Lessons learned from The Journalism Crisis Project
By Lauren Harris

When I started writing this newsletter in the spring of 2020, it was with the intention of cataloging the financial disruptions in the media industry caused by the pandemic. As CJR and the Tow Center for digital journalism covered newsroom cutbacks, it became clear that though the pandemic was wreaking havoc on the industry, local newsrooms—having faced attrition for a decade—were least-prepared to weather the storm. Thus, over the next year and a half, this newsletter began to focus more specifically on the present realities facing local newsrooms, with an eye toward a better future. 

This week marks my last newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project; soon, I’m moving on to a new opportunity. It’s been an honor to write for this audience regularly, and as a parting gift, I want to summarize some of what I’ve learned in my reporting over the past few years, in the hopes that it inspires continued conversation.

Here are a few lessons learned:

ONE: “Local news” has many forms, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

If you’re a regular reader, you’re no stranger to my repeated reminder that local news comprises many things; in part, I’m reminding myself. Even after nearly two years covering local journalism, the phrase “local news” still conjures very specific reflexive images in my mind: a half-filled rack of newspapers, a small room filled with scrappy reporters holding spiral notebooks, ink-stained fingertips. Based on my attention to the national conversation about local news, I’m quite convinced that I’m not alone in my chronic narrow thinking. 

Often, when people use the phrase “local news,” they mean newspapers (admittedly, the most-beleaguered form of local journalism). Of course, local journalism also includes radio, television, digital outlets. And localized information includes even more: community newsletters, public forums, library programs. Over time, in an effort to expand my own thinking and coverage, I’ve tried to focus on “local information” over “local news.” Information is the need; news is just one tool for meeting it. 

What the conversation really needs is more specificity: let’s be careful to describe what we mean when we talk about “local news,” to better address each model’s failures, benefits, and opportunities.

TWO: Local journalism faces many of the same challenges as national journalism.

Though local newsrooms face unique challenges of their own, they’re not magically immune to the troubles facing journalism as a whole. There’s a considerable amount of research connecting the loss of local newsrooms to the loss of government accountability, civic engagement, and community; because of this, it’s easy to place a lot of hope in bolstering local journalism as the solution to all our civic problems. But just like national newsrooms, local newsrooms are operating in an information system that has changed a lot over the past decade, and many of them must also reckon with the fact that they have served as tools for white supremacy

Restoring traditional local newsrooms to their former prevalence and strength will not necessarily address historic failures to reach marginalized communities, employ diverse staffs, or operate using paradigms that question the status quo. (In fact, without focused and concerted efforts to address these failures, they will almost certainly continue). By the same token, while adding journalists to newsrooms and supporting local information will certainly improve the state of things, local journalism will continue to face challenges with rebuilding trust, combating misinformation, drawing readership, and navigating political polarization. Though local newsrooms are often better poised than national outlets to address such problems, such problems plague journalism everywhere, and it will take time, thought, and creativity to address them. 

In short, local news isn’t an unequivocal good; we must work to make it better, even as we work to make it grow. 

THREE: Local information functions differently in each place. 

Being a media reporter for a national outlet, it’s easy for me to get caught up in generalized conversations about the business and editorial models of local newsrooms. But local news practitioners refute my assumptions again and again. Though advertising revenues have decreased significantly across the country, some local newsrooms continue to subsist on advertising dollars. While financial failures force some journalists to make sacrifices, others make reasonable sacrifices willingly and see that work as a service. While some newsrooms fail to reflect the demographics of their surrounding community, other newsrooms operate in demographically homogeneous communities and face different challenges as a result. Though print journalism may have passed its heyday, people living in places with limited access to broadband connections still depend on it. 

Each local market is different, every community is unique—culturally, geographically, demographically—and different things work in different places. Not all local newsrooms are facing the same challenges; not all local newsrooms will benefit from the same innovations.

FOUR: Be careful what you label as insignificant. 

From a national vantage point, it’s good to emphasize the civic functions of local news—its role as a watchdog, its value in building a space for local engagement—but it’s also good to celebrate the less weighty benefits of local information sources: beautiful writing, school sports coverage, community competitions, fiction. These things matter to people, and their value comes up again and again and again in my conversations with local news practitioners. 

The local information crisis is tricky, because it’s vast, varied, and hard to measure. Continued attention to the problem must center people’s needs (a notoriously difficult thing to quantify). I’ve become convinced that the best way to invest in a solution for local information gaps is to invest attention locally as well as nationally. What needs to be done in your community, and how are you going to participate in the solution? 

The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, and to foster a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us. (Click to subscribe!)

EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Throughout 2020 and 2021, researchers at the Tow Center collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. There’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here. And read a recent report here.

More on recent media trends and changes in local newsrooms:

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