Local journalism in the pandemic

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Local newspapers have been in decline for years, but the decline has been massively exacerbated by the Covid pandemic. Can a new type of hyper-local journalism be the answer for local news and local democracy? And how will it be funded?

local journalism in the pandemicRachael Jolley (@londoninsider), research fellow @sheffjournalism and former Editor-in-Chief of Index on Censorship, has developed a series of podcasts for Pod Academy on News in the Pandemic. This one, on local journalism, is the first in the series.

Intro excerpts…

Rachael Jolley: My name is Rachael Jolley. Welcome to Pod Academy and our series of three podcasts, exploring journalism during the pandemic.

In the first of the series, we talk about local journalism. it’s economics and job losses, the hurdles and the technical challenges and find out about pink slime sites.

Our, first guest is Damian Radcliffe, professor of journalism at the University of Oregon. We started off by talking about how journalists have responded to the challenges of working during the pandemic.

Damian, what do you think have been the biggest challenges for local journalists in the US and elsewhere during this period?

Damian Radcliffe: [00:00:21] Well, I think there’s been a lot of different challenges that local news outlets have faced. Some of those are sort of long-term structural issues in terms of trust. It access to, to read as an audience is advertising revenues and so forth. And then we’ve also seen a whole bunch of pandemic-era, issues that have suddenly emerged, such as reporting safely and from a distance, the emergence of culture wars around mask wearing, which has been very pronounced, , here in the United States and massive uncertainty about the future of the profession as [00:01:00] a result of both.

Large-scale job losses that we have seen, you know, they’re not unique to local journalism. We’ve seen that over the course of the last 10, 15 years, but have really, really accelerated over the course of the last nine to 10 months and a real reckoning about the sort of future of local journalism against a new civil rights movement and kind of racial backdrop, which is rightly making a lot of newsrooms ask if they are still fit for purpose.

Rachael Jolley: [00:01:28] Interestingly, we have seen quite a surge in readership for some local news sites. Why does that happen do you think?

Damian Radcliffe: [00:01:36] I think the biggest reason why we’ve seen that surge is that there was so much, and there continues to be so much, uncertainty about the implications of the pandemic and what it means for you and your family, for your work, for your community and so forth.

And you just can’t get the level of granularity that you might need to make informed decisions about your life. And what you do day to day if [00:02:00] you’re accessing national news. So in that environment, local news really comes into its own in terms of being able to take that bigger picture and being able to unpack it for audiences at a local level.

So I think that’s been a key reason why we’ve seen, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, a lot of growth of, of interest in, in local journalism, because it’s answering questions that other outlets are just not answering.

Rachael Jolley: [00:02:26] You’ve mentioned in some of the work that you’ve done, that local news sites such as the San Francisco Chronicle and the Seattle Times have seen a spike in readership. But that’s not true of the readership of some more directly partisan sites. What do you think is happening here?

Damian Radcliffe: [00:02:43] It’s a great question. I think to be honest part of it, we just don’t know, but I wonder if some of the reasons for that are around trust and kind of going to sort of more neutral sources and kind of more non-partisan sources to try and get a sense of what’s going on.

And, critics of some of those outlets would still say that they have an agenda, but I think they’re sort of more, more neutral in this space. They often have a long history and tradition, so deeply steeped in a, in a community. And I think that kind of really pays dividends during a public health crisis, where you’re going to, to trusted brands with journalists, with boots on the ground. And often that tends to be these kind of Metro papers and other local, local outlets. I mean, we are seeing the kind of emergence of “pink slime” news outlets in news deserts. So these are often more partisan sites that are often funded by political parties that look like journalism, look like news sites, but, , , more sort of propaganda tools for want of a better way of putting it for, political parties, particularly for the Republican party and kind of more conservative viewpoints. And they have [00:04:00] also prospered during the course of this period, but that’s really because of the fact that they’re operating in areas that don’t have fresh news, that don’t have boots on the ground. For me, what that really points to is the fact that audiences are desperately looking for accurate news and information about what’s happening in their area. And if they can’t find that it doesn’t exist, they’ll latch on to content that looks like it is legitimate and unbiased and nonpartisan, but it’s really because of the gap and sort of deficit in terms of original reporting that those sites are able to prosper.

