Pulitzers can’t save local journalism

Nine of the ten newspapers that won Pulitzer Prizes for local reporting over the last decade experienced some form of cutbacks over the past year, according to data collected by the Tow Center and CJR. Three prize-winning outlets implemented layoffs, and four had their print runs affected, with pay cuts and furloughs scattered throughout. Some cuts have been restored; others haven’t. In many ways, these statistics are unsurprising; staggering numbers of local publications were shaken by the destabilizing effect of the pandemic, and few were left untouched. Still, it’s telling that even those papers that have won national recognition and acclaim for the importance and excellence of their journalism also found—and find—themselves on unstable ground. 

The atrophy of prize-winning newspapers has been a phenomenon for several years (last May, PBS NewsHour interviewed Pulitzer winners to talk about the perilous state of the industry), but each publication has its own story, and weathering the pandemic is no exception. In 2019, reporters at the Baton Rouge Advocate won a Pulitzer for exposing Louisiana’s discriminatory conviction system, leading to the dissolution of a Jim-Crow-era law that soon might be applied retroactively to bring old cases to trial again. In 2020, the paper laid off forty members of its staff, working to re-hire many of them over the past year.

Other award-winning outlets experienced more flexibility last spring. The Salt Lake Tribunethe first legacy regional paper to convert from for-profit to non-profit status—made cutbacks to print in 2020, but they had the margins to reimagine roles for staffers whose beats disappeared amid the pandemic. When the NBA shut down its 2020 season, Andy Larsen, who covered the Utah Jazz for the Tribune, began writing weekly data columns, explaining local COVID numbers and statistics to readers. 

“I was out of a beat for a while,” Larsen says. “There are only so many ‘What the Jazz are doing during the pandemic’ stories you can write, and my editors were trying to figure out what to do with my hours so I wouldn’t get furloughed. I have a math degree, and I’ve used that in my basketball writing, with stats and analytics. So the thought was, Let’s have Andy do some of that same stuff, but with all the data that’s coming out of the pandemic.” Larsen’s columns became the most-read on the website; in 2021, he won an award from Colorado’s Society of Professional Journalists for best pandemic reporting in his region. (Still, as recent years have shown, winning awards doesn’t always protect your paper or your job).

On one hand, the cutbacks aren’t necessarily as straightforwardly grim a picture as they might seem. The Tow Center’s newsroom cutback tracker is not a story of total decline, but it is a story of change and challenge. Print cutbacks, for example, are hotly contested markers of deterioration. To some, print is an unnecessary expense and a relic of the past; cutting back is simply practical. To others, it’s an important format to continue reaching some readers; cutting back is a sign of downgrading. 

But what does it look like to value local reporting? Awards are edifying, but they’re not financial resources. It’s a bellwether of the moment that many of the publications we celebrate are struggling alongside the rest of their peers. Perhaps it’s a sign that our awards haven’t caught up to the present. Or maybe it’s a sign that we’ve focused too much attention on the silver linings without addressing the storm. If the local print newspaper isn’t the way of the future, the enterprise reporting that it has produced over the decades still must be. What format will the prize-winning stories of the future take, and how can we pursue a future that makes solid, regional, robust reporting possible? The present, it seems, is unsustainable.  

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, 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.

