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.
Keeping those new ‘Covid readers’
News organizations often get an “audience bump” during major breaking news, but the COVID-19 pandemic offered something unique: a prolonged news event that had readers eager to read every word, every story, and actually become engaged with the content and the publisher. Here was a once-in-a-lifetime story that is important to every human on the planet. Journalists were unusually in sync with the information needs of their audiences — because the information was personally crucial to the journalists as well.
And that doesn’t happen often enough, says Northwestern University communications professor Pablo Boczkowski. “To flourish in the third decade of the 21st century, journalism has to stop conceiving of audiences in its own image,” he says. New projects and initiatives need to have the image of the reader — not the journalist whose demographic is often quite different — front and center.
That was a north star for people at Los Angeles public radio station KPCC who were tasked with remaking the “ancient” LAist website. The redesign began last August during some of California’s darkest pandemic days, and had to help retain the avalanche of new readers seeking COVID-19 information.
KPCC acquired the nearly extinct LAist in 2018 — one of several public radio partnerships/acquisitions designed to reach broader audiences. Their pandemic coverage strategy had its own mission statement and a set of pandemic “guides with incredibly useful information” including vaccine effectiveness, eligibility, and where to get a second shot. KPCC is a major user of Hearken, says Executive Editor Megan Garvey, and the engagement platform’s reader feedback loop helps direct content for the guides.
Because many new “Covid readers” were coming directly to LAist’s homepage, KPCC knew those users had to see something immediately useful and accessible — or they’d leave. That led to a crucial design decision: making the homepage look like a “live newsletter,” says Garvey. Banking on the current popularity of newsletters, the staff creates short news items for “The Briefs” section with a clean, uncluttered look.
The design and content also are meant to ensure that new readers see themselves on the site. Research on the old site design revealed reader complaints that “this does not look like my LA. This is not how I relate to my city,” says Andy Cheatwood, KPCC’s director of digital product. “They could sense a falsity of the presentation…it was interfering with their ability to pick up on the quality of the content.”
To continue expanding and retaining their new readers, Cheatwood and Garvey are working to increase diversity on the LAist homepage and throughout the site — a critical effort in a region that’s one of the country’s most diverse. One way to do that is through hiring a staff that mirrors the community. “The more we diversify our newsroom, the easier it is to speak to that community,” says Cheatwood. “If you’re not, you’re failing.”
Although their reader retention effort has shown success, Garvey is cautious. “There’s a horizon, but we’re not at it,” she says. “We’ve got ambitious growth goals… and I have a lot of faith.”
Other promising efforts, suggestions and ideas:
When the pandemic hit in 2020, the Cleveland Jewish News cut back on its print publication days because of advertising losses — not an uncommon move among local print media over the past year. But by launching a new set of newsletters, the publication responded to concerns from community members who “could not be without our print publications at a time of isolation,” publisher Kevin Adelstein says.
“While increased revenue was certainly a consideration in launching the new newsletters, for us, it was more a community engagement content play at a much needed time,” Adelstein told API. Now, there’s a waiting list for newsletter ad spots, he says, and the publication has added a “significant” number of subscribers. The organization also continued with plans for a quarterly magazine, publishing the first issue early this year in the midst of the pandemic and receiving “overwhelming positive feedback from that targeted audience.”
The pandemic waylaid Newsday’s plan to open a new video studio for live “town hall”-type events last year. But a quick decision instead to produce virtual events has resulted in surprisingly high ratings from their audiences. Among other metrics, Newsday uses the Net Promoter Score to gauge how likely the audience would be to recommend them to others. The score from event participants was nearly 70 — “world class,” says Patrick Tornabene, Newsday’s chief officer of consumer revenue and strategy. In 2020, Newsday Live held 120 virtual events, ranging from pandemic-related topics to education to the arts; they’ve held more than 40 events so far this year. Average registration is about 5,000 people for each event, which are recorded for on-demand viewing.
What’s made the events successful is the careful selection of topics and speakers, says Melissa Carfero, Newsday’s manager of event strategy and development. The interviewees have included COVID-19 expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, television personalities and musicians. “But what sets us apart from other interviews is that local people have an opportunity to question the experts themselves,” she said, framing their questions and getting answers on a more personal, local level. Audience questions are shared with reporters and editors, and have led to the creation of resource guides and follow-up stories.
