You’ve Heard Local News Is Dying—It Might Just Be Evolving

From a Washington Post column by Leonard Downie Jr. headlined “The rebirth of local news depends on all of us”:

Leonard Downie Jr., a professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is a former executive editor of The Post.

You’ve heard local news is dying. In fact, it might just be evolving.

Look around: Online nonprofit local and state news sites are proliferating. Some family newspaper owners are purchasing and investing in endangered small-town papers. A few billionaires have bought large metropolitan dailies. Some public radio stations, local television stations and even universities are getting into the act. Much of this is being seeded and nourished by philanthropic foundations and nonprofits.

American local newspapers had long depended on an economic model primarily supported by advertising and print subscriptions, both largely destroyed by the digital revolution. By contrast, the nascent revival of local news media is dependent on a variety of still evolving models. Here is a sampling of what is working and where.

Nonprofit local news websites. Several hundred nonprofit local and state digital news sites have sprouted throughout the nation, with more coming online all the time. They range from small start-ups with a handful of staff to award-winning newsrooms of several dozen journalists. They are financed by foundations, philanthropists, digital subscriptions, memberships and advertising. Their journalists focus on what was not being covered in their communities, in addition to investigative reporting.

For example, the nonprofit website the City covers local news in all five boroughs of New York City. Block Club Chicago’s journalists report from previously undercovered neighborhoods in that city. Capital B Atlanta is a new Black-led nonprofit covering Black communities and their issues. In San Diego, two of the nation’s earliest local nonprofit sites, the Voice of San Diego and inewsource, are leading sources of local news and award-winning investigative reporting. The Baltimore Banner, started last year, has one of the largest newsrooms and paid subscriber audiences of any nonprofit journalism outlet.

Nonprofit digital news sites covering entire states include the Texas Tribune, VTDigger in Vermont, Mountain State Spotlight in West Virginia and WyoFile in Wyoming. Mississippi Today, a nonprofit with one of the largest newsrooms in that state, won a 2023 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for an investigation of how the state’s governor diverted millions of dollars in federal welfare money to his family and friends, including Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre.

Nonprofit newspapers. A handful of metropolitan-area newspapers have become nonprofits. Last year, the venerable Chicago Sun-Times merged into the nonprofit Chicago Public Media, owner of the city’s top-rated morning news station, WBEZ public radio. It has enabled the Sun-Times to expand its newsroom and share content with WBEZ.

In 2016, the Philadelphia Inquirer was donated to the Philadelphia Foundation by H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, who had bought the newspaper in 2014. The Inquirer is now a public benefit corporation within a nonprofit, which means any profit it does make must be reinvested. Its newsroom has stabilized.

Investor Paul Huntsman purchased the Salt Lake Tribune from a media group majority-owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital in 2016 and successfully petitioned the Internal Revenue Service for nonprofit status in 2019. One of the newest metropolitan nonprofits is the Portland Press Herald in Maine. This year, it was acquired, along with four other daily and 17 weekly newspapers, by the two-year-old National Trust for Local News. With the exception of the Bangor Daily News, all of Maine’s dailies are now nonprofits.

Many for-profit newspapers also now solicit and depend on foundation grants and charitable donations to underwrite local and specialized reporting they could not have done otherwise.

Family newspaper owners. Family owners are saving local for-profit newspapers in many parts of the country. The Manigault family is expanding local news coverage at its award-winning Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston, S.C., and smaller papers scattered across that state. It has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from the public to help finance investigative and other reporting by its newspapers.

In some large cities, billionaires have bought newspapers and invested significantly in them. John W. Henry, principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, acquired the Boston Globe in 2013. That same year, Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, purchased The Post. Minnesota business magnate Glen Taylor, principal owner of the Timberwolves and Lynx professional basketball teams, acquired the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2014. Biotech entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the Los Angeles Times in 2018.

In Louisiana, investor John Georges purchased the Advocate newspapers in Baton Rouge and Lafayette in 2013 and the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2019. He also started an online news site, the Shreveport-Bossier City Advocate, this year, with foundation funding, subscriptions and local advertising.

