For a very brief moment this spring, a few floors below the CJR offices, local journalism found itself back in the spotlight. There stood Pulitzer Prize Administrator Mike Pride, himself a product of a local newsroom (Concord Monitor, circulation 20,000), behind a lectern in Columbia’s Pulitzer Hall on April 10, announcing the roster of Pulitzer winners in a year when national politics, and national newspapers, dominated the conversation.
And while big stories, and big papers, took home their usual share of prizes, you couldn’t help but feel a wave of nostalgia for local journalism’s heyday as Pride read out the list of winners: East Bay Times. The Charleston Gazette-Mail. The Salt Lake Tribune. The Storm Lake Times. (“I teared up when I got to the entry for The Storm Lake Times,” said Pride, who is leaving his post as prize administrator after this year.)
I wish we could tell you that this year’s Pulitzer announcement was the moment local journalism began its long-awaited American comeback, both financially and as a forum for an important national conversation. That, unfortunately, is not the case. This issue of the Columbia Journalism Review is about what has happened—and likely will happen next—to one of America’s great national institutions, its local press.
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It won’t come as news to many of you that local journalism in our country is in dire shape. Pick your metric—numbers of reporters, newspapers, readers—and nearly all the trendlines veer downhill. It’s not a happy story, but it’s an important one for CJR to tell. In this issue, you’ll find a map of America’s emerging news deserts, a tally of the papers we’ve lost over the last decade, and a deep-dive profile of Gannett, which is many local newsrooms’ last hope for survival.
That’s the sobering news. Since the election in November, we’ve also started to see signs of hope, as the cost of a disappearing local news landscape has become more tangible. It’s clear that the media’s coverage failures in the lead-up to the election were compounded by the lack of a local reporting infrastructure. This is not just a problem for journalism; these issues have real-world, global consequences.
As we send this issue to the printer, there is more focus on the local-news problem—in terms of attention, money, and motivation—than we’ve seen in a very long time, maybe ever. In this issue, you’ll find stories that reflect such investments, including a look at the local nonprofit boom, an effort by one Pennsylvania paper to address readers’ concerns about partisan news, and a renewed effort by some outlets to appeal to millennial readers, who have been all but written off by local publications. Sprinkled throughout are love letters from now-prominent reporters to the hometown papers that drew them into journalism in the first place.
So that’s where we find ourselves today: in the middle of a complicated story with high stakes. Just as the local-news financial picture seems more daunting than ever, new energy is building to address the problem. Is it fixable, or are America’s local newsrooms going away for good? What are the implications for open records, for accountability—for our democracy? This issue of CJR is one step toward answering those questions.
—Kyle Pope, Editor in Chief and Publisher