After a long year, local news looks back and thinks forward

The local news crisis can be tough to describe in national terms, because no two places are exactly the same. Though it’s been a difficult year for regional journalism, following a difficult decade, it’s a diverse media ecosystem, and though industry-wide challenges are rooted in similar trends, every outlet has faced battles of its own. “Local news” comprises many things: newspapers, public radio, television, blogs, newsletters, and—as CJR’s newest digital magazine highlights—pirate radio stations, text message chains, internet forums. Different outlets had different fates this year. Radio and television stations fared better than newspapers. Nonprofit publications of all mediums soared while many for-profit outlets foundered. Many communities lost a trusted source of information; others lost outlets that were already on the way out; and, as bears mentioning, some communities haven’t had a local news source for a long time. Still, there are many outlets that survived the year, providing their communities with valuable information. As vaccinations continue to spread across the US and local communities reopen businesses and events, local publications across the country are taking stock and trying to make sense of the past year as they look to the future. 

Last September, I spoke to Doyle Murphy, editor at the St. Louis alt-weekly, The Riverfront Times. For a time, Murphy whittled down the staff to himself and a web editor, keeping the paper alive, but barely. In September, he’d been able to hire back some of his staff. This spring, he has re-hired even more. “We were pretty well strapped for resources before,” Murphy says. “And now, it feels better, maybe. But it’s still a struggle.” Murphy describes the past year as being “broken all the way down,” a process that inspired important—but sometimes painful—rebuilding at the Times.

One year ago this Saturday, Lisa Scagliotti launched a hyper-local publication called the Waterbury Roundabout when her local Vermont newspaper shut down. She looks back at the past year as a learning experience. “What are the things that we learned that we want to hold onto?” Scagliotti asks. “And what are the things that we miss that we’re going to want back?” 

Murphy mourns one such loss: the margin to cover important stories that matter to smaller numbers of people. He thinks about things like local theater reviews; even as theaters reopen, local arts coverage draws a smaller audience than other stories might. “It’s easier for me to justify coverage when a ton of people are going to be looking for a story,” Murphy says. “It’s a much tougher argument to make when you’re trying to make the case for every dollar that you have. I want to see that stuff in the paper again.” 

Elsewhere in St. Louis, Sylvester Brown Jr., a writer at The American—a newspaper for Black communities in St. Louis—is grateful for the sort of coverage that the paper was able to provide during a pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. “The American had a chance to demonstrate its value,” Brown says. “The Black community needed to find trusted sources. They’re getting news everywhere, but The American has an almost one hundred year history of serving the Black community. Our role has been validated and it has reinforced the importance of hearing about us from us.” After a year of covering COVID’s effect on Black residents in St. Louis, Brown thinks about his role as a local journalist differently, realizing his value in contributing to the historical record as well as documenting the present. “I like to think in the future, if I’m long gone, somebody could be looking back and trying to figure out the reality of COVID, and they’ll see these stories. They’ll see how people actually felt about it and talked about it and lived with it and lived through it.” 

Scagliotti feels similarly about the value of the Roundabout, a value that has become more evident as the startup publication has gained traction and trust. “People know us now,” Scagliotti says. “And they are relying on us. People want to give us ideas. At the same time, there’s also the blowback. People are criticizing us now, so I guess we’re a real newspaper.” 

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Even while many local outlets have re-established their value within the communities they cover, they face real questions of sustainability: for Scagliotti, that pressure is especially tangible. “I’m able to pay our contributors and freelancers and the photographer that I work with, and I’m taking a very small paycheck, but it’s not a real paycheck. As things get back on their feet, we’re hoping that we can get this local news operation back on its feet,” she says. “Talk to me in six months or so.” 

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 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.

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:

  • COLORADO STARTUP BUYS LOCAL NEWS CHAIN: Two years ago, a group of local Denver reporters launched a journalism startup called The Colorado Sun. On Monday, the Sun acquired a chain of twenty-four family-owned regional newspapers, NPR reported, which the Sun plans to operate in partnership with a new local journalism foundation supported by the Gates Family Foundation and The National Trust for Local News. “All too often these days, hedge funds are the first ones in line to buy newspapers, and no one wanted to see that happen” Larry Ryckman wrote in the Sun. “News is too important to be left to absentee owners who care only about double-digit profits, not the journalists and the communities they serve.”

