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Award-Winning Journalists Discuss Current Challenges for Local Newspapers at Shorenstein Center Event

The Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy hosted an online webinar on local news Friday.
The Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy hosted an online webinar on local news Friday. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Carrie Hsu and Justin Lee, Contributing Writers

Award-winning journalists James Goodman, David Von Drehle, and Nancy Kaffer discussed the challenges facing local newsrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic at a webinar Friday.

The webinar — hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and moderated by its director, Nancy Gibbs — featured current and past winners of its David Nyhan Prize for Political Journalism, which recognizes its namesake’s “commitment to challenging the powerful and acting as a voice for those whose voices are seldom heard.”

Goodman, a writer for the Progressive, said “the real challenge” local papers face is a “reduction in staff” and loss of specialized beats.

“You don’t have beats for a lot of important topics,” Goodman said. “When you cover a beat — like I did county government for six years and higher ed for eight years — you learn what’s going on.”

Those constraints have made it more difficult for reporters to get ahead of stories and fulfill their duty of informing the public, he explained.

“The public really depends on the local news and the reporters,” Goodman said. “And now a lot of times you find the papers, especially smaller ones, chasing stories rather than being in front of them.”

Kaffer, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, added that basic reporting — though “not particularly glorious” — is “valuable” for reporters to learn the “nuts and bolts” of the job.

“I worry that, with the way local news has contracted, that basic beat training may be harder to come by,” Kaffer said.

Von Drehle, a columnist for the Washington Post, noted that covering local politics is an important training ground for reporters who aspire to cover national politics.

“The federal government is just too big to get your arms around and to get inside,” Von Drehle said. “There’s too many layers between you and the elected official or the appointed official. It’s very difficult. State legislature or a city council or a school board — you can actually figure out how it works.”

In an interview after the webinar, the panelists also spoke about how COVID-19 has compounded the existing challenges of local journalism.

Kaffer said that pandemic-related restrictions — like social distancing and stay-at-home orders — have limited her interactions with the people she covers, since she is no longer “talking to people, going to government meetings, or community meetings, or just being out.”

“I didn't really realize how much I relied on background information, stuff that you just pick up,” she said. “You pick up a lot of this sense of what's going on, just from what you're around. And it's much harder to create that intentionally. You can't really replicate casual encounters.”

Goodman shared a different perspective. He said, given how connected he was with his community before the pandemic, he has been able to find new methods to reach out to them and stay informed.

“You just develop a new way of doing things,” Goodman said. “In a local paper, you pretty much know the community, and it's different.”

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