Journalism struggles with understanding reader needs in general, and has a history of not meeting the needs of people of color. Today, reaching conservative audiences also is a monumental challenge. Just 10% of Republicans say they have a “great deal or fair amount of trust” in the media, according to a recent Gallup survey, compared to 73% of Democrats. You could write off a significant percentage of potential subscribers, or, says Joy Mayer of Trusting News, try to learn about and navigate that world. Trusting News recently launched a study in which local journalists will “interview right-leaning individuals in their own communities about their perceptions of journalism.” A team that includes the Center for Media Engagement will analyze those interviews in an attempt to help local newsrooms “do journalism that better connects with your community,” Mayer says.
Making diversity, equity and inclusion more than theoretical
The critical issue of diversity in local newsrooms and in community coverage was never more apparent than during the national racial reckoning of 2020. Now it’s up to those news organizations to make real and permanent improvements.
Those actions also represent an urgent business imperative. As the demographics of the country change, a failure to understand, serve and in some cases restore relationships of harm with communities of color is one of the most important changes news organizations can make. Local media cannot survive serving the shrinking audience it has now.
“The Philadelphia Inquirer has an overwhelmingly white newsroom and fails to retain journalists of color, resulting in news coverage that over-represents people who are white and male, an independent review released this week found.”
That paragraph was published in February 2021, exactly 53 years after the publication of the Kerner Commission report during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective,” the 1968 report says. And in its hiring practices, the profession was “shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting” journalists of color.
Today’s conversations about race and equity, after a year of protests over police shootings of Black people, have renewed the attention on diversifying the country’s newsrooms. Foundations have given millions to diversity programs and startups, Zoom webinars for journalists and town hall meetings for communities are ubiquitous, academic studies have been conducted. Will journalism’s racial reckoning take hold this time, despite past failures?
One of those studies, from the University of Texas at Austin, cites the Black community’s lack of trust as a key reason for journalism’s failures. “Most participants had never met a journalist in their communities,” wrote the authors in November — and you can’t trust what you don’t know. Also problematic was the view that media coverage “lacked context and was one-sided and incomplete.” Are you a journalist in a small town that has very little diversity? Sorry, you’re not exempt from the problem, another study says.
But it’s clear that local journalists cannot leave “the diversity problem” to researchers, corporate owners or publishers. To start your deeper understanding of the issues and solutions, listen to this April 2021 Maynard Institute webinar in its 77-minute entirety. Describing current coverage of underrepresented communities, panelist Lewis Raven Wallace of Press On says: “It’s not enough…to go into communities that you’ve had a damaging relationship with in the past and ask a couple questions about ‘how do you feel’ and then leave again.”
Accomplishing that is one objective of a new Houston Public Media program called “I See U” with host Eddie Robinson. Robinson describes the format as unique and one “that goes a step further than just discussions about racism.”
“How about we start having some real dialogue here, right?” says Robinson. Those discussions have been going on in Houston for years, says station manager Joshua B. Adams, but a specific platform for that conversation didn’t crystalize until George Floyd’s death and months of protests in Houston and other cities.
“Last summer triggered something in all of us,” says Kyle Claude, who was hired in December as executive director of content operations and is part of the “I See U” development team. “It caused all of these local, regional, national brands to reexamine their own process and their own role in racial inequity.” He says the Houston staff “went beyond evaluating and considering and went into action, and this [program] is one step towards that action…It brings people into the tent who have not felt included in many conversations.”
And those interactions with his radio show guests will be difficult, Robinson says. “Yes, these conversations will be uncomfortable…but uncomfortable conversations can be purposeful when they’re important.”
Robinson’s passion and plans for “I See U” will make the program a success, Adams says, but that’s not the entire point. “This is mission work that we have to do,” says Adams. “We have to dedicate ourselves to changing the culture of our organization.”
Other promising efforts, suggestions and ideas:
In March, OpenNews launched the DEI Coalition Slack channel for journalists to discuss and tackle diversity issues in their own work. A month later, the channel had more than 850 members with applications coming in every day, says Sisi Wei, co-executive director of OpenNews. Separate channels exist for staffers and for managers, and members can create their own private channels as well. The purpose is “to tackle challenging conversations, create new resources, equip themselves to be better allies and advocates, and together, change newsroom policies, systems, and culture for the better,” OpenNews guidelines say. The content and conversations are confidential.
“What I can say, though,” says Wei, “is that community members have already started creating shared resources, as well as helping each other brainstorm around tough situations they find themselves in, or current events related to DEI in journalism.”
Still, some journalists miss the in-person, off-the-record conversations that ended when newsrooms went to virtual platforms like Zoom and Slack. “Newsrooms have gone through intense soul-searching about race and other equity issues since the George Floyd killing. But hard conversations show up in harsh relief on Zoom,” says Dan Rubin, an editor with the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s proposed using more intimate Zoom rooms as “virtual spaces where topics can be developed, debated, discussed.”