Rachael Jolley: [00:04:37] And in terms of culture wars, we’ve seen this in TV coverage in the US around mask wearing, how has that impacted local journalists in terms of creating obstacles to doing their own reporting?

Damian Radcliffe: [00:04:50] It really has. And I mean, it varies a lot from place to place and those culture wars vary massively from state to state and even within specific states.

I think it’s very hard for people who are kind of outside of the US to appreciate just how big this country is. And the example I point to is the Oregon, which is where I live on the West coast is bigger in terms of its geographic, um, size. Then the whole of the UK,which is where I’m originally from, but only five, five and a half million people live in Oregon as opposed to nearly 70 million people in the UK.

So it’s this huge geographic expanse, and it’s incredibly diverse within that. So you do see, you know, very different attitudes and behaviors kind of, you know, within individual states, and journalists, but journalists have found this potentially, difficult. I mean, there are examples of journalists at a local level who have been berated and attacked, , physically and verbally for wearing masks whilst reporting they’ve been accused of, , amplifying, um, , spreading fear, , as a result of their, their reporting, which is very much in line with the talking points that we see from a lot of the conservative cable news channels.

And it also doesn’t help that journalists have also been openly mocked for wearing PPE, including masks by the president at press conferences. So, you know, famously earlier on this year, The Reuters White House correspondent refused to take off his mask to ask the question. And, the president accused him of being politically correct, and refused to take his question and so forth.

So when you see that kind of behaviour happening from the bully pulpit of the White House, that inevitably has an impact kind of further down, down the line. And we also saw it during the election period of covering rallies. I mean, the president went out and about, and we’re still doing large-scale rallies pretty soon after he’d also been hospitalised with COVID and most of his supporters were, those events were not socially distancing.

They were not wearing masks and journalists who were covering that often found that they were targeted as a result of. Visibly wearing protection. We’ve seen like Jon Sopel from the BBC and others have talked about the challenge of reporting in those environments. When, you know, you stick out like a sore thumb because you are not dressed and not behaving in the same way as everybody else.

And over the last four or five years, we’ve already seen huge amounts of anti-press rhetoric, which has cascaded right down from a national level to, to a local level. And that’s just been amplified during 2020 and the COVID crisis.

Rachael Jolley: I wanted to ask you, about a big theme, a big challenge for local journalism around the world, which is funding and revenue streams. Have you seen any trends in terms of local news journalism addressing this during this period?

Damian Radcliffe: We are certainly seeing as you rightly said earlier, that a number of local outlets have seen spikes in traffic and that traffic sometimes also has led to. Rises in subscription levels. But one challenge with that is that more often than not, those are introductory offers, 12 weeks for a dollar or some other kind of mechanism. And we don’t know enough at this point as to whether then whether people who’ve come in during the COVID crisis have come in during a special offer have then continued to remain subscribers once, the full price kind of, kind of hits them, so that’s a really interesting question as to, to what extent can you reduce churn? And you can kind of keep that audience that you’ve managed to recruit during COVID, but I am to some extent hopeful about that, in that we have seen a big shift in terms of newsrooms being, and particularly newspapers being, much more willing to talk about. Here’s why journalism matters and here’s why you need to fund it. And a lot of those conversations weren’t really being had kind of previously, and we’ve seen this pivot to read a revenue and a slow migration away from a dependence on, on advertising.

But I think a lot of journalists feel that it’s a bit kind of grubby and unseemly to talk about the money side of things and getting people to pay, pay for content. And then as a result of the COVID crisis with a lot of outlets, seeing their advertising falling by 80/90/95% you’ve got to make that ask of your audience and you have to get over any discomfort you might feel about that.

