Local news publishers understand the need to evolve their newsrooms. To attract advertisers, subscribers, and younger readers, change is essential—from digital conversion to newsroom diversity. The Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s new report, Life at Local Newspapers in a Turbulent Era, examines transformation progress at local newspapers through the eyes of those making the news.
The authors, Damian Radcliffe and Ryan Wallace, provide a candid industry perspective when they check in with newsrooms to look at the state of local publishing. The survey respondents include more than 300 U.S. editors, reporters, publishers in small-scale newspapers. It’s important to note that reporters and editors (section/managing) accounted for 66% of total respondents, and more than half of the sample (53%) worked 10+ years in the industry.
Local news landscape
Local news outlets are closing at an alarming rate. In the past 15 years, more than one-fourth of the country’s newspapers have disappeared, with 300 newspapers closing in the past two years. Further, during the first year of the pandemic, approximately 37,000 U.S. news media employees were laid off, furloughed, or had their pay reduced. However, while the pandemic brought many challenges, it also added relevance to local news.
Overtime is the norm for journalists. More than one-third of respondents (37%) report working more than 50 hours a week, and a half (50%) work 40 to 50 hours a week. Forty-five percent feel secure in their jobs, although they feel less secure than at the pandemic’s start. Given the overtime, it’s not surprising that half of the respondents (49%) report that they’ve increased the number of stories they produce each week compared to the 2016 survey results.
Transformation in progress
With the transition to digital, more than half of respondents (57%) state they spend more time on digital products than three years ago. Interestingly, the increased time spent on digital is not offset by spending less time on print.
Further, many reporters are wearing more than one hat. As one respondent noted, “An editor also has to be a reporter, photographer, newsletter writer, and social media expert, and a graphic designer also has to be the webmaster, community outreach point-person, and legal notice compiler/writer.” Unfortunately, wearing more than one hat and increasing workload concerns cause high burnout rates.
Focus on social, new tools and audience metrics
In addition, 62% of those surveyed believe that social media platforms are growing in importance to their newspaper, followed by increasing local coverage (36%) and the diversity of sources and voices (32%).
More than two-thirds of respondents (67%) report learning about new tools and technology through articles in publications like Nieman Lab, Poynter, and CJR. Use of new technology and tools include:
- Analytics and metric tools 50%
- Newsletters 44%
- Video reporting 39%
- Live video services (e.g. Facebook Live) 37%
- Alerts and push notifications 36%
- Chat and messaging apps 24%
- Podcasts 21%
Investing in the future
Unfortunately, many respondents report low interest in (1-2 out of 5) in new tools and technology. Forty-two percent show low interest in learning more about automation, 35% report low interest in Story formats on social networks, and 31% show low interest in alerts and push notifications.
Local news media companies to experiment with new revenue models, adding revenue diversification and moving away from their reliance on advertising revenue. The pandemics’ spotlight on local and hyperlocal news was a catalyst for a renewed interest in subscriptions. Now is the time for local newspapers to fully engage in digital platforms, new technology and tools, and sustainable business models.