15 ways funders, J-Schools and researchers can better support local journalism

Image via CJR

The story of local journalism in the United States tends to get overlooked in a narrative dominated by larger players. But, small-market publications represent a major cohort that we know very little about — and one that actually knows little about itself.

In a bid to redress this, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism kindly supported Dr. Christopher Ali and I over the past year, as we explored key questions about securing the future of local newsrooms.

Our conclusions derived from 53 in-depth interviews with experts from across industry, academia and foundations — all with a strong interest in local news — and the experiences of 420 local journalists who responded to an online survey that we fielded at the end of last year.

From our research, it became clear that small-market outlets can’t do it alone. Other important stakeholders have, and already play, a significant role in this space. But what more can be done? And how might some of these efforts be recalibrated?

Below we offer a number of specialist recommendations aimed at three key constituents: funders, journalism schools and researchers.

For each group, we identify five actionable recommendations based on insights from interviewees, examples of existing activity and our own analysis. We hope that these suggestions will stimulate discussion and we look forward to your thoughts and opinions on our ideas.

Recommendations for funders/foundations

1. Don’t just fund the shiny stuff (tech/products)

Our research revealed that many local media players believe funders are most interested in investing in “the next big thing.” Often, that’s seen as technology and/or a desire to invest in news startups, rather than focusing on people and organizations which need sustaining funds to help them move to the next level.

To help remedy this perception, there needs to be more dialogue between funders and content makers, so that opportunities for common ground — and where foundation support can have the most impact — can be more clearly identified.

2. Don’t just fund the usual suspects (organizations)

We encourage funders to broaden their horizons with regard to the organizations in the local media sector they support. According to our analysis of Editor & Publisher’s data, there are 7,071 newspapers in the United States and over 11,000 regular publications considered “small-market” (with circulations under 50,000), and only a fraction of them have received support from these major funders.

While we are huge fans of outlets like The Texas Tribune and MinnPost, there are thousands of other local journalism titles across the United States which could also benefit from support; arguably, their lack of profile means they may benefit even more than established names. By shining a spotlight on these outlets, it may make it easier for them to leverage attention for additional support — support which might otherwise not be unlocked.

Certainly, our research shows, these publications are already experimenting and innovating with content, engagement and revenue models. We would therefore encourage funders to seek out — and fund — a broader range of entities and projects, spreading their love and support as widely as possible, more accurately reflecting the diversity of the local news sector in the process.

3. There’s an opportunity to invest more in skills and training

One area ripe for intervention from funders is in digital-skills training. We note the value of efforts such as the Facebook Journalism Project, the Google Digital News Initiative and Google News Lab, Local News Lab and the American Press Institute’s Better News initiative; but we believe more can be done in this arena.

Image: interest in emerging formats, from our survey of local journalists

Our survey of local journalists, published by the Tow Center earlier this year, found that, when it comes to new digital skills, the majority of local journalists are self-taught.

There’s a huge appetite to know more about live video, video and podcasting among this cohort.

Online courses are one way to do this, but we would also like to see more done in terms of roadshows, hands-on workshops and other peripatetic efforts.

There’s also a role in this space for technology companies, membership organizations, J-Schools and newspaper groups (large and small) to help further advance this digital agenda.

4. Should funding be focused more on civic need than business models?

Although our study found higher levels of optimism than one might expect, the prospects for local newspapers remain precarious in many communities.

Given the impact of media deserts, there is a case to be made that a key focus for financial support should be on communities without adequate local news provision, instead of supporting outlets which are doing well and want additional monies to grow further.

Geographic areas of market news failure should have funding priority. Others priorities should include verticals that risk being overlooked due to cutbacks, expense, and perceived lack of interest. Two key verticals in this space are statehouse reporting and investigative journalism. Coverage of these topics in the future may be dependent, fully or in part, on foundation funding.

5. Share successes more and differently

Finally, we encourage funders to do more to share successes with industry and other stakeholders, so that the impact of their interventions can be more clearly realized.

Evaluations and analysis need to go beyond a nicely designed report. Other formats should be explored, including bite-sized videos, AMAs with authors, TL;DR versions in publications like Nieman Lab, CJR, MediaShift, and others (popular sources of learning for local journalists, according to our 2016 survey), podcasts, dissemination events with membership organizations, etc..

So much great research has been done, but post-publication outreach could benefit from greater emphasis. As a result, we encourage more consultation with industry to understand how they want to learn — and the best formats to support them — so that important findings reach their intended audience.

