May 18, 2021

Three years ago, I spoke with a photographer and filmmaker who wanted to make a short film about local news. Dustin Cohen has seen the challenges facing the industry up very close — his dad was the publisher of Silicon Valley Community Newspapers, which he sold to Knight Ridder and are now part of Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group.

Cohen saw the staff get cut and the newspapers his dad worked at for 30 years shrivel under hedge fund ownership. It all felt like an old “greed is good” Wall Street movie.

Cohen reached back out at the beginning of this year to share a seven-minute film he created about The Southern Illinoisan in Cairo, Illinois, as it worked to cover the battle between residents in public housing and state and local government.

Local newsrooms often include documentaries in big reporting projects, but films about the people making the news aren’t quite as common.

Today I want to share a few of them with you, including Cohen’s, titled Confluence in Cairo.

“Yo sé qué es pandemia,” or “I know what pandemic means,” from Documented came together during the pandemic in the most innovative way. The nonprofit newsroom covers New York City’s immigrant communities, and the film “started as a callout to Documented readers sent over the summer, aimed at understanding the personal toll of COVID-19 within the City’s Latin American immigrant communities,” co-founding editor and senior reporter Max Siegelbaum said in an email. “Their stories were about loss, community, financial pressures and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. We met and interviewed several readers but many just set voice notes over WhatsApp.”

And in case you’re worried that the defiant heart of alt-weeklies was permanently crushed in the pandemic, watch DigBoston’s “Local Annihilation: How One Scrappy Independent Newspaper Weathered A Pandemic Year.” 

DigBoston’s editor-in-chief, Chris Faraone, shared this writeup of the film:

“An alternative weekly that fills coverage gaps typically served by community newspapers in addition to the investigative, longform, arts, and music coverage that alts are well known for, DigBoston has a unique and pretty damn outrageous decades-running history. Local Annihilation isn’t about that turbulence though; rather, this short highlights our most challenging year to date, this past one, in an attempt to reflect on the extraordinary efforts taken to keep one small but driven ship afloat.”

“Essential Journalists: How Coronavirus Changed TV News,” comes from journalist Marcus Harun and shows how the pandemic “changed TV journalism in unprecedented ways: multi-million dollar productions anchored from kitchens, reporters social distancing, and newsrooms deserted; now we turn the cameras on the journalists to hear the emotional toll it takes to be essential workers.”

“Newstown” came out last year from Northwestern University professor Craig Duff on the fate of local news where he grew up in Ohio. 

And “Storm Lake” is a documentary about The Storm Lake Times in Iowa. A few screenings are coming up. 

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists, on May 13, 2021.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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