More than a year after the global pandemic became official, local journalism still grapples with the fallout — not only from the coronavirus but also by an intense nationwide racial reckoning, regional disasters including fires and storms, and ever-present gun violence and mass shootings.
The flood of news events over the past year also exacerbated the endemic financial struggles of local media. At least 65 news organizations have closed permanently. Local news organizations in every state, D.C. and Puerto Rico have been affected by job losses or pay cuts and furloughs, according to the Poynter Institute’s tracking. Some employees left voluntarily, citing unrelenting stress.
But local journalism endures — at startups, nonprofits, and corporate-owned newsrooms. In early April, an American Press Institute report outlined seven important challenges for local and regional news organizations to consider as they try to rebound from these ongoing struggles. We asked for your ideas and solutions for addressing lost resources, audience retention, misinformation, rebuilding beats and improving investigative journalism, newsroom diversity, and journalists’ mental health And over the past several weeks, we’ve heard the stories of dozens of journalists who launched ideas and projects aimed at emerging from the crushing blows of the past year. From web redesigns to starting (or killing) Facebook groups to tough talk about diversity, local news organizations are tackling those seven issues with unique strategies driven by a unique moment in their history.
This report will share early successes, cautious hopes and thoughtful advice from local journalists who are working through the questions we posed earlier this year.
Their priorities might be different, but everyone we spoke to had the same goal: climbing out of the chaos of the past year and pushing ahead into whatever the future of local news might bring. The actions taken by each of these newsrooms are tailored to their mission, culture and their most pressing needs, but they have in common a few key prescripts:
- Not only an understanding but an acceptance that some aspects of the work of local journalism have changed significantly. These newsrooms are moving away from laments like “the end of journalism as we know it” and instead are adapting to reality.
- A recognition that creativity must be part of local journalism’s recovery and future. As Unilever’s Leena Nair says in a recent McKinsey report: “Every leader — whether they’re leading businesses, institutions, people, NGOs, governments — needs to be bold and to reimagine how things are done.”
- A realization that true diversity, equity and inclusion in local journalism isn’t optional and can’t be theoretical; and that news organizations have been damaged by their DEI inaction. As Tracie Powell, a former program officer for Borealis Philanthropy, says in this Editor & Publisher webinar, the community and the audience are two different groups — and the focus must be on reflecting the community. “We have to look at the readers and users we aren’t reaching,” says Powell.
A note about the focus of this two-part project on local news recovery: We’re telling stories not from well-funded national news organizations, but from local and regional newsrooms and smaller publications aimed at specific audiences. Why? As an Outlier Media report noted in March, “Local news is marginalized by other players in the information ecosystem, especially national media and social media” even as they play an often-unrecognized role: They are a crucial source of information and inspiration for large national news organizations, from election coverage to the COVID-19 crisis to racial injustice.
Therefore, this report highlights the critical steps taken by local journalists to strengthen their role in providing news to communities and to the country.