Recommendations for J-Schools

1. More actively explore opportunities for editorial partnerships

Partnerships will be fundamental to the future success of the local media ecosystem. These will come in many shapes and sizes. For J-Schools, there are clear opportunities to do more in terms of:

  • Providing content for mainstream outlets, such as work by business students at Clark Community College for The Columbian in Vancouver, Washington.
  • Creating new content opportunities, such as the games and apps developed by Klamath Community College for its local paper, The Herald and News in Klamath Falls, Oregon.
  • Reporting of investigative stories, such as those by students at the University of Oregon and published in titles such as the Portland Tribune and Eugene Weekly.

These arrangements are mutually beneficial. Local newspapers secure content and services which they might otherwise be unable to produce, while students gain valuable clips that help to elevate their resumes. We would like to see more of these partnerships.

Programs like HuffPost’s campus Editor-At-Large and Ambassador initiatives offer models that print media could learn from and potentially adopt.

2. Stress your students’ reporting value

Local newspapers continue to be a major source of jobs and original reporting across the United States. As such, they add huge value to the wider media ecosystem.

But, because this sector has seen massive cutbacks in the past decade, many small-market papers aren’t able to cover the beats they once did. J-Schools, and specifically J-School students, are already filling this gap. It’s a role that — with encouragement and support — student journalists could do more of.

As The Nation recently acknowledged of these student reporters:

“They’re the next generation, and they’ve been picking up the slack of gutted local newsrooms and indifferent national outlets.”

Examples of coverage cited in The Nation’s feature include explorations of topics such as gentrification in a Baltimore neighborhood by the Johns Hopkins University’s independent student newspaper, News-Letter, and coverage of the opioid epidemic by Marshall University’s student newspaper, The Parthenon, in West Virginia.

More recently, an investigation into former Oregon basketball player Kavell Bigby-Williams by the Daily Emerald, an independent student media organization, was picked up by national outlets such as The Washington Post and Bleacher Report. The story was broken by Kenny Jacoby, who at the time was the paper’s senior sports editor. (Jacoby who graduated this term from the University of Oregon, also wrote a detailed feature on this subject for Sports Illustrated.)

3. More actively embrace small-market newspapers as viable options for students and graduates

Our survey found that, aside from time and money, the major concern for small-market newspapers is the recruitment and retainment of young talent.

More often than not, it seems that young journalists no longer see small-market newspapers as a necessary stepping stone to bigger publications. Sometimes this is due to pay and other wider life goals.

Tweet from CUNY’s Dr. Carrie Brown when burnout and salaries were discussed at the launch of our research.

These are legitimate concerns, but J-Schools can nonetheless play a role here in teaching the value and values of community journalism, the benefit of rooting oneself in a community, and the important role that these publications play in our democracy. J-Schools can help make more of a case for the importance of this type of local journalism.

As we have seen, the nature of local journalism is changing and evolving. Local newspapers still need people with strong writing skills, and understanding of media law and ethics.

Yet, local newspapers are also looking for people with new and emerging skills too. Young journalists may be in the best position to capitalize on these opportunities.

4. Embrace pedagogical elements that go beyond traditional craft skills

J-Schools are often heavily focused on providing their students with core journalistic skills such as reporting, writing and multimedia journalism.

These skills remain vital, but they are part of a wider skillset deployed by journalists at small-market newspapers. J-Schools should consider whether their graduates would be better served if their curriculum were widened to incorporate additional skills, which are increasingly needed to proposer at smaller outlets.

Pedagogical elements we encourage J-Schools to consider teaching more widely include:

  • Teaching engagement skills. Of growing importance to newsrooms is the ability for journalists to actively listen to their communities, and to use this to shape stories and approaches to their coverage. Journalists will increasingly need to explain what they do and why they make the decisions they make, while others may hold focus groups, small town halls and the like where the focus is on facilitating — and listening to — the input of the local community.
  • Encouraging the creation of an entrepreneurial mindset. Most young journalists will be responsible for their own professional and creative development (particularly in terms of using new tools and technology). As such, this may include devising new formats and forms for local storytelling.
  • How to be a freelancer or hold down a portfolio career. Several of the titles we spoke to noted that many young journalists have to hold down multiple jobs to make ends meet. This includes full-time journalists taking on other freelance roles for different outlets of related disciplines (such as corporate communications or copywriting).
  • How to make it in a small town. Students would benefit from being privy to practical tips for success. This includes identifying and managing local opinion formers, understanding the value of living in your patch (and not commuting in) and other unwritten rules which many students may not realize, but would benefit from understanding — and implementing — when they graduate.

5. Revisit the “teaching hospital” model to be a hub for experimentation

Back in 2011, Tom Glaisyer, C.W. Anderson, Jason Smith and Marika Rothfeld at the New America Foundation made the case for J-Schools to adopt more of a “teaching hospital” approach to their work.