So we’ve seen a lot of editorials where editors and other journalists have been openly talking about the need to fund journalism, why that matters and what would be lost if journalism is not funded and supported. So I hope that that is a legacy from the pandemic that we see continuing that outlets feel more comfortable doing this. And that is part of that process. They’re also trying to find new ways to make the journalism that they do more open and more accessible. So I’ve seen examples of more outlets, willing to do things like go on Facebook Live to host events, or to talk with reporters about the stories that they are producing and really sort of like lifting the veil behind the journalistic process and being more accessible to their audiences. And I have long thought that that is a really, that’s really essential. You have to show the audience how the sausages get made if you want people to buy the product. And so the pandemic is encouraging some of these new behaviors and I hope they don’t cease and desist once we come out the other side of this crisis.

Rachael Jolley: We have started to see some changes in the way that media is funded. And I’m thinking about the Local Media Foundation that is funding local media reporting on COVID. Do you think we’re going to see more of this kind of thing in the future?

Damian Radcliffe: Yes, I do. I think that foundation funding and sort of non-profit, non-commercial model for local journalism feels like the direction of travel here.

We still have large numbers of commercial entities, large numbers of hedge fund owners of local newspapers in particular and local newsrooms that are still trying to enjoy pre pandemic and indeed pre-internet profit margins, which is just not possible. So, it’s really interesting to see a lot more discussion about the role of non-profit journalism.

I have some research coming out in, in the New Year, based on a survey of local journalists where there’s a lot of enthusiasm from among journalists for the non-profit model, they don’t really see that the commercial model is viable and that it also doesn’t lend itself to the investment in journalism that, that we need to see.

And I think a lot of foundations are also recognizing that they need to step up and meet some of those needs. And that’s long been the case with organizations like the Knight Foundation. But even though they have deep pockets, they can only fund a very small fraction of local outlets. So what we’re going to need to see is really hyper-local community foundations in specific towns and cities, perhaps supporting journalism, in that locale. And historically a lot of newsrooms have been very wary about this. They’ve been very nervous about what that might mean for their editorial independence. There’s been a lot of disquiet about concepts of public funding for journalism, which as Europeans, we just take for granted. You know, there’s been huge resistance to that historically in the US I’ve started to see that changing during the course of this past year.

And I think partly it’s a, it’s a realisation that if we don’t have those discussions and embrace those possible avenues of funding, so many jobs, journalism jobs will be lost. So many titles will disappear and our communities will be all the poorer as a result.

Rachael Jolley: Damian Radcliffe from the University of Oregon, thank you very much for joining us.

Damian Radcliffe: Thanks for having me

Rachael Jolley: And thank you to Michael Sassi for joining us today at Pod Academy, to talk about the challenges for local journalists during the pandemic. Mike is a visiting professor at Nottingham Trent University, teaching journalism and formerly the editor of the Nottingham Post newspaper. We started by talking about public confidence in news.

Michael Sassi: This idea of it’s a society within which journalists now have to work.

Rachael Jolley: How has that manifested itself in terms of this period in the pandemic, then do you think that’s had any particular implications, both on news coverage or collecting stories?

On a very simple and basic and practical level as reporters have had to work remotely often off their own patch. They’re their, their capacity for going out to knock on a door or talk to an individual or witness it or go to the scene of a crime or a place of an accident is very much more limited.

So you can put calls in, you can do it via social media, but you can’t really go and test it yourself. Or if you can, it’s on a limited scale. So that sort of diminishes your, your, your ability to go in and say, yes, it’s definitely true. So you’re almost always taking somebody else’s word for it.

