Since 1947, Nieman Reports has been covering thought leadership in journalism with an editorial mission mirroring that of the Foundation itself: “to promote and elevate the standards of journalism.” In 2019, the insightful, timely, and deeply researched analyses of and commentary on issues such as attacks on journalists were powerful demonstrations of this commitment.
The Winter 2019 issue of Nieman Reports featured the cover package “Journalism Under Pressure” that examined the scary and tumultuous—but also extraordinary and exhilarating—moment journalism is experiencing, both here in the U.S. and abroad. In an essay, 1998 Nieman Fellow Julia Keller highlighted the paradox of journalism today, where coverage and journalism, the product itself, is often exceptional while the industry is in turmoil, struggling to stay afloat amidst violence and political attacks, wavering loyalty among many audiences, layoffs, and crumbling business models. In “The Free Press Under Threat in Central Europe,” 2018 Nieman Fellow Lenka Kabrhelova reported on independent newsrooms in Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland, which—despite facing similar challenges to U.S. newsrooms, and the added pressures of the oligarchization of the media and other worrying trends—are finding ways to press on in their reporting.
Published amidst a wave of media organization unionization, the cover story of the Spring 2019 issue looked at the surging momentum that comes as the labor movement itself is in decline—and as the media industry is in crisis. In “Why Newsrooms Are Unionizing Now,” former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse explored the many reasons journalists, from legacy and digital outlets alike, are saying “yes” to unions, not just to lift salary floors and benefits, but to hopefully provide some cushion to the industry’s unprecedented volatility.
The Summer 2019 issue featured a package on the coverage of domestic violence, which remains a widespread and urgent social crisis plaguing the U.S. and countries around the world. The package was anchored by Susan Stellin’s feature on how journalists are finding ways to elevate reporting on domestic violence, and, in the process, advocating for more nuance, sensitivity, and accuracy in how it is covered. A column by 2016 Knight Nieman Visiting Fellow Tara Pixley examined the line between respecting the needs of survivors or the deceased and the public’s right to know when visually documenting domestic violence. The cover story package also included commentary on how the issue is covered in Chile, Kenya, and China, written by Nieman fellows Paula Molina, Christine Mungai, and Jieqi Luo, respectively. 2019 Nieman Fellow Afsin Yurdakul did the same for Turkey.
As Hong Kong’s worst political crisis in decades continues, the cover story of the Fall 2019 issue was “Journalism Under Fire in Hong Kong,” written by Hong Kong-based journalist Casey Quackenbush. The article showcased how the ongoing protests are also a fight for a free press in Hong Kong, where—despite the new levels of pressure and physical threats—independent news outlets are responding with intrepid reporting and innovative fundraising in order to best tell the Hong Kong story.
Other highlights from our 2019 print issues include articles on how implicit bias works in journalism, the challenges and opportunities for media entrepreneurs, how librarians are teaming up with journalists to promote common goals, the use of strategic silence in the coverage of mass shootings and extremist speech, how trans journalists are challenging—and changing—journalism, the blurring lines between journalism and activism, and the state of visual arts journalism. The author of that piece, 2017 Nieman Fellow Mary Louise Schumacher in November gave the Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Her talk drew on her survey of visual arts journalists and three articles she wrote for Nieman Reports.
Nieman Reports published online-only opinion and commentary pieces on topics ranging from the need for more veterans in U.S. newsrooms and the Israeli news industry post-Netanyahu to the issues with philanthro-journalism and journalism contests. Also published were a number of pieces with thoughts on how to improve coverage of topics such as gun violence, Hinduism, impeachment, and the 2020 election. 2014 Nieman Fellow Issac J. Bailey received a Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society for Professional Journalists for his regular online columns about journalism ethics.
The staff that produces Nieman Reports includes editor James Geary, deputy curator of the Nieman Foundation; senior editor Jan Gardner; editorial specialist Eryn Carlson; and publisher Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation; with design by the New York City-based firm Pentagram.
