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WE'RE HIRING!

Report Editor

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School is seeking a full-time Report Editor for a 6-month position with renewal contingent on funding and performance. The Report Editor will oversee academic and journalistic publications from research fellows. The ideal candidate is a dynamic editor with deep knowledge of the intersection of journalism and technology, and experience editing both journalistic and academic publications. 

The Report Editor will work closely with the Director and Research Director of the Tow Center to develop high quality, timely, and accessible publications. The Report Editor will oversee the publication and distribution of Tow Center research reports and briefs, and will run Tow’s vertical at Columbia Journalism Review, from commissioning articles to editing and writing for the site. The goal is to make the research of the Center visible and accessible to the journalistic community it serves, and to provide insight, reporting, and commentary of the highest standard about the constantly developing relationship between journalism and technology. Successful applicants are likely to be an experienced editor and writer with a proven track record in web publishing and rigorous ability to edit academic writing. 

Apply here

EVENTS

An Introduction to Media Policy and Local Journalism

Thursday October 21st | 4PM ET 

“What role can (and should) media policy play in supporting a strong, sustainable, vibrant local media sector in the United States?”

A new five-part webinar series from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism will explore this question through a series of events designed to introduce and debate the best ways for media policy to support local journalism in the US.

Register here
 
WEEKLY NEWSLETTER

Excerpt: Life at Local Newspapers in a Turbulent Era: Findings from a survey of more than 300 newsroom employees in the United States : Moving Forward–the future for local newspapers

By Damian Radcliffe and Ryan Wallace

 

This report revisits a study first undertaken in late 2016 to shine a light on a key, yet often overlooked, segment of the newspaper industry: small-market newspapers. Like the earlier iteration, a key driver for this research has been to create a platform for people working at local newspapers across the United States to tell us about their experiences. Many of the challenges that local newspapers were contending with pre-pandemic have accelerated over the past 18 months, and these issues have been exacerbated by the unique circumstances of the pandemic itself. In our research, we explore how employees at local newspapers feel about the prospects for their industry, and highlight some of the key issues and approaches they identified as needing to be addressed. 


Key Findings:
  • Nearly half (49 percent) of respondents hold a “slightly negative” or “very negative” opinion about the prospects for the future of small-market newspapers. 

  • Respondents shared their concerns about the impact of big tech, in terms of the visibility of local news and its role in shaping the willingness of audiences to pay for local news.

  • The ability to engage with younger audiences, and to make local journalism appealing to younger journalists, were also recurring themes. 

  • Issues of diversity and inclusion are being discussed and implemented at local newspapers, but these efforts can be hampered by lack of resources, buy-in, and awareness. 

  • National-level issues — such as trust in journalism, the ability to discern between news and opinion, and getting people to pay for news — are also present in local news environments. 

  • Respondents may have different approaches on how to best address challenges facing the sector, with numerous respondents noting the potential for non-profit models and the challenge of making local newspapers commercially sustainable, but the value and importance of local news coverage is something they agree on.

One surprising takeaway from the first version of this study, published in 2017, was a cautious optimism found in the local newspaper industry. When asked, “How positive do you feel about the future of local newspapers?,” the majority of the 2016 sample were more positive than might have been expected. 

But by 2020, this trend had been inverted. Positivity had tilted toward pessimism, with 49 percent of survey participants in 2020 subscribing to a negative view of the future for their industry, compared to 25 percent who held a “very positive” or “positive” perspective. 

Given that this survey was conducted in the middle of a pandemic, these conclusions should not come as a great surprise. Nearly half (43 percent) of local journalists indicated that they now feel less secure in their jobs than they did prior to the pandemic, with just under a third (31 percent) being neutral on the issue, saying they felt “the same” (neither more secure or less secure). This sentiment inevitably shapes wider attitudes toward the future of the industry. Respondents also highlighted issues of trust, the impact of social media on both revenues and media habits, and the American public’s changing relationship with journalism, as areas that have all negatively affected prospects for local newspapers.  

But beyond the pandemic, from a business perspective, as one respondent starkly stated, “The advertising dollars are going away and not coming back. Google and Facebook have just eviscerated the business.” Similarly, although our survey has shown a substantial upswing in terms of the importance of social media for local newspapers, it remains an uneasy relationship. Lastly, there was a sense of sometimes struggling to get some audiences to engage and a feeling that too often, local journalism was at risk of being undervalued. 

“People welcome news coverage of their communities,” one participant told us. “I think people just take it for granted that a reporter somewhere can be found to write about some injustice or crime or corruption or freak event that happened in their hometown.” 

On the topic of attracting younger audiences, our respondents identified not one, but two issues related to youth and young people and their relationship with local newspapers. The first was a perception that this was an audience that was often apathetic about local news, or disinterested in the current ways in which it was delivered. Alongside this, participants also underlined the challenge that many of them faced with attracting or retaining young journalists. “I worry that journalism will be increasingly unable to recruit smart, talented young people who may rightly see better opportunities in other fields,” one respondent wrote.