I think there’s been a fundamental change in that there are, that’s an accepted fact, fewer journalists on the ground able to do this, certainly fewer independent journalists. And I don’t think we can underestimate this, the people who used to do the job, the people who were junior or trainee reporters and who learned their trade and then would traditionally go become a crime report or a health reporter, and then perhaps a news editor and then an assistant editor, well, once they get to trainee level and then they’re qualified, the money runs out. So therefore to get a salary, which allows them to buy a house or move into a decent house with a, with a higher rent. They have to go and move into public relations or to marketing. And often that will mean that they go into public relations or marketing with the police force or the fire service, or one of the hospitals, or one of the councils who still have more resource to put into public relations in marketing.

But now at the age of 30/32, when they are coming into their prime, they are writing the stories for the police force or for the council, with everything that entails, from a certain angle. And that is just an accepted as fact as a view of the world. But remember it started off as the police force’s view of the world or the chief constable’s view of the world, rather than having any independent checks or balances within there.

Because that kind of footwork is no longer possible because of resource and because it’s accentuated by the COVID situation.

The one that I’m familiar with is the £10,000 on-the-spot fines that were dished out to people, primarily students, who were having parties that broke all the COVID rules. Completely get the fact that the police have a job to do completely get the fact that there is no excuse for the kind of parties that were going on there, but the police turned up at houses in Nottingham and gave 10,000 pound fines to individuals who they believe that broken the law. No trials, no court cases or anything of that nature, just that’s the way it is. And then the stories that were published in all the media, the following day were all written by the police force, because that was the way the operation works. You know, I’m not suggesting anything untoward or that there was necessarily anything wrong in there, but that’s a very one-sided system I’d suggest. There isn’t a conspiracy of silence, but it isn’t spoken of much because you know, everybody in my position knows 1,001 people who are desperately trying to keep the flag flying, who are desperately trying to maintain the credibility of the publication for which they work and doing a very good job.

But it’s an absolute fact that 10 years ago, there were more than a hundred journalists working for some of the publications, which I edited. There are now less than 20, sometimes in some cases a dozen. So you have 90% less opportunity to write the right stories.

Rachael Jolley: So do you think journalists have done a good job in local papers during this period? Have they reported what’s going on?

Michael Sassi: Although they are key workers, they’re allowed to go to a story or whatever, but it’s very, very much more difficult way of working and they have risen to the challenge. The volumes of, of, of stories have been very good. It’s been a difficult period because people are nervous and are worried and are less trusting than they have been previously.

They’ve changed their work patterns. They’ve changed their rotas and they have been quite selfless in their desire to do work. But at the same time, of course, they were often put on notice of being considered for redundancy by their employer, and then just worked their way through that. I think it’s almost difficult for anyone who hasn’t been involved to perceive of, of, of the pressures involved with that. And so they’ve just got on with it.

Rachael Jolley: Do you think that we’ll look back on this period and see new techniques have come out of it and that they’ll carry on being used?

Michael Sassi: I work with the Notts TV, independent television station in Nottingham, and previously like every other television station, you’d try and put a camera in front of somebody to try and get the sound right, you’re trying to get the picture right. But in the last few months, you’ve had to take stuff down the line, like this conversation on Zoom or Teams or things of that nature. People are quite willing to accept that. And people have talked about how they dress, how they look, how they speak backdrops, things of that nature.

And I think that much of that will be retained afterwards. Certainly it will be by the Notts TV, because it has meant that we have been able to get a larger number of individuals and a better breadth of stories.

RJ: Michael Sassi. Thanks so much for joining us.

Rachael Jolley: Hello, and welcome to Kate Heathman, senior lecturer in journalism at Liverpool John Moores University. And we’re talking today about local journalism during the pandemic. Kate, What have been the big challenges for local journalism during this period?

Kate Heathman: I think there are two challenges. The first one is economics, the bottom line, because certainly in the paid-for local press (so the regional dailies), their overnight sales, I think anecdotally as a fairly senior editor said to me that they saw something like a three-year decline happen in three months. It was that crazy decline. And that economic picture was replicated across the country.

