Worldwide, the lives of most journalists have been consumed over the past 12 months by cataclysmic events both anticipated and unexpected. But no media organization has been battered more than the local newsroom.

Journalists in America’s towns and small cities were the first responders to massive COVID-19 outbreaks, police shootings, protests, violent demonstrations, fractious political campaigns, election turmoil. From their hometowns came the domestic terrorists who would historically breach the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

While also dealing personally with the hardships of a pandemic, local journalists have been the front-line reporters of pandemic deaths, hospital overloads, community food shortages, homeschooling chaos, job loss. The universe piled on with massive wildfires and storms, layoffs and pay cuts.

As managing editor of two North Carolina newspapers throughout 2020, I was immersed in directing these dueling major news stories — an experience unlike any other in my more than three decades in journalism. Like so many other newsrooms, we had gone through layoffs and staff reorganizations in the preceding months. In 2020, we also endured a corporate bankruptcy and the sale of our company to a hedge fund.

At the end of the year, after many challenges and 70-hour work weeks, I left full-time journalism. With a few months of reflection — and some sleep — I’ve gained some perspective about what journalism did right, where we needed to do better, and what lies ahead. It’s time to tackle the biggest challenge so far: Rebuilding and reconceptualizing the local newsroom. We hope this report will help guide you through that process.

As the pandemic peaks and declines with the increased distribution of vaccines, businesses everywhere should be looking ahead to a rebuilding phase that takes into account our new realities. In many local newsrooms, however, those conversations aren’t happening, or are focused primarily on narrow questions such as how and when journalists will return to a physical newsroom. Blame it on a lack of time, staffing, management experience — but deeper thinking about what these next 12 months will bring to individual newsrooms hasn’t been a priority for some.

Thousands of news offices have been closed for a year due to the pandemic. Frankly, the newsroom reopening decision is likely to be the least complicated task for local newsroom leaders because it’s dependent on external forces like COVID-19 infection rates, the availability of vaccines, guidance from government health officials, and corporate decisions made by people far removed.

But there’s a short and important list of actions that local newsrooms should tackle now.

This report is meant to provoke those discussions and provide a starting point for the urgent work of rebuilding and reconceiving journalism in a way that recognizes our changed world.

We hope you’ll share with us any progress and momentum you’ve already made on any of the topics mentioned below. (You’ll see a link to a suggestion form in each section.) We’d also like to hear about the questions you have, and other crucial points we may have missed. These will be included in a follow-up report this summer.

How will we hold onto the audiences we gained during the major news events of 2020?

From the first COVID-19 diagnoses to the latest death toll to finding a vaccination site, local news outlets became indispensable during the pandemic. Newsrooms jumped in to answer thousands of reader questions when the pandemic hit, working to fill the information void after local health agencies couldn’t or wouldn’t respond. They’ve built dashboards, held virtual town hall meetings, investigated fraud and mistreatment.

Readers have responded by signing up for subscriptions and even making donations to local news projects. Covid news-seekers certainly could get information from national news outlets, but a study by the University of Texas-Austin found that “people turn to local news for information they can’t get from national outlets” — for instance, local coronavirus data and the pandemic’s impact on local business.

But, as Gannett’s Mayur Gupta says, “the real magic and the real proof of product-market fit comes from retention.”

Getting started:

  • Seek out the specific reasons people read, subscribed and donated. Realize that readers’ reasons for subscribing often evolve.
  • Discuss how to apply that knowledge to future coverage.
  • Identify the right people with the right skills and creativity to understand and act on this new knowledge gained about audiences.

What’s your advice? 

Use this form to share with us any progress you’ve made in gaining subscribers and any insights in retaining those readers.

How will we target and fight the most prevalent misinformation in our communities?

Misinformation can originate anywhere in the world, but it’s fed and watered in local communities. Local journalists are now faced not only with trying to undo the damage done by four years of factless rhetoric and media-bashing emanating from the loudest voice in the country, but also with addressing dangerous conspiracy theories that threaten the health and safety of communities.

“It’s impossible to look out on the current state of political discourse in this country,” says Dan Froomkin of Press Watch, “and think that we are succeeding in our core mission of creating an informed electorate.”

