Local news is changing. We want local newspaper journalists to tell us how.

What’s it like to work at a local newspaper in 2020? The Tow Center has launched a new survey to find out: http://bit.ly/Tow2020

Damian Radcliffe
Aug 6 · 8 min read
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Image via Giving Compass

This is not an easy time to be a journalist in the United States. The profession finds itself routinely targeted and criticized by the White House — even in the face of a national emergency. Since 2000, nearly half of newsroom jobs — more than 20,000 positions — have disappeared. More than one in five papers has closed over the past 15 years; and between 1,300 and 1,400 communities have become news deserts.

As I wrote last month, the advertising downturn and economic uncertainty provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated these long term trends. Analysis from Kristen Hare at Poynter, shows that more than 200 newsrooms and media groups have been affected by layoffs and other cost-saving measures, including mergers and reduced print runs.

It’s too early to tell what the full impact of the novel coronavirus will be, but the news industry will look different when we come out the other side.

Local journalism is likely at particular risk, though we still rely on local journalists to do the things they have always done: act as a check on those in power, translate national developments into a local context, create an informed citizenry and encourage civic engagement.

Against this challenging and uncertain backdrop, it’s essential that we understand how local journalism is evolving, so that the industry can be supported by policy makers, funders and researchers.

To help us do this, in partnership with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, I have launched a new survey asking local newspaper journalists to tell us about their jobs, how they’re changing, and their hopes for the future.

The findings from this will build on earlier research from 2016–17, enabling us to see what’s changed — and what hasn’t — during the past 3–4 years.

What we found in 2016–17

In May 2017, findings from a year-long study of 420 local newspaper journalists across the United States, described an industry trying to both “respect print and grow digital.”

Respondents showed a strong interest in digital storytelling tools, such as Live video and video reporting, balancing this enthusiasm with a changing workload. Shrinking newsrooms meant nearly half the sample (46%) said they were producing more stories, more quickly, for a wider range of platforms, than two years before.

Our initial research also highlighted a disconnect between what was happening on the ground and the conversations taking place in boardrooms, at journalism conferences and in the trade press. This finding was especially prevalent when discussing engagement.

“Engagement is a five-dollar word dreamed up by overpaid consultants trying to sell newspapers on what they are already doing — reporting on the lives and concerns of everyday people in their communities,” one respondent said.

Others recognized the need — and opportunity — to better connect with audiences:

“Good engagement tells us what is interesting to readers, lets us immediately clarify or add to information in stories already published, gives us new story ideas, and when done right gives the reader/consumer a sense of ownership that this is their news source, in which they have a say and a voice,” another respondent told us.

Why focusing on local journalists matters

Understanding this type of disconnect is one reason why this study — focused on journalists, not journalism — is so important.

If you’re a local newspaper journalist in the United States, then please take 10 minutes to help us to tell your story, by completing this survey, which closes on Sunday 5th September at 11.59PM PST: http://bit.ly/Tow2020

As Christopher Ali and I found back in 2017, in a separate research paper, 97% of U.S. newspapers (6,851 out of 7,081 daily or weekly newspapers) are “small market” — titles with a circulation below 50,000.

Given this, we need to do more as journalists and researchers to highlight the day-to-day reality of the majority of American journalists and focus less on the digital poster-children and the big East Coast players.

Journalists told us about how their role was changing, what digital opportunities they were excited about, and the challenges that local newspapers were facing.

It is important that the experiences and needs of local newspaper journalists across the country are better understood and supported, not least because of the important role this sector plays in building communities, acting as a proxy for the wider news industry and in generating original reporting.

As such, researchers, policy makers, platforms, training and trade bodies, as well as journalists writing about the media, must continue to shine a spotlight on this important sector.

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Image via Poynter

Updating the story: U.S. local newspapers in 2020

Our original survey took place during a period of transition.

President Trump had been elected, but not yet taken office, the “fake news” label had only just begun to enter our lexicon, the Stories format and podcasting were pretty nascent (certainly compared to now), “pivot to video” was still a thing, the presence of paywalls was less prevalent than it is today, and no one had heard of TikTok.

A lot has changed in the United States during the past three years, especially for local newspapers.