So that immediate fall off and, you know, the print. We forget in the rush to digital, we forget that in local journalism, the paper sales are still important. We are still making money from selling newspapers in local journalism. So I think if we look at that economic blow that was catastrophic, completely catastrophic.

However, one thing that they had to do was they had to immediately look at their newsrooms, rearrange them, make them lean, but in a way that was going to make them as efficient as possible. So I think that’s opened up perhaps other possibilities.

I think there was a big shake-up at Reach. I’ve seen new faces coming on board, some young new journalists coming through and I think that’s been important. I think the other challenge was this drive towards seeking out news on Facebook and Google. Well, certainly if we just concentrate on Facebook, and they were hoovering up with community news networks. But of course they’re not community news. They are Facebook groups. They are not curated. There are no regulatory checks on them.

The provenance of the stories aren’t being checked by editors as they would be. And whenever some somebody says to me, well, I get my news on Facebook. And I say, is it news? What’s the verification process.

And so those are the big challenges. There’s the challenge from social media, we’ll do your community news, and there’s that economic blow. That just chops everybody off overnight. Interestingly though, just before we move on – Liverpool, where I’m based. The Liverpool Echo readership did not drop off as much as some papers, like the Manchester Evening News that lost 50% of its readers overnight.

I think the Echo lost about 8%. I think that’s because the Liverpool Echo still has a special place in the hearts of people in Liverpool. Liverpool’s quite a tribal city , in a good way sometimes. And the old advertising campaigns were always, “if you want to know it’s in the Echo”.

And I think the Echo held its own. It fell off by just eight percent.

Rachael Jolley: While, print sales were falling off we did see a surge in readership for local news sites online.

Why do you think that happened? ,

Kate Heathman: I don’t know. But if you remember, early doors, February time. UK people who’d been in China were coming back and they were being quarantined in a local hospital, just down the road from where I live on Merseyside. And that was the biggest new story ever. And people wanted to know what was happening at the end of their road. They weren’t necessarily interested in a national media take on that.

They were very specifically wanting to know what is going on, what is happening at my local level. And I think that that carried on across the country. So I think there was that great increased demand. And obviously people were thinking, I will get it faster online.

One of my colleagues, Pete Leydon runs a hyper-local website in Cheshire (Nantwich News), and he was struggling to keep up with the demand from readers for his news. If you’d like, you know, the more news he could put out, the more they were taking it. It’s postcode, journalism. Isn’t it. I think when you feel that there is, you know, a monster at the door, which I think COVID represented for so many people, then you want to know what’s happening with the monster in your road/ postcode/ village, you know, you’re the big picture matters, but really it’s my family , so we all kind of hunker down a bit, really.

And I see that as a positive because, the Independent Community News Network saw a rise in membership applications this year. And another thing that I was reading, which I thought was very interesting was that they were getting independent community news providers who run hyper-local websites. These are normally journalists or they’re people with a degree of training in journalism.

So they are very verifiable news sources. ICNN said there was a great demand for people to have their membership cards so that they could verify that they were a journalist when they were talking to people.

I’m trying to be positive because I teach journalism to young people who want to be journalists! I try and stay as positive as I can. And the positive take that I get from that is hyper-local news websites being taken seriously.

Rachael Jolley: So what are the lessons that local news organizations can learn from what they’ve had to do in this period?

Kate Heathman: I think a huge lesson has been that local audiences still want proper news at a local level.

The shift to digital, central curation of news websites by the big regional publishers and by the nationals has led to stories about a single tweet or videos of cats. Publishers got into the mindset, ‘that’s what people wanted’ – they no longer wanted to know exactly what was happening in your taxi licensing committee down in the town hall, but would potentially want to know, what was happening on Strictly Come Dancing. Regional publishers were actually falling into that mindset. And what this has done mainly is that it’s reawakened the passion for local news. I think it will bring back some scrutiny as well. So, how is your local council dealing with the pandemic? How are your local schools dealing with it? What happens to your bin collections? Um, those things still matter to people and they’re the things that we used to get in our weekly newspapers.

