How has COVID-19 Affected Community Newspapers? LSU Media Law & Media History Assistant Professor Will Mari’s Research Captured History as it Unfolded.
March 9, 2021
BATON ROUGE—Will Mari, assistant professor of media law and media history at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, started a project in March 2020 to document the work of community newspapers in mid-America during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alongside Teri Finneman, an associate professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas, the two produced nearly 700 pages of oral history about COVID-19’s impact on community newspapers.
After receiving funding from five state press associations and the University of Kansas, Mari and Finneman interviewed state newspaper associations, publishers, editors and reporters from Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota, capturing local newsrooms’ experiences with the pandemic in 28 different communities over 10 months. The Poynter Institute for Media Studies recently published their work, titled “The Essential Workers.”
For Mari, one of the project’s takeaways was the resilience of local, particularly family-owned, news organizations. These journalists, he found, are doing vital—and often undervalued—work to relay accurate, timely, impactful news to their neighbors and friends to keep their communities thriving.
“They took pay cuts and made hard choices in order to keep operating and to keep providing critically important information to their communities,” Mari said. “They'd never say they're heroes—but they were. They loved their places enough to fight for their health and wellbeing, and under very trying circumstances, and despite attacks and threats, and that's courageous.”
Mari shares more insight about this project below.
Q: What sparked the idea for this project?
This time last year, as the pandemic got worse, I had the initial idea of talking to journalists as history unfolded, for posterity's sake. Having done some research on how the last pandemic was covered, and how media historians have been frustrated by the lack of self-reflection on what happened last time (since, as happens now, many of the journalists who lived through the 1918-19 global flu pandemic also moved on with their lives in the years afterward, with a few exceptions), I knew that it was vital to grab memories while they were fresh. I contacted Dr. Teri Finneman, who is one of the country's leading experts on the topic of community journalism and oral history, and asked if she'd be interested in joining me—and she was!
Q: What were you and Dr. Finneman hoping to accomplish with this project?
We are hoping to get some much-needed attention and appreciation for the vital work that local and regional community journalists do, not just in times of crisis, but during more-normal times. Way too much attention gets focused on the East and West Coasts, and not enough on the middle of the nation.
Q: Why is the focus on community newspapers?
Community newspapers do a lot of the "grunt work" in our info worlds—they cover sewers, schools and streets—and most people in most places are more impacted by the news they write about than anything a national outlet would cover.
Q: What made you use oral history as a means to collect your data?
Oral history allows complicated, nuanced experiences to be captured and preserved before too much time passes—memoirs and reflections are still helpful, but often filtered through later experiences and not as valuable to future media historians as raw, immediate impressions. In the past, that meant diaries and letters, but today, it means social-media posts, emails and, of course, these kinds of conversations.
Q: This work is titled “The Essential Workers.” Why are these journalists “essential”?
They're essential because of their central role in separating fact from fiction, and news from opinion. People in smaller communities literally have no other way to know how to get vaccines, where to get tested, how to find food banks, how to help, outside of these local/regional news outlets.
Q: What were the most interesting or impactful takeaways from your research?
I was struck by the resilience and survivability of especially the family-owned news organizations. They took pay cuts and made hard choices in order to keep operating and to keep providing critically important information to their communities. They'd never say they're heroes—but they were. They loved their places enough to fight for their health and wellbeing, and under very trying circumstances, and despite attacks and threats, and that's courageous.
Q: What impact do you see this research having on the newspaper industry? On media? On communities/locales?
I hope it reminds people—as it already has, in many cases, in these communities—that journalists are not the enemy, but instead your neighbors, fellow churchgoers, volunteer firefighters, just regular people. They love their country and their towns so much—and are doing the tough work of helping others know what's real and what's not, which is not easy, cheap or appreciated most of the time. We need to fund their work and help our communities and country by valuing the local and true, if sometimes hard, stories about ourselves.
To experience the stories of the journalists, editors and publishers captured by Mari and Finneman during the COVID-19 pandemic, visit https://www.poynter.org/the-essential-workers/. And check out this video published by Poynter of Mari and Finneman discussing their research.
Will Mari is an assistant professor of media law and media history at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication and the chair of the history division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. His research focuses on the history of media technologies, analog-to-digital transitions, and in how journalism survives moments of crisis. Mari has also worked for the U.S. Navy in media affairs and journalism. His forthcoming book, “The American Newsroom: A History, 1920-1960,” will be published in July 2021. To learn more about Mari, visit the Manship School’s faculty webpage.
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LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication ranks among the strongest collegiate communication programs in the country, with its robust emphasis on media and public affairs. It offers undergraduate degrees in public relations, journalism, political communication, digital advertising and pre-law, along with four graduate degree programs: Master of Mass Communication, Ph.D. in Media and Public Affairs, Certificate of Strategic Communication and a dual MMC/Law degree. Its public relations students were recently ranked the #1 team in the nation, and its digital advertising and student media teams frequently earn national recognition.