Local needs and the local-news crisis

This week, Steve Waldman, the cofounder and president of Report for America, published a two-part report for CJR about the local-news crisis. In it, Waldman considers the decline in newsroom newspaper staff against a few other data points—there are currently far fewer reporters per 100,000 people, and per $100 million in state and local government spending, than two decades ago—before providing a road map for growing the ranks of local reporters by 50,000. Critically, Waldman leaves room for where, and how, such an influx would support the news ecosystem we currently have. “There is much to discuss,” he writes, “on where those 50,000 news reporters should work, who should employ them, how those entities can be sustainable, and what kinds of journalism they should do.” 

In recent years, national news outlets have devoted more attention to the local-news crisis. (On Sunday, 60 Minutes, on CBS, aired a feature on local newsrooms struggling under hedge-fund owners; Waldman and Report for America featured heavily in the coverage.) Local journalists and media experts alike have welcomed it; there’s considerable consensus that something significant is lost when journalism declines. Still, what’s lost can be hard to parse in national coverage, which often focuses on a single aspect of the information crisis or else fails to differentiate and connect specific needs to specific solutions. Different types of news serve different functions—and, as a result, may require different financial and editorial models. The local-news crisis looks very different on the ground, depending on where, specifically, you are.

In some corners of the local news sphere, conversations about strengthening local journalism have shifted from a model-first approach to a needs-first approach. Rather than uphold traditional models for news production, needs-first conversations begin by asking what it is, precisely, that people need.

The answer to that question? Many things. People need robust and sophisticated education coverage, and they might receive it from different sources. Parents and caretakers need access to information about childcare, as Haley Swenson and Rebecca Gale wrote for CJR in January. County residents need access to information about their local court system; projects like The Marshall Project’s Testify initiative have worked to make such reporting accessible to the people most connected to—and affected by—court proceedings. Beyond beats, contemporary news media plays a range of civic roles—among them, sense maker, smart aggregator, forum leader, watchdog, and empowerer, as journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote. Some of these roles are well-served by a digital system of ubiquitous publishing opportunities, while others—particularly at the local level—are poorly served. 

The functions of the local newsroom have been largely disaggregated; too often, we continue to ignore this reality in our conversations about possible interventions in the modern information crisis. It’s easy to wield the term “local news” as a response to a civic-engagement crisis without digging into which approaches to local news actually bolster civic engagement. A traditional local newspaper may be an excellent watchdog, but perhaps its time as an aggregator has passed; a particular nonprofit startup may be a leader in sense-making, but limited in its role as a watchdog. In a resource-scarce ecosystem, we need to hyper-focus our attention on needs. How can we strengthen the most useful functions of local journalism? How can we reallocate existing resources where they are most needed? What don’t newsrooms need to do anymore? Where can new models meet needs left unserved by traditional newsrooms? 

Writing for CJR last year, my colleague Jon Allsop argued, “We should ideally want a news economy in which two rival papers can coexist healthily not only with each other, but with online outlets, public radio, and TV stations—not one where competing local outlets are locked in the Hunger Games.” Perhaps many—if not most—local news markets need a variety of information sources, not a last man standing. Perhaps, too, more local news outlets need to consider the parts they play in their communities, and lean into their most valuable functions. A better local-news ecosystem requires us to remain hyper-focused on the role of each individual part without taking our eye off the whole.

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Below, more on local news markets and new models: 

  • Delivery methods in Dallas: For NiemanLab, Sara Shahriari and Emily Roseman, both of the Institute for Nonprofit News, spoke to Keri Mitchell, executive director of the Dallas Free Press, about using text messaging as the primary form of communication with readers in South and West Dallas. “As we discussed the idea of a community newsroom with West Dallas leaders, they told us, ‘If you try to do this with email, you’ll fail,’” Mitchell said. The newsroom began with weekly COVID-19 updates, but now they send around three texts weekly: a resource, an event, and a neighborhood roundup, available in both English and Spanish in West Dallas.
  • Process transparency in New Hampshire: New Hampshire Public Radio recently reported nearly 300 New Hampshire-linked names that appeared on a leaked database of the far-right militia group the Oath Keepers; the list included law enforcement officers and a state senator. In addition to publishing the story, the newsroom published a Q&A page explaining the process and reasoning behind their reporting. “Highlighting extremism and the risk it poses to the state and the country’s democracy is an essential role for media outlets including NHPR,” the site wrote. Brendan Fitzgerald, CJR’s senior editor, wrote about domestic extremism and local news last year.
  • News apps in Denver: A national app called NewsBreak—based in Mountain View, California—has invested finances in employing some full-time and part-time journalists in Denver to provide original local news to its customers, Corey Hutchins reported for NiemanLab. The app also pays a few other local Denver news sources—like its CBS affiliate and KCBO radio—to syndicate their content. “All of this is another indication that a national company sees a potential audience it can monetize with the help of (and by providing) local news,” Hutchins writes.
  • Staffers unionize in Charlotte: On Wednesday, McClatchy voluntarily recognized the Charlotte Observer News Guild. “We seek to ensure a firm future for the newspaper,” the guild wrote. “That future must be built on fair and equitable pay, transparency from our leadership and a guarantee of continued opportunities for future generations of Observer journalists.”
  • Mass exodus in Oregon: At Klamath Falls, Oregon’s Herald and News, all four members of the newsroom left their jobs this week. According to the paper’s editor, Tim Trainor, who is leaving for central Oregon’s Redmond Spokesman, the paper has recently struggled to recruit staff “as the region’s cost of living has increased and pay remained relatively low.” The paper’s general manager said the paper will not close. 


Other notable stories:

  • RT America, one of nine outlets the Russian state-controlled media publication operates around the world, ceased production and laid off most of its staff on Wednesday, CNN reported. A production manager cited “unforeseen business interruption events” as the cause and told employees that layoffs were permanent.
  • As Russia attempts to limit access to information by attacking Ukraine’s information infrastructure—striking television and radio towers—the BBC is using shortwave radio to continue to broadcast in Kyiv and parts of Russia for four hours a day, the New York Times reported. “It’s often said truth is the first casualty of war,” Tim Davie, director-general of the BBC, said in a statement. “In a conflict where disinformation and propaganda is rife, there is a clear need for factual and independent news people can trust.”
  • The New York Times announced that national correspondent Sabrina Tavernise will join The Daily to share hosting duties with Michael Barbaro. Tavernise, who served as a Times foreign correspondent for a decade, has previously filled in for Barbaro on the morning news podcast in addition to contributing a series of projects to The Daily, including a five-part series on race and policing in Baltimore.
  • Yesterday, “Rising,” a politics show produced by The Hill, wrote on Twitter that its YouTube account had been temporarily suspended after it aired a clip of Donald Trump making false claims of election fraud. “We covered former President Trump’s remarks about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” the show wrote. “In a soundbite, he repeated his claim that the 2020 election was stolen”—a claim the show says it “did not explicitly rebut.”
  • Discourse Blog, the worker-owned news collective, announced a return to Substack after previously leaving the platform for their own website.  

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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