COLUMN: Local news needs engagement moving forward

Many were quick to call it an “upset” when Donald Trump won the presidency on Nov. 8. They were equally quick to point out how the national media failed to get it right, or as some point out, recognize the momentum Trump had built leading into Election Day.

These are the two subjects that have been whirling around since Donald Trump, the candidate, became Donald Trump, the President-elect. News networks have been trying to figure out where they went wrong. Meanwhile, over 48 million voters (a majority, in fact) were left saying, “How did this happen?”

In my mind, addressing those two points is easy because they’re connected.

While nothing is ever as open-and-shut as it may seem, the national media played a serious role in lulling Democrats into a false sense of security. As a result, Republicans — particularly a segment of the party that hadn’t been activated effectively in decades — turned out in force on Nov. 8.

The second part involves the media and its role and is a little more complicated. The core of the media’s failure to recognize what was coming with a Donald Trump campaign draws back to the data the organizations were relying on to make their projections prior to Election Day.

Forget about the process or who is being called when pollsters phone those “expected voters.” When you’re relying on data without human support, it can be very, very wrong. It wasn’t horribly wrong, though. Ultimately, if we use the “polls” as our measuring stick, the data was off only by a point or two.

Data doesn’t replace people. Newsrooms are not what they were 20 or 40 years ago, and as result, people in the media are left relying on data more heavily each day. While there are news organizations out there — such as the Finger Lakes Times — doing well for themselves and maintaining their operation without shrinking their newsroom by the day, that cannot be said across the board.

Make no mistake: News organizations that were thriving a couple of decades ago, those that were not broadcast organizations but local, print organizations, are trying every day to adapt to a new world.

Once upon a time, dedicated readers of this paper know that it was called the Geneva Times, a true reflection of what was once hyper-local, Geneva-only print news at its best. It was a different world, though, and now, the Finger Lakes Times is accomplishing the same mission on a regional scale. In fact, back 40 or 50 years there were daily and weekly newspapers for many of the communities served today by the FLT.

In simple terms: The game has changed.

Ease of access to information has made what newspapers do challenging. They adapt, and for those who still thrive, do an excellent job of making it happen. That said, these organizations are often left trying to do more with less.

That’s how this election was gotten so “wrong.” In the ecosystem of news, organizations of all shapes and sizes are required to make the whole system work. Information has to be available in all forms — whether that’s in print, online, or on social media platforms.

People have become passive consumers of information. There was a day when sitting down to read the morning paper was part of the culture, as much as it was part of a daily routine. An unfortunate reality is that people who aggressively consume information in the form of news are members of a dwindling crowd.

As local news organizations have failed to adapt or survive, it’s fed the above trend. As a result, people become less and less engaged, to a point where they rely on the same big data that was relied on by major news outlets throughout this presidential cycle.

The news ecosystem has been damaged by the disappearance of local, intensely scrutinized reporting, the boots on the ground, if you will, digging into important, relevant, and timely stories.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Local news relies on people being engaged. Dialing up a national news organization, or worse yet, acquiring news through a source such as Facebook, exacerbates these problems, potentially jeopardizing the existence of local news.

This column originally appeared in the Finger Lakes Times. Read all of Josh’s columns from the Finger Lakes Times here.

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