but especially small towns where papers with razor thin margins could look for a buyer or shutter after one bad quarter.

Abernathy talked about the need for media to be developing a host of products and papering the town with them as ways to raise awareness and diversify revenue streams.

Facebook has become the de facto source for local news as papers shrivel, said Abernathy, speaking to the commissioner.

But, relying on Facebook puts the news at the mercy of algorithms, which frequently change, and increases the chances of fabricated stories taking the place of real ones, said Dana Coester, associate professor at West Virginia University College of Media.

Coester thinks its time that publishers are “brave enough” to leave Facebook — that democracy needs journalism more than people need Facebook.

“My love affair with technology is waning,” said Coester.

Publishers and newsroom leaders need to be overhauling and pruning one-third of their business model every five years to make sure outdated products are replaced with new ones, said Abernathy.

There are only a handful of counties in Tennessee that had more than one daily newspaper in 2015 — and none have more than two, including Davidson County, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. The study doesn’t include outlets that are either established as digital only sites or have transitioned to a web only presence.

In Robertson County, Tenn., for instance, the online news site Smokey Barn News is a must-read for many people who follow the conversational coverage of local business comings-and-goings, crime, wrecks and spot coverage of municipal government.

The commission wants to find a business model that can be tailored to individual papers to reflect the needs of that community.

“What you all are talking about is vital to the future of our country,” said Haslam.

In response to a question from the commission about whether he thought the state had a role or obligation to help sustain the media or find a model for it, Haslam responded he’s not familiar enough with the models to comment but “that feels like a big step for me.”

The future of news needs to change the narrative about who wants or needs information so as to make sure the structure doesn’t disenfranchise those with little expendable income, said Michael Cormack Jr., CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute in Jackson, Miss.

Cormack said often low-income people, particularly parents, are brandished as those who aren’t interested or don’t care what’s going on around them — but they need information, too. •

Photo by Bank Phrom on Unsplash