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In late summer 2020, Tow Fellow Damian Radcliffe and research assistant Ryan Wallace conducted an online survey capturing the experience of life at local newspapers during COVID-19.


The work builds on Radcliffe’s previous Tow Center fellowship in 2016-17, where he and Dr. Christopher Ali undertook a similar survey, as well as a wide ranging landscape study, both of which explored the health of small market newspapers. Combined, the research offered strategies to preserve and enhance local news, as well as an in-depth analysis of life in a sector that comprises around 97% of the total newspapers published in the U.S.


Below is a summary of the key findings from this new research over the course of the past year. Their full report will be published in the fall. 

 Life at Small Market Newspapers in the Middle of the COVID-19 Pandemic


The observations in this report are based on an online survey conducted between August 4, 2020 and September 8, 2020.


We received 324 eligible responses from a mix of editors, reporters, publishers, and other roles at small-scale local newspapers in the United States. We defined “small scale” as (print publications with a circulation below 50,000. 


Set against a backdrop of COVID-19, survey respondents shared how the pandemic,aswell as wider deep rooted challenges, were redefining their work. Some of the key issues which emerged include:

  • The pervasiveness of COVID-19: 73.8% of respondents reported covering coronavirus related stories. However, under half (43.5%) felt that they or their colleagues had access to the personal protective equipment and protection they needed. Just over a third (35.2%) took the opposing view and indicated they had not been given adequate training or support for COVID-related reporting.  

  • Satisfaction with COVID coverage: 65.4% of participants were satisfied with how their newspaper covered the pandemic. But only a third of respondents (34.6%) told us their paper had introduced COVID products, like newsletters or podcasts. 

  • Long hours: Even with COVID-era furloughs, pay cuts, and reduced contracted hours, over a third of respondents (37%) told us they work 50-60 hours a week, with just over half (50.18%) saying they work 40-50 hours a week. 

  • Growing job insecurity: Nearly half of those surveyed (42.9%) said they felt less secure in their jobs than at the start of the pandemic. Just under a third (30.9%) felt the same. Interestingly, 10.8% indicated they feel “more secure.”

  • Revenue and Business Models: Respondents spoke candidly about the challenges of attracting advertisers and subscribers alongside the impact of ownership models on their work. Participants were often highly critical of hedge-fund ownership and frequently cited non-profit models as the way forward for the sector.

  • Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI): Conversations being had at a national level on issues facing the industry as a whole have not always permeated down to local newsrooms. Our study’s respondents highlighted that a lack of resources, buy-ins from management, demographics (especially in rural America), and their own skills and knowledge were all potential obstacles to addressing systemic issues in journalism at their individual outlets. DEI was typically seen through a racial lens, although other considerations were also discussed.  


Building on a similar survey conducted in late 2016, this study also gives us an opportunity to see how local journalism is changing. 


We did this in two ways: by comparing findings from the industry snapshots we captured in 2016 and 2020, and by asking respondents to compare their working experiences in 2020 with the three years just after the completion of our last survey. 


Notable shifts in local journalism include:

  • Digital increasingly dominates: Over half (56.5%) of respondents said they spend more time on digital output than three years ago. At the same time, print remains important, with 54% of respondents working across both print and digital products. 

  • Output levels have increased: Juggling these demands means that almost half (49.4%) of survey participants told us that in the past three years, the number of stories they personally produce in an average week has increased. 

  • Social media is an integral work tool: In 2020, a majority (61.7%) of respondents told us that social media platforms had grown in importance for their paper. This shift was ahead of other trends like increased local coverage (36.1% of respondents) and the range of sources and voices featured (31.8%). 

  • Trade publications remain essential for learning: The majority of respondents told us they learn about new tools and technology through articles in publications like Nieman Lab, Poynter, and CJR, a nearly 10% increase from our 2016 survey’s findings on the same questionBased on our findings, these tools rank further  ahead of other methods such as attending conferences or more formal training sessions. 