Do you need to know how to create a more diverse list of sources on your beat? Add more diversity to your journalism curriculum? Understand the vocabulary of immigration? Improve your coverage of the transgender or Asian American community or people with disabilities? Be more inclusive in your election coverage or just be more inclusive, period? New guides abound for all of those topics and more. Many media organizations and journalism support groups are more active and collaborative than ever, leaving no excuses for a diversity knowledge deficit.
Several newsrooms have advice on how to conduct a “source audit” so that you can judge the diversity of your own coverage: KUT in Austin, KCUR in Kansas City, Wisconsin Public Radio, North Carolina Health News. Most likely, your audit will find that your diverse sourcing is lacking, which should prompt you to create a more inclusive source list for your news organization. Groups like the Asian American Journalists Association and Spotlight PA may provide some help, but creating a list of diverse local sources isn’t complicated: It’s basic journalistic digging, and it simply requires that the newsroom staff put in the time and effort to create and maintain it.
Truly diverse coverage starts with a truly diverse newsroom. For managers, the first step is to stop yourself mid-sentence when you find yourself making excuses for or complaining about the difficulties of creating a staff that reflects the diversity of your community. “Upper management is complicit with why our industry is where it is, as far as not having enough representation,” says Shamarria Morrison, a television reporter at WPSD in Paducah, Ky. “It’s not enough to say, ‘We want Black people in these positions.’ You have to actively go out and recruit them.”
At the height of last year’s social justice protests, Gannett calculated the diversity of its 260 local news operations and found that only 18% were BIPOC, and about 41% female. Then the company publicly committed to making its workforce “as diverse as the country by 2025 and to expand the number of journalists focused on covering issues related to race and identity, social justice and equality.”
And that leads to the second step for managers who are white: Recognize that when you hire a person of color in your newsroom, you’re not hiring a skin color. You’re hiring someone who could have a very different lived experience than you do — different viewpoints, goals, challenges. Your standard interview questions that you’ve used for job candidates for the past 20 years likely aren’t going to cut it. Here are some guidelines for conducting interviews, along with other diversity hiring tips, from RTDNA.
Fighting a real fight against misinformation
Although not always the originator of misinformation, social media communities are an amplifier for conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns — and they’re also victims of those lies. The misinformation surrounding COVID-19, vaccines, Black Lives Matter protests and other major news events have demonstrated that “fake news” in your Facebook feed and your Nextdoor group isn’t simply annoying — it literally might be dangerous.
Local news organizations are in prime position to help fight misinformation in their communities. Mahoning Matters in Ohio wanted to debunk a viral conspiracy about antifa groups looting the local Wal-Mart, so they actually went to the Wal-Mart and showed on Facebook Live that there was no antifa, no looting. “Instead of just reporting about this as a misinformation trend, we went out there and dispelled the rumors,” says former publisher Mandy Jenkins. “We can do that with every story. We’re local.”
Back in March 2020, when there was only one confirmed coronavirus case in Arizona, The Tucson Sentinel decided to jump proactively into a potential pit of conspiracies and lies: Facebook. “It’s important to challenge [misinformation] right where it happens,” says Dylan Smith, the Sentinel’s editor and publisher, so the Tucson Coronavirus Updates Facebook group was launched.
Quick intervention also was important. “I was aware that much bigger, more concerning things were coming,” says Smith. “I played a small role in the COVID Tracking Project from its early days, and it was apparent that our community wasn’t going to go without being hit by the disease” as well as by “conspiracist nonsense and politically motivated falsehoods.”
“The very first weeks of public discourse about the pandemic had already shown that it was going to be a bright light” that would attract those lies, he says. “In this case, lies were quite literally deadly, and we weren’t about to allow that.” The Sentinel team set up guidelines and rules for participating in its Facebook group, and designated administrators and monitors — comprised of volunteers from the community as well as Sentinel staff — to keep the conversations in check. “Too many newsrooms try to fix social media disasters after the train’s already run off the trestle and exploded on the rocks below,” says Smith. “That never works.”
Importantly, the Sentinel set a limit on participation in the Facebook group: Users must be local residents. “By restricting membership to those people who actually live in the Tucson area, we’ve eliminated a lot of drive-by trolls, and while we haven’t had to ban too many people or even mute them, we don’t hesitate if there’s someone who’s not there to participate in good faith,” says Smith.
Over a year later, with more than 9,400 subscribers, Smith attributes many of the thank-you notes, donations and newsletter subscriptions to the success of the Facebook group. “Right from the first couple of days, we had people guiding others to where they could be tested, people dropping off food for homebound and frightened seniors,” he says. “It’s an effort that we’re pretty proud of, and has played an important role in helping thousands of Tucsonans navigate the past year.”
Other promising efforts and ideas:
Some efforts have targeted communities where coronavirus information might be scarce and misinformation a threat. Reporters for Documented, a New York City publication that covers the city’s immigrant community, noticed that Spanish-language misinformation about the pandemic was different from misinformation spreading in English. They also found that undocumented people were particularly affected by fake claims and scams. After conducting research with target groups, Documented launched a WhatsApp newsletter sent directly to subscribers from a journalist on staff. “When they know that it’s a human being,” says Nicolás Rios, Documented’s audience editor, “you create trust.” (Tip: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a co-founder of Factcheck.org, has developed this new way to present fact-checks so that people remember them; and First Draft has new research on how to write about fake images without amplifying them.)
And in West Virginia, Black by God, a local startup for Black residents, recognized that the lack of trustworthy information in the community left it wide open for misinformation — an issue examined in a project supported by the Lenfest Institute and a study published by the Harvard Kennedy School in January. Journalist Crystal Good of Charleston, W.Va., launched the Black by God Substack newsletter and a website in part to help improve “political literacy” and the lack of access to COVID-19 data in diverse communities. “One of the hard parts is that people don’t understand the need for community journalism and/or Black journalism,” Good told the Columbia Journalism Review. “They don’t understand the information gap.”
Communications students at Boston University created a public health campaign, aimed at their fellow students, to help counteract misinformation about COVID-19. The student-led team used edgy, in-your-face messaging on campus posters, publications and on social platforms popular with their peers. “Although the university was already planning a campaign, students needed a voice they could trust,” says Michelle Amazeen, an associate professor at BU. “Generation Z is less likely to trust institutions and people in power, and more likely to trust their peers.” The campaign reached more than 2 million people, Amazeen says, and the CDC was briefed by the students on their efforts.
Here’s a look into the future: Scripps is working with the News Literacy Project, the National Association of Broadcasters and a technology company on a project to fight misinformation. The project will use NextGen TV technology to allow local TV stations to interact — live — with viewers, offering programs designed to teach skills in spotting misinformation, for example. Widespread use of the “news literacy TV app” might be years away, but local broadcasters got a glimpse at the possibilities at a virtual event in April. The Scripps effort is part of a larger partnership with the News Literacy Project, which has included the National News Literacy Week in January and literacy workshops for journalists, says Kari Wethington, a Scripps spokesperson.
Rethinking beats, retraining reporters
For many local newsrooms across the country, it took a global pandemic to demonstrate how quickly and successfully newsroom leaders could restructure their coverage to truly meet readers’ needs. Reporters were reassigned to urgent topics of the moment: health and the medical community, racial justice and disparity, unemployment and business.
Two young reporters at the Hartford Courant, for example, had little experience in state government coverage and even less in pandemic coverage when they were moved to COVID-19 coverage last year. Suddenly becoming the lead coronavirus team was in itself “a crash course,” one of the reporters told Nieman Reports. That scenario is familiar to news organizations around the country, as sports reporters began covering government press conferences, features reporters were sent to cover protests, and editors had to become experts in unfamiliar issues.
Now that these topics are an essential part of many newsrooms for the foreseeable future, managers are faced with the task of finding deeper training for their reporters. And it’ll be difficult to make an excuse for not getting that training: In the past several months, nonprofits and universities have responded with free training and self-paced training sessions. The Knight Center partnered with UN agencies on a four-week COVID-19 training course, with more than 4,000 enrollees. Many, though not all, annual journalism conferences have gone virtual and free. The Thomson Foundation has a self-paced, free course on pandemic coverage in seven languages. Through its emergency fund, the IWMF has a free, online course for reporters new to covering protests and social unrest.
Other promising efforts, suggestions and ideas:
There’s never been a better time to Marie Kondo your newsroom, get over the “stop-doing” inertia and get serious about making room for new coverage areas and projects. A recent American Press Institute report provides solid guidelines for prioritizing beats and staffing by using a consistent method to measure Outlier Media’s Sarah Alvarez has a small staff and a plan for directing their time: She asks: “What is affecting the most people? What is the level of harm? Where are there gaps in what people need to know?”
The Buffalo News analyzed its food coverage and found that some of those resources could be better used elsewhere; and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel killed a Facebook Live show that didn’t spark a lot of metrics joy.
