Reimagining how we think about local news in 2022

It can be difficult to discuss the problem of the local news crisis. On the one hand, the problems are apparent and easily explained: local newsrooms (particularly newspapers) are closing and shrinking, there are fewer people reporting than there used to be, and many people working in local journalism aren’t making much money at all. On the whole, this means that access to robust localized information is more limited for many than it once was. But part of the difficulty in writing about the state of local news on the ground lies in the great diversity of what local news can be; not everything is failing, and it’s not all failing in the way we imagine it to be. Though many newsrooms shuttered amid the pandemic, Poynter reported that more than seventy local newsrooms—and nearly as many newsletters—were launched during the same time. And because local journalism comprises so much more than the small-town newspapers that national outlets and media critics so readily imagine, the state of local media is difficult to describe, writ large. There are outlets experiencing growth and success in many places across the country. Local news, it seems, is both failing and transforming, suffering and succeeding, clinging to life and sustaining communities.

As civic-minded people consider whether or not the current state of local journalism constitutes a crisis—and what the language of “crisis” ignores and elides—perhaps it’s worth considering the limits of our paradigms when we talk about local journalism from a thirty-thousand foot view. What common mistakes do we make when we think about this problem? Going into a new year, here are a few insights that might help us sharpen the conversation:

First, it’s important to remember that a community is made up of many communities. It’s all too easy to fall into the habit of referring to that nebulous target readership surrounding a local newsroom as its “community,” but that limits our imagination when we think about how groups of people interact and intersect. In CJR’s winter magazine issue in 2020, Oaklandside editor-in-chief Tasneem Raja told Jack Herrera, “We can fall into these habits of shorthand. But in our work, in our reporting, even as part of our style guide, we say that we don’t talk about ‘the Oakland community.’ We understand that there’s no such thing as ‘the Oakland community’—or ‘the Latino community’ or ‘the queer community.’ There are communities within each of these large categories.”

Local newsrooms don’t write for their “community,” but “communities,” plural, and the best local newsrooms take that multiplicity into account. In some ways, local newsrooms have the power to define new communities by speaking to the intersecting interests of many in a single place.

Second, our understanding of communities changes when we change our metrics. Though news deserts are most straightforwardly described and measured by geographic boundaries, communities cannot be as neatly categorized. We’re tethered to those physically closest to us in a number of ways, of course, and local governance plays a role in that, but our lived experiences are layered. Regions are made up of counties which are made up of cities which are made up of neighborhoods which are made up of blocks, and our communities are formed by more than proximity: they’re formed through workplaces, religious affiliations, shared language, and other group identities. We need more sophisticated language for thinking about the many layers of an information ecosystem.

Some researchers have worked to shift paradigms when studying news networks, creating different ways for us to imagine the state of local news on the ground. In February, Sarah Stonbely from Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media told Sara Sheridan, “Life is really lived at the municipal level in a place as dense as New Jersey and elsewhere. Because of the way that the local government is structured, the decisions around taxes and public services are made at that level. Some decisions are made at the county level, but there’s so much variance across counties. For example, we’re in Essex County, which includes Montclair, which is very affluent, sort of feels very progressive in certain ways. And then there’s Newark, which is much less affluent, and has a lot of problems around policing. These are very different types of communities, but they’re both within the same county. So to generalize ‘Essex County’ just doesn’t work.”

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Or, as Darryl Holliday noted for CJR more recently, communities are organized around pre-existing information networks established by public libraries, post offices, “high school and college newspapers, churches, block clubs, community organizations, and other civic organizations round out a networked community-information service in the making.”

What if more researchers and local news providers reconsidered the way we define the spaces we serve? In the internet era, our reach can be expansive (in those areas with strong broadband access, at least). How will we define place in 2022, and how can we think about it in more sophisticated ways?

Finally, though there are many inspiring survival stories in local news, we need to draw a distinction between those surviving and those flourishing. It happens again and again in my reporting: I come across local news practitioners who have seen a need in their communities and have risen to the occasion in remarkable ways. Many people running hyper-local newsrooms take cut salaries, or no salary at all. They live from loan to loan amid the pandemic. They staff their newsroom with retired reporters. And though there’s a difference between the stagnant benefits for staffers at hedge-fund-owned papers and the self-inflicted concessions made by independently wealthy owners or retirees, there’s a problem in every underfunded newsroom: there aren’t enough margins to bring on new voices or to pay employees a living wage. Labors of love—while inspiring and impressive—aren’t built to sustain a more tenable future.

As we move into 2022, there’s space to think more broadly about human relationships and civic engagement, and the unique and complicated role local news can play in both. It will require a lot of specificity, plenty of good questions, and vigorous reimagination if we want to build a system that doesn’t just survive, but flourishes.

