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20100
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2020
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7

A big year for little newspapers

“We don’t have to rely on Facebook Groups or ticketed events to reach readers.”

The attention of the news industry, which has been focused in recent years on local journalism, will dial in even deeper in 2020, to small markets — newspapers with circulations of 50,000 or less that are often the only publications covering their communities. Challenges abound for organizations of all sizes, but small markets are uniquely positioned to combat them.

The temptation for journalists to work at national and regional news organizations is strong, but as the companies that own those organizations merge and identify efficiencies, the number of journalists in those newsrooms will continue to shrink. There were more than 3,000 media layoffs in 2019 and more will surely come in the new year. Smaller newspapers — especially those that are still independently owned — are becoming attractive places to work, and not just because of the job security many of them offer. They also boast unique opportunities for journalists looking to connect with their audience and serve a community.

Many small news organizations position journalists closer to their audience. We don’t have to rely on Facebook Groups or ticketed events to reach readers. Instead, we can find them in a local coffee shop, at the library, or even in our offices, looking to connect with us.

And for the most part, those readers trust us. Small-market newspapers aren’t seen as “the media,” but as a reliable source — sometimes the only source — of local information. Community journalists are trusted to tell stories, explain local government decisions and share what’s happening in the community. In many towns, they’re the only reporter at public meetings, and the local newspaper is the only outlet printing information about property tax increases, school policy changes, and the road project that’s going to disrupt traffic next summer. And, as studies have shown, without a local news outlet, the community suffers.

As important as this work is, many small-market newspapers struggle to recruit journalists. But as layoffs persist, and journalists at larger publications grow frustrated with the expectations and restrictions placed on them, they’ll go looking for change and find small towns where jobs are waiting for them. Whereas small newspapers have struggled in the past to find the money to train journalists or undertake special projects, grant funding is making that easier. Small organizations that come up with new projects — or work collaboratively with other small organizations — can receive grants to learn new skills, test ideas, and find ways around the roadblocks to growth and advancement. In many ways, smaller organizations are more nimble. New ideas can be tested — often for little or no cost — and tweaked as needed until the right formula clicks with the audience. No need to convince an entire organizational chart to get behind a new digital project. If you can find a way, you can try it.

The opportunities that exist at small newspapers don’t end with the newsroom. Many of these organizations are still independently owned, and as those owners reach retirement age, they’re looking for someone they can trust to take over the operation and keep it growing and serving the community. Why can’t it be the journalists in the newsroom? West Virginia University and the West Virginia Press Association have partnered to launch a new fellowship in 2020 that will train journalists to buy and run a successful small newspaper.

If you’re looking for jaw-droppingly beautiful animated interactives and far-reaching global investigations, stick with the big national organizations. But if you’re interested in high-impact local reporting that experiments with new formats and audience engagement, keep an eye on the small markets. 2020 will be the start of a new and exciting era for community news. It’s going to be a big year for the little guys.

The attention of the news industry, which has been focused in recent years on local journalism, will dial in even deeper in 2020, to small markets — newspapers with circulations of 50,000 or less that are often the only publications covering their communities. Challenges abound for organizations of all sizes, but small markets are uniquely positioned to combat them.

The temptation for journalists to work at national and regional news organizations is strong, but as the companies that own those organizations merge and identify efficiencies, the number of journalists in those newsrooms will continue to shrink. There were more than 3,000 media layoffs in 2019 and more will surely come in the new year. Smaller newspapers — especially those that are still independently owned — are becoming attractive places to work, and not just because of the job security many of them offer. They also boast unique opportunities for journalists looking to connect with their audience and serve a community.

Many small news organizations position journalists closer to their audience. We don’t have to rely on Facebook Groups or ticketed events to reach readers. Instead, we can find them in a local coffee shop, at the library, or even in our offices, looking to connect with us.

And for the most part, those readers trust us. Small-market newspapers aren’t seen as “the media,” but as a reliable source — sometimes the only source — of local information. Community journalists are trusted to tell stories, explain local government decisions and share what’s happening in the community. In many towns, they’re the only reporter at public meetings, and the local newspaper is the only outlet printing information about property tax increases, school policy changes, and the road project that’s going to disrupt traffic next summer. And, as studies have shown, without a local news outlet, the community suffers.

As important as this work is, many small-market newspapers struggle to recruit journalists. But as layoffs persist, and journalists at larger publications grow frustrated with the expectations and restrictions placed on them, they’ll go looking for change and find small towns where jobs are waiting for them. Whereas small newspapers have struggled in the past to find the money to train journalists or undertake special projects, grant funding is making that easier. Small organizations that come up with new projects — or work collaboratively with other small organizations — can receive grants to learn new skills, test ideas, and find ways around the roadblocks to growth and advancement. In many ways, smaller organizations are more nimble. New ideas can be tested — often for little or no cost — and tweaked as needed until the right formula clicks with the audience. No need to convince an entire organizational chart to get behind a new digital project. If you can find a way, you can try it.

The opportunities that exist at small newspapers don’t end with the newsroom. Many of these organizations are still independently owned, and as those owners reach retirement age, they’re looking for someone they can trust to take over the operation and keep it growing and serving the community. Why can’t it be the journalists in the newsroom? West Virginia University and the West Virginia Press Association have partnered to launch a new fellowship in 2020 that will train journalists to buy and run a successful small newspaper.

If you’re looking for jaw-droppingly beautiful animated interactives and far-reaching global investigations, stick with the big national organizations. But if you’re interested in high-impact local reporting that experiments with new formats and audience engagement, keep an eye on the small markets. 2020 will be the start of a new and exciting era for community news. It’s going to be a big year for the little guys.

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