Damian Radcliffe
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Damian Radcliffe

Moving forward — the future for local newspapers as told by the people who work there

Lack of trust, disconnects between newsroom and audience, and appealing to younger audiences and reporters, are all big issues

Image from Shutterstock via Poynter

This is an extract from a report — “Life at Local Newspapers in a Turbulent Era: Findings from a survey of more than 300 newsroom employees in the United States”published by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in October. It was co-authored with my Research Assistant for this project, Ryan Wallace, a researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Texas School of Journalism.

Last week, I shared the Executive Summary and then the scene-setting chapters which offer an Introduction, an exploration of the Methodology and Profile of Respondents, and then standalone articles examining working habits, the platforms and tools that local newsrooms use, and journalists thoughts on the biggest challenges the sector faces, as well as a look at the impact of COVID-19 on the sector.

CHAPTER 8: MOVING FORWARD — THE FUTURE FOR LOCAL NEWSPAPERS

Key Findings:

  • Nearly half (49 percent) of respondents hold a “slightly negative” or “very negative” opinion about the prospects for the future of small-market newspapers.
  • Respondents shared their concerns about the impact of big tech, in terms of the visibility of local news and its role in shaping the willingness of audiences to pay for local news.
  • The ability to engage with younger audiences, and to make local journalism appealing to younger journalists, were also recurring themes.
  • Issues of diversity and inclusion are being discussed, and implemented, at local newspapers, but these efforts can be hampered by lack of resources, buy-in, and awareness.
  • National-level issues — such as trust in journalism, the ability to discern between news and opinion, and getting people to pay for news — have long permeated local news environments.
  • Respondents may have different approaches on how to best address challenges facing the sector, but the value and importance of local news coverage is something they agree on.

In this final chapter we look to the future. We explore how employees at local newspapers feel about the prospects for their industry, and highlight some of the key issues and approaches they identified as needing to be addressed.

8.1 Sentiments toward the future

A less positive outlook than four years ago

One surprising takeaway from the 2016 study was a cautious optimism found in the local newspaper industry. Despite a decade of consolidation, closures, and lay-offs, when asked “How positive do you feel about the future of local newspapers?,” the majority of the 2016 sample were more positive than might have been expected.

By 2020, this trend had been inverted. Positivity had tilted toward pessimism, with 49 percent of survey participants subscribing to a negative view of the future for their industry, compared to 25 percent who held a “very positive” or “positive” perspective.

Given that this survey was conducted in the middle of a pandemic, these conclusions should not come as a great surprise.

As our survey has demonstrated, nearly half (43 percent) of local journalists indicated that they now feel less secure in their jobs than they did prior to the pandemic, with just under a third (31 percent) being neutral on the issue, saying they felt “the same” (neither more secure or less secure). This sentiment inevitably shapes wider attitudes toward the future of the industry.

Q31: How positive do you feel about the future of local newspapers?

It’s not just about COVID

But job security is just one proxy by which we can gauge shifting sentiments about the future of local news. We know from other questions asked in the survey that respondents also highlighted issues of trust, the impact of social media on both revenues and media habits, and the American public’s changing relationship with journalism, as areas that have all negatively affected prospects for local newspapers.

From a business perspective, as one respondent starkly stated, “The advertising dollars are going away and not coming back. Google and Facebook have just eviscerated the business.”

Similarly, although our survey has shown a substantial upswing in terms of the importance of social media for local newspapers, it remains an uneasy relationship.

Respondents noted how “Facebook’s algorithm changes over the past few years means people who follow local newspapers may not see that post on their feed,” despite Facebook announcing these changes as being designed to increase the visibility of local content. [75]

They also cited the tension between being active on social media, without it cannibalizing your business.

“Ten years ago I was nervous about newspapers coming to an end soon,” one respondent recalled. “I was wrong.” They added, “It may help that I am in an area with a high population of seniors who do not rely on Facebook for their news.” “The obstacle I face is finding that balance about what to post on social media without giving too much away and still having a product people want to buy. You really have to be aggressive with keeping your paper’s name out there and being relevant. That’s why I try to post snippets of news or teasers of what is in the paper as often as possible.”

Lastly, there was a sense of both sometimes struggling to get some audiences to engage and a feeling that too often local journalism was at risk of being undervalued.

As Pew showed in 2019, most Americans (71 percent) think their local news media are doing well financially, when the reality is typically quite different. Moreover, few Americans (just 14 percent) had paid for — or financially supported — local news. [76] Yet at the same time, Americans felt that local journalists, in the main, are doing a good job. [77]

Reflecting on this dichotomy, “People welcome news coverage of their communities,” one participant told us. “I think people just take it for granted that a reporter somewhere can be found to write about some injustice or crime or corruption or freak event that happened in their hometown.”

