Re-examining the local journalism crisis
By Lauren Harris

Kristen Hare has been reporting individual cases of newsroom cutbacks since early in the pandemic; The Tow Center’s Cutback Tracker depends on much of her excellent work. Now, in a new project for Poynter—Recovering the News—Hare hopes to focus on solutions to the local news problem.

The project’s title hints at some of its goals: promoting recovery and health in beleaguered news outlets and “re-covering” the news—as in, covering the news crisis a second time, with an attentive eye. “Every time something would come up that I didn't have time to cover, I drop something in my notes to come back to later,” Hare says. “Hey, this community has restarted its newspaper, or, What happened to all the newsrooms that had these racial reckonings this summer? Has anything actually changed? I would come across these pieces of string and stick them into this note.” 

The “Recovering the News” project aims to burrow back into those questions with greater specificity. Hare and the Poynter team plan to gather more precise data around the numbers and demographics of newsroom layoffs, to profile news industry staffers who have lost their jobs, to follow up in newsrooms where racial inequity was brought to light, and to celebrate models that are highlighting the possibility of something new.

Reporting on trends always has the capacity to be reductive, even misleading; the journalism crisis beat is no exception. (“It’s not all bad,” Hare wrote, of the current state of journalism. “But some of it is bad.”) This dynamic, as straightforward as it sounds, can be difficult to pin down in national reporting on something as individually nuanced as the local journalism industry. Reporting from thirty-thousand feet, it’s typical to describe the nature of the situation using broad generalizations; what’s happening on the ground, however, is more complicated. 

Much of the industry is struggling. Then again, nonprofit newsrooms are making big and exciting strides. Some local outlets are hale and hearty. There are innovators, and survivalists, and those flying under the radar. Though many media markets are increasingly homogeneous or void of good information, there are still communities with diverse media markets. Cutbacks are felt doubly: by those losing jobs, and by their communities. The “save local journalism” mantra has its own flaws and blinders; bad local journalism can be harmful. But a “survival of the fittest” paradigm has limitations too; maybe outlets don’t inherently deserve to survive, but communities deserve access to good information. So what should happen in the meantime?

I asked Hare how to hold in tension the bad news—the layoffs and the closures at the end of decades of attrition in local newsrooms—with the things that are really working: nonprofit newsrooms, unique projects that meet information needs, a reimagining of the industry. “I think maybe we don’t hold them in tension,” Kristen Hare says. “Maybe we hold them in two different hands. It’s one of the things I’m learning, this pandemic. That two very different things can be true at once.” Now, there's an opportunity to dig back into the story and figure out the details. 

The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, tallying lost jobs and outlets and fostering a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us (click to subscribe).

EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past year, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. Now there’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.

CONTRIBUTE TO OUR DATABASE: If you’re aware of a newsroom experiencing layoffs, cutbacks, furloughs, print reductions, or any fundamental change as a result of covid-19, let us know by submitting information here. (Personal information will be kept secure by the Tow Center and will not be shared.)

Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms across the world:

  • MORE LAYOFFS: BuzzFeed—which acquired HuffPost less than a month ago—laid off forty-seven employees and closed its Canadian publications just two weeks after they filed for union certification. And Sinclair announced last week that it will lay off hundreds of employees across the country, CNN reported.
  • COMPASS EXPERIMENT DISBANDS: For CJR, Gabby Miller reported on the Compass Experiment’s transition to new management. The initiative, formerly owned and operated by McClatchy, partnered with Google News’ Local Experiments project to establish three digital news outlets in communities with limited access to local news. As of last week, ownership of the three outlets was split, and all three members of the business team were laid off. Mandy Jenkins, the project’s former general manager, told Miller that the outlets have built strong community connections, which will be the key to their future success. “You’re never going to get them down as long as you’ve got the people who really made this happen still involved,” Jenkins said.
  • PBS COULD HELP BUILD TRUST: Researchers—in collaboration with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism—found that viewers across the political spectrum indicated high levels of trust in PBS News. "For PBS to experiment digitally and keep the lights on, it requires greater funding and a rethink of public policies towards public broadcasting," Christopher Ali, Hilde Van den Bulk, and Bo Lee write for CJR. "If the funds were available for digital experimentation at the local level of broadcasting and within the PBS programming community broadly, PBS may be able to play a larger role in restoring trust in the media."
  • ON VOICES (NOT) IN THE NEWS: “Journalism is a public service,” Angela Yang writes for Poynter. “So why doesn’t it represent the public?” Yang describes how the high barriers to entry for the profession—including expensive degree programs, limited access to specialized opportunities, and unpaid internships, among other things—limit the talent pool, excluding marginalized groups that have much to offer journalism and its readership. (For gal-dem, Maya Lothian McLean wrote about the damage to the industry when media companies don’t invest in supporting and training young, diverse voices). For NiemanLab, Ki Sung, Jonathan Blakely, and Vinnee Tong from KQED in the California Bay Area describe how newsrooms can conduct source audits to compare the gender, race, age, and location of people appearing in stories against local demographic data. Also for NiemanLab, Elise Stolte suggests network mapping.
  • “WHAT THE PANDEMIC MEANS FOR PAYWALLS”: Over the course of the pandemic, many publications lowered paywalls to offer critical information to readers. For CJR, Mary Retta asked what might happen next. “The willingness to remove barriers may cast doubt on the common presumption that paywalls are an unfortunate necessity in journalism, an essential public good that is expensive to produce,” Retta writes. “And paywalls do not affect all readers the same way.”
  • COMPANIES MOVE AWAY FROM THIRD-PARTY DATA: Penske Media Corporation—which owns publications like Variety, Rolling Stone, and Deadline Hollywood—has joined a growing list of publishers which will depend on first-party data for targeted ads, Axios reported. The company’s new data services division, Atlas Data Studio, creates audience groups by depending on subscription and membership information or event sign ups, rather than depending on third-party information from tech platforms.
  • IOWA LAUNCHES NEWS NONPROFIT: For the Des Moines Register, Kyle Munson writes about the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation, a nonprofit of which Munson is the founding board president. The newsroom intends to invest in existing local newsrooms to adapt news models and build better community-based journalism. “If we can’t literally be on the same page as our neighbors when it comes to trusting sources of local news, we’ll find it only harder to reach consensus when haggling over decisions at the local school board or city council meeting,” Munson writes.
  • MICHIGAN RADIO MAKES PUBLIC MEETINGS INTO PODCASTS: Last week, Michigan Radio launched a new project called Minutes, creating podcast feeds for forty-two city council meetings in the state, Current reported. The project also uses transcription software to make the meetings more searchable. “One day, we hope projects like ours will make it just as easy for people to find out information about local government as it is to get weather updates or sports scores,” Dustin Dwyer, Minutes co-creator, writes. “One search, and you’ll have what you need.”
  • LOCAL JOURNALISTS TURN TO SUBSTACK: Some local reporters—either laid off or looking for ways to expand—are turning to Substack, Poynter reported last week. Elizabeth Djinis explores the benefits and drawbacks of the Substack model at the local level.
  • IN FLORIDA, THE FACES BEHIND THE LAYOFFS: In anticipation of the sale and closure of its printing press in St. Petersburg, the Tampa Bay Times profiled some of the 150 plant workers who will lose their jobs. Many have worked for decades to print the paper.

JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers and job providers. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. The International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education.

Questions or comments about today's newsletter? 
Reach today's newsletter editor, Lauren Harris, at
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