Getting started:

  • Find out where local residents are getting their misinformation, especially as conspiracy theorists are “deplatformed” and showing up in new spaces.
  • Find an influential community champion for your efforts. You can build credibility by partnering with a person or organization that’s already trusted by the community.
  • People won’t buy any newsroom’s efforts to inform them — literally or figuratively — without trust and true engagement. Examine your engagement efforts and ask whether you’re really meeting people where they are. “Stop pretending that you can just talk and lead,” Northwestern’s Pablo Boczkowski says, “and instead agree to also listen and be led.”

What’s your advice? 

Use this form to tell us how you’ve built trust around your factual reporting, how you’ve reached new audiences with your fact-checking and debunking efforts, and any other tips to try.

How will we rebuild understaffed beats like health, education and state government?

Before 2020, many local newsrooms had already decreased or eliminated their coverage of medicine, health, politics and state government, even education. Those beats clearly have been critical over the past year, and newsroom leaders should plan for this to be the case for years to come.

During the chaotic 2020 news cycle, reporters from sports, features and other beats jumped in where they were needed: health department press conferences, political rallies, protests and more. This was a critical and urgent temporary solution, but not ideal or sustainable. The post-pandemic world, the political divisions and racial reckoning of 2021 call for a reprioritization of coverage — along with targeted training for both veteran and new journalists.

Getting started:

  • Use readership data and community input to reshape beats and coverage priorities.
  • Then, make an honest assessment of your staff’s knowledge deficits in those topics.
  • Augment coverage of important topics through carefully constructed partnerships with high-quality niche journalism organizations.

What’s your advice?

We’d like to hear how you’ve pursued low-cost or free training, how you’ve made intentional decisions about beat structures, and any other tips for rethinking coverage.

What will be our rapid response to the diversity, equity and inclusion issues within our own newsroom and in our community?

The critical events of 2020 need to be a firestarter for the lethargic and mostly theoretical DEI discussions going on in most newsrooms. Diversity must be a non-negotiable as newsrooms move forward. A non-diverse newsroom cannot begin to adequately cover or comprehend the concerns of diverse communities, particularly the long-lasting impact of the pandemic on communities of color and the ongoing racial justice challenges.

Getting started:

  • Honestly assess your commitment to creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive newsroom. “Integration” is not DEI, says Martin Reynolds, co-executive director of the Maynard Institute. “Integration is just that you’re willing to have someone next to you, but you are not necessarily inviting someone over.”
  • There’s nothing wrong with making “the business case” for a diversity-focused newsroom, but don’t expect that to save you. “One harsh reality that’s become more apparent this year is that the business case is insufficient for incentivizing leaders to prioritize diversity,” says Nicole A. Childers, executive director of Marketplace Morning Report. “What’s needed is for newsrooms to accept a core responsibility to their audience and their employees — a moral case, if you will — to ensure they are covering the stories and experiences of the communities they serve.”
  • Many media organizations have a long history of neglect and harm in their coverage of communities that aren’t white and middle-class. Don’t assume your current leadership can independently “fix” your news organization’s DEI issues; if they could, you wouldn’t be in this situation. A “listening tour” of those excluded communities can be useful — but journalists need to understand how to really hear before embarking on it.
  • Build that pipeline. Commit to a diverse group of (paid) interns, and build relationships between newsroom staff and journalism programs at local colleges and universities.

What’s your advice?

The Oaklandside, a leader in engagement efforts, hired a contributing editor for community engagement. And they vowed that their listening effort would be “embedded in the core of what we do.” How have your listening sessions gone? Have you partnered with news organizations that focus on diverse communities? Please let us know by using this form.

How will we build our ability to produce important local investigative journalism?

Journalists have been introduced over the past year to mountains of data on infection rates, vaccine efficacy and distribution, unprecedented job loss, student performance, police shootings. Accountability reporting on the continuing impact of the stories of 2020 — pandemics, natural disasters, racial and political division — requires the ability to gather data, understand it, explain it accurately.

That challenge comes at a time when there are troublesome gaps in the ability of local newsrooms to produce quality investigative work. Staff cuts and turnover, lack of investigative training and experience among reporters and editors, and minimal time and resources are serious impediments. But they’re not insurmountable.