The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, and to foster a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us. (Click to subscribe!)

EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Throughout 2020 and 2021, researchers at the Tow Center collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. There’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here. And read a recent report here.

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

  • NEWSMATCH RAISES RECORD HIGH IN FUNDING: The Institute for Nonprofit News’ NewsMatch program, which matches donations for 300 participating nonprofit newsrooms across the US, raised $6 million for its 2021 campaign and an additional $6 million for future campaigns, breaking its own previous fundraising records.
  • THE STATE OF THE MEDIA AT LARGE: A report by The Reuters Institute for Digital Journalism indicated that almost sixty percent respondents indicated increased revenues over the past year, despite the fact that more than half indicated static or declining page views. Only eight percent of survey respondents indicated that revenues had decreased. Elsewhere in the report, 17 percent of survey respondents indicated that they believe journalism increasingly serves the wealthy and well-educated.
  • THE TIMES, THE ATHLETIC, AND LOCAL NEWS: Last week, The New York Times purchased digital sports site The Athletic for $550 million. “By purchasing The Athletic, which covers 270-plus sports teams in more than 47 local markets, The Times has placed itself in direct competition with every local news site for the same pool of subscribers,” Aron Pilhofer wrote on Medium. “And since the average number of news sites people will pay for is one, that is very bad news indeed for local legacy news organizations.” Elsewhere, for NiemanLab, Joshua Benton sized up the threat that the merger could pose to local outlets.
  • OPTIMISM RISES IN CHICAGO’S LOCAL NEWS SCENE: In Chicago, the proliferation of nonprofit outlets and news startups has contributed to a vibrant local news ecosystem, Mark Jacob writes for Northwestern’s Local News Initiative. Chicago public radio station WBEZ has emerged as a local news leader and merged with the Chicago Sun-Times. The Chicago Reader, an alt-weekly, is being reinvented as a nonprofit. Chicago’s Better Government Association has launched a partnership committed to government accountability reporting. A host of small Chicago News Outlets have formed the Chicago Independent Media Alliance. “While the city’s media have seen brutal job cuts in recent years, including a dramatic downsizing at the Chicago Tribune, a sense of rebirth and optimism prevails,” Jacob writes.
  • MINNESOTA NEWSROOM RECEIVES SIGNIFICANT SUPPORT: Sahan Journal, a Minnesota-based digital news site dedicated to coverage of immigrants and communities of color, has received a $1.2 million grant from the American Journalism Project—a venture philanthropy launched in 2019 to provide support for “mission driven” nonprofit local newsrooms. “Sahan Journal’s journalism is changing the news ecosystem in Minnesota and beyond,” Journal founder Mukhtar M. Ibrahim said. “We are raising the bar for coverage of communities of color, not as fringe players in a majority white state, but as the soon-to-be majority citizens—people who are revitalizing rural towns and playing a major role in local politics, economy, and culture.”
  • IN WASHINGTON DC, A LOCAL NEWSPAPER GROWS: The Washington Informer, a DC-based weekly newspaper serving the area’s Black communities, has doubled its staff over the past five years and increased its page count, the Washington Post reported. “The covid pandemic and the death of George Floyd made a lot of people start focusing on things in our society that they had overlooked or taken for granted, like racial disparities, voting rights and even the Black media,” editor and publisher Denise Rolark Barnes told the Washington Post. “As many Black people became more anxious, they began looking for stories that made them feel better and for perspectives from trusted sources that could help them shape their opinions.” In addition to continuing to serve its longtime readers, the Informer has added a newsletter, a monthly TV show, and a weekly podcast to maintain and expand its base.
  • IN OKLAHOMA, NEWSROOMS COLLABORATE ON COVERAGE: The Oklahoma Media Center, which formed in 2020, has a self-proclaimed mission “to support and strengthen Oklahoma’s local journalism ecosystem and spur innovation through statewide collaboration that benefits diverse audiences.” In 2021, the media center launched a collaboration called Promised Land, putting statewide journalistic resources toward coverage of the Supreme Court tribal sovereignty case McGirt vs. Oklahoma. In partnership with Oklahoma’s Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), the Promised Land collaboration has worked to provide local newsrooms with resources on historical context and avoiding clichéd coverage of Indigenous communities.
  • UK RESEARCH INDICATES PEOPLE TRUST LOCAL, BUT WON’T PAY FOR IT: A study for the UK’s Behind Local News found that while people are more likely to trust local news, they’re less likely to be willing to pay for it. While 58 percent of survey respondents indicated that they would have some level of trust in local news outlets for local coverage—compared with only 31 percent trusting non-local outlets for coverage of their area—40 percent said they would be unwilling to pay for “a quality independent local news service,” and the average amount survey respondents indicated that they’d be willing to pay was about £1.30 a month.

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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