But as you discontinue or change beats and projects, advises Joy Mayer of Trusting News, be sure to tell your audience first and tell them why. “When people don’t understand something about our work, they will not give us the benefit of the doubt,” Mayer says. “They will make assumptions, and those assumptions will likely be negative.”
As many newsrooms expanded their education coverage due to the complicated impact of the pandemic on schools, reporters and editors in some cases were suddenly assigned to cover new topics. In February, the Education Writers Association created a virtual “caucus” as a way for “education reporters on the front lines to help the public make sense of the pandemic’s impact on schools and students.” EWA also has a “New to the Beat” program for less experienced reporters.
The intersection of the pandemic and the 2020 election also has changed the way local journalism needs to approach political coverage. Local government and policy reporting have become more relevant, and more reporters will need to be prepared when national leaders show up in town to talk about the local impact of federal policies. Look for free and grant-funded training, like this series of workshops on covering state legislatures from the National Press Foundation.
For new reporters on new beats, managers can consider providing targeted, in-house — and importantly, free — training led by knowledgeable staffers. The Detroit Free Press conducted an all-encompassing training session to show reporters how to verify and check information, no matter what their coverage area. The journalists learned how to use the latest fact-checking apps and tools in their work. But newsroom managers should also recognize when they need to go outside the newsroom for specialized training. The NewsFuel directory is a good resource for searching relevant opportunities, as well as this updated list of free and grant-funded workshops for journalists.
Producing the investigative work that people want to read
On February 13, the Charleston Post & Courier published an investigative project that examined what happens to South Carolina communities where no viable local media still exist. Not coincidentally, the next day the paper announced a fund drive to raise $100,000 in 100 days to help pay for their own investigative journalism, which, as Executive Editor Mitch Pugh explained to readers, “is incredibly expensive work.”
By early May, with days to go before their deadline, they had $475,000 in individual, mostly local donations. The project, called Uncovered, “captivated a lot of people,” says Pugh. Subsequent webinars around their investigative work drew as many as 400 people — and early data on converting those attendees to subscribers is promising, says Pugh.
Most local newsrooms have struggled with the fact that long-term projects that cost considerable time and money often have a disappointing return on investment. “My real estate writer pays for himself three or four times over” because of high readership for real estate stories, but investigative stories likely “are not going to pay for themselves,” Pugh says. But they still have to be pursued. “It’s really about tying it back to the vital role that a well-functioning newspaper can play” in helping to create a healthy democracy, says Pugh.
To help broaden the scope and potentially the readership for investigative work, the entire staff of the Post & Courier along with its five-person investigations team can pitch story ideas at any time, making their case through a two-page pitch form. Up to about 40 pitches per year are considered and about a half-dozen are selected, Pugh says. The stories can be written by any staff member, possibly paired with one of the experienced investigative reporters — who also have recently worked alongside reporters in other South Carolina newsrooms to help publish accountability projects in those communities. That side-by-side work is designed to help all reporters improve their investigative skills and close what Pugh calls “the curiosity gap” among new or less experienced reporters.
Everyone wants to be an investigative reporter or “thinks they are,” Pugh says, but there’s a deficit “in understanding the core function of what a journalist does and the mindset you have to have and the rigor it takes to do the job well.” In some college journalism programs, he says, “I don’t think that’s fully understood or taught.”
Other promising efforts, suggestions and ideas:
If there were any silver linings to the pandemic lockdown, for journalists it might be the free access to the popular workshops like those held by Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). Travel costs and registration fees often put IRE sessions out of reach for local newsrooms, but over the past year, the organization offered 17 virtual workshops at no charge. About 7,800 people registered, says Denise Malan, IRE’s deputy executive director. In addition, the organization offered 189 paid fellowships to IRE’s national conference and 55 fellowships to the NICAR conference this year. (Both of those conferences broke attendance records.) IRE also obtained funding to hold a free virtual bootcamp for educators. “We hope that it will increase the capacity of educators to be able to do deep dives into investigative training in their classrooms,” says IRE’s Executive Director Diane Fuentes.
Those efforts are important, says Fuentes, to address deficits in investigative skills among newer reporters. “Having been in the business more than 30 years now, it does feel like the younger reporters are coming in less prepared.” Local newsrooms’ financial struggles have led to fewer editors, cutbacks in time-consuming journalism like investigations and internships to help train college journalists. “We need better journalists to come to us,” says Fuentes, “and organizations like IRE are in a position to help.” In April, IRE and JournalismMentors announced a partnership to provide mentors to journalists working on investigations — “a need that rose out of the pandemic,” says Malan. Journalists can choose mentors and sign up for sessions directly on the site, which is run by volunteers. The program also is aimed at matching young female journalists of color with experienced mentors of color. “Getting young women of color into the pipeline is one thing and then keeping them in the industry is quite another thing,” says Malan.
