Narrative features have long been a beloved part of journalism. As the traditional model crumbles—particularly at the local level—journalists have been forced to consider what is worth saving and what is better left behind. This process can be reduced to basic triage, but some newsrooms are prioritizing narrative reporting as a service.
In 2018, Lyndsey Gilpin launched Southerly Magazine, an independent regional publication aimed at ecology, justice, and reframing the coverage of the American South. “Communities—whether they’re rural, or communities of color, or low-wealth—deserve both accurate information and beautiful storytelling that they can see themselves in,” Gilpin says. “The industry underestimates how much people understand and appreciate good storytelling. Loving stories is an inherent human trait.”
“Magazines are able to capture the gray areas, the fact that everything is perfectly imperfect,” says Robert Sanchez, a senior staff writer at 5280 Magazine in Denver. When the pandemic hit the US last March, he started a Twitter account called City Reads to highlight excellence in local magazine reporting across the country. “Good journalism is good journalism. You don’t have to work at Esquire; there’s great journalism being done in Charlotte.”
Still, the traditional magazine model is largely built upon exclusivity. It is limited by the same conundrum that wracks the industry as a whole: reporting requires resources. And it’s not always enough to produce a good story.
“No matter how much beautiful journalism I put on Southerly’s website, if it doesn’t reach people, what is the point?” Gilpin asks. “I have found myself backing up to consider what models we can use to actually get to the people we’re trying to reach. When we talk to people living in their news deserts, they just need basic information. How do I contact FEMA? What do I need to do for the next hurricane season? How do I test my water? Those are questions that—eventually—could lend themselves to a powerful story. The most immediate need is answering them, and that isn’t as sexy. But once that trust is built and you’re answering the basic questions, you can really dig into storytelling. Communities deserve really beautiful, informative, thorough stories.”
In some ways, nonprofit newsrooms are uniquely positioned to direct resources toward deeply-reported stories. For THE CITY, a New York City-based nonprofit local newsroom, Claudia Irizarry Aponte and Josefa Velasquez wrote 3,500 words in December on Los Deliveristas Unidos, a group of indigenous Guatemalan and Mexican food delivery workers organizing for better treatment. While reporting the story, Irizarry Aponte says, the reporters were mindful of both their framing and their audience, which she sees as a group beyond “the pundit class” that includes “all working New Yorkers.”
“We strive to do stories that really highlight people’s ingenuity,” Irizarry Aponte says. “The workers in this story aren’t helpless. They’re not voiceless. They’re very active politically. They’re incredibly aware of the forces that are shaping their lives. And they are acting against them.”
The story took off. THE CITY’s metrics indicated that readers not only clicked on the story; people really read it, in significant numbers. “I think often in local reporting, people think that the audience has a really short attention span,” Irizarry Aponte says. “This shows that people are hungry for stories that are embedded in the community, that really flesh out all the angles of an issue. People do want to read three-thousand-word stories about delivery workers in New York City. Absolutely.”
As local journalism considers what to preserve and what to leave behind, it’s worth considering how to build a sustainable model for stories that are deeply-reported, worthwhile––and, yes, beautiful. People are hungry for these stories. They should be available everywhere, and they should reflect everyone. Factual reporting matters; so does compelling narrative. It’s something that every community deserves.
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EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past year, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. Now there’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.
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Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms across the world:
- JOURNALISM MUST MEET NEEDS FIRST: Local news should be built first and foremost to meet community information needs, Sarah Alvarez—founder and editor of Detroit’s Outlier Media—wrote for NiemanLab. An essential information ecosystem, Alvarez writes, requires maintaining records, combating misinformation, accountability reporting, community connection, and filling information gaps. “Our communities deserve valuable, verified, and relevant information they can use to meet their challenges and achieve their goals,” Alvarez writes. “We also believe communities will value local journalism more if we demonstrate its value first.”
- NEWS OFFICES CLOSE ACROSS THE UK & CANADA: Reach, one of the leading news publishers in the UK, announced the closure of many of its newsrooms’ regional offices, The Guardian reported last week. The company plans to maintain hub offices with meeting rooms, closing down many historic regional newsrooms. And in Canada, Torstar Corporation—which owns the Toronto Star in addition to a number of regional dailies and weeklies across the country—announced the closure of many of its local news offices, The Globe and Mail reported.
