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Oct. 7, 2021, 12:46 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Local news blues: The employees of small newspapers see a bleak future, this survey says

“Our readers are old, older, and oldest.”

Small newspapers, with circulations under 50,000, make up the vast majority of newspapers in the U.S. And the majority of their employees are pessimistic about these papers’ futures, a report out Thursday from Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism shows.

Researchers Damian Radcliffe and Ryan Wallace conducted their survey online between August 4, 2020, and September 8, 2020; the researchers received 324 usable responses “from a mix of editors, reporters, publishers, and other roles” at print newspapers with circulations below 50,000. It follows up on a similar survey conducted in 2016 … except that one was quite a bit more optimistic.

“Small-market newspapers” make up more than 97% of all newspapers in the U.S., Radcliffe and Christopher Ali have estimated in their previous research. In this survey, respondents came from news outlets in 44 states; “the greatest number of respondents came from Oregon (10%), Kentucky (9%), California (8%), Virginia (6%), and New York (6%),” and about two-thirds of respondents identified as reporters or editors.

The vast majority of respondents (82%) were white, despite what the report’s authors describe as “significant efforts … to contact professional journalism organizations that work with media employees from different backgrounds.” Thirty-six percent of respondents said they’d been working in local media for 20 years or more.

A quarter of respondents worked at family-owned papers, followed by major chains such as Gannett and Hearst (18%).

Among the findings:

— The overall trends are depressing.

Sixty-one percent of respondents held a “slightly negative” or “very negative” opinion about the prospects for the future of small-market newspapers. Four years ago, the situation (to our surprise) was reversed, with 61 percent of 2016’s sample being “very positive” or “slightly positive” about the future of their industry.

Forty-three percent of those surveyed “said they felt less secure in their jobs than at the beginning of the Covid crisis” (compared to 31% who felt no change and 11% who felt more secure). Almost all the survey respondents said they work 40 hours or more per week; 37% said they work 50 to 60 hours a week. And 49% of respondents said that over the past three years, “the number of stories they personally produce in an average week has increased.”

And many respondents thought their newsrooms were doing a poor job of making their staffs more racially diverse. (Remember that 82% of this survey’s respondents were white.) Forty-three percent of respondents said they disagreed with the statement “My news organization is doing a good job with racial diversity,” with the rest mixed between agreeing, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, and not knowing/not answering.

(One respondent: “My paper is owned by Alden Capital. The only diversity it is interested in is mixing up the models of BMWs the executives drive to work on any given day.”)

Print still plays a pretty big role in respondents’ work. More than half work with both print and digital output, but “where respondents work on a single channel, they are more likely to be focused on print (27% vs. only 11% that are digital-only in their role).”

More than a quarter (27%) of respondents said they “dedicate more time to print products than they did three years ago.”

Not surprisingly, 57% of respondents said “their focus on digital products and tasks had increased.”

(Almost) everyone became a Covid reporter. Almost three-quarters of respondents (74%) said they had “been involved in Covid-19 reporting”; most respondents (58%) hadn’t covered health or science previously.

Despite the additional work that Covid created — 36% of respondents said that they worked more hours during the pandemic than previously — many also felt it was an opportunity for local news. Sixty-five percent of respondents said they were satisfied with how their paper covered the pandemic.

“Our readership has exploded since Covid,” one respondent wrote, “and we believe it’s due to how local our coverage is.”

“People recognize local papers’ coverage can be more relevant than national outlets,” another respondent wrote.

Competition from social media, from TV, from life.

“People think that they don’t need to read a newspaper because they saw some headlines on the internet or they follow the local gossip Facebook page.”

“Facebook comments can be genuinely detrimental to a paper, through ways such as troll posts and people copy-pasting paywalled articles in the comments.”

“It’s been difficult for us to keep our readers interested, especially in our long-form, investigative pieces, which also cost the most money and time. In an age of quick-hit news, promoting those pieces upon which alt-weeklies are built has been a particular challenge, and we’re having to shift to a more daily-like model for our digital content.

The attention span for long, investigative pieces just isn’t there, especially if it’s ‘bad’ news, like the kind dealing with systemic racism, environmental injustice, corruption in government. … It’s all so important, but it’s depressing in large quantities. Everyone has information fatigue these days, and we just can’t get readers to invest in those important stories.”

Who wants to work at local papers? There is some sense in the survey that jobs at local newspapers are not appealing.

“So much gloom and doom has circulated about small towns and about newspapers that no one is willing to work for them,” one respondent said.

Another:

“It seems like all young journalists want to work in NY or DC. The position I filled was open for six months before they hired me, and the salary is well above average for an entry-level journalist.”

Another:

“Much of this goes back to monetary resources being scarce, but I’m surprised by the lack of applicants whenever a position perfect for an entry-level reporter was posted. With eight public universities in our state I’d be lucky to get one applicant per graduating class.”

Another slightly different but related issue:

“The main disconnect between our staff and our readers is not politics, race, gender, or even where we are ‘from’ (about half our newsroom grew up here). It’s age. Our readers are old, older, and oldest, and usually there’s a 40- to 50-year age difference between our reporters and our readers. That’s a difference in perspective and outlook that’s hard to overcome.”

There’s more on digital tools, social networking, remote work, and other interesting stuff in the full report here.

Photo by armin djuhic on Unsplash.

POSTED     Oct. 7, 2021, 12:46 p.m.
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