Business of News

With the loss of journalism outlets, homogeneity becomes the norm 

January 6, 2021

On October 20, Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages reported that the Minneapolis police deputy chief had been demoted for saying that the force’s hiring tactics, left unchanged, would yield “the same old white boys.” Soon after, they reported that the ACLU was suing the city of Minneapolis for evicting unhoused people from local parks. The next week, the publication went dark, another victim of a pandemic year. 

City Pages wasn’t alone. In February, the Waterbury Record reported on a municipal measure that would increase taxes in the Vermont town by fifty percent. In March, The Outline published Jennifer Schafer’s examination of self-aware voyeurism and strangers’ love stories. In April, Cleveland, Mississippi’s Bolivar Commercial reported that a local shortage in blood donations was growing in the wake of the coronavirus. In May, the Press & Journal offered its readers tips on dealing with unemployment claims. In June, CNN’s Great Big World video startup reported on the man who wrote the catchy and illimitable KitKat jingle. 

By the end of 2020, all of these publications had closed. City Pages ceased publication in late October—just shy of the presidential election—after forty-one years of publishing art and activism (originally under the name Sweet Potato). Like many outlets of its kind, the alt-weekly was nimble and willing to push boundaries. Its staff comprised voicey and clever writers: able to cover a variety of topics, to fill in the gaps when other outlets shied away. Accustomed to getting by with thin margins—another attribute common to alternative journalism—City Pages was stretched even thinner by the loss of local advertising and local events. In their farewell note, the staff highlighted their commitment to arts and culture reporting, in addition to deeply reported investigations. “What else is there to say? We’re sad as fuck.” 

The outlets that closed last year varied in tone, audience and purpose, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Not every publication deserves survival: labeling something journalism doesn’t guarantee its inexhaustible value, and the structural attrition that beleaguered the news model for a decade has worn some newsrooms beyond their value. But there are losses that sting. And with each individual loss comes the greater loss to a varied, diversiform media system. 

City Pages epitomizes that sort of loss: its closure is a detriment to its own readers and to the greater Minneapolis media ecosystem. Mike Mullen was a writer there for a brief stint in 2011, then the five years from 2015 until the publication shuttered. “We were both allowed to and encouraged to approach things in a way that other places just couldn’t or wouldn’t,” Mullen says. “Mainstream outlets need to cover politics in a certain way, because they are beholden to a sort of old-fashioned and respectable way of reporting: both sides and stuff like that. We didn’t have to do that. And our readers would have been disappointed if we did.” Mullen and his colleagues played what has become an increasingly endangered role in local news markets: a particular voice and particular perspective openly committed to writing for a particular audience

Alt-weeklies traditionally play another important role in their local communities, too: the role of media criticism. “I think where alt-weeklies really thrive—certainly where City Pages did—is that we would tackle some of the outrageous things that a politician might say, or a Star Tribune editorial that was extremely tone deaf, and take it down from a place of irreverence,” Emily Cassel, the publication’s former editor in chief, says. “There aren’t too many places left anymore where that sort of joyful irreverence is allowed to thrive.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Increasing numbers of Americans report feeling that media outlets don’t understand them; and they are right, particularly at the local level. Communities suffer when they don’t have a single outlet to speak to them. They suffer when that single outlet doesn’t speak for them. And they suffer when their community is only represented by a single voice, without the push and pull, the variation, and the contradictions that always accompany multiplicity. As more and more outlets close, shrink, and suffer, homogenous news markets become the norm. It’s everyone’s loss. 

The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, tallying lost jobs and outlets and fostering a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us (click to subscribe).

EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past nine months, 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.

CONTRIBUTE TO OUR DATABASE: If you’re aware of a newsroom experiencing layoffs, cutbacks, furloughs, print reductions, or any fundamental change as a result of covid-19, let us know by submitting information here. (Personal information will be kept secure by the Tow Center and will not be shared.)

Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms across the world:

  • USPS DELAYS LEAD TO PROBLEMS FOR LOCAL NEWS: US Postal Service delivery delays and price hikes are hurting local community newspapers, the Washington Post reported on Monday. Local papers are being delivered days or weeks late; in some cases, reporters or editors have resorted to delivering papers themselves. Outlets whose margins have already been stretched to the breaking point are facing disgruntled customers and advertisers, in addition to rising postage costs (already one of local newspapers’ largest expenses).
  • A CRISIS IS MORE THAN A MOMENT: Among NiemanLab’s collection of predictions for journalism in 2021, Candis Callison wrote that reporting on crises as events and moments can elide the intertwined systems and underlying conditions that underpin chronic problems. “All that lies ahead in 2021 will require journalism to reckon with how it narrates the present (and for whom) in a future where crises must be understood as both context and event,” Callison writes.
  • GOOGLE DOWNPLAYS LOCAL NEWS: Google News directs readers away from local reporting and toward national publications, researchers reported in the Washington Post. In fact, local outlets rarely make the first page of search results. “We know even less about how YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook’s algorithms determine what users see in their timelines, or how other news portals select and organize content,” the study’s authors write. “Given the large share of Americans who rely on these platforms, their decisions could influence citizens’ news sources, political understandings, and general knowledge even more than Google News does.”
  • ANOTHER LOCAL STARTUP AIMS TO FILL A VOID: After the Del Rio News-Herald, a Texas newspaper, closed its doors in November, Joel Langton transformed his public events website into a small local news tabloid, which he delivers from the back of his own SUV. “Plenty of people are counting on Mr. Langton to make a go of it,” James Dobbins writes for the New York Times. “Steven T. Webb, a former Del Rio police officer who won a runoff in December for the City Council, said the fact that only 12 percent of voters turned out in the general election was partly attributable to the News-Herald shutdown.”
  • NEWSLETTER INTERNSHIPS ARE ON THE RISE: For media newsletter Deez Links, Delia Cai considers whether the rise of the journalism newsletter has led to the growing importance of newsletter internships as a career opportunity for emerging reporters and writers. Working closely alongside an experienced journalist and leveraging their platform could offer early-career journalists great opportunities, Cai notes, though “there’s the big undeniable caveat that any one of these intern/fellow/assistant/columnist roles is only as good as the employer involved,” she writes.
  • EDITORIAL BOARD SHRINKS TO THE SIZE OF ONE EDITOR: The editorial board at The Oklahoman announced its decision to put names to editorials because of its dwindling staff. After the paper was sold to Gatehouse Media in 2018, “the ‘board’ included the paper’s editor, Kelly Dyer Fry, and the two remaining opinion writers,” Owen Canfield, the paper’s Opinion editor, writes. “Since April 2019, when belt tightening meant the departure of my writing colleague, it has been Kelly and me. With one exception, every house editorial published in the past 20 months has been my handiwork.” With Fry’s departure, Canfield made the decision to publish editorials with his own name from now on, a decision he calls “a nod to the ever-evolving changes within the industry.”
  • 2020 SEES SIXTY NEW MAGAZINES: While many publications suffered, shrank, or disappeared last year, the New York Post reported that sixty new print magazines launched in 2020. Compared to the 139 magazines started in 2019, the number is low, but journalism professor Samir Husni told the Post that, given the year’s circumstances, “It’s almost a miracle that there were 60 new launches.”
  • MORE LAYOFFS, CUTBACKS: The Daily Hampshire Gazette has laid off its lead editor and as many as seven other staff members, Shoestring reported at the end of 2020. Four staffers at Montana’s Billings Gazette took buyouts in December, Montana New Guild reported. And The Desk reported that Sinclair Broadcast Group raised salaries for eleven top executives after implementing a wage freeze for lower-level employees. 

JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: 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. And an organization of fifty writers called the Periplus Collective recently announced a mentorship program to serve early-career writers who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color.

Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites