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

Category: Local News Page 2 of 48

Why the local news crisis will be solved by enterpreneurs at the grassroots

Adrienne Johnson Martin, executive editor of MLK50. Photo (cc) 2023 by Dan Kennedy.

Ellen Clegg and I have written a commentary for Poynter Online about our book, “What Works in Community News.” The piece is focused on Ellen’s reporting in Memphis, Tennessee, where two nonprofit startups, MLK50 and the Daily Memphian, are filling the gap created by Gannett’s hollowing out of the legacy daily, The Commercial Appeal. Our bottom line:

We are heartened by the work being done by these news entrepreneurs. At a time when advocates are proposing solutions to the local news crisis such as tax credits, legal action to force Google and Facebook to share advertising revenues, and expanded philanthropic efforts, we’ve learned that there is no substitute for the dedication of grassroots news activists. We hope our work will inspire others to start similar efforts in their own communities.

We hope you’ll take a look at our piece.

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Nonprofit local news needs to move past the large funder/ large project paradigm

Nieman Lab now has a reporter devoted to covering developments in local news. Sophie Culpepper previously worked at The Lexington Observer, one of a number of nonprofit news startups in the Boston suburbs, and her Nieman beat is evidence that the local news crisis has moved to the forefront of issues that media innovators care about.

Last week Culpepper published an in-depth, two-part story on concerns raised by small startups that they are overlooked by the major foundations that are seeding new organizations, such as the Knight Foundation and the American Journalism Project. It’s something that Ellen Clegg and I have heard from some of the entrepreneurs we’ve included in our book, “What Works in Community News.”

Among the people Culpepper interviews is Jason Pramas, who has his hand in many projects but who at the moment is focused mainly on his work with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and HorizonMass, the latter a nonprofit that showcases paid student labor. Pramas is a founder of the Alliance of Nonprofit News Outlets, or ANNO, a group of smaller outlets that tend to be overlooked by the major players. (Pramas was a guest on our “What Works” podcast recently.) Pramas tells Culpepper: “I’m basically saying, there are haves and have-nots in the nonprofit journalism space. And this isn’t right.”

What worries Ellen and me is that the large funders tend to support what they regard as sure bets — big regional projects rather than the tiny operations that are covering one small town or a rural county. Not that those sure bets always pay off. After all, the high-profile Houston Chronicle was recently shaken by the unexplained firings of its editor and top investigative reporter. The large-funder, large-projects paradigm may become even more entrenched with the rise of Press Forward, an effort by more than 20 nonprofit foundations to provide $500 million to help fund local news over the next five years.

Regional and statewide nonprofits — including two that Ellen and I wrote about, The Texas Tribune and NJ Spotlight News — are doing great work and need to be supported. But that support shouldn’t come at the expense of tiny operations that are keeping people informed about their community and their neighborhood.

Ultimately, funding has to come from local sources, with national money used as a supplement. That requires an ongoing educational effort to convince local philanthropic organizations that reliable news is just as important to the health of a community as youth programs, educational initiatives and the arts.

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Laura Pappano tells us about her book covering public schools and parent activism

Laura Pappano, a Quincy Patriot Ledger reporter from 1986-1992, talks about her book “School Moms” at a launch party at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle.

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg talks with Laura Pappano, an award-winning journalist who has written about education for more than 30 years. Laura has a new book out from Beacon Press. The title is “School Moms: Parent Activism, Partisan Politics, and the Battle for Public Education.” By the way, Beacon also published our book, “What Works in Community News.” Ellen and I recorded our segments separately because Ellen was traveling. So don’t worry, we’re not breaking up.

Ellen has a Quick Take on a philanthropic gift from Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, that is designed to cover full tuition for many graduate students in journalism at City University of New York. That’s good news for students wondering whether to take on $50,000 or more in tuition debt to get a master’s degree in journalism at a private university. Craigslist destroyed the classified ad market, but Newmark continues to make his mark as a philanthropist.

I offer two cheers for billionaire newspaper ownership. With the news business dealing with a difficult round of layoffs, a number of media observers have jumped to the conclusion that billionaire owners are not the solution to what ails journalism. Well, of course they aren’t. No one ever said otherwise. But the record shows that civic-minded ownership by wealthy owners has proven to be a workable solution to the local news crisis in several cities.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

A funding dispute in Baltimore highlights a challenge over nonprofit news and racial equity

Tracie Powell at the 2019 Knight Foundation Media Forum. Photo (cc) 2019 by the Knight Foundation.

My reporting and podcast partner Ellen Clegg has published a first-rate analysis for our What Works website about a dispute over nonprofit news funding in Baltimore, relating it to her work in Memphis, where she wrote about MLK50, a small project with Black leadership, and the Daily Memphian, a large, well-funded, mostly white website.

In Baltimore, there’s a similar dispute taking place between the Beat and the Banner, the latter a digital publication launched by hotel mogul Stewart Bainum and intended as a comprehensive replacement for the venerable Baltimore Sun, which has fallen on hard times. Ellen takes note of a piece written for Poynter Online by Tracie Powell of the Pivot Fund about a huffy tweet posted by David Simon, best known for his work on “The Wire,” in which he accused the Beat of a racially based shakedown when a Beat collaborator tagged him in a fundraising tweet.

It’s complicated, so read Ellen’s post, in which she also recounts an eye-opening (and jaw-dropping) conversation she had with a white media type in Memphis.

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Talking about local news at BU

I’ll be taking part in a webinar on “Saving Local News” on Wednesday, Feb. 14, from 3 to 4 p.m., sponsored by the Boston University Alumni Association. (That’s not why I got invited, but I actually did earn my master’s in American history from BU way back in 1983.)

The other panelists: Sarabeth Berman, CEO of the American Journalism Project; Karen Rundlet, CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit News; and Daniela Melo, a BU faculty member and co-founder of The New Bedford Light. Moderating will be former Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory, chair of BU’s Journalism Department. You can register here.

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Wisconsin legislators consider three measures aimed at bolstering local news

The Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. Photo (cc) 2012 by Teemu008.

Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin are considering three pieces of legislation to bolster local news that are borrowed from California, New Jersey and a federal proposal that hit a dead end several years ago. Erin McGroarty of The Cap Times breaks down the Local Journalism Package:

• One bill would fund 25 journalists to be placed in local newsrooms across the state. The reporting fellows would be chosen by University of Wisconsin journalism professors and outside experts, and would be paid a $40,000 salary for a year. This bears some resemblance to a program at UC Berkeley, where a $25 million appropriation is paying for reporting fellows to work at news organizations that cover underserved communities for five years.

• A proposed Wisconsin Civic Information Consortium would award grants aimed at “addressing communities’ information needs, bolstering media literacy and civic engagement, and supporting access to high-quality, consistent local journalism, especially among underserved communities.” The bill appears to be based on the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, which has awarded some $5.5 million to support 81 news and information projects over the past several years.

• Wisconsin residents would be able to claim a tax credit for up to $250 in annual subscription fees to local news outlets. Several years ago such a provision was part of a federal bill that also included tax credits for local advertisers and for publishers who hired and retained journalists. That bill went nowhere, but Congress is currently considering a new version that includes the advertiser and publishers credits but not the subscriber credits.

All in all, the Wisconsin measures are modest steps that could help ease the local news crisis, although they are no substitute for the hard work of news entrepreneurs on the ground. With Congress seemingly unable to do much of anything constructive, it’s encouraging to see some leadership at the state level.

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The Somerville Wire shuts down, but its editor says that coverage in the city is growing

Near Davis Square in Somerville. Photo (cc) 2023 by Dan Kennedy.

Nearly two years ago, Gannett merged the Medford Transcript and the Somerville Journal into one weekly paper called The Transcript & Journal. Even worse, nearly all local news was removed from the new paper, replaced with regional news from elsewhere in the chain.

In Medford, where I live, we now have nothing, although I’m optimistic that will change in the near future. In Somerville, though, there were several alternatives, foremost among them the weekly Somerville Times and a digital outlet called the Somerville Wire. Unfortunately, the Wire is shutting down. Jason Pramas, the editor, writes that the Wire got to be too much of a financial burden as well as a drain on his other work with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) and HorizonMass. (Pramas talked about both of those projects in a recent appearance on the “What Works” podcast.)

Besides, Pramas notes that Somerville has been getting more coverage lately, as the Cambridge Day has expanded into the city and The Boston Globe has begun a weekly “Camberville & beyond” newsletter. Pramas writes that “while Somerville is still in danger of becoming a ‘news desert’ (a community that no longer has a professionally-produced news outlet covering it), it’s now getting more news coverage than it was in 2021,” when the Wire launched.

Pramas and his colleagues Chris Faraone and John Loftus continue to do good and important work, and I wish them all the best.

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More news about our book

Photo (2012) by Dan Kennedy

I want to let you know about a couple of media hits this weekend for “What Works in Community News.”

First, Billy Baker of The Boston Globe quotes my co-author, Ellen Clegg, and mentions our book in a feature on The Local News, which covers Ipswich and Rowley and is one of a number of nonprofit startups founded to fill the gap left behind when Gannett abandoned its weekly papers in Eastern Massachusetts. “This is what the founders envisioned, which is a lot of little newspapers in all the little towns in New England,” Ellen told Baker. As Baker notes, Ellen doesn’t just write about it — she also does it, as she’s also the co-founder and co-chair of another startup, Brookline.News.

Second, Colorado College journalism professor Corey Hutchins writes about our book in his well-read newsletter, “Inside the News in Colorado.” I visited Colorado in September 2021, mainly to report on upstart Colorado Sun but also to learn more about how the Sun fits into the state’s larger journalistic community One afternoon I drove from Denver to Colorado Springs in order to interview Hutchins. “I don’t know of any other state where there’s such a focus and attention from folks here who want to support a thriving local news ecosystem matched with attention from funders, smart media thinkers from around the country,” he told me.

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Talking ‘What Works’ with Medill’s Mark Caro

Thanks to Mark Caro, editor of the Local News Initiative at Northwestern’s Medill School, for a great conversation with Ellen Clegg and me about our book, “What Works in Community News.” The interview has been picked up by Poynter Online as well.

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Eugene Weekly to resume print publication after raising $150,000

Eugene Weekly photo via The Oregonian

Eugene Weekly, which shut down in late December after an ex-employee was charged with embezzling tens of thousands of dollars, is back. Oddly, there doesn’t seem to be anything about it on the paper’s website, which continues to lead with a story that was posted a month ago about the crisis. But Livia Albeck-Ripka reports in The New York Times (free link) that the free print paper will resume publication on Feb. 8 after raising “at least $150,000” in donations.

“Every time I walk by one of our little red boxes, there’s no paper in it, it stabs me in the heart,” editor Camilla Mortensen is quoted as saying. The previous weekly press run had been 30,000, but she said that would be cut to 25,000 so that it can remain financially sustainable.

The alt-weekly, founded in 1982, is an important source of local news in Eugene. EW has continued to post stories on its website with what the Times describes as donated labor. The homepage currently includes new and recent articles about a school superintendent who’s being investigated on allegations of discriminating and retaliating against an employee; how animals were affected by a January ice storm; and a fundraising concert for EW starring “the self proclaimed scream queens of Eugene.”

If you’d like to donate to keep EW alive, just click here.

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