Tow Center study captures local news life

Comprehensive survey asks tough questions about business, diversity, talent and job security


Last year, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism hosted an online survey to understand better what professional life is like for people who own or work at small-market newspapers around the country. The survey delved into topics like COVID-19's impact on the news business; Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI); business models and innovation; social media, platform distinctions, professional development and other timely concerns.

Damian Radcliffe and Ryan Wallace spent the time since compiling and analyzing the results. Wallace is a researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Texas School of Journalism. Radcliffe, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon and a Fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, shared the results of their study with Editor & Publisher (E&P).

The online survey — taken for about a month in August and September 2020 — was completed by 324 respondents who identified as editors, reporters, publishers and other disciplines at small-market local newspapers with print circulation of less than 50,000. Most (25%) hailed from family-owned companies; 18% represented papers owned by a national chain; 12% reported from regional chains; 10% were local- or community-owned, and 4% weighed in from news companies owned by non-journalism entities, like hedge fund companies.

One respondent pulled no punches, offering this perspective: “The biggest challenge for small newspapers is distant, corporate owners who don’t give a crap about journalism and are bleeding their ownings dry before they sell them to the next vulture.”

Another declared, “Large corporate ownership is ruining local newspapers. They introduce large fix-it-all solutions that actually make local conditions worse for reporters, editors and readers. Websites are made to be cookie-cutter and run spam and ads mixed in with our local content that erodes the trust from the public.”

The question about ethnicity and race reflected a lack of representation in newsrooms around the country. The vast majority (82%) of the respondents self-identified as white. The second-largest race/ethnic group was Hispanic/Latino at just 2%; 12% opted out of the question.

“In terms of the make-up of newsrooms, respondents felt their organization is doing a good job with diversity of age (50%) and gender (47%); however, these sentiments dropped to 18% when it comes to racial diversity,” the authors noted.

Radcliffe and Wallace asked the participants about digital tools and technologies they've been using. Analytic and metric tools were in use by 50%; newsletters scored second, with 44% reporting they published them. Video and live video were nearly as popular, and chat/messaging apps (24%) and podcasts (21%) came in last, perhaps reflecting early adoption.

“Employees are not just interested in new products, but also fresh approaches to journalism, with strong levels of interest seen across our sample to find out more about engaged journalism and solutions journalism,” the study’s authors surmised.

For many of the local news businesses, the business model needed to be fluid during the pandemic. One in five of the respondents (22%) reported that they’d made modifications to their paywall structure as a result.

Social media is seen as a blessing and a bane. Sixty-two percent of respondents said that social networking had gained in importance to them professionally, yet the negative influence on advertising and content was noteworthy. One participant wrote, “The advertising dollars are going away and not coming back. Google and Facebook have just eviscerated the business.”

Another said, “Twitter appears to be fueling a culture where younger media consumers expect to be pandered to, and disagreement or shades of gray is dismissed as ‘both-sideism.’ Cultural polarization is bleeding into people’s attitudes toward news.”

It may come as no surprise to E&P readers that people who work at local newspapers are logging long hours. “Even with COVID-era furloughs, pay cuts and reduced contracted hours, more than a third of respondents (37%) told us they work 50 to 60 hours a week, with half (50%) saying they work 40 to 50 hours a week,” the authors reported.

One of the respondents offered this perspective: “Our publications have decreased in the number of pages, specialty publications and promotions have been canceled, editorial staff hours reduced, yet they continue to work hard to fill the pages each week. There have been areas within our company where people have lost their jobs — either temporarily or permanently.”

Another survey respondent reported, “Aside from lack of funds and tight time constraints, another challenge we're facing at small newspapers is the necessity to wear several hats while only getting paid for one job. For example (at least at our publication), an editor also has to be a reporter, photographer, newsletter writer and social media expert; and a graphic designer also has to be the webmaster, community outreach point-person and legal notice compiler/writer. This all contributes to stress and burnout, and the issue ties into the fact that we don’t have enough money to hire more people.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on news publishers in so many ways. It has been an era of certain uncertainty. Questions about job security revealed that 43% of the participants said they felt “less secure” in their jobs compared to how they felt at the start of the pandemic. But 11% said they felt more secure, comparatively.

Gretchen A. Peck is an independent journalist who has reported on publishing and journalism for more than two decades. She began her reporting career covering municipal government at a suburban Philadelphia daily and also served as an editor-in-chief/editorial director for a magazine publisher. She has contributed to Editor & Publisher since 2010 and can be reached at


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