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.
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.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @damianradcliffe