In these uncertain times, local newspapers are more important than ever

Christopher Ali and Damian Radcliffe

The 2016 election once again highlighted the importance of journalism to American democracy. Within just a few hours of Donald Trump being declared President-elect, then the first set of articles emerged discussing the role of the news media in this unprecedented election cycle.

The conclusion: that journalism has never been more important, but we need to better understand its role, objectives and future. The latter is especially crucial, given the continued economic decline of newspapers over the past decade. Despite challenging business models, print outlets continue to be an important source of original reporting.

This is especially true at a local level.

Given this importance, it’s perhaps surprising that in these post-election analyses, the importance of this sector seldom gets the discussion that it arguably deserves.

This mimics a larger trend among wider watchers of the journalism industry. Developments at big established publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post — as well as leading digital-born players like Vice and BuzzFeed — are well documented and reported. In contrast, local news outlets — which make up the majority of the media titles in the US — seldom get covered. Yet, many of them are innovating, developing new revenues streams and creatively finding new ways to engage their audience.

New research

Our study, “Local News in a Digital World,” supported by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and the Knight Foundation, is drilling down into this forgotten center. We will be sharing our initial findings in early 2017, showcasing examples great local journalism and the issues that the sector faces as it continues to remain relevant — and solvent — in the digital age.

Through this, we hope to reignite a conversation about the importance of local news media, particularly small market local newspapers, and the role they play in capturing and reflecting the American zeitgeist.

As part of our research, we’re really keen to hear more about the experiences of local journalists and people working in local newspapers across the country. To help us do this, today we launched a short online survey which aims to capture the thoughts, experiences and ambitions of local newspaper journalists. It takes just 5–10 minutes to complete, and we intended to share the insights from this study in the coming months.


The online questionnaire is available here. It opens at 00:00 EST on Monday 14th November and it closes at 23:59 EST on Sunday 4th December.

If you work in a small market newspaper — or you know people that do — then please do encourage them to participate. We’d love to hear from you!

Dr. Christopher Ali is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Virginia, and Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor of Journalism at the University of Oregon. The are both summer Research Fellows at The Tow Center for Digital Journalism, part of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.