“There is not only a huge need for local news, there is a huge desire for it,” they continued. “Professional news coverage is a product in demand why can’t it be monetized?”

8.2 The Youth Challenge

Attracting younger audiences

Our respondents identified not one, but two issues related to youth and younger people and their relationship with local newspapers.

The first was a perception that this was an audience that was often apathetic about local news, or disinterested in the current ways in which it was delivered.

As one respondent bluntly put it:

“Attracting young readers (20- and 30-somethings) is a big challenge aside from attracting advertisers. Through attrition, our circulation continually declines because death rates outpace young, new subscribers.”

More widely, multiple respondents indicated that younger audiences tended to be less interested in local news. “They do not follow local issues unless it hits home and it is probably too late,” one participant told us.

Another correspondent noted the media and shopping habits of younger audiences, a combination that affected both consumption of local news and created a compelling proposition for advertisers: “Younger readers prefer digital editions and do not value supporting local businesses. They prefer to buy online for just about everything.”

Attracting younger journalists

Alongside this, participants also underlined the challenge that many of them faced with attracting or retaining young journalists.

“I worry that journalism will be increasingly unable to recruit smart, talented young people who may rightly see better opportunities in other fields,” one respondent wrote, while another specifically identified the challenge of hiring younger journalists.

“Much of this goes back to monetary resources being scarce,” they said, “but I’m surprised by the lack of applicants whenever a position perfect for an entry-level reporter was posted. With eight public universities in our state I’d be lucky to get one applicant per graduating class.”

And for those outlets that do attract younger reporters, it can be hard to keep them. “We have lots of young reporters and some older reporters, but have lost that [sic] 30–40-year-old reporters who used to be a keystone of newspapers,” one participant said, identifying “retaining midcareer staff” as a key challenge for their paper.

8.3 Connecting with communities

Mind the Gap

In addition to the challenges of attracting both younger audiences and journalists, respondents also spoke about wider issues of diversity — in terms of both coverage and newsroom demographics.

For some newsrooms, attracting younger journalists is less of an issue than the potential divide between this cohort and their lives — and those of their audience.

“The main disconnect between our staff and our readers is not politics, race, gender, or even where we are ‘from’ (about half our newsroom grew up here).

It’s age.

Our readers are old, older, and oldest, and usually there’s a 40- to 50-year age difference between our reporters and our readers. That’s a difference in perspective and outlook that’s hard to overcome.”

Other journalists spoke of differing approaches to journalism, with some (presumably older) respondents expressing the view that this was detrimental to the profession.

“Too many young journalists are bringing their personal politics to work and letting it influence their stories,” one respondent told us, following on from their concerns about “lack of trust in news because of perceived (and real) liberal, progressive, socialist Democrat leanings and blatant activism journalism. … We need to be neutral, period,” they advised.

“This youth movement is also destroying newsrooms across the nation,” they added, “as they do not want to work with people ‘not on their side’ and engage in libel, defamation, and abuse and harassment of older journalists because we do not pay fealty to their progressive, socialist, un-American causes that fracture our nation.”

Others took a different view, suggesting that at some local news outlets there is a feeling that things need to be done differently.

“I think there’s a culture that needs dismantling too,” one participant said. “I think the target audience of newspapers has historically been the upper middle class, such as lawyers and lawmakers. But I think if we want to capture a younger audience, we need to write about things they care about too.”

Equity and Inclusion

Similar tensions and differences of opinion could also be seen when we asked respondents more widely about issues of diversity and engagement.

“We are professionals and we report the news fairly and objectively,” one respondent wrote. “That’s how we address issues of ‘engagement and diversity.’”

Another discussed how “the paper is trying to introduce unfair affirmative action policies in hiring and story sourcing that are basically discrimination.” “Affirmative action is wrong and evil,” they wrote. “It has no role in news nor any other facet of life. Hire the best qualified candidates, period.”

Other participants shared the challenge of tackling issues of diversity — typically identified by respondents through a racial lens — given the resource constraints that many local newsrooms have and the demographics of many rural communities.

“My county is 90% white,” one respondent explained, “so racial diversity is difficult. We do tell stories of the POC communities when we can.” Another participant told us that “as the sole reporter, I try to cover events, local businesses, and the like in an equitable way.”