This list is by no means exhaustive (although it may feel exhausting), but in addition to wider industry trends, at a local level we’ve seen:

And of course, right now, everyone is grappling with the implications of the novel coronavirus, which is changing the way that newsrooms work, the types of stories that get covered (or not covered as before, in the case of sports and other beats,) as well as profoundly impacting jobs, revenues and the very existence of some local newspapers.

Known Unknowns: what we hope to learn in 2020

As the local newspaper landscape continues to change and evolve, the reality of job cuts and job insecurity, the impact of changes in ownership, digital demands and the need to tackle concerns about “fake news” and mistrust in journalism, deserves our attention.

The impact of COVID-19 is clearly a huge issue to be understood.

Alongside this, wider trend lines over the past few years prompted a number of other important questions:

  • How have these wider industrial changes impacted journalistic practice at local newspapers?
  • What has it meant for the workload and job security of people working in local newsrooms?
  • What digital opportunities — from alerts to newsletters, through podcasting and social networks — are local newsrooms embracing?
  • How do local newspaper journalists across the US feel about the future of their industry?
  • Is there still a disconnect between the conversations we’re having about journalism at a national level and the reality in local newsrooms?

And, given the need for greater workforce diversity, a need to rebuild trust, and a recognition that we need to broaden the range of stories and voices that we feature; are smaller, often more stretched, newsrooms also trying to address these issues, or are they contending with different challenges?

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Image via Shutterstock and the St John Source

Why this research matters

This new study gives us an opportunity to compare and contrast the experience of local journalists in late 2016 and early 2020, while also highlighting characteristics that are unique to the contemporary media landscape.

We believe these insights will be of interest to funders, policymakers, researchers, newsrooms and journalism schools alike. By offering a snapshot of life at local newsrooms, we hope to inspire further opportunities for intervention, training and support, as well as ensuring that the reality of life at small-market newspapers is better understood by both researchers and those moving into this industry.

We also hope that our research will inspire researchers in other countries to take a similar look at their own local newspapers. The original study was a catalyst for similar efforts in Austria and Canada.

If you believe that local journalism matters, then an important component of American journalism — the voice and experience of journalists working in local newsrooms across the country — needs to be heard.

Because of this, the Tow Center and I hope that local journalists across the United States, whether they took part in the original survey or not, will participate in this study.

We look forward to sharing the findings of this research with survey participants and others in the summer.

The survey can be found at http://bit.ly/Tow2020.

It closes on Sunday 5th September at 11.59PM PST.

About “Local News in a Digital World”

The research project “Local News in a Digital World” will provide a snapshot of the struggles and opportunities local newspapers in the USA face in 2020. It builds on previous research produced for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism by Damian Radcliffe and Christopher Ali in 2016–17.

About Damian Radcliffe

Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism, a Professor of Practice, and an affiliate of the Department for Middle East and North Africa Studies (MENA), at the University of Oregon. Alongside holding the Chambers Chair at the School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC), he is also a Fellow of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, an Honorary Research Fellow at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture Studies, and a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).

His research and journalistic work focuses on local media, technology, social networks, content innovation and the changing nature of media business models. He continues to be an active journalist, writing monthly columns for ZDNet (CBS Interactive) and What’s New in Publishing, and frequently writing for other publications such as journalism.co.uk and IJNet. Radcliffe has worked in editorial, research, teaching and policy positions for the past two decades in the UK, Middle East and USA. He tweets @damianradcliffe.

Damian Radcliffe

Research, analysis, teaching materials and journalistic…

Damian Radcliffe

Written by

Chambers Professor in Journalism @uoregon | Fellow @TowCenter @CardiffJomec @theRSAorg | Write @wnip @ZDNet | Host Demystifying Media podcast https://itunes.app

Damian Radcliffe

Research, analysis, teaching materials and journalistic output by the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor of Journalism at the University of Oregon

Damian Radcliffe

Written by

Chambers Professor in Journalism @uoregon | Fellow @TowCenter @CardiffJomec @theRSAorg | Write @wnip @ZDNet | Host Demystifying Media podcast https://itunes.app

Damian Radcliffe

Research, analysis, teaching materials and journalistic output by the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor of Journalism at the University of Oregon

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