Google-backed journalism study points to a local news resurgence

The report shows a 50 percent rise in new local publishers in the past five years.

Project Oasis

A Google-backed local journalism project aimed at supporting smaller publishers sidelined by big tech and media conglomerates has released its first set of resources. They include a database of over 700 North American news outlets — across TV, print, and radio and newer formats such as podcasts and email newsletters —and a 16-page report detailing the sub-sector's business models, governance and workforce diversity. Both fall under the Project Oasis banner announced last March.

The findings show an industry rebuilding itself in the face of economic insecurity by tapping into local advertising revenue and social media distribution. Many of the sector's woes have been blamed on Google and Facebook, both digital advertising behemoths that have clashed with publishers over compensation for their original reporting. At the same time, news deserts — areas left underserved by dedicated news after local outlets were forced to shut shop — have emerged across the US.

But there are early signs of a resurgence in smalltown media. According to the report, 266 local news organizations started up in the past five years, an increase of nearly 50 percent, though many are operating in a bleak financial environment. More than half of all publications surveyed bring in less than $100,000 a year, with only one in 10 publishers reaching revenue of more than $1 million. By comparison, The New York Times, which saw its digital revenue overtake print for the first time last year, made $1.78 billion in 2020.

One in seven of the small publishers surveyed operate in a news desert where the median revenue tends to be markedly lower than the sector at large. Many are also heavily dependant on a single source of income, most often local advertising, and around half rely on the help of volunteers to operate. In addition, seven out of 10 of these outlets significantly lean on social media as a top driver of traffic to their websites, while direct reader retention schemes such as newsletters have failed to generate clicks.

In terms of diversity, women are represented at a higher rate than in the news industry as a whole, accounting for 56 percent of full-time employees among the more than 170 organizations that provided demographic data. Only a quarter are employees of color, which is roughly the same as the wider news industry, but far below the nearly 40 percent in the US workforce.

Project Oasis has also used its findings to issue a corresponding A-Z guide for new and existing publishers, titled the Google News Initiative Startups Playbook. Available in five languages, the document will be regularly updated, along with the map, and will inform the venture's future work in the sector. Google's partners on the project include UNC's Hussman School of Media and Journalism, LION Publishers and Douglas K. Smith.