Nebraska Journalists Navigate Changing News Landscape

Nebraska journalists are facing a changing industry. (Stock photo)
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September 18, 2019 - 6:45am

Newsrooms around the country are shrinking, including in Nebraska. A look at the impact on consumers of news, how it affects rural news outlets and the changing face of journalism going forward.

At Nebraska’s largest newsroom, the Omaha World Herald, the landscape is changing. In 2008 the newsroom staff consisted of 200 people. Today that figure has dropped to 85. Employment figures for broadcast and print newsrooms around the country have dropped 25% in the last decade.

Tony Boone is a longtime sports reporter and who recently left his reporting job at the Omaha World Herald

The consolidation and shrinking of newsrooms parallels the drop in newspaper circulation around the country, which is at its lowest level since 1940. (Stock photo)

"The statement that may have been the most defining of the changes that are happening in our industry right now was I was once told by someone in management that we will no longer be the general store for news and sports," Boone said.

Boone says reducing coverage at the World Herald, and other papers in Nebraska, will help publishers keep the business running, but it will hurt news consumers in the state.

"The readers absolutely are losing in that context because you're not getting the in depth coverage that you got before," Boone said. "That's the same case with media coverage in general. People are going to think that this isn't for me anymore."

Boone voluntarily left his position within the sports department at the World Herald in July, when he was asked to take a different role and dial back his reporting duties. The World Herald is part of BH Media Group, in turn part of Berkshire Hathaway, run by Warren Buffett.

BH Media owns nearly 120 newspapers around the county, including a handful of other newspapers in Nebraska. In 2018, BH Media handed off the daily management of the World Herald to Lee Enterprises, which owns the Lincoln Journal Star.

Fewer reporters, less news

Kathleen Rutledge worked for newspapers in the Lincoln area for more than 30 years. She said with less people on the copy desk and less reporters in the field, less stories are being told. She said with less coverage, there is more of a chance news is falling through the cracks.

“There are whole beats not being covered by designated people,” Rutledge said. “That means citizens know less about what's going on in their communities.”

Rutledge said newspapers, more than broadcast TV or radio, are dealing with the brunt of the losses.

Boone says it’s a complicated relationship for employees who see Lee Enterprises and the Lincoln Journal Star as a competitor. Current World Herald reporter, and head of the World Herald guild, Todd Cooper says in the end, Lee Enterprises is “looking out for what they own first.”

"There are two things that Lee Enterprises knows how to do: number one is cut people and number two is cut paper," Cooper said.

The World Herald newsroom voted to unionize in October, 2018. Cooper says it gives the newsroom a voice and more bargaining power with publishers. In the year before unionizing, Cooper says BH Media made more than a dozen staff cuts. He says management is “struggling to preserve the state's best newspaper.”

"As head of the guild, I question whether (Lee is) just trying to increase their bonuses, whether they're just trying to increase the appeal of their stock to shareholders," Cooper said.

Cooper and Boone acknowledge these could be considered tough comments, but they are concerned with the future of print journalism in Nebraska. We reached out to BH Media and Lee Enterprises for comment but didn’t hear back. Allen Beermann is the executive director of the Nebraska Press Association.

"I think our people by and large are going to be ill informed, misinformed or non-informed," Beermann said.

Beermann says people complain to him daily about the reduction of size in printed newspapers. He says when newspapers leave, communities lose their sense of identity.

"They are really the glue that holds the community together," Beermann said.

Beermann says getting less hard news makes it tougher for voters to make informed decisions.

One factor adding to newspapers’ problems is the difficulty of competing for digital ad revenue. While revenue rose nearly 25% in 2018, newspapers are getting only a fraction of that, as more than half goes to Facebook and Google.

"The problem is, bottom line, is the advertising is moving to websites and digital advertising," Beermann said. "It becomes impossible for the publisher."

New research out of Cleveland State University shows when newsrooms reduce staff it creates an information vacuum in which fewer people run for political office and fewer people vote.

Journalism changing, it's importance not

Tony Boone said the fight for advertising dollars makes news outlets focus on more engaging posts, which means a potential for more click-bait.  

“It should never be about, ‘I need to write this, because the most people are going to view this,’" Boone said. "It should be ‘I'm going to write about this because this needs to be written about,’ for the sake of our readers.”

Boone’s exit from the World Herald was a bit different than others who were let go. He was asked to change beats and lessen his reporting duties. He decided not to do that, put his name into the buyout pool, and eventually took the buyout.

“To watch those things and basically die a slow death, while I was still standing by, it was just much easier for me to walk away,” Boone said.

Tammy Real-McKeighan is a reporter at the Fremont Tribune. She’s been there since 1981. Back then there were five reporters and six editors – today there are just two reporters and a single editor on staff. She points to the spring flooding in Nebraska as a time where local journalists showed their worth. She says they had local sources and local knowledge when it was really needed.

"There’s always going to be a need for local news," Tammy McKeighan said. "Because a town that is 30 miles away, they’re going to cover their own news. They’re going to get to you when they can – but no one covers you like your local newspaper."

Stress on newsrooms isn’t just happening at newspapers.

"It's both terrifying and incredibly exciting," said Barney McCoy, a broadcast journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

McCoy says radio and television outlets in Nebraska have mostly been able to maintain staff levels. Though, he says, many stations have been creating more content, both over-the-air and online, with the same amount of staff.

He says TV stations are hiring more reporters as “multimedia journalists,” that’s where they work as reporter, videographer and editor of their stories.McCoy says the future of journalism in Nebraska and across the country is changing. As TV, radio and even print outlets are turning more focus to how they can engage consumers online.

"It's got to be digital first," McCoy said. "If there's a breaking story, we can't wait to publish it in tomorrow's newspaper."

McCoy says most of "Generation Z," people younger than 24, aren't going to traditional news outlets for their news.

"Most of them are using their smartphones to gather information," McCoy said. "They're not turning on a television set. They're not reading a newspaper, they’re not even go into that newspapers website. They are going to social media."

Barney McCoy says "Generation Z," those ages 24 and younger, consume news differently than any other generation. This is forcing change on how news outlets will produce and distribute news going forward. (Stock photo)

McCoy says newspapers are now shooting video now and posting audio content for the websites. However, with newsroom sizes already shrinking, he wonders how much stress is being added to existing reporters.

"How much time does any reporter have to actually focus on the story versus gathering information and distributing that through multiple channels?" McCoy said.

McCoy also says rural TV and radio stations have very high credibility ratings with viewers and listeners. One of those rural radio stations, KSID in Sidney, is run by Suzy Ernest. The station has been owned by her family since 1962. She thinks rural radio plays a unique role in smaller communities, different from print and TV news. She says it’s an important resource.

"I grew up in this town," Ernest said. "I know most of the people that call in and I can recognize their voices. We are more of an important social asset to the community than anything."

KSID news covers Kimball and Cheyenne counties. She says local radio stations were the first social media — it’s a more personal medium and connects with people.

"We’re really little," Ernest said "Right now I have five full-time employees. We focus on being as hyper local as we can. The positives of radio in general, I believe, will continue."

She says the biggest challenge is losing retail advertising — that’s income the station relied on.

A shrinking news industry doesn’t only mean a loss of jobs and advertising revenue — it leaves a hole in the community. People rely on local news to keep track of the details that impact their everyday lives.



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