Is There a Sustainable Way to Save Local News?

From a story on newyorker.com by Clare Malone headlined “Is There a Market for Saving Local News?”:

“The Cleveland Press, dead at 103.” That was WEWS Cleveland’s proclamation on June 17, 1982, the day the paper—which the former mayor Carl Stokes once wrote had determined every mayor from 1941 to 1965—made its last print run. A decades-long slide in the power of the area’s local media followed. These days, the Cleveland press writ large is, if not dead, then seriously ill….

Cleveland is like many areas of the country in that respect: as the local-news business becomes less sustainable, residents find themselves more reliant on national media sources, if they are receiving quality news at all.

Unlike so many places, though, Cleveland is getting experimental treatment. In 2022, two independent nonprofit newsrooms will open up in the city. One, run by the Marshall Project, will be a small outfit of three reporters and an editor, focussed on criminal-justice reporting, that plans to co-publish with local-news organizations. The other, working with the American Journalism Project, is a more ambitious model: an independent seventeen-person digital newsroom that will be the first of a network in various Ohio cities (to be determined), known as the Ohio Local News Initiative.

A similar project, the Houston Local News Initiative, is slated for launch in late 2022 or early 2023. The newsrooms are part of a proliferation of nonprofit media models that have sparked hope of late. The Salt Lake Tribune, for one, became a nonprofit in 2019. This year, the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Public Media’s WBEZ announced a merger, with sixty-one million dollars in philanthropic funding. The Baltimore Banner, a site with fifteen million dollars in funding from the hotelier Stewart Bainum, Jr., will soon be up and running.

But news deserts remain in much of the country. A U.N.C. Hussman School of Journalism and Media report found eighteen hundred communities that had a local-news outlet in 2004 had none at the beginning of 2020. Two-thirds of the nation’s counties don’t have a daily newspaper, which drives residents to social media or far-off regional TV stations for their daily news. Thirty newspapers either closed or merged in April and May of 2020, at the height of the pandemic’s first wave. That decline has been linked to reduced civic engagement and political competition, and increased government corruption….

What to do about local-news erosion is more complicated. In an ideal world, every American would be getting quality journalism—news deserts would turn into lush sod for investigative reporters to muck around in. But the business model isn’t for the faint of heart, and, even on the nonprofit side of things, the reality of the marketplace comes to bear; not every place can sustain an outlet without major, and somewhat risky, investment. “I don’t know how much it’ll take to rebuild local news in America, but it’ll be hundreds of millions of dollars—many estimate in the billions,” Carroll Bogert, the president of the Marshall Project, said. “I hope all that money is out there in America, but I’m not sure.” This leads to the big question: Which American communities receiving poor-quality news—or no news at all—will be left out of the solution?

The American Journalism Project has one of the more comprehensive plans to aid local nonprofit news across the country. Started in 2019—by Elizabeth Green, a co-founder of the education-reporting network Chalkbeat, and John Thornton, a co-founder of the Texas Tribune—A.J.P. has raised ninety million dollars for local journalism and calls itself a “venture philanthropy.” Donors to A.J.P. in the million-dollar-plus category include Laurene Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective, Meta Journalism Project (formerly the Facebook Journalism Project), and James and Kathryn Murdoch’s foundation….

A.J.P. has centered much of its efforts on giving grants to existing news organizations (the Marshall Project has received A.J.P. funding) and helping local philanthropies identify opportunities to fund local coverage. The Ohio initiative, which has raised $6.1 million from the A.J.P. and community organizations, came out of that process. The proposition is that money will beget money. “Our hope and strategy is that by providing that seed capital, we’re allowing these organizations to launch and have real value to their communities,” Michael Ouimette, the head of A.J.P.’s strategy and startup team, said. “We’re confident that if they do that, their communities will still step up and help fund the organization on a sustaining basis.”

It’s a pragmatic model for fixing news: go where there’s already infrastructure to support the project long-term—i.e., funders to donate for years to come, and enough population and regional income to support subscribers and advertisers. “I think, in almost every city, people are waking up to what’s going on with local journalism, and they’re trying to do something about it,” Richard Tofel, the former president of ProPublica who counts A.J.P. among his consulting clients, said. “They’re having more success where there is either an existing philanthropic community that is rallying to the cause or some individual or small group of individuals who are prepared to assume a significant burden.” The local-news gods, in other words, will help those who help themselves.

