Survey shines spotlight on the under-studied world of local journalism

A new online survey is asking local journalists in the US to share their story as part of a wider initiative examining the health of the local newspaper industry.

Supported by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and the Knight Foundation, this project, “Local News in a Digital World,” comes at a time of continued disruption for the wider newspaper industry.

The statistics speak for themselves:

• Between 2007 – when there were 55,000 people employed in newsrooms – and 2015, newspapers shed over 20,000 jobs.

• Between 2004 and 2014, more than 100 daily newspapers closed.

• Over 2015, the advertising revenue of the US’s seven publicly traded newspaper companies fell by 7.8 percent – the largest decline since the Great Recession.

Recent studies have focused on what these numbers mean for national newspapers. But a major study of the most recent challenges and opportunities the country’s 6,851 daily and weekly small-market newspapers  face has been lacking.

It’s this story that “Local News in a Digital World” aims to uncover. Featuring the conclusions from this new questionnaire, as well as insights from more than 50 industry interviews, the study is set to be released in early 2017.

“These are challenging times for the newspaper industry,” says Damian Radcliffe, the Carolyn S. Chambers professor of Journalism at the University of Oregon and one of the lead researchers on the project. “Since the start of the Great Recession newsrooms have contracted, titles closed and—in many cases—advertising dollars have dried up. Yet we’re also seeing tremendous optimism in the industry, especially among a number of local media outlets.”

“One of the aims of this survey is to see if this optimism is shared by local journalists and other editors,” adds fellow principal investigator Dr Christopher Ali from the University of Virginia. “We’re keen to see how digital is impacting working practices and what excited journalists about the new tools and platforms they have access to.”

Both Ali and Radcliffe have long studied local media ecosystems in the US and other markets. They felt the future of local media was no longer getting the attention it deserved.

“Until John Oliver championed the importance of local newspapers on his HBO TV show ‘Last Week Tonight’ this summer, it seemed as though people had stopped talking about the importance of local media,” Ali said.

“We want to redress that,” Radcliffe said, “and this survey is a great opportunity for journalists to tell us about how their job is changing, as well as their hopes and fears for the future.”

“Following last week’s Presidential election, this research is more important than ever,” Radcliffe added. “Discussions about the future of small market newspapers should be at the heart of the conversations we’re already starting to see, post-election, about the mainstream media’s physical and attitudinal disconnect from local communities.”6

Claire Wardle, director of research at the Tow Center, shares their enthusiasm. “This research comes at an important time for the industry,” she said. “Local journalism is a key pillar of the fourth estate, and we’re looking forward to deepening our understanding of the sector through the responses to this new survey.”

The online questionnaire, which takes about 10 minutes to complete, is available at: https://localjournalismsurvey.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_3X9HcMOoSP5gDRj

The survey is now available and closes at 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 27.