How journalists in Mid-America became essential workers during the pandemic

Kristen Hare

Last year, two journalism professors started an oral history project to document the work of local newsrooms in mid-America. They found the community in community journalism.

2020, like so many years before it, was a tough one for local news. That’s before a pandemic shook a crumbling print business model, closed more than 70 local newsrooms and led to thousands of layoffs.

But in the middle of the country, some newsrooms serving small communities hung on. They had to. They reported on school closures, the spread of the coronavirus and the dead. While print advertising shriveled and other local businesses around them closed, these newsrooms covered a global public health story that literally meant life or death where they lived.

This project is about a group of people we’ve heard a lot about in the last year, though maybe not the ones we’re used to: essential workers.

Before the pandemic, a 36-year-old reporter in Oklahoma named Michael Smith covered school boards. Now, Smith is the go-to guy for health coverage at The Daily Ardmoreite, has a little one learning from home and is covering school boards.

In Nebraska, a local publisher offered to print another newspaper to keep it from closing.

“And they said, ‘If you really want to help, if you really want to save this paper, we will give it to you,’” said Carrie Pitzer, president of Pitzer Digital. “And we were shocked by that. We had never heard of a newspaper being given away…”

On the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, one newsroom documented public health checkpoints for a story that took the site’s traffic from 5,000 visitors a month to 250,000.

“There’s nobody else to do it,” said Alaina Beautiful Bald Eagle, managing editor of the West River Eagle.

And at The Louisiana Weekly in New Orleans, publisher Renette Dejoie-Hall had to cut coverage of religion and entertainment after advertising suffered because of the pandemic. But she had a newspaper to keep alive.

“I treat what I do as being representative of the third generation of a family-owned business,” she said. “You know, you do what you have to keep the legacy going.”

Last year, two journalism professors launched a project to capture the history we’re all living through.

Teri Finneman, an associate professor at the University of Kansas’ William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, and William Mari, an assistant professor of media law at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications, got funding to capture the moment from state newspaper associations in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Arkansas and from their own universities.

They spoke with publishers, editors, reporters and press associations in 28 places across seven states — North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.

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