The best investigative journalism is worthless if no one reads it, and newsrooms are finding ways to get their investigations in front of audiences that might not typically see it. More news organizations are posting their deep dives on Instagram, including the Dallas Morning News (253,000 followers) and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (54,000 followers). A Canadian media company switched its newsletter content from a daily roundup to long-form investigative stories — and was so successful that it’s launching 50 new outlets and hiring 250 new journalists.
Consider whether your local audience understands or appreciates “watchdog” and “investigative” journalism — two terms with a notably aggressive connotation. Is there a different way to frame it? A recent study from the Media Insight Project noted this: “People who most emphasize care or fairness, for instance, were more motivated by a message that highlighted the outlet’s commitment to protecting the most vulnerable through their news coverage. People who emphasized authority and loyalty preferred a message about the outlet’s long-term service to the local community.” At the Post & Courier, the preferred term is “public service journalism.”
Boosting your diminished staff and content
In April, The Washington Post made an unusual request to local journalists across America: Contribute freelance articles to a special Washington Post Magazine issue designed to “show what the American public misses when thousands of stories are not told.” This fall, those stories will fill an entire issue showcasing local issues that have been underreported due to declining resources in local newsrooms.
Besides the magazine’s traditional goal of telling compelling stories, says editor Richard Just, there’s “an additional mission, which is to show that these types of stories — stories that are vital to our democracy, our culture, and the ability of all Americans to understand our society — are not being told in many places throughout the country. We want readers — both those who live in areas where local news coverage is in trouble and those who live in places where news outlets are thriving — to understand what we as a country are missing out on when these stories aren’t told.”
Asked if those stories could be shared with those troubled local news outlets for republication at no charge, Just responded: “We are committed to finding ways to make sure that these stories are available to readers in the communities where the stories are taking place — including potentially working with local news outlets as publishing partners.”
Opportunities for sharing and collaboration — whether planned, prodded or organic — are more available than ever. The walls of journalistic competition haven’t exactly crumbled, but spaces have clearly opened for smart collaborations among all types of media.
Stefanie Murray, director of the Center for Cooperative Media, says that shared projects, reporters and content among local news organizations have become more common over the past year — including in newsrooms that had little interest in collaborating in the past. “It’s like someone poured gasoline on an already well-stocked fire, and that was in part because it was necessary” due to skill gaps, information gaps and generally overworked journalists. That was the perfect storm that hindered coverage of COVID-19 in some places — and the perfect opportunity for collaboration. Iowa Watch, Side Effects Media, Wisconsin Watch and Reveal, for example, reported on overwhelmed health-care systems in small towns through a project led by INN.
Several news organizations in Chicago teamed up for the “Lens on Lightfoot” project — a look at the status of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign promises. Journalists on the project came from the Better Government Association, Block Club Chicago, Chalkbeat Chicago, The Chicago Reporter, La Raza, The Daily Line and The TRiiBE. And across the country, publications for Spanish-speaking communities have joined with mainstream newsrooms to swap stories in both English and Spanish. (To get started, see the News Media Alliance’s new guide for media partnerships and collaborations.)
But what’s particularly striking about news collaborations over the past year is the increase in partnerships between a community’s journalists and non-journalists, especially in local COVID-19 and social justice coverage. A former CNN news director, S. Mitra Kalita, left her position and started the Epicenter-NYC newsletter — a collaboration of community volunteers, contractors and a few journalists who, among other efforts, have helped thousands of residents get vaccination appointments. “What good am I as a journalist if I don’t use those skills of journalism to better uplift my neighborhood?” Kalita says in a Poynter interview.
True community-newsroom partnerships, however, aren’t always accepted in mainstream local journalism. “There are far too many legacy news organization leaders who still view the community at an arm’s length,” says Murray, and instead focus on “this faceless audience that they’re trying to grow.”
Other promising efforts, suggestions and ideas:
Matt Cabe, editor of the Victorville Daily Press in California, didn’t pull any punches in his note to readers in April. The newspaper’s job, he said, was to give readers the information they need to make informed decisions “based on facts obtained or uncovered by my reporters [but] that daunting task is compounded when your newsroom is short-staffed,” he told readers. In 2015, the newsroom had more than 20 employees; today, there are just four. Cabe says readers in the city of Barstow, population 24,000, “arguably suffered the most. The Daily Press has not had a reporter dedicated solely to that city since January 2017 when Mike Lamb left the High Desert for the Marshall Independent newspaper in Minnesota. That’s more than four years of stories that went largely untold in a city that deserves better.”
