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Aug. 5, 2019, 10:54 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Why The New York Times is covering newspaper closures as a national story (and how local outlets can collaborate)

“What are the big significant things occurring in the U.S. right now? This is way, way up there. We’d be derelict if we weren’t covering it.”

The crisis of local newspapers, in The New York Times’ eyes, is now a national story.

Choked out by Facebook, Google, and other digital giants for advertising dollars, consolidated by profit-seeking corporations, and ultimately closing up shop as the community watchdogs and drivers of civic engagement, the struggles of local media — especially legacy newspapers — are not unfamiliar to Nieman Lab readers. (Heck, many of you have probably lived through them.) But showing the impact of these closures to the broader public is, the Times believes, a team effort. Since May, when the Baton Rouge Advocate bought the 182-year-old New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Times has been chronicling the demise of longtime local print outlets, with a dash of solutions first featured online Thursday, and it doesn’t plan to stop.

A special print section in Sunday’s Times highlights the loss of the 121-year-old Warroad Pioneer in Minnesota, written by Richard Fausset, who reported at an alt-weekly in Georgia before joining the metro desk of the L.A. Times. Marc Lacey, National editor, started out at the Buffalo News, and deputy editor Jamie Stockwell spent 11 years as an editor at the San Antonio Express-News. Executive editor Dean Baquet, who said this spring that local papers “are going to die in the next five years” (we know at least their seven-day print product probably will) worked his way up from the Times-Picayune and the Chicago Tribune.

But the Times also holds a particular role in the local news lifetime saga: It used to own the Boston Globe and more than a dozen smaller papers, but sold them off to focus on its own business. Obviously the Gray Lady is doing fine on its own now, while local news outlets — even the L.A. Times — are still thrashing their way toward putting together subscription-worthy digital products.

Ken Doctor asked Times CEO Mark Thompson about local investments in February:

Doctor: Is there anything that the Times sees in its future for what it can do on regional news, metro news in a bigger way than it’s doing now?
Thompson: I think I would say that one thing that unites both sides of the house of the Times is shared concern on this topic. Dean Baquet, [managing editor] Joe Kahn, James [Bennet], Meredith [Kopit Levien, the Times’ chief operating officer], and I all talk about this — we sort of stand ready to help if we can. I mean, we would love to help support a successful broad ecology for journalism in the U.S. and the rest of the world…
Doctor: I know your hearts are there, and I’ve talked to Dean about it at some length. But is the Times involved? There’s a whole bunch of people talking about multimillions of dollars that could be invested in local journalism. Is the Times involved in any of these efforts to restart high-quality local journalism?
Thompson: We’ve been involved and are involved in conversations. It’s fair to say I don’t believe to date that we have, on either side of the house, committed to any one specific project. I think it’s currently conceived of. It is a hard problem.

But the Times, at least on the editorial side, sees an opportunity to work with local news outlets in partnerships not — yet — quite as formal as ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network or Reveal’s Local Labs for investigative journalism. The National desk has already collaborated with the El Paso Times and the Voice of Orange County, a nonprofit site in Southern California, among others.

Lacey and I spoke about why the Times is going this in-depth on local news’ collapse, how he wants local outlets to email him to collaborate (yes, that’s right — a certain someone’s email address might be, just saying), and more. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Christine Schmidt: Where did the idea for this series come from?

Marc Lacey: Dean Baquet has spoken a lot about how he views this as a big issue facing media. The New York Times is going to be fine getting through this but really it is the decline of local news, the closing of newspapers that’s causing a big national crisis. I’ve heard those comments and I’ve seen all these reports. For the national desk our job is to weigh in on big national issues that are affecting the country. It struck me that we ought to be covering this as a beat, as a line of coverage, as something we weigh in on regularly. We’ve been doing a whole lot of that. We’ve done a number of stories and there are a number more planned.

But just writing stories about places that are in turmoil didn’t feel like enough. We’re trying to be creative in surfacing smart ideas to address the problem, creative ways of starting up new news organizations, ways of rethinking the business model, and separately but I think related we’re looking at ways in which the New York Times can collaborate with local news organizations for the benefit both of Times readers but also the readers in these areas. So we’ve done some of them: a coastal erosion story in Louisiana with the Times-Picayune, a migrant detention facility story in Texas with the El Paso Times. During the midterm elections we shared our polling data that we were doing in congressional districts across the country with some local news organizations including a digital organization in Orange County, a radio station in L.A. County, and others.

It’s an effort to both describe and make our readers who are scattered all over the U.S. and the world understand how significant this is, but also look for ways in which The New York Times can be part of the solution. I don’t think we’ve come up with the answer, but it’s not something we’re just covering abstractly. Not just any old issue for us, it’s a rather personal issue.

Schmidt: What do you mean by it as a personal issue?

Lacey: We’re at this big nationally and internationally known news organization and everybody views it as this very important place. We view it as very important, but most people here started somewhere else. We started our careers at local news organizations. I’m the national editor of the New York Times and one of my very first jobs was as the Tonawanda bureau chief of the Buffalo News. Bureau chief is a grand thing: I had a little desk and a computer in a broom closet in a tiny building in this town and I went to sewer board and school meetings until the wee hours.

We worked at these places and as they’re being shut down people in this very newsroom are talking about how they started their [careers there]. It is personal, these places that are shutting down were the places that launched a lot of our careers, but it’s more than that. We actually understand how critical these organizations are to truly covering communities and truly holding local officials accountable and surfacing issues that then become statewide issues and then attract the attention of The New York Times. Every news organization is sort of connected in this and if some of us are dying off, it affects all of us. It’s something we feel very strongly about. We get no pleasure from seeing other organizations struggling and, in some cases, dying. It makes us sad and it’s sad personally but also sad for the country.

We’re viewing this as a major national issue and that’s why a lot of it is being done from the national desk. If I think about the big issues affecting the country right now, we have a lot of people covering immigration. There’s an entire desk devoted to the presidential campaign. This is something that is happening, has been happening and continues to happen a little under the radar screen. We want people to pay attention to it and we want to surface some of the very good ideas out there. We want to help be part of the effort to find solutions to this and we realize it’s a complicated problem without a simple answer.

Schmidt: As the national editor you’re obviously not beholden to or responsible for any of the business decisions your company makes. But obviously the New York Times Company used to have investments in local news and own local papers. I’m curious how you square that with this, or if that weighs on your mind at all as part of this issue you’re covering.

Lacey: I don’t have any insight into those business decisions to sell. We owned the Boston Globe and we sold it and we owned many many newspapers and we sold them for all sorts of reasons. Other people bought them and some are thriving and some aren’t doing well. I don’t have any great insight into that. Those were decisions that were made by the company. As a journalist that’s not something that I was part of. I get your question but it’s not something I wrestle with.

It’s a simple fact that news organizations are making business decisions and The New York Times made business decisions and that’s a reality. I’m trying to cover what’s happening in 2019. The New York Times has come up with a business model that is working and I have resources on the national desk to deploy people across the country. I get to make some calls as to what the big issues are in the country to cover and this one just seems journalistically seems like it’s really important to the country.

One way to think about what’s important is when you look back in 10 years, when you look back at this year, this time, what will be the big things? We’ve made a determination that climate change is a huge issue, that our journalists of today are going to kind of be judged on how well they cover it. I think a lot about how we’re covering immigration and race at this moment; these are really important. I’d add this to the mix: that the number of newspapers that are closing is jaw-dropping and we shouldn’t be just inured to what that means and not realize the significance of that for the country and for democracy. I get your question but that’s not really not my domain. It happened years ago. It’s a fact.

Schmidt: Right, it makes sense that you weren’t involved in those decisions, but I didn’t know if it was a factor in your own brain as you’re putting these stories together.

Lacey: The biggest part is it’s a news story. I’m trying to think about the big issues happening this year that are affecting our country. If you strip everything else away, what are the big significant things occurring in the U.S. right now? This is way, way up there. We’d be derelict if we weren’t covering it. The collaborations, searching for answers — we’re covering something we’re a part of. It’s not us covering some other industry. There are people in this newsroom who started their careers at places that no longer exist or that are closing down as they’re sitting here at The New York Times and they feel just awful about it.

Schmidt: So does it feel like — I don’t know if “giving back” is too stark of a way to describe it?

Lacey: It feels almost like a responsibility. It’s something that the publisher of The New York Times thinks a lot about, something that Dean thinks a lot about, something that I think a lot about. We feel a responsibility as journalists. We believe rigorous journalism actually helps the country: rooting out what’s happening and telling people what going on is a force for good in the country. It’s a core belief of everyone here. I’m sure you believe it. When that is in decline — not just decline, but in freefall — we feel as though that’s a big blow to the country. And just as The New York Times joined all sorts of other news organizations in fighting for access to documents and fighting for access to all sorts of things, we believe in the principles of journalism.

Schmidt: I wanted to ask more about the decision-making process for the stories in this series. Can you walk me through how that goes, and how we got to the Future Without the Front Page piece on Thursday?

Lacey: This is not a problem that has just begun right now. People have a general sense of this. We’re trying to write engaging stories where people learn something new, feel the problem, understand the problem. We want people to read to the end of every one of these stories. We’re covering the crisis in real time and trying to do it in a deep visual way. We’re thinking about what can grab readers. You’ve actually just seen so far just a taste of what we have to come.