Even for those outlets who do attract younger reporters, it can be hard to keep them. And for some newsrooms, attracting younger journalists is less of an issue than the potential divide between this cohort and their lives — and those of their audience. “Too many young journalists are bringing their personal politics to work and letting it influence their stories,” one respondent told us. Others still took a different view, suggesting that at some local news outlets, there is a feeling that things need to be done differently. 

“I think the target audience of newspapers has historically been the upper middle class, such as lawyers and lawmakers. But I think if we want to capture a younger audience, we need to write about things they care about too,” reported one respondent. 

Similar tensions and differences of opinion could also be seen when we asked respondents more widely about issues of diversity and engagement in both the newsroom itself and in their coverage. Some participants shared the challenge of tackling issues of diversity — typically identified by respondents through a racial lens — given the resource constraints that many local newsrooms have and the demographics of many rural communities. Others outlined efforts to promote “diversity hires,” broaden editorial boards and opinion sections, sponsoring debates, creating Spanish-language content, speaking to more diverse sources, and a recognition that “in the summer [of 2020] Black Lives Matter protests have extended to more rural areas.” Many of our respondents expressed a desire to tackle these issues, and their survey responses portrayed a cohort doing its best to address issues of equity and inclusion with limited resources. 

In sum, local newspapers, like the mainstream media writ large, are contending with issues of relevance, reinvention, and reputation. In terms of reputation, while many respondents noted that local journalism is more widely trusted than mainstream national news media, fostering trust remains one of the biggest challenges facing the industry today. “The deluge of ‘fake news’ accusations taint people’s view of us,” one respondent told us. Nonetheless, there is an argument that because of their proximity to audiences, and the fact that local journalists may be the only journalists people ever meet, they become — by default — a proxy for attitudes toward the wider industry.

Another major conundrum for local newspapers is how to effectively tackle this situation when they have limited resources and a longstanding content mix that typically blends original local reporting with material from wire services. Given cuts in newsrooms, it’s perhaps surprising that respondents didn’t suggest that their paper was increasingly reliant on wire services to fill content gaps. At the same time, there is a recognition that the lifeblood of local newspapers has to be local journalism. Arguably by doubling down on local coverage, newspapers can best demonstrate their continued relevance and importance, potentially encouraging audiences to pay for local news in the process. Of course, this isn’t easy at a time of cutbacks, COVID, and declining revenues. 

Our survey participants were conflicted on the best ways to move forward. There’s no silver bullet for the challenges small-market newspapers are facing, but respondents often spoke of the potential audience for local news and the opportunity to provide hyperlocal content not covered elsewhere. Put another way, this means meeting “people where they are at … emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, politically, structurally.”  

Small-market newspapers in their coverage and approach should be “focusing on building healthy communities,” one respondent memorably argued. “I don’t think you can have a thriving community without local media.”

STORIES YOU MAY HAVE MISSED
 
  • Earlier this month, Nieman Lab reported that, “When Facebook went down...traffic to news sites went up.” Based on data provided to Nieman Lab by analytics firm Chartbeat, during the 5+ hours Facebook, What’s App, and Instagram were offline, the number of people engaging with publishers’ websites across the web significantly increased. This short-lived trend aligns with the commonly held belief that social media platforms divert traffic from news sites, thus eroding both engagement and profits, especially at the local level. In other Facebook news, the company decided that it will “now count activists and journalists as ‘involuntary’ public figures and so increase protections against harassment and bullying…” according to the platform’s global safety chief. This decision comes at a time in which journalists are incredibly attacked (both online and off) for doing their jobs both domestically and internationally.

 
  • Journalist Judd Legum, in his daily “Popular Informationnewsletter, explains “How brands are getting tricked into advertising on The Daily Wire.” The Daily Wire, the misinformation-laden, far-right media outlet founded by Ben Shapiro, is one of thousands of publications connected with OpenWeb, an “advertising and commenting platform” that connects publishers and advertisers with supposedly shared values. In the case of The Daily Wire though, which peddles blatant COVID falsehoods and “anti-trans diatribes,” OpenWeb continues to funnel advertisers onto the site despite its publisher policy purporting that they do not partner with news sites that “knowingly spreads disinformation.” 

 
  • Last week, The Missouri Independent, a nonprofit local newsroom, reported that a smattering of local newspapers have been “snapped up by local owners” in the face of Gannett acquisitions and buyouts across the state. The newly locally-owned papers have even been turning a profit, a surprising turnaround from the nationwide trend of small town newspapers being scooped up either by major conglomerates such as Gannett or by venture capitalist-backed media acquisition firms such as Alden Capital. Many are then quickly downsized into shells of their former operations, leaving a gap in community news coverage across the US. 

 
  • The last Western-based social media platform in China is shutting down. LinkedIn announced that the site will no longer be accessible in China due to "significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements” by the Chinese government, as reported by The New York Times. In an analysis on the move, the Times writes: “LinkedIn’s action ends what had been one of the most far-reaching experiments by a foreign social network in China, where the internet is closely controlled by the government. Twitter and Facebook have been blocked in the country for years, and Google left more than a decade ago. China’s internet, which operates behind a system of filters known as the Great Firewall, is heavily censored and has gone in its own direction.”

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