Then Cabe presented the good news: A new reporter, the first hire since 2018, was joining the staff, thanks to Report for America. This year, RFA will send 300 journalists to about 200 local newsrooms in 49 states as well as Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam. “They are newsrooms like ours, in desperate need of help,” Cabe said in his column.
Announcing this year’s corps members — chosen from more than 1,800 applicants — RFA co-founder Steve Waldman says, “The crisis in our democracy, disinformation and polarization, is in many ways a result of the collapse of local news. “We have a unique opportunity to reverse this decline by filling newsrooms with talented journalists who not only view journalism as a public service, but who can make trusted connections with the communities they serve.”
And more newsrooms are vying for those placements. For this year’s group, in “a testament to the need out there,” says spokesman Sam Kille, RFA saw a 37% increase in newsroom applications for reporters.
Cabe must raise 50% of his new reporter’s salary through donations; as of May 9, he had raised $2,040 of his $20,000 goal.
If you’re looking to augment your staff — even if it’s just for the summer — search for organizations that provide vetted interns or fellows who work directly for media organizations. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, just announced its new class of 29 fellows who will be placed in newsrooms across the country for 10 weeks this summer. The fellows are paid through the association’s Mass Media and Science Engineering Fellowship program, which has been around for more than four decades, and some newsrooms also have participated for years. The science fellows “have really helped us tell stories we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise,” says Thad Ogburn, metro editor of The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer, who has worked with the program for more than a decade. “They are smart students who can explain complex topics in an easy-to-understand way” and are versatile — sometimes tackling other topics like education and government.
The Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship matches a young journalist with a newsroom for a year-long program, with the newsroom paying 40% of the fellow’s salary. The Collegiate Network program provides and pays for summer internships and year-long fellowships in newsrooms. (Do your research: The program is supported by the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute.) Search the NewsFuel journalism funding directory for more fellowships.
A word of caution: If your editing staff has been cut, think carefully about whether overworked editors will be able to guide a young journalist through one of these fellowship programs or a summer internship. Report for America reporters get regular training and volunteer mentors from RFA. The Poynter-Koch program also includes regular training by Poynter staff. If you need help, take advantage of mentoring programs including the all-volunteer Media Mentors.
Increasingly, news nonprofits are providing their work to for-profit newsrooms and others at no cost and with few strings attached. It’s worth your time to stay informed about those offerings — especially if you have a newspaper to fill or your web content is diminished or stale. Newsrooms can use content from Carolina Public Press, for example, with a few caveats but no fees; CalMatters offers free content to hundreds of media partners. Nonprofit Spanish language local news outlets often share content with news organizations that have Spanish-speaking readers but can’t afford translation services. Many college journalism programs like the CU News Corps can provide government stories, particularly when the state legislature is in session. Check with Kaiser Health News, org, ProPublica and the Marshall Project about republication of their stories that deal with issues important to your community. The non-profit States Newsroom has a new syndication service that allows other news organizations to republish content from its 20 newsrooms.
Taking journalists’ stress and mental health seriously
Journalism is an economically precarious profession particularly for local media organizations, and that fact alone is stressful enough. Add unpredictable work hours, lack of resources, and a lethal worldwide pandemic, and we’ve got a crisis on our hands.
Or do we? If a thousand trees fall in the forest and no one acknowledges it — including the trees — is it really happening?
“Journalism is quite a macho profession and a lonely one,” says psychotherapist and former journalist Anne Mortimer. Journalists can sometimes be unwilling to acknowledge a need for help, much less ask for it.
“This idea of walking through a wall every day, wearing yourself out, and acting like it doesn’t matter,” says Scott Blanchard, senior editor at WITF and StateImpact Pennsylvania, “is probably not the best way to go about fashioning a career.”
Blanchard helped launch the Trust for Trauma Journalism, a nonprofit that aims to support research and training in trauma journalism. And one of the organization’s goals is to help colleges integrate “a kind of trauma journalism curriculum” into communications schools.
Blanchard’s concern about the impact of traumatic news events on journalists began when he was an editor at the York (Pa.) Daily Record, where reporters helped to cover the Sandy Hook school shootings. When the journalists returned, Blanchard says, “They told us that no one had trained them for this.”
