Business of News

Now we need to rebuild local newsrooms

November 11, 2020

After nearly four years swimming through a tangled morass of chaos, misinformation, and an executive power hostile to its purpose, the US media is coming up for air. The world beyond a Trump presidency promises the luxury of spare time and attention. That’s good news. But the Trump administration forced the press into a defensive pseudo-solidarity that could still have purpose. It’s time to leverage that limited solidarity to build a larger coalition that focuses our efforts on rebuilding local newsrooms and, along with them, a more egalitarian and informed public. 

Last week’s election underscored—once again—the fundamental role of local newsrooms in democratic societies. Longstanding voting procedures and newly-enacted guidelines for counting mail-in ballots individuated election proceedings from state to state and extended the ballot counts throughout the week. Sober civil servants and hyper-local newsrooms were responsible for explaining, again and again, how the work of democracy happens on the ground—not just anywhere, but in each specific city, county, and state

For more than a decade, as round after round of cutbacks have sapped the strength of the local news ecosystem, the media has continued to adjust to a decaying standard. This pattern is unsustainable—but local journalists can’t revitalize local news on their own, nor should they be expected to. Finding solutions for the journalism crisis will necessarily involve all those who are hurt by the deterioration of community-engaged information, at every level. It’s beyond time to double down on methods to inform and recruit the broader public in a collective effort to revitalize and reinvent local journalism for the 21st century. We all need local news, and now local news needs all of us. 

First, the press needs to bring more attention to the problem. Most of the American public is woefully under-informed about the challenges facing local newsrooms in the US. In 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that 71 percent of those surveyed believed local news outlets in the US were financially stable, despite the fact that local newsrooms have been shrinking and closing for years. Many readers are experiencing the pernicious effects of a local news recession without recognizing what they’ve lost. It’s time to help them understand.

Journalists need to continue to find effective and innovative ways to call attention to the crisis—and to draw connections between public values and local journalism. In 2019, Georgetown University’s Civility Poll found that more than eight in ten voters reported an interest in finding political compromise and common ground; why not address this concern by highlighting studies that have shown a correlation between declining local news coverage and more partisan voting? The Pew Research Center reported that 59 percent of survey respondents felt that the news didn’t understand or represent them; why not enlist local shareholders to help rebuild local outlets, which are best poised to understand and represent the communities of which they are a part? Angry that you don’t know the first thing about how national politics will affect your community? Rebuild local news. Don’t see yourself represented in national narratives? Same.

There are many who have already begun this important work. In recent years, journalists have increasingly overcome hesitance to see themselves as the story—bringing news of the journalism crisis to a wider audience. Local and national outlets have made public pleas for reader support. National outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post have reported stories about the hedge funds encroaching on the industry and under-resourced local reporters fighting for their communities. Once-adversarial outlets have banded together to create campaigns in support of local reporting. Projects like Outlier Media in Detroit, Cityside in the Bay area, and the PressOn Southern Media Collective have sought to challenge traditional assumptions about the way local newsrooms must work, exemplifying the possibility of a better future. 

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Finding solutions for the crisis will require renewed attention to readers’ needs. Limited by the longstanding white, male homogeneity of their newsrooms, local news outlets have never perfectly served every part of their communities—and many have been even less prepared to do so as their margins have collapsed. Lecturing readers because they don’t support a newsroom that doesn’t serve them is not a solution to the problem. And journalistic innovation can’t happen in a vacuum; it requires feedback, instruction, and collaboration with those it is meant to serve.

The industry needs to do more, at every level. We need to take this conversation to the public by any means possible: reported books, op-eds, social campaigns, wire service coverage. The breadth and scope of the crisis requires creative solutions too: why not explore documentary film, or even fiction, as tools for engagement? 

As a pandemic and an election re-emphasize the importance of local news coverage, it’s time to ramp up attempts to catalyze a public, collaborative movement toward reinventing local information systems that serve everyone. Finding a solution shouldn’t fall to local journalists alone, nor should it fall to readers alone, or to those that have been ignored by their local newsrooms for decades. The high stakes call for a purposeful effort to unite as many people as possible in seeking a future for journalism that is contextualized, inclusive, community-oriented, and deeply rooted in place. That’s the only future in which democracy can survive. And we need to start now.