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

  • NEWSPAPER LAYOFFS IN 2020 SURPASSED LAYOFFS IN 2019: One third of large US newspapers experienced layoffs in 2020, the Pew Research Center reported, and about one in ten US newspapers experienced multiple rounds of layoffs. (To learn more about newsroom cutbacks that took place amid the COVID-19 pandemic, take a look at the Tow Center’s cutback tracker map and database).
  • ALDEN OFFERS TRIBUNE BUYOUTS: Two days after Alden Global Capital acquired Tribune Publishing, they offered non-union employees a buyout; next week, those applying for buyouts will find out if they’ve been accepted. The Wall Street Journal profiled Heath Freeman, the president of Alden Global Capital who was recently approved to acquire Tribune Publishing, cataloguing the pattern of cost-cutting and consolidations that Freeman has employed over the years. “As a major Tribune shareholder, Alden backed cuts last year at the company—amid a steep, pandemic-driven advertising downturn—that slashed a third of the total payroll and closed about half its news offices, with no stated plans to open new ones,” Lukas I. Alpert and Cara Lombardo wrote.
  • LOCAL NEWS IS INFRASTRUCTURE: For Poynter, Report for America president Steve Waldman argued that local news should be included in the Congressional infrastructure bill. “If this were a normal industry — i.e., one not mentioned in the First Amendment — the case for massive government support would be overwhelming,” Waldman writes. “The reason to support local news is not primarily helping journalists put food on the table, it’s helping communities to thrive.” And for CJR, Victor Pickard and Timothy Neff argued that strengthening our democracy requires funding public media.
  • LESS LOCAL NEWS MEANS MORE POLARIZATION: Researcher Joshua Darr wrote for FiveThirtyEight about studies finding that the loss of local news led to increased partisanship, while local newsrooms’ efforts to emphasize local government over national politics decreased polarization among readers. “If the current bipartisan efforts to assist local news become defined along party lines and fail, future generations may not be able to depend on local news as we know it, and if our research is any indication, America’s political divides will continue to deepen as a result,” Darr writes.
  • TWITTER LAUNCHES LOCAL WEATHER SERVICE: Twitter partnered with climate reporter Eric Holthaus and eighteen local meteorologists to launch a localized weather reporting service called “Tomorrow,” Axios reported this week. On Tuesday, the service launched in sixteen cities across North America. Holthaus is the only full-time employee, but he plans to bring on twenty or thirty climate writers in addition to four part-time editorial staff.
  • STARTUPS MULTIPLY BUT NEWS DESERTS PERSIST: Local digital news sites have proliferated in recent years, but many still face challenges, Rick Edmonds wrote for Poynter, exploring some of the initiatives to support and encourage new digital startups. “Funding and training are plentiful and displaced journalists are eager to recommit to a community news mission, but the picture is not all sunny,” Edmonds writes. “As the sector matures, pain points — difficulties and some outright failures — are emerging, too.”
  • TIMES PURSUES THE ATHLETIC: The New York Times is in talks to buy digital sports site The Athletic, Axios reported. (The Times laid off sixty-eight staffers last year, and The Athletic laid off forty-six). “The Athletic gobbling up all the local beat reporters to then be swallowed up by the Times is a perfect window into the modern media landscape,” sports journalist Aaron Nagler tweeted.
  • BEWARE WEBSITE DUPLICATION: The PressGazette reported on a trend in which news content is reproduced without permission on a second website, sometimes to a nearly identical web address. Such duplication can cost publishers significantly in lost revenue and resources, Freddy Mayhew reports.
  • “ONE COMMUNITY AT A TIME”: The economic crisis facing local newsrooms is due not only to technological changes but also to corporate greed, Ellen Clegg and Dan Kennedy wrote for NiemanLab. Clegg and Kennedy are working on a book that will explore success stories in the world of regional journalism. “Long before the financialization of the newspaper business, journalism was not seen as a route for wealthy people to get wealthier,” they write. “Rather, it was an opportunity for people to serve their communities while making a decent living.” (Elsewhere, What’s New in Publishing has 10 tips on raising money in your community).
  • LATE NIGHT COMEDIAN TROLLS LOCAL TV NEWS: As a gag, comedian John Oliver placed fake sponsored content on several local television stations, highlighting the spurious nature of the practice and demonstrating how easy it can be to pay local stations to broadcast content that might undermine their credibility. “The integrity of local news is crucially important,” Oliver said in his segment, “and there is real harm for everyone if that integrity is damaged.”

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.

NOTE: This piece has been updated to add that the Baton Rouge Advocate has re-hired many of its staff since laying them off last spring.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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