  • BILL PROPOSES FEDERAL WRITERS’ PROJECT: On Thursday, US Representative Ted Lieu introduced a bill for a new Federal Writers’ Project, a grant program that would support writers and other “cultural workers.” In December Jon Allsop wrote for CJR about the history of the first Federal Writers’ Project—a program of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—and the potential for a 21st century reboot. The Los Angeles Times explained how David Kipen, a former director of the Natural Endowment for the Arts, came up with the idea that inspired the bill. “The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated layoffs and position reductions at many news outlets, and many freelance and gig writers have also seen opportunities shrink away,” Representative Lieu said. “We can leverage their unique abilities to capture the drastic and unrelenting cultural shifts that are occurring throughout our nation.”

  • BAINUM TRIBUNE BID FOUNDERS: Stewart Bainum Jr., who has been hailed as a welcome competitor to Alden Global Capital’s bid for Tribune Publishing, continues to struggle to find partners for his bid. Bainum “has hit a potential deal-killing wall: No one seems to want to buy the Chicago Tribune,” Rick Edmonds wrote last week for Poynter, adding this week that the NewsGuild has urged Tribune Shareholders to reject Alden’s bid. (Elsewhere, the Tribune-owned New York Daily News published an Op-Ed “begging” a local owner to “rescue” the paper from Alden Global Capital).

  • “THE COVID REPORTERS ARE NOT OKAY”: For Study Hall, Olivia Messer interviewed a dozen local and national journalists covering the COVID-19 crisis, documenting cases of burnout, fatigue, and trauma. Over the past year, journalists experienced the intense pressures of moral responsibility, expectations that they would risk their own safety, and second hand trauma while covering death and loss. (In October, the International Center for Journalists and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism conducted a survey of more than a thousand journalists, finding that 41 percent reported increased anxiety, and 70 percent reported the pandemic’s psychological and emotional impacts as their most significant professional challenge.) “I feel compelled to actively participate in the discourse around trauma and burnout — and what we can do about it — in order to help make sure there is a humane and sustainable industry to come back to,” Messer wrote.

  • VIRTUAL EVENTS PAID OFF: “While in-person events went on the shelf, many local news outlets made an impressive shift to virtual, sometimes even ramping up their level of connection to their audience,” Medill’s Local News Initiative reported.
  • CANADIAN STARTUP EXPANDS LOCAL NEWS: Overstory Media Group—which owns newsletter-based publications in British Columbia—announced plans to replicate their model in local markets across Canada and the US, The Guardian reported. Farhan Mohamed, one of Overstory’s co founders, told NiemanLab that “the idea is to make every brand sustainable within 12 to 16 months. Overstory will drive membership and audience growth and provide technology and legal support but expects to leave editorial decision-making to individual publications.”

  • PLATFORMS LAUNCH NEWS INITIATIVES: On Monday, Twitter launched a campaign to encourage support for local journalism. Axios reported that one of the campaign’s primary goals was to “help local journalists leverage Twitter Spaces and Twitter Lists to expand their audiences.” YouTube also plans to spend $7 million on two journalism programs. Elsewhere, for CJR’s newest magazine issue exploring the nature of journalism, Emily Bell considered the role tech platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube play in defining what journalism is.
  • NEWSCORP MERGES LOCAL AUSTRALIAN PAPERS INTO CITY MASTHEADS: In Australia, Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp merged more than twenty regional newspapers into capital city mastheads, The Guardian reported. Last year, the company stopped printing more than one hundred papers, thirty-six of them closing permanently and the rest becoming exclusively digital operations. “Queensland locals who want to read the Noosa News or the Gympie Times, for example, will have to buy a digital subscription to the Courier-Mail, where their local paper will be a tab behind the paywall on the metro paper’s website,” Amanda Meade writes.
  • FREELANCERS SHARE RATES: On Monday, The Freelance Solidarity Project—a union made up of digital media workers—launched a website with a crowd-sourced anonymous document sharing rates across the industry. “By openly sharing what we get paid, we’re establishing a database of existing standards; by comparing disparities and inequities, we’re taking the first step we need to fight for better working conditions,” the project tweeted. (For CJR’s new digital magazine, Maya Binyam asked “What’s the difference between freelance writers and gig workers?”)
  • MEREDITH SELLS LOCAL TV STATIONS: Meredith Corp sold its local broadcast division—which includes seventeen television stations—to Gray Television, Poynter reported on Monday. As a result of the deal, Gray will become one of the top three local broadcasters in the US.

  • HEARST UK CUTS BACK: In the UK, magazine publisher Hearst announced that it will pool or shut down as many as one in five staff jobs, along with closing Town and Country magazine, the PressGazette reported. 

JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: Poynter has put together a list of places to search for journalism jobs and internships. 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.

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