Getting started:

  • Build experience by setting an expectation that every reporter produces investigative work as a regular part of their beat.
  • Discuss potential partnerships with national investigative news organizations and other local newsrooms around the state. Make sure those partnerships are contractually solid, with all participants sharing the same mission and goals.
  • Earn a reputation for investigative journalism by first choosing your targets carefully. Ask for your community’s help in identifying the most crucial issues to investigate. What are the local problems that create the most fear and confusion in the region? A simple and straightforward survey can help.

What’s your advice? 

We’d like to hear your tips on finding creative ways to fund outstanding accountability journalism. Tell us about your successes and challenges by using this form.

How can we add more resources to our staff after years of layoffs and the potential for more?

Understaffing in local newsrooms has long been a given. Now, pandemic-related layoffs, time off for illness and mental health breaks, and even unused vacation time are intensifying the problem. The New York Times has estimated that at least 37,000 newsroom jobs have been impacted since the pandemic began.

Over the past year, newspaper companies have made significant business decisions about staffing, salary levels, reorganizations, and the future of print — and newsrooms likely haven’t yet realized the full extent of those actions. “Choices made during a crisis will ripple into the future,” Lauren Harris wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review in July 2020.

It’s time to launch creative solutions to increase staff size and resources without sacrificing quality — and do it with an eye to the uncertain future.

Getting started:

  • Apply now for grant-funded interns, fellows and reporters to augment your staff later this year or next summer. These programs typically work far in advance.
  • Consider a community-funded position or team like The Sacramento Bee’s Equity Lab.
  • Practice creative efficiency. For example, if editing needs are more acute on particular days at specific times, consider hiring part-time experienced editors or exploring four-day work weeks.

What’s your advice?

We know many newsrooms are preparing for more staffing disruptions. Let us know how you’re handling the current and future challenges, and any successful actions you’ve taken.

How will we care for the mental health of our people?

Journalists have reported depression, lack of focus, disorientation, disengagement and other serious mental health issues over the past year. Occasional remote check-ins from the boss, Zoom game nights and digital brochures from the corporate office are only a start. It’s time for a more thorough approach to identifying and supporting staffers who are in need of help.

Journalists typically have been working longer hours and more consecutive days for the past year, without the support of a physical newsroom, often covering unfamiliar topics and risky assignments. Around the world, over 800 journalists have died from the coronavirus; Poynter is telling some of their stories.

The mental health consequences of covering Covid “are stark and worrying,” says media researcher Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of a Reuters Institute study that showed 70 percent of journalists reported pandemic-related mental health distress. Another study shows company leaders are even more at risk. And the American Psychological Association is concerned that, as Covid “first responders,” normally resilient journalists have a greater PTSD risk.

Getting started:

  • Ensure that each staffer has someone to talk to about stress — whether it’s a supervisor or the “buddy system” sometimes used by health professionals.
  • Find out what journalists need to feel safer and healthier on the job — from protective equipment to easy access to counseling — and examine whether that safety net is being adequately provided.
  • Recognize that every person exhibits signs of stress differently and de-stresses differently. Assess whether you’re tailoring your assistance to the individual, or simply expecting that a one-size-fits-all approach will work.

What’s your advice? 

We’re interested in hearing from managers about how they’ve taken care of their own health while looking out for their staff, the mental health resources that journalists have found most useful, and any other tips for newsrooms tackling this ongoing issue.

What’s next?

From the pandemic to the political divide, the past year has presented new challenges for newsrooms and exacerbated long-standing problems. While these issues won’t be fixed quickly or easily, they can’t wait for committees, studies or corporate policies.

The goal of this report is to jumpstart your response, and to share and borrow best practices. In a follow-up report, we’ll talk about those efforts and potential solutions, and we’d like to hear from you.

Here’s how to contact us with your ideas, your own newsroom’s efforts, and other challenges we need to address.

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  • We reached out to Danielle Coffey, the CEO of American Press Institute’s parent corporation, the News/Media Alliance, to learn more about the legal fight for news organizations’ rights with AI.