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Life at small-market newspapers: A survey of over 400 journalists

 

Small-market newspapers constitute the majority of newspapers in the United States. What is it like to work at these publications? And what do journalists themselves identify as the fundamental challenges and opportunities for this sector?

We set out to answer these questions by asking local journalists at daily and weekly newspapers with circulations under 50,000 to tell us directly about their working lives. Of the 7,071 newspapers regularly published in the United States (daily and weekly), 6,851 have circulations smaller than this number.1

However, their experience is typically underrepresented in wider industry conversations.2 Our research seeks to redress that by providing a platform for discussion about the smaller market experience.

Through an online survey completed by 420 respondents across the United States we discovered a cohort, which describes itself as hardworking, optimistic about the future of its industry, and eager to know more about emerging digital tools for journalistic storytelling.

Despite cuts and job losses over the past decade, as a group our respondents were more upbeat about their future than perhaps might be expected. At the same time, local journalists remain aware of the significant challenges their sector faces. Respondents told us about issues in recruiting and retaining young journalists, the difficulty of establishing relationships with the next generation of local news consumers, and the wider challenge of overcoming general cynicism toward both the journalistic profession and the mainstream media.

These findings both confirmed and challenged our expectations. It’s our hope that this survey—and the wider paper we are producing in parallel to this report—can help ignite fresh discussion about the importance of local newspapers. In the process, we hope to provide pointers for further research, and to help stimulate debate about the future of this key component in our media and information ecosystem.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The observations in this paper are based on the results of an online survey conducted between Monday, November 14 and Sunday, December 4, 2016.

In total, we received 420 eligible responses (a further 10 were excluded as participants were outside of the United States). Contributions primarily came from editors and reporters at small-market newspapers.

Survey respondents identified a number of key challenges for the sector, including:

  1. Shrinking newsrooms: More than half (59 percent) of our survey participants told us that the number of staff in their newsroom had shrunk since 2014.
  2. Recruitment: Low pay, long hours, and limited opportunities for career progression can impede the attraction and retention of young journalists.
  3. A long-hours culture: Many respondents reported that they regularly work more than 50 hours a week.
  4. Job security: Just over half of respondents (51 percent) said they feel secure in their positions. A further 29 percent had a neutral view (neither positive nor negative) about their job security.

Despite these considerations, we encountered a sense of optimism among much of our sample. This confidence is rooted in an understanding that small-market newspapers are often close to their communities—with journalists sharing similar goals and lives to their audience—and a recognition that much of their reporting is not replicated elsewhere.

Nevertheless, respondents were also aware of emerging issues, such as establishing relevancy with the next generation of news consumers. As one participant told us: “We need to find how to connect with elementary, middle, and high school students, and usher them into an understanding of what journalism is, and why it is a pillar of a thriving democratic society and culture of free thought and progress.”

Social media and emerging storytelling formats such as live video may help do this, and we found strong levels of interest in some of these spaces.

Video reporting is already mainstream at local newspapers (85 percent of respondents told us their paper did this), as is organizational usage of Facebook and Twitter. Less popular is podcasting (used by 25 percent of respondents’ newspapers) and emerging tools like chat apps, or augmented and virtual reality.

It’s our view that usage of these newer platforms may grow as their storytelling potential becomes better understood and their presence becomes more established. However, it’s also necessary to place journalists’ lack of interest in these tools within the context of the limited resources (time, money, personnel) available at many local newspapers. These realities may very well restrict the wider digital ambitions of some smaller outlets.

Interestingly, although many local newsrooms have shrunk over the past two to three years, more than half of our respondents reported that their working hours haven’t increased. This finding is perhaps all the more surprising given the increased demands on journalists’ time. Our sample revealed that many local journalists are required to produce more stories and spend more time on digital output than they were just two years ago. But although local journalists often work long hours, they’re not necessarily working longer hours than they were before.

Looking to the future, our research revealed that local journalists are interested in learning more about video reporting, live video, and podcasting (even though usage of the latter is low). They typically learn about these subjects through industry media (Nieman Journalism Lab, Poynter, MediaShift, etc.), rather than by attending formal training or industry events. And when it comes to using new technologies, most respondents reported that they are self-taught. This may be an area of opportunity that membership organizations, J-Schools, and tech companies are well placed to help address.

The findings from our online survey—and the 60 qualitative interviews we conducted separately with industry leaders—suggest a plurality of experience across the local newspaper industry. Subsequently, we believe a more nuanced conversation about this sector in required. The newspaper industry, even within this smaller stratum of newspapers, is far from homogeneous.

Our conversations with local journalists found a cohort eager to know more about the experiences of their peers. As a result, we welcome moves to increase coverage of the local media sector by leading trade publications. Richer coverage and research of this industry will help to inform and inspire local journalists, policymakers, and funders alike. We look forward to seeing what happens next, and to being part of that conversation.

Read the full report here or download a PDF

May 10, 2017