Just as teaching hospitals don’t merely lecture medical students, but also treat patients and pursue research, journalism programs should not limit themselves to teaching journalists, but should produce copy and become laboratories of innovation as well. They should beta test new models for journalism and understand how journalistic ecosystems emerge as well as contribute to the policymaking process that underpins them.

Since then, we’ve seen the emergence of efforts such as the ONA’s Challenge Fund, a grant distributing scheme supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; the Democracy Fund; Excellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation; the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation, which encourage J-Schools to experiment with new ways of providing news and information; as well as new thinking from the futurist Amy Webb — during her period as a visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard — on a blueprint for the future of journalism education.

Given the relative lack of commercial pressures faced by universities (compared to their industry partners), we believe there are untapped opportunities for creative and technological exploration that J-Schools can take the lead on, supporting industry more effectively in the process.

Recommendations for academics/researchers

1. Academics can help capture data which otherwise risks being lost

Although we are critical of previous efforts to capture data across the newspaper industry (due to their aggregated and opaque nature), we nonetheless recognize the value of these findings.

Unfortunately, many previous studies — including work produced by ASNE, Pew and others — have either ceased or been scaled back. This will, inevitably, result in knowledge gaps and should be a source of concern.

At a time when we need to know more about this sector, we risk knowing less.

Academics can and should be encouraged to pick up this slack.

2. We need more research on what happens to communities without — or with diminished — local media

Important work has already begun in this space, including on-going research by Dr. Michelle Ferrier on media deserts, coverage of this topic in a recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review and valuable analysis of the impact of reduced media plurality by Dr. Lee Shaker at Portland State University. However, we need more of this research.

These efforts are vital for understanding the impact on communities when local media disappears or is reduced. Understanding this impact is essential if the case is to be made to policymakers and funders for intervention in this arena.

3. A research priority should be segmentation analysis to show the diversity and nuance of the sector

Above all, we need a more nuanced understanding of the local newspaper industry. It is not one sector, but many.

The experience of local newspapers in urban environments is very different than their rural counterparts. Weeklies operate in a distinctive setting, which differs from that occupied by dailies.

There are large differences between papers at the top-end of our definition of small-market newspapers (50,000 circulation) versus those in the middle of this figure. Similarly, the situation is very different for papers with a circulation of 5,000 and perhaps a staff of one or two.

Industry data typically categories the sector as one single, homogeneous whole. It isn’t.

Image: Slide from a presentation by Damian Radcliffe on Local Newspapers: trends and developments in the USA, using analysis featured in our recent Tow study.

Academics can play a key role in providing data and analysis, which reflects the complexity of this sector and shows that America is home to multiple newspaper industries, not just one.

4. There are many other research gaps

In our conversations with industry practitioners and experts, we identified a raft of other research opportunities that would be invaluable to furthering our understanding of local journalism.

Examples of these topics include:

  • Understanding the size and changing nature of local advertising markets

As well as longitudinal content analysis of factors such as:

  • Size of local newspapers (pagination, number of stories carried, etc.)
  • Content mix (national versus local stories, staff-produced versus wire service material, etc.)
  • Range of sources (mix of voices, whether the plurality of voices has changed over time)

Addressing these needs could provide vital insights which can inform industry, funders and policymakers alike.

5. Manage relationships with industry better to avoid “academic fatigue”

Finally, alongside these research opportunities, we must also draw attention to an approach too many researchers deploy. Throughout our study, we witnessed considerable “academic fatigue” with multiple industry interviewees. We define this term as a weariness, and wariness, to talk to researchers.

Multiple stakeholders reported having previously shared their experience with researchers, without ever seeing the final studies or reports they had contributed to. This lack of post-interview communication was a source of frustration and irritation. We believe that it led to some potential interviewees refusing to participate in our study.

Such academic fatigue is deeply troubling and avoidable. We urge researchers to share their findings with their interviewees. Relationships between industry and researchers should be carefully managed and nurtured (we concede that we could have done this better).

Respondents must be seen as partners in the research, rather than simply interview subjects. It’s a key distinction; and this an area where we must all strive to do better.

The irony that many communities say the same thing about journalists (that they parachute in for quotes/insights and then disappear) is not lost on us.


Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon, 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). Follow him on Twitter: @damianradcliffe

Dr. Christopher Ali is an Assistant Professor in Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, and a fellow of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. His project for Tow (with Damian Radcliffe), Local News in a Digital World: Small Market Newspapers in an Era of Digital Disruption examined how small market newspapers in the United States are responding to the shift to digital technology in everything from editorial content to distribution to advertising. Follow him on Twitter: @Ali_Christopher