Information districts: An American experiment in using journalism to meet community needs

News organisations shift from AI experiments to execution

I grew up in a wood surrounded by the corn fields of Illinois about 90 miles west of Chicago. The Windy City was a hub of journalism in the state, and it used to be that the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where I got my bachelor’s degree, kept the city supplied with talent. I know how grim the situation is with local news organisations in the US. But it still took my breath away when I recently found out that since 2005, Illinois has lost 85% of its newspaper journalists, according to Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative. Illinois has suffered the highest number of journalism job losses of any state in the US.

The accelerating decline of local news in the US

But the story is similar across the country, even if not to the same degree. “Total newspaper circulation declined from more than 50 million in 2005 to just over 10 million in 2023,” according to Frank Jones in Big Think. Sadly, not only are things not getting better, the decline is getting worse.

The decline is still accelerating. In 2022, an average of two newspapers went out of business every week. In 2023, it was two and a half. As a result, so-called “news deserts” are growing across the U.S.

Frank Jones, Big Think

And that means that more communities are losing their only source of local news. For many of these communities, there isn’t a local radio or TV station that is providing coverage.

I’ve written quite a bit about ways to stem this loss including applying innovation models, different funding models and the revenue mix for the new independent news organisations springing up in communities. we’re going to have to get creative to stem the collapse.

Information Districts offer a new model

We are going to need all kinds of experiments and models to address this crisis, and it is a crisis. For me, it is not just a crisis in journalism but a symptom of the decline of communities and the rising crisis in loneliness, particularly in my native United States. When I was at the BBC, they brought Robert Putnam to talk about his research and book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

Can journalism play a role in rebuilding communities? I think it can in partnership with other local institutions, such as libraries and civic groups. I have long followed the work of Simon Galperin for his advocacy of information districts, which is a form of municipal service district. In the US, there are 33,000 such districts, which are “defined areas in a city or county” where property owners pay an additional tax for extra services in the area. They have been established to pay for fire, water, sanitation or business improvement districts, but Simon’s idea is that the same concept could be used to provide for the information needs of a community. Simon estimated that if the 32,000 people in his community paid $40 a year, it would provide a half-million-dollar budget for a newsroom. He said:

That budget could support print or online newspapers, or livestreaming town council meetings. A special service district for local journalism could convene community forums or media literacy classes, launch a text message and email alert system, or pay for chatbots that answer locally relevant questions, like “Is alternate side parking in effect?”

Simon Galperin in the Columbia Journalism Review

He estimated that the budget would provide for three to four reporters, money for events and community engagement activities. Of course, as Christine Schmidt wrote in the Nieman Lab, it would be difficult for low-income communities to pay for such districts. Galperin said that communities could pool their resources. “The point of an info district it to create more civically engaged communities. It’s about bridging the gap between democracy and journalism,” he said.

Galperin is now testing his idea with the Jersey Bee, which “address(es) people’s basic needs to enable their well-being”. For an info district to serve its community, it needs to identify the information needs of that community. Galperin has applied Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs as a framework to provide a map of community information needs. “It’s a framework we use to prioritize delivering information that enables more people to participate fully in our community by addressing gaps in access to essential resources, public safety, and social connection,” Simon wrote.

It’s a novel model for local news that focuses on engaging the community by listening to community members and collaborating with them. The project looks to build media literacy in the community and help people living there improve their quality of life.

Their research isn’t just driving the topics they cover but also how they distribute their news. Like Outlier Media in Detroit, they are using a text-based information service, which is unsurprising because of Simon’s work with Groundsource. Broadcasters and newspapers are using its text-messaging technology to engage audiences in the process of their journalism not just trying to build an audience after the journalism is finished.

Simon’s approach has elements of human-centred design and Saul Alinsky’s community organising approach. It is radically different than the standard approach to journalism, and I am cautious about invoking Alinsky’s name because he has become a partisan symbol of animosity for the Right in the US, in no small part because of Barack Obama’s history as a community organiser. To me, community organising is about helping communities meet their needs, and I think Simon is right in trying to rebuild journalism’s relationship with the communities that it serves because that is essential in rebuilding the trust people need to have in journalism.

A decade ago when I had the gift of serving as a local newspaper editor in the US, so much of my energy was in building relationships in the communities our papers served. Like what Simon is doing, some of what I did was about facilitation, not just the traditional production of journalism. I was honest with the community that we couldn’t cover the community they wanted without working with them. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much of a runway to run with that approach. Within months after I started, Gannett launched its Newsroom of the Future reorganisation, which I was involved in at the national and regional level. I tried to build my vision of community engagement into what happened after the reorganisation, but due to cuts and people taking buyouts (voluntary redundancy), I lost half of my staff for a time. And the cuts took my own job only months later.

I am rethinking my future, and I wonder if there is a way that I can have another go at my vision. It definitely will have to exist outside of the corporate model. If you want to talk about it, please get in touch.

AI shifts from experimentation to execution

I have been working in digital journalism since the mid-90s, and there have been few technologies that have shifted from awareness to experimentation to implementation as large-language models have. Poynter highlighted an Associated Press survey that found 70% of newsroom staff in the US and Europe are already using generative AI to create content, using genAI to help write headlines, newsletters and social media posts.

I have been a little surprised about the sudden frenzy over AI because journalism organisations have been using elements of artificial intelligence for years now. They have been using:

However, genAI tools have lowered the bar to entry in using the technology. Lowering the barriers to entry for technology always as I wrote in Pugpig’s Media Bulletin last week, we’re seeing news organisations shift from experimentation to execution with this new generation of AI tools. As with other technological revolutions in newsrooms, the tools have become accessible to a wider range of journalists, and for more advanced news organisations, they have the product frameworks and the cross-functional management muscle to rapidly experiment and iterate AI services.

Of course, we are also seeing volume publishers lean into AI to create more content. That way lies madness, and it runs counter to what news organisations need to do. AI should be used to free up journalists time to do more original reporting and engage audiences, basically any activity that creates more value for audiences and captures more value from them.

And meanwhile, the platforms continue to build their AI capabilities. Google continues its work with Gemini and Search Generative Experience, and Microsoft pushes forward with Copilot. Meta continues to update and roll out its AI tools. I used Copilot to create the image for this newsletter, and I have to admit to being blown away. That being said, I often use Creative Commons images, another community that I am part of.

Are paywalls ceding the battleground to misinformation?

We wrote about this piece in Pugpig’s Media Bulletin this week. Time’s former managing editor Richard Stengel has researched and written about misinformation, and he is concerned that as more journalism moves behind paywalls, it means that more people will fall prey to misinformation. While I share his concerns about misinformation especially with increased activity by state actors and partisans, I don’t agree with his solution, which is to simply drop the paywalls around election content. I don’t believe in simple solutions. If the solutions to journalism’s problems were simple, we would see more success, especially at the local level. It is more complicated.

I do agree with him that news organisations should leverage the attention that the elections will deliver to attract more subscribers and more registered users. As my friend at The Audiencers highlighted, Bloomberg changed up their paywall to a registration wall to allow audiences to read their climate coverage during COP.

And lastly, it is interesting to see the unraveling of the consolidation in digital media. G/O just sold The Onion to local investors in Chicago, giving the Windy City-based staff assurances that they could continue to work where they were and telling the that they would deal them into the satire site’s success. As someone who read The Onion in print at university, I’m pulling for them.

Vice Media sold Refinery29, which has been hit hard by the decline in social media, to Essence. Sundial Media Group, a VC-backed company that owns Essence, says that the purchase will fill out its holdings across culture and commerce. Commerce is increasingly becoming an element of fashion and culture content companies.