They’re the things we’re used to. I’m sure you remember, I certainly do, when weekly newspapers were full of plumbing applications and, you know, it’s the stuff of life, isn’t it? It’s the stuff you were chatting about in the hairdressers.

And then we lost that and we went down this route where it wasn’t so much public interest. It was what interested the public, whatever that might be. It could be videos of cats, with somebody sending out some sort of tweet that we were all then going to be hugely amused by. But actually, no, the appetite is there for proper journalism.

There’s a really interesting development going on at the moment. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Manchester Mill. Have you heard of that?

Rachael Jolley: No, tell us all about that.

Kate Heathman: It’s an alternative news feed at the moment. It’s an email started by a journalist who found himself in lockdown back at his parents’ house in Manchester and decided that Manchester people would probably want some decent journalism.

So he set it up. Joshi Hermann (@joshi) is his name. And he set it up as an email newsletter and you subscribed to it and you could get a story a day. I was chatting with him last month and he was saying that he’s just at the stage now where he can employ a journalist.

He pays journalists to write for him , and he pays property. He pays decent rates and he’s covering, big news stories in Manchester. And he’s now looking at opening in Liverpool and, who knew that people wanted to read a thousand word articles about a particular row of houses in Liverpool and their plans for them and the development background to them? People do. People want that journalism and they’re paying for it.

Well, who knew?

Rachael Jolley: That’s a really interesting development. Isn’t it?

Kate Heathman: Very interesting. Yeah. Have a look. The Manchester Mill. , when it comes through as a newsletter, it comes as The Mill it’s based on Substack. It won’t be the only one because you will find journalists thinking, “Actually, no, I can use something like this and I can get proper journalism out there and people will pay”.

And I think that’s that’s, to me, that’s been a huge revelation.

Rachael Jolley: And do you think that’s something that we can take away from the pandemic period in terms of a viable way that local news can be paid for that might be sustainable?

Kate Heathman: I think the Public Interest News Foundation, have launched a COVID emergency fund and they’ve been supporting local journalism through the COVID emergency fund.

And very recently, I think towards the end of October, the Welsh government’s culture committee was saying that they have to support Welsh journalism in some way, because if Welsh journalism, particularly Welsh language journalism, is lost, then people will not be able to understand devolution. They won’t be able to understand the issues. So that’s a massive democratic thing. I always always say to my students, “democracy, democracy, democracy, this is why we need local journalism” and I think more and more now, people are realising the value of what they’ve had.

This is journalism’s transformative moment. I really believe it is. I think it’s the point at which we’ve allowed ourselves to go down this decline in quality over 20 years. This is the point at which we’ve almost hit the buffers. But if you want to carry on down the tracks, you’re going to have to invest in your trains.

We’re going to have to get this something that people are going to want to pay for again. And wouldn’t that be a delight if people said actually, yes, I will. So that’s my optimism. That’s me with my optimistic head on!

Rachael Jolley: Kate Heathman, thank you very much for joining us.

Kate Heathman: You’re welcome. It’s a pleasure.

Thank you.

It is clearly a time of chance and challenge for local news around the world as it struggles to cope with covering the pandemic – the rising levels of violence, anti-mask actions, and violent attack. But there are signs of optimism with the rapid growth in readers on-line for news sites and a new trend, the news newsletter.

Thanks to Damian Radcliffe, Michael Sassi and Kate Heathman for joining us at Pod Academy.

Join us for the next two podcasts in the series with guests including the former global director of BBC News, Richard Sambrook, the Belgian journalist Jean-Paul Marthoz and Kirstin McCudden of the US Press Freedom Tracker.

Listen to our second podcast on this theme, the dangerous business of journalism.

Photo by Obi Onyeador on Unsplash

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