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This is one of a series of articles and videos on the June 2017 conference “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. Watch the full conference panel below. To read more about the conference and local news, visit:

Staff Reporter

Across the United States, reporters and editors at local newspapers are working longer hours, in smaller newsrooms and with fewer opportunities for advancement.

They’re also optimistic about the future of local news, and their futures in it, a recent study in the Columbia Journalism Review has found.

Damian Radcliffe, the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon and co-author of the study “Life at small-market newspapers: A survey of over 400 journalists,” says that optimism stems from the unique opportunities small markets afford local newspaper reporters, such as  covering under-reported stories and living in the community they work in.

“What’s often really unique to local organizations is the opportunity to bring people together, to actually bump into your readers,” says Radcliffe, “which gives a great opportunity for storytelling in a way that’s much harder to do in a major metropolitan—particularly in a large national publication.”.

He discussed his research on a panel about the economics of local news, joined by Nikki Usher Layser, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University; Nicole Blanchett Neheli, a professor of journalism at Sheridan College; and panel moderator Sherry Yu, an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University.

For the study, Radcliffe and co-author Christopher Ali, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, interviewed 60 industry experts, analyzed data from the Pew Research Center, the Engaging News Project, the American Society of News Editors’ Newsroom Employment Diversity Survey, amongst others, and created an online survey. A majority of the 420 journalists and editors who responded reported that, despite the documented challenges associated with working at a newspaper, they were still eager to embrace new digital tools and looked forward to the future of local news.

Local newspapers are often the only source of original reporting in town, Radcliffe says. Serving smaller markets provides both local newspapers and their reporters with unique opportunities they need to leverage to survive.

“Locality is a real asset,” says Radcliffe, “Both in terms of being able to tap into an audience for readership, and also in terms of potential revenue and local ad dollars.”

Local newspapers still aren’t spared from the general downward trend that’s taken hold of the newspaper industry, though. According to the Pew Research Centre, in 2016, newspapers’ ad revenue suffered its steepest decline since 2009, and newsroom employment continued to fall. The only difference, Radcliffe says, is it happens at a slower pace in smaller markets.

Despite their optimism, reporters are still ultimately overburdened and under-resourced, and they’re still trying to do it all.

“You can do anything,” says Radcliffe, “But you can’t do everything.”

He suggests a less-is-more approach, saying reporters should limit the scope of their work, hone in on their strengths, and play to them.

Stepping away from the 24-hour news cycle could be a start, and it could even strengthen the newspapers reporters work for.

While speaking with reporters at the Seattle Times, Layser says she saw an “obsession” with updating stories online, an impulse prompted by a metrics-driven news environment—one story about a pitbull, she notes, was updated 24 times—and she says it might hurt newspapers in the long-run.

“Most people are coming to you on the web,” says Layser, “And all they’re seeing is a pitbull story instead of that great investigative feature that you actually do have.”

“This may, in turn, undermine your overall authority.”

Blanchett Neheli has seen that process play out at at the Metroland-owned Hamilton Spectator, where one digital team handles, the Waterloo Region Record’s site and At the and, a mandate to get more pageviews can be at odds with local reporters tasked with providing local content to their readers. As a result, local news, which doesn’t always prompt a spike in traffic, can lose out to viral content online.

“At the Record, they really want to keep it local,” says Blanchett Neheli, “But they have to broaden the focus of local to get more pageviews.”

Competing goals are a source of friction, says Blanchett Neheli. Record editors call Hamilton wanting more local content on their website and complain that their readers don’t like what they’re seeing, but for the online team, “it’s about the metrics.”

The focus on up-to-the-second performance might be counterproductive in the long run, as well. While Blanchett Neheli was researching The Spectator, she found that local stories ultimately performed better than viral content in the long run. Moreover, she says, its print product, including classifieds, still generates about five times as much revenue as digital.

Despite ongoing problems, Blanchett Neheli says the journalists she spoke to are still eager to report.

“They’re doing great work. They’re very proud of the work. They’re very supportive of each other.”

While the way forward for local newspapers may not be clear, Radcliffe cautions against buying into the worst predictions about the death of local news.

“Too often, the doom and gloom narrative about the future of journalism, and in particular the future of newspapers stems from journalists themselves,” he says.

“If we keep telling audiences that our industry is dying and is on its last legs, then there’s risk of it becoming a self fulfilling prophecy.”

This is one of a series of articles and videos on the June 2017 conference “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. Watch the full conference panel below. To read more about the conference and local news, visit:

Staff reporter

Local news is important, but it is far from perfect, says the lead researcher for the U.S. Media Deserts Project.

Speaking to a recent Ryerson University conference on the future of local journalism, Ohio University professor Michelle Ferrier said it’s time to focus the local news debate on people whose stories have traditionally been ignored or misinterpreted.

When Melanin Monroe –the sister of a Black man shot by a security guard in Ferguson, Missouri in March 2017– tweeted a photo of her brother, Ferrier took note. “This is our brother that was shot in Ferguson today,” Monroe wrote. “24-year-old, goes by the name Luh Jay Jay. Before the media puts out a photo of him.” Ferrier, who is her university’s associate dean of innovation, research/creative activity and graduate studies, used this example to show that not everyone feels “well represented” by the media, and cited it as evidence of the “damage that journalists themselves have done” to erode the trust of racialized communities in America.

“For some communities, it’s not going back to some golden age of journalism at the local level,” Ferrier said.

“For many rural communities and communities of colour, journalists are equivalent to the police, viewed with suspicion, where drive-by journalism is committed upon populations, where they’re considered zoo stories.”

Ferrier, the president of Journalism that Matters, is working on an ongoing project that aims to identify media deserts—geographic areas with no access to current local news and information. So far she has mapped newspaper circulation by ZIP code with a view to discovering gaps in coverage throughout the U.S. The next step will be to map hyperlocal coverage.

Ferrier said she wants to begin a new conversation about local news, one where journalists build authentic relationships and help the community see itself: “First and foremost we need to repair the trust that has been breached.”

Ferrier was part of the panel Understanding Local Journalism: An Overview, along with Damian Radcliffe from the University of Oregon, who suggested a local-news golden age never really existed, describing the nostalgia for one as a “fool’s errand.”

Radcliffe and Ferrier were joined by April Lindgren, associate professor at Ryerson School of Journalism, Colette Brin, director of the Centre for Media Studies at Université Laval, and moderator Jaigris Hodson, assistant professor and program head of interdisciplinary studies at Royal Roads University.

“Local news needs to reinvent and reinvigorate itself. It’s not going to be what it once was,” said Radcliffe, who is also a research fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

His data comparing local news ecosystems in the U.S. and the U.K. show huge reductions in newsroom staff, boots-on-the-ground reporting, and advertising revenues across the board. More than 20,000 journalism jobs have been lost in the U.S. alone, said Radcliffe, and most of those aren’t coming back.

But to reinvent local news means knowing what it means.

“The definition of local is a real challenge for us researchers and also for policy-makers because it’s highly personal,” Radcliffe said.

“Everyone in this room would define local in a very different way.”

For example, he pointed out, the state of Oregon—population four million—is geographically bigger than the whole of the U.K.: “I work with people who might think that Oregon news is local news where that would be national in the U.K.”

Despite research challenges, Radcliffe insisted there are “very valid reasons for optimism.” There’s a chance to repair the breach of trust Ferrier spoke of, he argued, through innovations in storytelling, and through recognizing that “we now have access to tools which allow us to be more engaged, closer to our audience, and measure impact in a way that we never previously could.”

Canadian researchers are also trying to understand the challenges faced by local news media and how to take action in cases where communities are underserved. April Lindgren, lead investigator for the Local News Research Project, said the local news landscape in Canada “isn’t a pretty sight.” She called the growing awareness of the troubled local news landscape an “awakening” that has “coincided with the realization that we actually don’t know a lot about what’s really happening on the ground.”

Lindgren is investigating local news poverty—a phenomenon where local news has failed to meet community needs—through research projects such as a study that measured local news reporting on local races for MPs in eight communities during the 2015 federal election. Working with Jon Corbett from the University of British Columbia she has also created a crowd-sourced map that tracks local news media closures, mergers, and openings across the country. The map has identified nearly 200 media outlet closures in 150 communities since 2008.

“Increasingly in Canada policymakers and others are raising concerns about what’s going on,” she said.

Citing non-existent, flawed or incomplete data sets that make it difficult for researchers to do their work, Brin said lack of data about the local news landscape is also an issue in Quebec.

“We talk about local news poverty, we could also be talking about local news research poverty,” she said.

To know what’s happening on the ground is key to understanding what, if anything, to do about it, said Lindgren. Her team is developing a diagnostic checklist of news poverty risk factors—what Lindgren called a “shortcut to determine if a place is at risk.” Factors such as income, population and education are among the variables that will be investigated for possible inclusion on the list.

Lindgren said the work of the Local News Research Project is an attempt to address a problem identified by Carleton University professor Dwayne Winseck during his testimony before the House of Commons Canadian Heritage Committee during its 2016 hearings about the state of local news.

”When it comes to changes in the Canadian media landscape,” she said, “there are, as he (Winseck) put it, a lot of opinions and little data to act upon.”