Others spoke of their frustration in trying to address these matters. “No matter how often the editorial staff tries to address these issues our publisher is concerned only with profit. It’s demoralizing and exhausting,” one respondent said.

“We haven’t even addressed it,” another participant admitted, “and as a reporter, I don’t know how to.”

Elsewhere respondents outlined efforts to promote “diversity hires,” broaden editorial boards and opinion sections, sponsoring debates, creating Spanish-language content, speaking to more diverse sources, and a recognition that “in the summer [of 2020] Black Lives Matter protests have extended to more rural areas.”

“People who have long been interested and part of social justice movements are rallying in their small communities,” one respondent observed. “These stories continue to have weight.”

Many of our respondents expressed a desire to tackle these issues, and their survey responses portrayed a cohort doing its best to address issues of equity and inclusion with limited resources.

“I have been thinking about ways to possibly do this,” one respondent told us, talking about their experience of working with Native communities, “but we are such a small staff that it’s hard to add anything else to our already very full plates. That makes it a difficult challenge.”

“To be clear, this is basically a one-man operation with some outside assistance as far as news coverage goes,” one participant wrote, articulating the reality at many local newspapers. “Luckily, I have good contacts in the Black community in my area and work hard to include stories featuring people from a multitude of backgrounds. I don’t always succeed, but I do try.”

8.4 Conclusion and Commentary

Local newspapers, like the mainstream media writ large, are contending with issues of relevance, reinvention, and reputation.

In terms of reputation, while many respondents noted that local journalism is more widely trusted than mainstream national news media, fostering trust remains one of the biggest challenges facing the industry today.

“The deluge of ‘fake news’ accusations taint people’s view of us,” one respondent told us.

“Even though, when confronted, they backpedal and say, ‘Oh, not you guys. You’re local.’ They’re still shouting from the rooftops about how ‘the media’ can’t be trusted.”

“Countering that will be difficult,” they added, “because it will mean we as an industry and individual reporters and publications will have to be more transparent about our methods, motivations, and process. We demand it of others; it’s time we returned the favor.”

Nonetheless, there is an argument that because of their proximity to audiences, and the fact that local journalists may be the only journalists people ever meet, they become — by default — a proxy for attitudes toward the wider industry. [78]

This is especially important given a backdrop in which local journalists felt that trust in journalism was under threat by “a government that actively and tirelessly promotes distrust in journalism” and “a president attempting to make [journalists] the enemy of the people.”

A major conundrum for local newspapers is how to effectively tackle this situation when they have limited resources and a longstanding content mix that typically blends original local reporting with material from wire services.

“Many readers comment that they enjoy and appreciate our local coverage but can’t stand how ‘biased’ we are against Trump and/or Republican elected officials,” one respondent said. “That’s a reaction to AP coverage, and among the reasons why we continue to cut back on wire news.”

Given cuts in newsrooms, it’s perhaps surprising that respondents didn’t suggest that their paper was increasingly reliant on wire services to fill content gaps.

One reason for this is a recognition that the lifeblood of local newspapers has to be local journalism.

“Local papers run too much national and regional news from wire services and other content providers which readers already get from better equipped outlets. National outlets can’t provide news on that local area, which local newspapers should cover deeper than anyone else.”

Arguably by doubling down on local coverage newspapers can best demonstrate their continued relevance and importance, potentially encouraging audiences to pay for local news in the process.

Of course, this isn’t easy at a time of cutbacks, COVID, and declining revenues. Moreover, our survey participants were conflicted on the best ways to move forward.

For some, there was a sense that local journalism (and its wider cousins) had lost its way. Local newspapers should “be the last place where there is an attempt at objectivity,” one participant told us, while another argued that “there is plenty of commentary to go around, even in small towns. But a reported story without a specific political/social bent is rare.” They added, “The problem is getting the public to care about having that voice.”

Others argued that things needed to be done differently. As one participant put it:

“Small-market newspapers must hire reporters and tell stories that reflect their community.

We’re catering to our imagined audiences: White, old, and conservative. We’re not reporting on the issues most affecting young readers, people of color, and marginalized communities. This is an area of opportunity we’re squandering.

Why would I subscribe to a paper that isn’t telling my story?”

There’s no silver bullet for the challenges small-market newspapers are facing, but respondents often spoke of the potential audience for local news and the opportunity to provide hyperlocal content not covered elsewhere.

Put another way, this means meeting “people where they are at … emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, politically, structurally.”

Small-market newspapers in their coverage and approach should be “focusing on building healthy communities,” one respondent memorably argued. “I don’t think you can have a thriving community without local media.”

