Elections, AI, mergers, and investments: The tectonic forces shaping local news in 2024

Lessons from the third annual Local News Summit show how local news leaders are tackling the challenges of our time

By Jim Friedlich and Vivian Schiller

April 24, 2024

Attendees of the 2024 Local News Summit. Photo by Jessica Yurinko.

Last week, CalMatters, the leading public service newsroom covering California, announced that it is acquiring The Markup, the groundbreaking investigative newsroom covering technology and its impact on our lives. 

California is the center of the technology world. By combining forces CalMatters and The Markup will be able to serve audiences with even more powerful journalism. However, the conversations that led to the acquisition began nearly 3,000 miles away  in Charleston, S.C. where CalMatters CEO Neil Chase and Markup board chair David Boardman met over drinks in late January at the 2024 Local News Summit, an annual gathering hosted by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and Aspen Digital.

Nearly 100 journalists and business executives, funders, and researchers came together for the third annual Local News Summit, which focuses on finding common ground and identifying opportunities for collective action to advance the field of local news. 

Boardman and Chase took advantage of the time together to identify an opportunity to deepen their work together. 

“It took me a few minutes to get what he was suggesting, because it was an out-of-the-box idea,” Chase said. “But the more we talked, that night and in the days that followed, the more sense it made. Their amazing leaders, [CEO] Nabiha Syed and [Editor-in-Chief] Sisi Wei, made it easy because we all came to the same vision pretty quickly.”

The acquisition is expected to be finalized later in 2024, continuing a pivotal year for American local news media. We will very likely see more mergers and consolidation in non-profit journalism as the business seeks to build scale, reduce costs, and increase impact.

This was not the first time that the Local News Summit has birthed a bold idea. During our inaugural summit in 2022, the seeds of Press Forward were born when MacArthur Foundation President John Palfrey gathered funders and practitioners to imagine a national movement around funding local journalism. Today, Press Forward has achieved more than $500 million in commitments and is launching statewide efforts across the country. 

The 2024 Local News Summit

The future of sustainable and independent press in the United States will  continue to be shaped by consequential elections up-and-down the ballot, advancements in artificial intelligence and other technologies, and increased polarization and institutional distrust. 

The Lenfest Institute and Aspen Digital hosted the Local News Summit to address these challenges and harness the opportunities they present through collaboration, which makes it all the more important that the local news industry continues to gather to share ideas and identify a sustainable path forward. 

The 2024 Summit focused on three key areas: covering elections in service of democracy, the promise and peril of generative AI, and creative partnerships for long-term sustainability.

Discussions focused on topics ranging from fostering collaboration across newsrooms, harnessing AI technologies responsibly, engaging more deeply with communities to combat polarization and the erosion of public trust, and exploring innovative funding models. 

This recap highlights recommendations and key takeaways from Summit speakers and participants. 

The Lenfest Institute and Aspen Digital convene The Local News Summit each year as a space to incubate new ideas and turn conversations into practice. The discussions at the Summit are meant to connect peers and leaders across the space and provide opportunities to spur collaboration and collective action. 

These reports feature insights from Margaret Sullivan, Errin Haines, Trei Brundrett, Claire Leibowicz, Christopher Baxter, Ken Doctor, Fernando Soto, S. Mitra Kalita, Max Kabat, and more. 

We are always looking for collaborators and always eager to connect people who are working on the challenges facing local news. The Lenfest Institute and Aspen Digital are hosting back-to-back forums in New York City following up on many of the key themes discussed at the Local News Summit. On May 1, The Lenfest Institute and the Associated Press are hosting the AP/Lenfest Forum on Journalism & Democracy, a forum on journalism, election integrity, and American democracy at Microsoft’s offices. On May 2, Aspen Digital is convening AI & News: Charting the Course at The Ford Foundation. We look forward to sharing key takeaways from both events. 

Please reach out with any questions or feedback, and we’re eager to continue to work together to build sustainable solutions for local news in service of our communities and democracy. 

Lessons from the 2024 Local News Summit

Participants shared several innovative approaches to addressing the news industry’s most pressing challenges

A make-or-break year for trust in American democracy

So much is at stake in 2024, but local news organizations must do more to get through to readers and understand voter perspectives.

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AI for journalism: We’re in the first inning

Generative AI is still very much in its early days, and there’s an opportunity for the news industry to shape the technology proactively.

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Grow and retain staff

Amid mass layoffs in the media industry, Local News Summit attendees discussed how to grow their teams and ensure staff feel supported.

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The business of community

A community-driven approach to news often goes beyond traditional reporting to help connect community members with information and resources they need to thrive.

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Local News Solutions

The Lenfest Institute provides free tools and resources for local journalism leaders to develop sustainable strategies to serve their communities.

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