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:

  • US AD REVENUES DROP FOR LOCAL PAPERS, INCREASE FOR FOX NEWS: Advertising revenue fell a median of 43 percent at six publicly traded newspaper chains, year over year, the Pew Research Center reported, and reader-generated revenue also took a hit in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ad revenue at five local news stations also fell, but was offset by increased re-transmission fees, while ad revenue at Fox News rose by 41 percent. NiemanLab reported that according to a recent study from the Reuters Institute, nonprofit outlets and small outlets appear to be withstanding challenges from the pandemic most effectively. And USA Today reported that digital revenues have fallen at Gannett, which owns hundreds of local outlets, but the company has also surpassed one million paid digital subscriptions. 
  • ADVERTISING IN THE UK WILL SEE A SLOW REBOUND: In the United Kingdom, the post-covid advertising market anticipates slower growth than expected, the Press Gazette reported. This year saw the largest drop during the second quarter, but The Advertising Association and a marketing agency called Warc indicated that the advertising industry was not likely to recoup this year’s losses in 2021, Charlotte Tobitt reports. But at The Spectator magazine, increased subscriptions offset losses from advertising, the PressGazette found.  
  • A COMMUNITY LOSES ITS ONLY LOCAL REPORTER: A few weeks after local Virginia reporter Ashley Spinks was fired from the Floyd Press for speaking out against owner Lee Enterprises, the Washington Post considered what Spinks’ layoff has meant to the paper’s local community. Before Spinks was fired, she was the only full-time reporter at the paper, which has also seen a declining freelance budget in recent years. Floyd mayor Will Griffin lamented the loss of a paper that reflects and represents the community more accurately than national outlets. He also fears that misinformation, in the absence of solid local reporting, will “sky-rocket,” Elahe Izadi reports.  
  • PUBLIC RADIO CONFRONTS ITS OWN RACISM: For CJR, Caroline Lester reported on public radio’s reckoning with allegations of racism and discrimination in newsrooms across the country: in places like WAMU in DC, St. Louis Public Radio, and NPR. “Public radio’s founding myth is one of goodness and decency; its purpose is delivering information in the interest of the American people. But as public radio has grown in power and funding, its institutions have struggled to retain and promote women and people of color,” Lester writes. 
  • BIG TECH HEARING IN THE US TURNS INTO A CIRCUS: For CJR, Mathew Ingram lamented the character of the final Congressional hearing with tech titans from Facebook, Twitter, and Google, calling it “a hearing about an important topic that degenerated into grandstanding by politicians who either don’t understand the issues, or were happy to pretend in order to get video clips of themselves grilling a trio of billionaires.” Though the hearing was, in theory, intended to address the conclusions of a Congresstional antitrust investigation conducted over the past fifteen months, in practice, it fell far short of the mark, Ingram writes. (Elsewhere, for CJR, Joel Simon wrote about what “free expression” has come to mean for big tech companies). 
  • CANADIAN NEWSPAPERS CALL FOR GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION: News Media Canada, an organization representing Canadian newspapers, launched a campaign asking the federal government to implement regulatory measures against Facebook and Google, which have siphoned up a significant percentage of the digital ad revenue while neglecting to pay outlets for their news content. The organization suggests a similar intervention to the expansion of intellectual property rights recently proposed in Australia. “The ‘free ride’ for Google and Facebook must stop,” the Toronto Star writes. 
  • CONGRESS INTENDS TO INTERVENE, BUT HOW? In the US, a consensus has emerged among lawmakers that government intervention is necessary to address the local news crisis, Rick Edmonds reported for Poynter. The decline of local newsrooms hurts democracy, Edmonds notes, but it also hurts politicians, who both leverage local news for political coverage and look to local publications to track the issues that are important to constituents (I wrote about this feedback loop back in October for CJR). “Congress has pretty much decided it should come to the aid of local news,” Edmonds writes. “The question of how remains, together with making the help timely.” He examines a number of possibilities, including subsidies, antitrust regulations, a federal study commission, or redirection of federal advertising to local newsrooms. 
  • FACEBOOK SHIELDS ITSELF FROM SCRUTINY: Facebook has threatened researchers at the NYU Ad Observatory with legal action over a research project that studies political ads. For NiemanLab, Andy Sellars argued that the study, which uses a browser plugin to extract data that Facebook already allows user to access. Though such a program could be used for abuse, Sellars reports that the professors, by all accounts, are following ethical guidelines for human research. Rather than being nefarious, the study, Sellars says, will be a significant tool for understanding the influence one of the most powerful tech companies in the world. “Facebook may defend its actions on the grounds of user privacy, but the real threat is in the surrender of control of scrutiny,” Sellars writes. 
  • MORE CUTBACKS, CLOSURES: CityPages, the last alt-weekly in Minnesota’s twin cities, closed after forty-one years of publication, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported. The Wall Street Journal magazine downsized its number of print editions from twelve to eight, according to Talking Biz News. ESPN announced plans to lay off three hundred staffers, CNBC reported. And the PressGazette reported that the top US print newspapers have lost 30 percent of sales since the 2016 election

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 Periplus Collective recently announced a mentorship program to serve early-career writers who are Black, indigenous, and 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