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May 26, 2021, 10:54 a.m.
Business Models

The local news crisis will be solved one community at a time

Though the collapse of community journalism is real enough, we believe that its causes are only partly understood.

Local journalism is in crisis. “America’s local news has reached its death spiral phase” proclaimed the Columbia Journalism Review in 2018. Two years later, an oft-cited study out of the University of North Carolina found that some 2,100 community newspapers had ceased publishing since 2004, leaving the country with large swaths of “news deserts” — areas that are unserved by any local news source.

But though the collapse of community journalism is real enough, we believe that its causes are only partly understood. Researchers generally focus on the changes wrought by technology over the past quarter-century — changes that tell an important story, but not the whole story.

It’s true that classified ads offered by Craigslist, a mostly free service, wiped out what had accounted for about 40% of newspaper revenues overnight. And yes, Google and Facebook dominate digital advertising, leaving news organizations to fight over scraps.

Our view, though, is that these challenges would be manageable if it weren’t for corporate greed. Starting in the 1970s, publicly traded chains began taking over newspapers, extracting massive profits and cutting back on coverage, leaving the business unprepared for the deluge that was to come. More recently, hedge funds have moved in, bleeding newspapers of their last remaining revenues rather than investing in the future. Compounding all this is that, in many cases, corporate owners take on massive amounts of debt to build their chains and then extract revenues from their newspapers to pay it down.

The Covid-19 pandemic, whose end in the U.S. may finally be coming into view, resulted in further layoffs, furloughs, and closures, according to the Poynter Institute.

Yet even in the midst of this carnage, innovative, independent local news organizations are serving their communities and providing them with the news and information citizens need to govern themselves in a democracy. Examples include nonprofit startups, news co-ops and even old-fashioned newspapers that are reinventing themselves under local leaders who bought them back from chain owners.

We plan to report on these and other projects in a book tentatively titled What Works: The Future of Local News, to be published by Beacon Press in the second half of 2023. We hope to show that there are alternatives to the decline of local news, and that entrepreneurial journalists are charting a path that others may follow. A few examples:

  • When a group of Twin Cities journalists, many of whom had been laid off or pushed out of traditional newsrooms, launched MinnPost in 2007, they envisioned a fast-twitch website that would trounce the sinking Star Tribune with wide-ranging scoops throughout the day. Set up as a nonprofit, nonpartisan enterprise, MinnPost was initially funded by four philanthropically minded local families. More foundation funding followed, as did a public radio-style membership model that brings in money from readers and from ticketed events. Then the unexpected happened: red-hot competition from none other than The Star Tribune, which had been purchased by a local billionaire sports mogul. So MinnPost pivoted, shifting from a fairly traditional news bundle to a site devoted to longform narrative, analysis and investigations focused on politics, policy and culture. MinnPost holds lessons for digital sites in search of a viable business model and a permanent foothold in a competitive local news environment — and shows that an entrepreneurial ethos and willingness to experiment can help keep the flame of local journalism alive.
  • In the fall of 2016, two young journalists who had left their low-paying jobs at the twice-weekly, hedge fund–owned Willits News flipped the switch at their new venture: The Mendocino Voice, a website with the ambitious goal of covering rural Mendocino County, California. Over the past four and a half years, publisher Kate Maxwell and managing editor Adrian Fernandez Baumann have won attention for their up-to-the-minute reporting on wildfires and earthquakes, their in-depth video interviews with local political candidates, and civic initiatives such as a Super Tuesday party at a brew pub in Ukiah, the county seat, just before the pandemic-induced shutdown. Now they are taking a bold new step: They are reorganizing as a cooperatively owned news project, handing over governance to their audience and what they hope will be a growing corps of journalists. “We are going to be owned by our readers and our staff,” Maxwell told the gathering on Super Tuesday. “We think that’s the best way to be sustainable and locally owned.”
  • For nearly 16 years, the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit website, has been providing exhaustive coverage of issues such as school reform, neighborhood development and local politics. Founded by alt-weekly veteran Paul Bass, the Independent was the principal subject of Kennedy’s 2013 book, The Wired City. Since then, the Independent has morphed into a multimedia, multiethnic powerhouse. Whereas the first iteration comprised a small, all-white staff covering a city that was one-third African American, the current staff better reflects New Haven’s diversity. Moreover, in 2015 the Independent launched a low-power FM radio station, WNHH, encompassing a wide variety of voices from throughout the community — including Mubarakah Ibrahim, who hosts a morning show. “I bring the diverse lens of being Muslim, being a woman, being African American,” Ibrahim said as the station was getting off the ground, “and so all of that, I think, lends me a different version of how reality intersects for me and for people like me.” The Independent’s long-standing partnership with the Spanish-language newspaper La Voz Hispana Connecticut provides a bridge to the city’s Latino community as well.

Elsewhere, unfortunately, corporations and hedge funds continue to hack away at the infrastructure of local news. In late 2019, two behemoths, Gannett Co. and GateHouse Media, merged to form a chain controlling about 500 papers across the country — most of them the sort of news outlets that are vital for informing their communities about goings-on at city hall, in public schools, and across neighborhoods. Even though both chains had been cutting for years, it was soon revealed that the new Gannett would be looking to slash at least another $400 million.

Earlier this month came even worse news. The hedge fund Alden Global Capital, already notorious for its devastating cuts at papers like The Denver Post and The Mercury News of San Jose, will boost its share of Tribune Publishing from 32 percent to 100 percent. Tribune owns some of our most storied newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, the Daily News of New York and The Baltimore Sun.

Long before the financialization of the newspaper business, journalism was not seen as a route for wealthy people to get wealthier. Rather, it was an opportunity for people to serve their communities while making a decent living. The projects we plan to write about will, we hope, inspire others who live in areas that are either unserved or underserved by news organizations.

There is a better way, and we intend to tell that story.

Ellen Clegg is the retired editorial-page editor of The Boston Globe, a science journalist and the author of two books: ChemoBrain and The Alzheimer’s Solution. Dan Kennedy is a professor of journalism at Northeastern University, a contributor at GBH News and the author of two books about the future of news: The Wired City and The Return of the Moguls.

Photo of mailboxes by Dave Wilson used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 26, 2021, 10:54 a.m.
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