But Penelope Abernathy, a visiting professor of journalism at Northwestern and the author of the U.N.C. Hussman study, worries that news deserts—those in economically deprived inner cities, suburbs, and rural areas alike—might be overlooked with this kind of philanthropic model. “The vast majority of the nonprofit philanthropic money is in cities like Cleveland, versus cities like Youngstown,” she said. The poverty rate in Cleveland’s neighbor to the southeast was 35.2 per cent in 2019, the year the Youngstown Vindicator closed for good. Houston, where the planned A.J.P.-affiliated newsroom has received twenty million dollars in funding, is America’s fourth-largest city….

The focus on opening digital newsrooms around the country, Abernathy said, might not actually serve local communities with the most need for high-quality news. In 2019, the Pew Research Center estimated that forty-four per cent of adults in households with incomes below thirty thousand dollars didn’t have broadband access, a problem in both urban and rural areas. There’s also the fact that, in Cleveland, sixty-six per cent of residents are functionally illiterate, according to a Case Western Reserve University study; in certain neighborhoods, the rate is above ninety per cent. Those Clevelanders aren’t likely to visit a digital news site, but a New York Times reader who lives in the suburbs might.

Both Cleveland ventures have vowed to pay close attention to reaching the city’s Black community, which has traditionally been underserved—and, in many cases, outright ignored—by the local press. “We really do not want to rebuild the Cleveland Plain Dealer. That’s not what we hope to do,” Bogert said. “We really want to serve populations who have felt alienated, neglected, mischaracterized by the media.” The Ohio Local News Initiative (which is still in the midst of a search for its top editor) will partner with a nonprofit radio station started by a community-development corporation that serves some of the city’s Black neighborhoods, as well as a network of smaller local publications that focus on particular city neighborhoods and ethnic populations. This week also marked the launch of another A.J.P.-funded project, Capital B, which will be devoted to national Black audiences, along with an Atlanta-specific local site.

But the fact remains that there is no broad national effort to make local news sustainable in places that don’t at least have some sort of viable market. American philanthropy is increasingly reliant on individual megadonors such as Bill Gates, Melinda French Gates, and MacKenzie Scott. Scott, a novelist and the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, has donated $8.6 billion since 2019. “You lay what MacKenzie Scott gave away last year next to what the Ford Foundation gave away last year,” Tofel said. “That’s sort of mind-boggling.” (In 2021, the Ford Foundation provided around a billion dollars in grants.) A limitation of the current philanthropic mind-set, however, is that money tends to go to where there is likely to be the most immediate impact. Starting a project in an area that might have a smaller and less-than-fertile market for local news requires a degree of patience, and some tolerance for risk.

In the absence of such ventures, the news-sustainability market will continue to favor metropolitan areas. Axios launched its for-profit local-newsletter initiative in 2021 with city-specific publications in Des Moines, Denver, the Twin Cities, Tampa Bay, and Charlotte, and has since expanded to nine other cities, with eleven more to come this year. The project has concentrated on large metro areas and smaller second-tier cities such as Nashville, Columbus, Ohio, and even the northwest Arkansas region (home to Walmart’s corporate headquarters). The business model is a couple of reporters in each city and a centralized ads team based out of Axios’s Arlington, Virginia, headquarters. “If you keep expenses low, then you can grow as revenue grows,” Ted Williams, the general manager of Axios Local, said. And, of course, there’s the central Axios appeal to the “smart professional”—a well-educated, high-income reader who might also be willing to subscribe to paywalled content down the line. Ouimette mentioned that the Ohio Local News Initiative’s Cleveland newsroom would have a membership model and host local events—revenue streams that presume the support of a slice of the population who might see their sustaining public-radio membership as core to their identity.

None of this will be much help for the more than two hundred counties in the U.S. that the U.N.C. Hussman report found “have no newspaper and no alternative source of credible and comprehensive information on critical issues.” Only three of those counties are the site of a local-news nonprofit. This metro-area focus can also take on a partisan tilt. According to the report, most local-news sites “are located in affluent communities that tend to vote Democratic and not in economically struggling communities that voted Republican in 2016.” Tofel acknowledged that there’s a structural problem when it comes to fixing local-news deserts, at least for the moment. “There is not enough national funding to go everywhere,” he said.

Clare Malone is a staff writer at The New Yorker covering the media business, journalism, and politics.

 

Speak Your Mind

*