By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Gannett’s Reno daily seeks charity to pay for local government coverage

Photo (cc) 2007 by Natalie Hegert

Gannett is seeking charitable donations to cover the salary of the local government reporter at the Reno Gazette Journal, one of its dailies. According to executive editor Brian Duggan, the paper is trying to raise $100,000 over the next two years so that it can keep paying Mark Robison. Duggan writes:

Mark’s salary is entirely dependent on the RGJ Fund, which is a field of interest fund held by the Community Foundation of Northern Nevada. It was established by the RGJ in 2020 as a way to help our newsroom grow.

Here’s some background from the Community Foundation.

My first reaction was blind outrage. My second reaction was tempered outrage. Short term, there’s no question that this will help the community. More coverage is better than less coverage, and Robison’s stories are offered for free, outside the Gazette Journal’s paywall.

But in the medium and long term, helping Gannett — the largest newspaper chain in the country, notorious for cutting its newsrooms to the bone — makes it more difficult for anyone else to start or maintain an independent news project. In fact, there are two such projects in Reno — This Is Reno and the Reno News & Review. Why not help them beef up their coverage of local government?

It’s not unprecedented for nonprofit grant money to be given to for-profit news organizations. To be fair, it sounds like none of the foundation’s money are actually being given to the paper; the foundation is simply administering the fund. (I emailed the foundation seeking comment but did not receive a response.) But there are two aspects of the Reno situation that stand out:

1. Robison is covering a core beat, local government. Grant money is usually used for special reporting projects, such as The Boston Globe’s series on educational inequality, “The Great Divide,” paid for partly by the Barr Foundation. Because of the grant money, the Globe is providing more and different education coverage than it otherwise might. By contrast, would the Reno paper actually not cover local government without charitable contributions? (OK, maybe it wouldn’t.)

2. Gannett keeps slashing its coverage to pay down debt and to squeeze out as much revenue as possible. I’m sure Duggan and Robison are fine journalists. But the people who own their paper demonstrate little interest in providing deep reporting in the communities they serve. Thus the donors are, in effect, subsidizing Gannett’s cost-cutting.

There has to be a better way of helping local news in Reno.

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  1. Lex

    Could not agree more. My former paper, the Greensboro News & Record, started accepting money from the local United Arts Council to underwrite its arts coverage, including not only a full-time arts writer but also freelance music, dance, theater, and art reviews. For all I know, it saved my former colleague’s job; it certainly funded reviews that otherwise never would have been commissioned and published. But was it the right thing to do for a paper owned by a very profitable large corporation? Of course not.

  2. Steve Ross

    I note that UN Reno has a fine journalism school…

  3. Bruce McIntyre

    Not as if Gannett was ever a classy place, but this is a new low.

  4. Sven Aurich

    When people are not willing to support local news by subscribing to their local newspaper and instead prefer reading free news BS on Facebook, what do you expect?

    Newspaper companies are for-profit companies and if covering local news does only produce losses due to the unwillingness of people who demand local news actually to pay for this news, then the newspaper companies have to end the coverage of local news.

    So if people want local news to continue, they will have either to subscribe to local newspapers (which they don’t) or the the costs must be covered from third party sources.

    • Steve Ross

      You may have it backwards. I and hundreds of thousands others subscribe to the Boston Globe because it delivers local news. Several hundred other local papers “survive” the same way. This, ahem, requires a bit of up-front investment by the newspaper owners.

      The strategy of cheapening the product so no one wants it, then looking for charity, is bizarre.

      BTW, in 2007 as advertisers for my magazine, Broadband Communities, were going out of business (the universe fell from 400 companies to 130), we cut the number of annual issues from 11 to 6 but barely cut total pages. We strengthened the website. We continued high editorial quality… figured out new editorial services such as financial modeling, and put all five of our competitors out of business. We’re up to 7 issues now, solidly profitable, credited with doing the studies that supported vast new federal investments happening now in broadband, and oddly enough being nipped at by nonprofits. So what? Providing an editorial product people need is still a good way to make a living. We did have a few lean years, but it was worth it.

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