“What’s it like to work at a local newspaper?” That’s the question we asked journalists across the United States at the end of last year, as part of a new study supported by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.
The conclusions, derived from an online survey of 420 journalists at small-market newspapers (with a circulation of under 50,000), reveal a cohort that is actively embracing digital technologies and wants to know more about their potential. As a group, they’re also more optimistic about their future than might be expected and keen to challenge the “doom and gloom” narrative about the local news industry.
Smaller titles still account for the majority of daily and weekly printed newspapers in the United States (6,851 out of 7,071). But the day-to-day experience of local journalists, particularly at smaller publications, can be overlooked. Our research sought to remedy this by asking local journalists about the challenges—and prospects—for their newsrooms.
Many of their concerns are well known. It’s not surprising that many journalists (46 percent of our sample) say they are producing more stories than they were two years ago, or that over half (59 percent) of our respondents reported their newsroom is smaller than it was in 2014.
But the optimism about digital tools and output expressed by our survey respondents was surprising. Often splitting their time between print and digital products, just under three quarters (70 percent) of our sample noted they spend more time on the digital side of their role than they did two years ago. Many local newsrooms are doubling-down on video reporting and live video, while a quarter of our respondents reported their newspaper is producing podcasts.
Although print revenues continue to be the primary source of income across the newspaper industry, the conundrum, as one respondent eloquently put it, is “to respect print and grow digital.”
The decision by certain papers to remain analog is often driven by a combination of resource constraints and uncertainty about the benefits of embracing online content—not least due to the challenge of monetizing it. Many respondents cited a conscious decision to protect print revenues—by, for example, having a limited or static website—so that audiences have to buy their paper.
These strategic decisions aside, the local journalists we heard from are hardly digital refuseniks. Even if local newspapers aren’t using digital technologies now, many of their journalists are tech-curious, interested in video reporting, live video, and podcasting, as well as nascent digital technologies such as chat apps, augmented reality, and virtual reality.
One driver for growing interest in these newer digital platforms is the role they might play in engaging millennials. As one respondent told us:
A lot of small newspapers, along with newspapers of any size, struggle to reach younger audiences. Being 21 years old, I can see that newspapers struggle to reach my generation and those younger. We have to come up with unique and innovative ideas to keep them engaged.
Some smaller newsrooms are experimenting already. The Herald and News in Klamath Falls, Oregon (population 21,399; circulation 14,206) produces augmented reality content weekly on its own app, created in conjunction with a local community college in 2015.
The willingness to innovate demonstrates that, in the digital space, size need not matter. But small market newspapers often need to be more resourceful than their larger metro cousins.
According to our survey, most local journalists adopt a DIY approach to digital technologies. They’re more likely to learn about them by reading publications like Nieman Lab, Poynter, and MediaShift (79 percent), or teaching themselves (75 percent) than through formal training or by attending conferences (38 percent).
Judging by our survey respondents, there are substantial opportunities for organizations such as funders, J-Schools, tech companies, and professional membership organizations to address this training and support gap.
Finally, we found that discussions about metrics are not unique to larger publications. The same debates are playing out in local newsrooms across the United States. Among our respondents, 70 percent of journalists told us that they use digital performance metrics to measure social media engagement, website unique visitors, and time spent on a page.
But respondents were divided as to their benefit. About two-thirds (65 percent) said metrics shape the way they produced a story “some of the time.” Some indicated that they were part of their journalistic toolkit, supporting polls, surveys, public meetings and good old-fashioned journalistic instincts, to help “determine what community issues are and resolve to make them the focus of the work.” Others, however, contended that “engagement is sometimes defined too much by just doing whatever the reader supposedly wants based on shaky metrics.” A quarter said metrics never influenced their work.
Despite the challenges of being local in the digital world, many local journalists were upbeat. Digital tools and platforms are creating possibilities for new forms of storytelling and engagement, as the local newspaper industry slowly advances towards the light at the end of what has been, for many players, a very dark tunnel. As one journalist told us:
Nobody else will EVER spend the money required to build a team of professionally trained local journalists, allow them time to build relationships and sources and then deploy them to gather news. That is a defensible, competitive advantage that is hard to replicate.