For the past 11 years, the Nieman Journalism Lab has provided incisive reporting about the future of news, innovation and best practices in the digital media age. The Lab is an essential resource serving a global audience of loyal readers and industry analysts looking for original reporting, research and commentary on the rapid evolution of digital. It is the global “paper of record” for journalism innovation.
In 2019, Nieman Lab continued to provide valuable and innovative coverage of the ever-changing world of digital news. In the past 12 months, the Lab has published more than 900 articles written by more than 200 writers. The Lab’s goals remain to help reporters and editors adjust to their online environment; to help traditional news organizations find a way to survive; and to help the new crop of startups that increasingly complement or supplant them. For a field in as much flux and experiencing as much growth as journalism today, the Lab is a hub for a global community of innovators to share ideas and research.
The Lab’s audience grew notably in 2019, off an already strong base. The number of unique visitors to its website increased 26% over the previous year, while pageviews were up 13%. Both were new traffic records, despite growing competition in the coverage of digital media.
The Lab’s most important social outreach platform remains email, with the daily and weekly email newsletters reaching over 78,000 people, an increase of 26% from a year ago (which was itself an increase of 24% from the year before that). The Daily Digest, which goes out each weekday afternoon, highlights the Lab’s work and the most important digital innovation news of the day; getting a mention in it is a point of pride for many people working in journalism innovation. In all, Nieman Lab sent out more than 15 million emails in 2019.
The Lab’s other social accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn continued to see steady growth in 2019, with over 485,000 followers between them. The site’s articles and other work are read more than 5 million times per year and viewed many tens of millions of times across social media; according to Twitter’s internal analytics, Nieman Lab’s own tweets have been viewed approximately 36 million times in 2019.
For a taste of what Nieman Lab does, here is a sampling of the stories published in August 2019:
A piece by the South African journalist Styli Charalambous on how his Daily Maverick built its membership program; a piece on the strategies newspaper publishers are using to cut print days without alienating their customers; an essay on the threat to journalism caused by writing off working-class readers; a look at the strategic shifts at news startup Kinzen; a deep dive into the struggles The Philadelphia Inquirer has faced transitioning to nonprofit ownership; a look at new academic research around news avoidance; a story on the new battle for the leadership of America’s largest news union; and new findings on the right degree of stinginess for a newspaper paywall. And that’s not to mention the month’s biggest story, the merger of the United States’ two largest newspaper companies, Gannett and GateHouse, which the Lab’s Ken Doctor broke ahead of all other media.
Among the major questions the Lab explored in 2019: Is the crisis in local news coming to a head, with more than a decade of shrinking newsrooms turning into newspapers closing altogether? Are there lessons for local media to be learned from the reader-revenue successes of national and global outlets like The New York Times, the Financial Times, and The Washington Post? Will a new IRS stance, prompted by The Salt Lake Tribune, encourage more newspaper owners to transition to nonprofit ownership? Can the large digital-native news sites build strong multiple revenue streams, or will the future hold more mergers and acquisitions? What will the hedge funds and private equity firms who now have their strongest control of the local news business do with their new reach? Will Facebook’s new News tab attract a substantial audience? Will podcasts retain their open nature or be walled off into premium products and siloed platforms? Can the new money coming to news organizations from Google and Facebook be transformative, or is it just a stopgap measure by two tech giants to fend off criticism and regulation?
The year ended, as it has each year since 2011, with a collection of predictions for the new year in journalism, written by a diverse group of smart digital thinkers and doers. It remains one of the most anticipated editorial products of the year in news industry circles.
The Lab has continued to focus on expanding its international reach, working with partner news organizations around the world to have its stories translated and co-published, including major outlets like the Yomiuri Shimbun, Univision, and the International Center for Journalists. About 40% of Nieman Lab’s web audience is outside the United States (as well as a majority of its social media audience), and its continued reporting on international innovation broadens its reach. While the Lab’s largest 2019 raw increase in traffic came in the United States (up 37%), it also saw large gains in the U.K. (up 15%), Canada (27%), India (39%), Australia (20%), Singapore (21%), and South Africa (up 70%).