- ALDEN INCHES CLOSER TO TRIBUNE OWNERSHIP: Hedge fund Alden Global Capital has moved closer toward acquiring Tribune Publishing, Poynter reported yesterday, despite being outbid by hotel magnate Stewart Bainum Jr. Notably, an outside group made an inquiry into purchasing Connecticut’s Hartford Courant, and another made a bid toward purchasing Allentown, Pennsylvania’s Morning Call. Neither conversation went further, Poynter reports.
- LA TIMES GETS MILLIONS IN PANDEMIC ASSISTANCE: The Los Angeles Times announced that it had received a ten million dollar PPP loan, “money that will help cover payroll and other employee-related costs amid a dramatic plunge in advertising revenue,” Meg James wrote. Even after last year’s furloughs, layoffs, and pay cuts—in addition to the large loan—the Times will not be profitable this year, president and chief executive Chris Argentieri says.
- EVERYTHING IS BROKEN: Though Substack may benefit from the broken media ecosystem, it’s a symptom, not the problem, Eric Levitz wrote for The Intelligencer this week. “The problem is that legions of talented journalists are going underemployed, even as statehouses across the country are going under-covered,” Levitz writes. “Forcing Substack to disclose every contract that it has ever offered will not free us from the scam that is the modern media industry. Only publicly financing the Fourth Estate can do that.”
- LOCAL NEWSPAPERS OPPOSE NEW BILLS IN FLORIDA, NEW YORK: In Florida, the state House of Representatives passed a bill that would strike down the requirement that local governments pay to print notices in local papers, a move that could strip local publications of an important revenue source, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Meanwhile, in New York, news publishers are opposing a possible law that would shift the cost of recycling to producers rather than consumers. Newspapers are good citizens, and they are cheerleaders and watchdogs for the communities they serve,” Michelle K Rea writes in the Long Island Press. “New York’s legislators should consider the devastating impact this legislation will have on newspapers, and subsequently, citizens’ access to local journalism.”
- PRINTING PLANT CLOSURES MEAN EARLIER DEADLINES: As local printing presses close and local newsrooms outsource their printing to increasingly distant printing plants, local news deadlines creep earlier, Poynter reported. “The evening city council meeting gets reported like a West Coast sports score—36 hours late—if it gets reported at all,” Rick Edmonds writes.
- THE KOREAN PRESS COVERS ATLANTA: For CJR, Shinhee Kang wrote about Atlanta’s local Korean-language publications and their significant role in covering last week’s mass shooting, underlining once again the importance of local reporting rooted in a community. “Korean-language local media outlets including Atlanta K, the Korea Times Atlanta, and Korea Daily were uniquely positioned to cover the shooting,” Kang writes. “Unencumbered by language barriers and culturally attuned to the tight-knit community, they quickly acquired details of the events and gave readers a nuanced picture of the victims.” (Elsewhere, for CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Diana Lu and Kent Ono discussed the origins of anti-Asian racism and sexism in the American press. And on Medium, FutureHuman explains how retired native-language newspaper in Hawaii hold important climate data in their archives.)
- MEDIUM PIVOTS AGAIN: On Tuesday, less than a month after a union drive that failed by one vote, Medium CEO Ev Williams emailed employees to announce a shift in leadership and editorial strategy, signaling that buyout options would ensue. “At this point, Medium’s history of pivots seems to include almost every digital business model the journalism industry has tried over the past two decades,” Mathew Ingram wrote for CJR’s Media Today newsletter. “Like Blogger and Twitter before it, Medium will bet on unpaid labor and algorithms,” Casey Newton wrote for Platformer. “All of which might be fine to the dozens of journalists about to lose their jobs, if Williams would publicly claim some responsibility for his part in the chaos.”
- NEW INITIATIVES, CHANGES IN LOCAL NEWS: In Chesterton, Indiana, a new owner for the recently-shuttered local paper announced that it will resume publication. In Florida, the Gadsden County Times has also returned to local ownership. Two Louisiana publications—the Times-Picayune and The Advocate—launched a fund for investigative journalism with grant support from the Facebook Journalism Project. And Digiday explains NewsPassID, a sign-on technology developed by the Local Media Consortium to offer local publishers to collect first-party user data.
- MORE LAYOFFS: Dollar Shave Club has laid off the entire staff at digital lifestyle magazine MEL, Business Insider reported.
JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: Publicmediajobs.org and the Knight Foundation are holding a virtual career fair on March 31. MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers and job providers. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. The International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education.
NOTE: NewsPassID was developed by a group called the Local Media Consortium, not the News Media Consortium, as the piece previously stated. This article has been updated.Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites.