Of the various new business models that are emerging for community journalism, mergers between public broadcasters and existing news outlets are among the most promising.
One of the projects that Ellen Clegg and I are tracking for our book-in-progress, “What Works,” is NJ Spotlight News, a nonprofit digital startup covering politics and public policy in New Jersey that was acquired several years ago by WNET. They’ve merged their operations, continuing to offer deep coverage on their website while rebranding the daily half-hour newscast that appears on NJ PBS.
There are other examples, the most ambitious of which is the acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times by WBEZ, which is converting the storied tabloid to a nonprofit. On a smaller scale, the mobile-first website Billy Penn is now part of WHYY in Philadelphia and Denverite was acquired a few years back by Colorado Public Radio.
Now comes another move that’s well worth keeping an eye on. Public radio station KERA announced earlier this week that it intends to acquire the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily newspaper that covers the suburbs north of Dallas. In a statement, owner and publisher Bill Patterson said, “This arrangement gives us the opportunity and the ability to preserve local journalism for the people of Denton County. As our population continues to grow, it’s imperative that we grow as well. With KERA’s commitment and expertise, our organization will be able to serve our audiences well into the future.”
What’s especially encouraging about the move is that it was facilitated by the National Trust for Local News, which raises money and connects legacy newspaper owners with possible buyers in order to keep them from either shutting down or falling into the hands of corporate chain owners. Terms of the Denton deal weren’t announced, but according to the National Trust, it was one of four that will be supported through a $17.25 million fund. According to Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, the co-founder and CEO of the National Trust:
Communities across the country are clamoring to ensure the long-term sustainability of their local and community news. This expected acquisition of a beloved and storied community newspaper by a strong public media station shows another way forward. This new “public media community anchor” model to keep local news in local hands has important implications for media sustainability that reach far beyond the hills of North Texas.
Hansen Shapiro, by the way, was a recent guest on the “What Works” podcast.
The National Trust is best known for helping to purchase 24 weekly and monthly newspapers in the Denver suburbs. The papers are now owned by a nonprofit organization (the papers themselves remain for-profit) and managed by The Colorado Sun, a for-profit digital startup.
The population of Denton is about 148,000, according to U.S. Census data. The Record-Chronicle doesn’t report its circulation to the Alliance for Audited Media, but this Wikipedia article claims that, as of 2011, it was about 12,500 on Sundays and 9,200 on weekdays. If the paper is like nearly every other daily, the circulation is no doubt smaller today.
The Record-Chronicle traces its roots to 1892. In recent years, it’s had a close relationship with the Dallas Morning News, the major metro in that region: the Patterson family sold the paper to the Morning News’ parent company, A.H. Belo Corp. (now the DallasNews Corp.), in 1999, only to buy it back in 2018.
I hope the Record-Chronicle thrives under its new arrangement, which is scheduled to become official in 2023. And I hope it serves as a model for many more such arrangements.