Arts & Humanities

A problem for democracy

Penny Muse Abernathy’s latest book shares more strategies about how community newspapers can make the transition to the digital age successfully.

A women poses with a book
Penelope (Penny) Abernathy

When advising leaders of news organizations what they should do to survive the upheavals of the digital age, Penny Muse Abernathy urges them to always celebrate their small wins — but to do it quickly.

“One of the hardest things for anyone running a media business right now is to comprehend how fast everything is changing, and how fast they must adapt to survive,” said Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the School of Media and Journalism. “As soon as you celebrate, you need to keep moving forward to face the next challenge.”

Abernathy’s research — on news deserts, the decline of community journalism and the need for new business strategies for local newspapers to survive and thrive in a digital age — forms the basis of the school’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. The center supports existing and start-up news organizations through its sharing of applied research and the development of digital tools and solutions. 

The imperative of change

Abernathy said many people wrongly assume she wishes “to go back to the great old days of print newspapers.”

She knows there is no going back, but she also believes that local journalism needs to survive in some form for the good of the community and the nation. And to survive, these media organizations need to change.

“Change is difficult,” Abernathy said. “There’s a concept among economists called ‘path dependency’ that hypothesizes we will stay on the path we are currently on because we are comfortable on it — even as we are walking right off the cliff.”

Her latest book, “The Strategic Digital Media Entrepreneur,” co-written with JoAnn Sciarrino, provides timely lessons on everything from media financing to marketing, business strategy to leadership. The book describes three important changes local news organizations need to make to survive:

  •  Come up with a business model that is specifically tied to the needs of their community and the size of their publications;  
  • Strategically learn how to follow the technology being used by their customers, both readers and advertisers; and
  • Be very forward looking.

Some creative approaches include publishing regional lifestyle magazines or offering digital marketing services for local businesses. A Moore County newspaper bought a bookstore and turned it into a community venue, she said.

“There are lots of things you can begin to explore as long as you get out of that narrow box of thinking. The most successful independent owners have really thought, ‘Hey, I’m not just putting out a newspaper. I’m building community,’” Abernathy said. 

The greatest strength of community news organizations is that they provide what the internet often doesn’t: local news. They have geographic advantage. They tell readers what happened at the local school board meetings, when the town will repair the streets and who scored the most points at the high school basketball game.

Abernathy calls this kind of journalism “the three Cs — credible, comprehensive news that you care about.” Readers and advertisers tend to be loyal to news organizations that provide this kind of coverage, she said.

A problem for democracy

Without a strong local news organization, communities can become “news deserts,” rural or urban areas that have limited access to credible and comprehensive news that feeds democracy at the grassroots level. 

Abernathy has documented news deserts across the nation, but she has also experienced their devastating effects firsthand in Laurinburg, her hometown in rural Scotland County along the South Carolina border. 

When she was growing up there, her family had access to television stations in Charlotte and Raleigh, three regional newspapers — The News & Observer, The Fayetteville Observer and The Charlotte Observer — as well as The Laurinburg Exchange, the local independent newspaper where Abernathy got her first reporting job. Today, she said, the local newspaper has become a “ghost” of its former self, while regional newspapers have largely pulled their coverage as well.

That is why, when the story broke last November about potential voting irregularities in the state’s 9th Congressional District where Abernathy votes, she was forced to rely on national media for information to fill the void of local coverage, she said. Now Abernathy wonders if the allegations might have come to light before the election had there been more reporters with “boots on the ground” to cover the local campaigns and pursue leads.

“We need to appreciate what two centuries of newspapers brought us. Historically, they have served critical community-building functions while also educating us as citizens,” Abernathy said. “Research has shown that when you lose a newspaper, public participation goes down in elections, especially off-year elections. It is almost impossible right now — because of what we are seeing in terms of the rise of news deserts — to get the kind of information you need” about local elections.

The survival of community journalism is much more than a news industry problem to Abernathy. 

“It is a problem for democracy,” she said.