When we heard about this paper that’s been around for over a century that was closing, Jamie Stockwell — the editor who oversaw this Last Edition process — dispatched one of our best correspondents, Richard Fausset, and gave him the time and space he needed. Rarely do we say write whatever you need. He couldn’t believe when he asked how long should it be and we said you tell us. I wanted a story that took us to this newsroom and really explained all the factors and made us just understand everything and he really pulled that off.

But there’s more to come. The objective is readers are going to be learning about some of the effects when these news organizations close down. What does it actually mean for the country? We have plans between now and the next six months to do more collaborating with local newsrooms [that are still existing]. It’s a newsroom that is strapped for resources that has story ideas that are beyond the scope of its staff. If there’s a good story, we want to help that news organization bring a great story to print and to digital. That’s what we’re talking about. It’s realizing we have a lot of expertise and they have a lot of expertise. Really what these collaborations are about is not The New York Times swooping in and deciding what the story is. It’s listening to the reporters in the local news organizations who truly understand they have a great story but they’re one person and they need help. We’re backing them up but they’re taking the lead.

Schmidt: Is there a formal process for this? Obviously ProPublica has the Local Reporting Network and there’s a few initiatives across the country. Should local reporters just reach out to someone in the Times’ newsroom?

Lacey: That’s my goal, to have a formal program, and we don’t have that yet. So it’s impromptu, it’s people reaching out, it’s us assessing the story and what we could bring to the story. It’s us weighing whether we have the resources at that time. I’d like to get to the point where there’s a formal way.

I think each time we do one of these, the message gets out that the Times is open to this and we hear from more and more people. So it’s happening organically like that. After the El Paso Times project ran we heard from others — that’s how it’s unfolding right now, although I can imagine it evolving into something more formal. I’m receiving a steady stream of pitches and inquires, and I want to be receiving them.

Schmidt: So everyone should aim for your inbox?

Lacey: Yes! I can act as a clearinghouse, but it’s something I don’t view as a burden. I view it as an exciting thing. Obviously I have a lot on my plate but this is something that the national desk and The New York Times views as important. It’s fulfilling to work with other journalists and do something better than the other news organization could do by themselves, and — this is really important — better than what The New York Times could do by itself covering that issue. So both organizations gain from this and that’s why I love it.

Schmidt: Just to make sure I understand this, since there’s a few different arrangements for collaborations: No money is changing hands for this, right?

Lacey: Nothing that I have worked on has included any payment of anybody. It’s been journalistic collaboration. There has been a spirit of “we can together do better journalism than we can do separately” and the sharing of work product and a really collaborative process.

Schmidt: How do you define local news both in the series and in the collaborations you’re looking for? I know the series has largely focused on newspapers, aside from the Future Without a Front Page piece (which highlighted Outlier Media, Chalkbeat, and other initiatives).

Lacey: Newspapers have been a large focus of our attention. But I’m fully aware that there are digital organization, quite vibrant ones, that are springing up to fill a void. There are quite reader-focused, rigorous organizations all around the country with different business models. All of them are really interesting to me and all of them are potential collaborators. I mentioned that during the polling project for the midterms we worked with a digital-only organization. We’ve also collaborated with radio stations that own websites. It’s broad.

I think the crisis largely is focused on organizations that were once print-only finding a world where print is more challenging and that’s where the story is largely focused. I think the solution is going to be much more complex. We may not even know exactly what the future landscape is going to look like and that’s kind of exciting as we’re all figuring it out.

Schmidt: Throughout the series there are callouts in the text asking people to share their experiences or their memories about local news closures. How are those being used? Are they part of the process for finding stories going forward? And you had mentioned there’s a set of stories coming forth — what’s the timeline like for that?

Lacey: Working on this Last Edition package was a lot of effort. The stories are now finished, there’s a special print edition that is going to come out, and the stories are being read in large numbers online. A number of other stories are already launched and there’s a whole bunch of ideas we’re working to truth-test as well.

Reaching out to readers was Jamie Stockwell’s idea. News organizations, if they’re effective, then they mean something to readers. If they go away and nobody cares, then probably they should go away. But if they go away and people miss them and it affects them and they have memories of what they meant to them, it’s a signal of the importance of that organization. That’s what we were trying to tap into with those. We’ll be coming back and sharing some of that with Times readers.

Schmidt: Is there anything else you think I should have asked about or that you wanted to mention?

Lacey: When I was saying that Times journalists got their start elsewhere, for us this isn’t covering something abstract. There may be some sense that we’re in New York City and what do we know about these small places. Everybody involved in this is writing about news organizations that they understand. One thing we think about is with these organizations closing down, where are the journalists of tomorrow getting their fundamental training? How many school boards are uncovered and how many city councils are uncovered? What does it mean for democracy, but also, what does it mean for the future of the entire media universe to have those places closing down?

POSTED     Aug. 5, 2019, 10:54 a.m.
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