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Life at Local Newspapers in a Turbulent Era

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Life at Local Newspapers in a Turbulent Era

Findings from a survey of more than 300 newsroom employees in the United States

Columbia Journalism Review,

15 min read
7 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

The pandemic made small, local American newspaper reporters and editors work in new and different ways.

Editorial Rating



  • Comprehensive
  • Applicable
  • Eye Opening


In 2020, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism surveyed editors, reporters and publishers at small, local American newspapers about how the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way they do their jobs and challenged their mission. Despite what local journalists perceive as an uncertain future, most were eager to find solutions. This extensive report by Damian Radcliffe and Ryan Wallace will be of value to anyone concerned about the state of small-market, regional media – and its possibilities for tomorrow.


Despite financial difficulties, local papers still rely on journalists to do what they’ve always done.

More than 90% of the daily or weekly newspapers in the United States have a circulation smaller than 50,000 households. In most of their communities, the public doesn’t understand the challenges of working at small-market publications.

People rely on local journalism to know about and engage with events in their communities. Local newspapers have faced serious economic challenges in recent decades, problems that the pandemic has compounded. Since 2000, more than a quarter of America’s newspapers have shut down.

Editors, reporters and other staff members at small, local American newspapers reported in a 2020 national survey how deeply the pandemic has affected their work and placed additional pressure on local newsrooms. As of April 2020, nearly 100 local newsrooms had closed shop, some permanently. And in the first year of COVID-19, various media outlets laid off thousands of workers. Still, according to 2019 research, small-market newspapers remain most people’s principal source of local news.

Most local journalists work in both digital...

About the Authors

Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Ryan Wallace is a researcher and doctoral student at the University of Texas School of Journalism.

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