  • Online training has grown considerably since 2016. While this is a marked increase, online training is only used by under a third of those working in local newspapers. 

Despite a challenging financial landscape coupled with wider issues such as trust in journalism, our 2020 cohort-like their predecessors in 2016-retained a sense of optimism about the future of their industry. In particular, they highlighted the importance of hyperlocal news; embracing digital; and filling vital information gaps by covering stories not offered elsewhere. 


In doing this, respondents are alive to the economic challenges their sector faces, as well as the difficulty of attracting younger audiences and issues of retention (especially of mid-career journalists). Many are also conscious of the need to address issues of engagement and diversity more fully, but cite that they often lack the bandwidth to do so. 


Elsewhere, we encountered journalists keen to reinvent the sector and let go of legacy attitudes and behaviors. At the same time, others wanted more focus on principles of objectivity and detachment, which they felt the industry had drifted from.


Subsequently, despite seeing potential for the industry, 61% of respondents in 2020 hold a “slightly negative” or “very negative” opinion about the prospects of the future of small market newspapers. Four years ago, the situation (to our surprise) was reversed, with 61% of 2016’s sample reporting they were “very positive” or “slightly positive” about the future of their industry.

Through these findings, our data underlines the complexity of the local news  sector of the journalism industry, and its overall lack of homogeneity. 


The breadth of the local newspaper landscape and the range of experiences within it are both an opportunity and a challenge for those interested in helping to preserve, strengthen, and enhance local journalism in 2021 and beyond.


Professor Radcliffe is a 2021-22 Tow Center Fellow. He will be studying media policy instruments to support local journalism in the COVID-era and beyond. For more information on this study, please contact: Damian Radcliffe, Carolyn S. Chambers Professor of Journalism at the University of Oregon. Email: Twitter @damianradcliffe

  • Columbia Journalism School is proud to announce that Dhrumil Mehta, a data journalist, computer scientist, and multifaceted educator, will join the school’s faculty as an Associate Professor in Data Journalism and will serve as the Deputy Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. As a data journalist for the website FiveThirtyEight, Mehta helped to illuminate American attitudes and media coverage on everything from COVID-19 to the impeachment of Donald Trump to the Black Lives Matter movement. Mehta has produced a variety of digital-native works that utilize data-driven methods of journalistic inquiry as well as presentation. To read more on Mehta’s work and his appointment to the Tow Center, click here.

  • Tow Director Emily Bell was featured in this Medscape article exploring How the Media Handled, and Got Handled, by COVID.” Bell cited the “heroically good reporting” of the COVID Tracking Project, among others, as an example of journalists providing vital, even “empathetic” information to a public desperate for information in a time of unprecedented crisis. (Note: this article requires a free signup to Medscape to view the full text).

  • Last week, the Reuters Institute released its annual Digital News Report for 2021. By surveying 92,000 news consumers across the globe, Reuters found that while globally, “trust in news has grown…[but] the USA now has the lowest [trust] levels (29%)” of countries studied. The report is full of insights into media consumption, platform engagement, and other key metrics, but this particular point stood out: “Interest in news has fallen sharply in the United States following the election of President Biden – especially with right-leaning groups.” Axios found a similar “slump” in post-Trump media ratings:   

Source: Axios

  • Tow Center Senior Reporting Fellow Gabby Miller’s latest on CJR is a dive into what is perhaps the opposite of what you might expect after a year of devastating COVID-related blows to the news industry: a consolidation plan that actually helped a news publisher. A Hudson Valley-based paper decided to merge its local print publications into one, countywide brand at the onset of the pandemic after years of financial struggles. In doing so though, the publisher “in many ways saved the paper.” According to Miller’s reporting, the company is now in the midst of hiring more staff, expanding its coverage, and paying off its debts. 

Copyright © 2021 Tow Center for Digital Journalism, All rights reserved.

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