CHAPTER 9: FINAL THOUGHTS

This report revisits a study first undertaken in late 2016 to shine a light on a key, yet often overlooked, segment of the newspaper industry: small-market newspapers. Like the earlier iteration, a key driver for this research has been to create a platform for people working at local newspapers across the United States to tell us about their experiences.

This cohort continues to work long hours, contending with job losses and competing with other media for attention and advertising dollars, as well as a rapidly changing work environment.

Even pre-COVID, journalists at local newspapers told us they were producing more stories — for more platforms — than ever before. They’re doing this while also trying to learn new tools and approaches, as journalism continues to reinvent itself.

Many of the challenges that local newspapers were contending with pre-pandemic have accelerated over the past 18 months, and these issues have been exacerbated by the unique circumstances of the pandemic itself.

Journalists have often been thrown into covering the crisis without necessarily being given adequate training or access to equipment such as PPE. Many are also being asked to cover public health matters, which are outside of their existing skillset and past experience.

Furthermore, they are doing this against a backdrop where the consequences of COVID on local businesses, especially those that are not part of wider chains, have also been substantial. By May 2020, more than 100,000 small businesses in the U.S. had already closed. [79]

Long the backbone of advertising in local newspapers, the local business and newspaper landscapes may well look very different on the other side of this crisis, affecting both Main Street and the local media industry.

The long-term consequences of these COVID-era developments will intensify structural challenges that the sector was already facing. Our respondents highlighted many of these issues, including questions relating to audiences, newsroom composition, and continued relevance to readers and the wider community.

“Getting younger generations to get their news from papers has and will continue to be a huge uphill battle,” one respondent reminded us.

Others highlighted demographic challenges within newsrooms, pointing to turnover and concerns about the ability to adjust course.

“Most editors are longtime reporters near the end of their careers not interested in changing how they do their jobs,” one participant told us, with this leading to “a lack of innovation and growth.”

Concerns about burnout and an aging industry also have knock-on effects for creativity, building trust, and engendering community support. [80]

Nonetheless, despite the difficulties faced by the industry, we continued to find local journalists eager to engage with ideas and suggestions about how to galvanize and reinvigorate the local news business.

In some instances, as we have noted, this involves taking new approaches — using new platforms and doubling down on local coverage, while others advocate returning to first principles with an emphasis on “reporting, not stenography” and holding authority to account.

These are not necessarily mutually exclusive. However, there was a strong appreciation from many of our respondents that — whatever your approach or business model — the key is to be emphatically local.

“We have a rare opportunity to be the voices of our communities, and to share our community’s stories with the wider public,” one survey respondent told us.

“We have a rare opportunity to say ‘we are in this WITH you, not just outside observers, but people who are invested in the health and future of this town.’ We don’t have to weigh both sides equally if they aren’t equal, but so many news outlets do, and it makes us seem out of touch and OUTSIDE the things we’re writing about. We should be IN IT. We should be INVESTED. We should call things what they are. THAT is where the value of small-market journalism lies.”

Those are sentiments that we strongly agree with.

The rise of news deserts and concerns about misinformation and disinformation, coupled with the value of local journalism during a public health crisis, have all acted as stimulus for welcome discussions about the importance of local journalism and the value that it provides to local communities, as well as the wider news and information ecosystem.

Our hope is that these survey results offer a valuable insight into the challenges — and opportunities — for small-market newspapers, and that in turn, this report will support continued dialogue about how to best support this important industry.

We look forward to contributing to this important, ongoing conversation.

Endnotes

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Damian Radcliffe

Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism and a Professor of Practice at the School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC), and an affiliate of the Department for Middle East and North Africa Studies (MENA) at the University of Oregon.

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 Life 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 (Red Ventures) and the Reynolds Journalism Institute, and frequently contributing to other publications such as What’s New in Publishing, journalism.co.uk, and the International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).

He has worked in editorial, research, teaching, and policy positions for the past two decades in the UK, the Middle East, and the US. He tweets @damianradcliffe.

Ryan Wallace

Ryan Wallace is a researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Texas School of Journalism. In 2013 he began his research career with a BS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of California, Irvine. In 2017, he also received an MS in Biotechnology.

His current research centers on mediated science communications with a particular focus on key issues such as the Anthropocene, new media, local newsrooms, and development in Latin America. He analyzes discourse to better understand the polarization of these topics, how various stakeholders are engaging in these complex conversations, and the role that media play in shaping perceptions of scientific discourse. He tweets @utwallace.

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

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Damian Radcliffe

Damian Radcliffe

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

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