At-risk legacy community media companies are facing an existential moment

By Earl J. Wilkinson

International News Media Association (INMA)

Dallas, Texas, United States


What is the future of local, community news media, the lifeblood of small towns worldwide? 

It is a subject of intense debate, and I’ve had a few community media roads collide for me in recent weeks: 

  • In the United States, I hear about collapsing advertising economics that will soon trigger difficult forks in the road: Without buyers to be found, shut down small-town news brands or convert to non-profit models. Northwestern University’s widely respected State of Local News Report recently predicted the United States will have lost one-third of the newspapers it had as of 2005 by the end of this year. 
  • In Australia, I hear challenges yet a surprising resilience of print and government support via advertising. 
  • In Canada, I hear of the profitable rise of the mostly digital-only Village Media and its expansive vision devoid of legacy cost and cultural structures. 
Local news is a shrinking business in the United States.
Local news is a shrinking business in the United States.

  • From the Google News Initiative, I hear of a disproportionate lean-in of support for community media, mindful of shaky economics. 
  • With the exception of a few European groups like Amedia in Norway, subscriptions don’t add up enough to be sustainable. In smaller markets, there simply aren’t as many people in the pool of potential subscribers, meaning penetration must reach much higher levels than where it is now. 
  • Long term, I hear of group centralisation that leaves local news brands little more than a collection of journalists and ad sales reps. 

At the community media level, not even private equity wants to take on the balance sheets. 

Talking with very smart people at this intersection, the future of community media is likely nigh upon us. Either these legacy community brands — their products, their audiences, their employees — can be converted to a sustainable, profitable digital model … or they can’t.

Focus on digital vs. profits remaining in print

The strategic issues are brain space and print bridges to digital. 

There are multiple organisations in the United States that say digital-only is possible in a non-profit model divorced from corporations focused mainly on shareholder value and profitability at all costs. They just need to go through a car wash of reeducation, and they will come out on the other side ready to attack a digital market.

Many of those smaller news brands, however, are already woefully behind in implementing the kind of infrastructure and technology needed for that digital future. 

The other side of the argument is legacy media can’t be reeducated. Maybe it’s the products, maybe it’s the audience, but it’s damned sure that you can’t teach old print dogs (employees) new digital tricks. And there isn’t enough young talent at the small-town level to infuse change. So best to just let the legacies die, and digital native brands with a radically different mindset and cost structure will take their place. 

In the newspaper world, print culture permeates even “digital-first” brands. It’s like declaring in church that you won’t sin, but you can’t help yourself when push comes to shove. 

Fifteen years ago, Digital First Media (now MediaNews) in the United States went through this thought process on their metropolitan brands with John Paton leading the way.

Yes, there may be profits left in print, he argued. But we can’t get to the digital future if our employees are tied up with print processes. So best to jettison print as much as possible in a digital-first strategy. In a very different market 7+ time zones away, John helped convert The Independent in the United Kingdom to digital-only eight years ago, putting the brand on a very different trajectory.

Did John leave print money on the table? Were the upsides of a total focus on digital throughout multiple workforces worth the downsides of diminishing or exiting print? That’s the tricky calculus that community media companies are sorting through now. 

In 2022, INMA members heard about Nigeria’s digital native Stears Business. It was a brand-new publication with a newsroom assembled from scratch, devoid of legacy practices. While this wasn’t the focus of their presentation, I was struck by how they assembled their newsroom: led by an economist, journalists that were subject-matter experts taught how to be better writers, data-infused, analysts part of the newsroom DNA, cross-functional communication as vital to storytelling, a product focus. 

Stears Business in Nigeria shares details about its data-driven newsroom.
Stears Business in Nigeria shares details about its data-driven newsroom.

My point about Stears Business and Village Media is they didn’t have to tie up too much brain space on the legacy transition, the half-pregnant dream of so many newspaper executives from the past three decades. They could go after the digital opportunities in smart ways. 

Minimum viable journalism product 

As someone who was raised on small-town newspapers, let me be clear: Their disappearance is not so much a blow to “investigative journalism” as is the case with their metropolitan and national counterparts. It is a blow to community news coverage at enough scale to hold basic community institutions accountable. 

The biggest news deserts today are not so much about lack of media than an emaciated media — once-proud brands that can no longer afford to cover school boards, city councils, and courts. 

Local news companies are struggling throughout the world.
Local news companies are struggling throughout the world.

I’ve heard this story over and over and over in the past decade: A legacy newspaper whose workforce is suicidal at newsroom cutbacks from, say, 100 people to 40 people … in the same community as a local digital news native ecstatic at growing its newsroom from five people to 10 people. 

What is better for the community? Are we measuring success as volume output or quality output? Is a digital-native newsroom more productive than a legacy newsroom? 

If a community media brand implodes, will nothing rise up in its place? Does Adam Smith’s “hidden hand” simply not work for small-town community media? What is the minimum viable standard for community news brands to cover and not be a mom-and-pop micro-niche?

Can non-profit models — exploding in popularity as an alternative — work for the long-term? They may not need to make as much money as their for-profit corporate brethren, but they need some path to sustainability — be it through continued philanthropy, memberships, or some other sources of revenue. 


I am cold-eyed, maybe cynical, about some of this. Sorting out truth from fiction, clarity from fog, is tough in this space. Especially when you try to find consistency of outcomes internationally. And we have to be open to the idea that no one formula fits everywhere. 

Let’s not fantasise about small towns and the news brands that serve them. Instead, let’s dig into what’s working and not working. How can we marshal government and academic resources to provide a bridge to positive outcomes — and, better yet, business models that work in the long-term?

About Earl J. Wilkinson

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