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What’s left of local gets comfortable with reader support

“Forcing editors and publishers to think about how best to find reader support in order to access additional funds is encouraging thinking that should have started 10 years ago. Better late than ever.”

As the economics of media have shifted dramatically over the last decade, different sectors of the industry have responded to the collapse of print advertising in different ways. There are exceptions, of course and always, but the large national papers for the most part chased audience growth and scale; the chains started merging to eliminate overhead costs; and the smaller papers that communities across the country have long relied on for local news provided less and less of it every year as they cut costs and personnel, leaving them thin and vulnerable to venture-capital vultures looking to pull pennies out of subscribers too committed — or too lazy — to call and cancel.

(Just as someone somewhere is still paying for AOL dialup, there are lifetime subscribers who’ll let their auto-renew auto-renew, no matter how poor the product gets.)

But what if we thought of those subscribers as something other than customers to put advertising in front of? What if we thought of them as readers first, with ideas about what kind of information might be most valuable to them, and the funds to fuel its creation?

While all of this consolidation and collapse was happening in what we often think of as traditional media, a new wave of nonprofit outlets rose up to join the old stalwarts like the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Foundation for National Progress (publisher of Mother Jones), both of which were formed in the mid-1970s. ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, The Marshall Project, InsideClimate News, MinnPost, and dozens of others are all between seven and 12 years old. The Investigative News Network (now the Institute for Nonprofit News) was launched in 2009.

Maybe they needed a decade to be convinced of their sustainability. Or maybe they just weren’t ready to build the infrastructure necessary to diversify their revenue streams. Whatever the case is, today, finally — and more so in 2020 and every year beyond — for-profit media is looking to nonprofit media to learn how to make readers a bigger part of their support systems. HuffPost, owned by the telecom conglomerate Verizon, introduced a tiered membership program with special newsletters for paying subscribers. So did BuzzFeed News. The Salt Lake Tribune went so far as to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit public charity, meaning that readers — or anyone, really — could make tax-deductible donations to the 150-year-old paper.

There’s lots of work to be done. But I’m encouraged by the news this month that in 2020, Report for America will be placing 250 journalists in more than 160 newsrooms all over the United States, from Pennsylvania to Puerto Rico — more than half of them for-profit.

This effort, a program of the Groundtruth Project that launched in 2018, has been celebrated for moving quickly to fill gaps in local news coverage. And rightfully so! But I think what’s most exciting is the unique way the program is structured: Newsrooms, strapped for cash, are eager to sign on when they learn Report for America covers half the salary of every position. In turn, those newsrooms are asked to raise a “local share,” made up of money from the community.

Report for America can help newsrooms find that funding by pitching local foundations or assisting with crowd-funding campaigns — but forcing editors and publishers to think about how best to find reader support in order to access additional funds is encouraging thinking that should have started 10 years ago. Better late than ever.

Nicholas Jackson is the former editor-in-chief of Pacific Standard.

As the economics of media have shifted dramatically over the last decade, different sectors of the industry have responded to the collapse of print advertising in different ways. There are exceptions, of course and always, but the large national papers for the most part chased audience growth and scale; the chains started merging to eliminate overhead costs; and the smaller papers that communities across the country have long relied on for local news provided less and less of it every year as they cut costs and personnel, leaving them thin and vulnerable to venture-capital vultures looking to pull pennies out of subscribers too committed — or too lazy — to call and cancel.

(Just as someone somewhere is still paying for AOL dialup, there are lifetime subscribers who’ll let their auto-renew auto-renew, no matter how poor the product gets.)

But what if we thought of those subscribers as something other than customers to put advertising in front of? What if we thought of them as readers first, with ideas about what kind of information might be most valuable to them, and the funds to fuel its creation?

While all of this consolidation and collapse was happening in what we often think of as traditional media, a new wave of nonprofit outlets rose up to join the old stalwarts like the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Foundation for National Progress (publisher of Mother Jones), both of which were formed in the mid-1970s. ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, The Marshall Project, InsideClimate News, MinnPost, and dozens of others are all between seven and 12 years old. The Investigative News Network (now the Institute for Nonprofit News) was launched in 2009.

Maybe they needed a decade to be convinced of their sustainability. Or maybe they just weren’t ready to build the infrastructure necessary to diversify their revenue streams. Whatever the case is, today, finally — and more so in 2020 and every year beyond — for-profit media is looking to nonprofit media to learn how to make readers a bigger part of their support systems. HuffPost, owned by the telecom conglomerate Verizon, introduced a tiered membership program with special newsletters for paying subscribers. So did BuzzFeed News. The Salt Lake Tribune went so far as to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit public charity, meaning that readers — or anyone, really — could make tax-deductible donations to the 150-year-old paper.

There’s lots of work to be done. But I’m encouraged by the news this month that in 2020, Report for America will be placing 250 journalists in more than 160 newsrooms all over the United States, from Pennsylvania to Puerto Rico — more than half of them for-profit.

This effort, a program of the Groundtruth Project that launched in 2018, has been celebrated for moving quickly to fill gaps in local news coverage. And rightfully so! But I think what’s most exciting is the unique way the program is structured: Newsrooms, strapped for cash, are eager to sign on when they learn Report for America covers half the salary of every position. In turn, those newsrooms are asked to raise a “local share,” made up of money from the community.

Report for America can help newsrooms find that funding by pitching local foundations or assisting with crowd-funding campaigns — but forcing editors and publishers to think about how best to find reader support in order to access additional funds is encouraging thinking that should have started 10 years ago. Better late than ever.

Nicholas Jackson is the former editor-in-chief of Pacific Standard.

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