The Lab has continued to commit significant resources to reporting on the rise of misinformation and disinformation, with the weekly “Real News About Fake News” column essential reading for those interested in the topic. Its staff continues to be sought out for information and counsel by other reporters covering digital media and by news organizations seeking insight into the industry’s changes.
The Nieman Lab team, led by director Joshua Benton, produces daily media coverage with deputy editor Laura Hazard Owen and staff writer Hanaa’ Tameez, who joined the staff this year. Our two regular outside contributors are longtime news business expert Ken Doctor and Nicholas Quah, a former Knight-Nieman Visiting Fellow who writes Hot Pod, the weekly podcasting newsletter that is the industry bible.
This year, Nieman Storyboard reached a quiet but significant milestone: Ten years of building and supporting a community of nonfiction storytellers around the world and across media platforms.
Storyboard started as a simple newsletter to reach many journalists who gathered year after year at the Nieman Narrative Conference. It survived the digital tsunami and economic turmoil that has changed the journalistic landscape in ways impossible to imagine. Through all that, it continued to grow; it now has more than 15,000 subscribers to its weekly newsletter; an equal number who follow it on Twitter; 5,350 who link to its Facebook page, and 30,000 who visit the site each month.
The challenges facing narrative journalism continue to grow. More and more journalists work as freelancers, apart from any institutional sense of community. Financially stressed legacy newsrooms focus heavily on investigations and civic affairs, often leaving them without editors who have expertise in narrative storytelling that is as credible as it is compelling. New digital forms of storytelling require additional attention and expertise; the addition of Audio Reporting to the Pulitzer Prizes is testament to that. All the while, the hunger for narrative — what is often called “longform” — continues to grow, evidenced by the growing number of online sites, from Medium to Amazon, that feature and even commission such stories.
The fundamental features of Storyboard remain among the most popular: Annotation Tuesday!, Why’s This So Good, and Story Craft posts draw heavy traffic. The most frequent posts are now called “5 Questions,” but are really richer, behind-the-scenes conversations with journalists than that category name indicates. And it’s worth noting that short posts — One Great Sentence or any number of things under Short Takes — get compliments as manageable little bursts of learning and inspiration.
Storyboard editor Jacqui Banaszynski has been guiding the site for 18 months. Her plan continues to be to strengthen the foundation of the site, while expanding both the community it reaches and type of support it provides. A stronger multimedia focus tops the list, along with a more robust presence on a wider range of social media platforms.
Among Storyboard’s forward moves in the last year:
- Featured stories from a greater range of publications, including small and niche sites
- The addition of new contributors, some of whom work in specialty fields
- Partnerships and occasional cross-posting with the Poynter Institute, The Open Notebook and other sites that support strong journalism education
- Greater emphasis on lessons about the craft of reporting and writing in many of Storyboard’s sections
- Strong almost-live reports from four major narrative conferences: the BU Narrative Conference, the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, the International True Story Awards in Bern, Switzerland, and the Power of Storytelling Conference in Bucharest, Romania.
- Dared some bursts of just plain fun, like the 10-poem “Newsroom Ode” series, and this month’s daily “Gratitude Notes.” We had a high school English teacher grade a column by cheeky columnist Alexandra Petri of The Washington Post, after Petri wrote a “book report” on the famed Mueller Report. We encouraged a witty smack-down among top respected pros over the “nut graf.”
One trend that does remain constant: The strongest reaction to social media shares from “water cooler” type posts that are short, pithy and hit some sort of personal chord on topics like writers’ favorite pens, the pros and cons of hand-written notes vs. recording, and how to negotiate for better freelance pay.