For managers, the past year magnified the issue of newsroom stress because it affected everyone, Blanchard says. Usually when reporters are covering traumatic events, their managers “can respect that and understand it intellectually, but you’re not going through it. But COVID has affected everybody. At first, it took us all out of our newsrooms and away from each other. And now everybody has at least one story” about a family member or friend who suffered or died from COVID-19.
Early in the pandemic, his staffers were given an extra day off on a rotating basis, Blanchard says. Some other local news organizations have promoted or enhanced their mental health services, held game nights for staffers, added vacation time, and tried to hold regular one-on-one check-ins with staffers. Journalists are being encouraged to talk about stress and mental health, but the effort has had limited success.
“Most people are hard on themselves,” says Blanchard. Even when they’re invited to take time off, they may think “Do I really want to go to my editor and say, ‘You know, I’d like to take that day off.’ And then you look around and think, is anyone else doing this? You know everyone’s busy. Why am I special?”
Journalists may be known for their resilience and “capacity,” but unrelenting crisis coverage can have serious health problems. A 2019 study found that one in five journalists who covered devastating hurricanes had at least some PTSD symptoms. Two in five journalists “met the threshold for depression” and 93% had symptoms of depression.
In her May 2021 essay, “The COVID Reporters are not Okay,” Olivia Messer says, “When I told my editors at The Daily Beast that I needed to quit my job as the newsroom’s lead coronavirus reporter, I couldn’t even say the word ‘quit.’ Even now, weeks later, it feels like admitting failure.” The coronavirus pandemic has caused a “parallel pandemic of PTSD, anxiety and depression,” she says.
Messer suggests several steps that newsrooms can take to alleviate stress in the newsroom: hazard pay, trained mentors, adding employees to share the reporting load, and training journalists to report and write about death and survival.
Other promising efforts, suggestions and ideas:
Support groups for journalists of color have been emerging over the past several months, prodded by a year of social justice upheaval and a pandemic that hit non-white communities even harder. The International Women’s Media Foundation’s support fund for Black journalists was opened in May 2020. And a few months later, Andrea González-Ramírez launched a mentoring program for Latina journalists not only because of a historic lack of a support system — but because young Latina journalists were anxious and struggling to fit into a newsroom they’d never seen, with colleagues they’d never met in person.
At some news organizations, where the staff was struggling with their own stress and lack of resources, “it was like, jump into the deep end and learn how to swim,” she says. Then there were the ongoing “painful and difficult” conversations about diversity and social justice, prompting González-Ramírez to decide “if there’s not a program like this, I’m going to create one.” The Latinas in Journalism Mentoring Program now has about 50 mentors who have mentored about 100 women — and a critical topic of conversation is the emotional exhaustion of being “the only” in the workplace. A young Latina reporter may be the only person of color, the only Spanish-speaker, and possibly one of only a few women. “People tend to assume you’re the diversity expert or the diversity police or the immigration expert” and the representative for all Latinas, says González-Ramírez.
And then there’s the struggle with “imposter syndrome” and worrying whether your hiring was only to check a diversity box, she says. “That’s a very difficult voice to shut up in your brain.”
She recommends to the women in the program that they find as many mentors as possible, through other support organizations. “You need to create an advisory board for yourself.”
Can stress be designed out of media organizations? The World Health Organization has studied the causes of stress in companies and has found that a job that’s designed or structured badly can also cause stress for the person who fills that job. Consider how these “design flaws” identified by WHO could apply to some newsroom jobs:
Too much work done under time pressure, inflexible and unpredictable hours, poorly designed shifts, lack of participation in decision-making, unclear performance evaluation systems, poor communication and lack of clarity about organizational goals, lack of policies to support work-life balance.
An MIT study supported those findings, particularly when it comes to a system that requires an employee to work until their breaking point. “Overload is a pernicious problem that is usually caused by organizational demands, but employers can address it by making reasonable and feasible changes to how work is done.”
Managers need to realize there’s no one-size-fits-all resource to help journalists under stress. “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat,” says Unilever’s chief human resources officer Leena Nair. During the pandemic, she says, her department “became very aware of the different experiences that different employees were having. Some were homeschooling, others were on their own and very lonely. People who were just exhausted. People who wanted more time in terms of mindfulness and reflection. So it’s about bringing all of that together to provide every person with the support he or she needs.”
Here are some additional resources for supporting journalists’ mental health and wellbeing:
- Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma
- Black Journalists Therapy Relief Fund
- International Journalists Network
- The Poynter Institute
- Asian American Journalists Association
- International Women’s Media Foundation Journalism Emergency Fund
- Committee to Protect Journalists
- Society of Professional Journalists