Specialized nonprofits. In recent years, philanthropic foundations and individual donors have financed a half-dozen national nonprofit news sites specializing in reporting on undercovered subjects. As they expanded, they created local newsrooms and websites in places where more coverage of those subjects was needed, often working with and contributing news to existing local media.

For example, KFF Health News, a national nonprofit news site based in D.C. and funded by KFF (formerly known as the Kaiser Family Foundation) in San Francisco, works with more than a dozen regional and state foundations to cover health issues for local news sites throughout the country. Its health-care reporters produce local stories that are published and broadcast by local newspapers, websites and public radio stations. (Disclosure: I am chairman of KFF Health News’s National Advisory Committee.)

Inside Climate News, a national nonprofit specializing in environmental news coverage, also has reporters around the country. The States Newsroom has bureaus in three dozen states covering their governments for local news media. The Marshall Project, which covers national criminal justice issues, started a local news site in Cleveland that is investigating court, police and bail abuses there.

The Chalkbeat nonprofit covers local education in New York, Newark, Chicago, Philadelphia, Indiana, Colorado and Tennessee. It started Votebeat in 2020 to report on voting rights in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas.

ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York-based investigative reporting nonprofit, has collaborated with local news media throughout the country since its founding in 2007. It has regional units on the ground from the Southwest to the Northeast. Its Local Reporting Network gives grants and guidance to reporters working on major investigative projects in their own newsrooms.

Public radio stations. A growing number of the nation’s hundreds of NPR-affiliated public radio stations are increasing the amount of local news they cover. Some have worked with NPR in grant-funded regional reporting partnerships. NPR also collaborates with individual public radio stations on local investigative reporting projects. Public radio stations in D.C., New York City and Los Angeles acquired and operate local news websites that supplement what they report on the radio.

University student-produced local news. University journalism students are reporting increasing amounts of local news for public consumption in many parts of the country. At about 100 universities and colleges, students produce an estimated 10,000 stories that appeared in more than 1,000 local news outlets, with more than 14 million page views last year, according to a study by the University of Vermont’s Center for Community News.

The University of Maryland’s Merrill journalism school has four student-staffed bureaus in Annapolis, D.C., Baltimore and College Park producing news for media outlets throughout the state. Louisiana State University’s Statehouse Bureau program provides stories to 90 media outlets. University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism students cover the state Capitol for 100 news organizations. The Pew Research Center found that 11 percent of statehouse reporters nationwide now are journalism students.

Arizona State University’s student-staffed Cronkite News covers local, state and regional news for media throughout Arizona and has the state’s only D.C. news bureau. The family that owned the Oglethorpe Echo donated the small newspaper to the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia in Athens, which now operates it as a nonprofit staffed by student journalists.

State government support for local news. Recently, several state legislatures have voted to provide modest support for local news reporting. California, New Mexico and Washington state lawmakers established programs to give paid fellowships to local reporters in their states’ newsrooms. In California, the legislature allocated $25 million to the University of California at Berkeley for three-year fellowships for local news reporters. It also approved $10 million for grants to ethnic news media covering underserved communities.

Philanthropic support. Philanthropic support for local nonprofit news has grown steadily over the past five years, according to a recent survey of 129 funders and 431 news organizations by the NORC research organization at the University of Chicago. And that was before the newly formed Press Forward group of 22 foundations recently announced its commitment of at least $500 million to support and expand local news over the next five years. That’s in addition to the American Journalism Project, which has invested in more than 40 nonprofit local news sites across the country.

Local television news. Of course, local television stations cover local news. But many of them devote much of their broadcast time to crime, consumer affairs, emergencies, weather, traffic and on-scene “live shots” that tie up their relatively small news staffs. Some stations have covered more community news and done significant investigative reporting. Now, other stations — including some of those owned by CBS, ABC and Gray Television — are beginning to send reporters into their local communities to find and report more fully stories that are important for their residents.

The future of local news. The movement to save local news is still in its early days. One big question is whether it should have government support, so long as there are no strings attached. A bipartisan bill in Congress, for example, would give payroll tax credits to employers of local news journalists and to small businesses that buy ads in their local news media.

Whenever they are asked, Americans say they want and depend on news coverage of their local communities. Its rebirth depends on them.

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