Saving local news: Some ideas from philanthropy, business and technology

Photo (cc) 2016 by Dan Kennedy

Could the example of the late Gerry Lenfest save Tribune Publishing’s newspapers from the avaricious clutches of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital?

About a half-dozen years ago, Lenfest, a billionaire investor, unexpectedly became the owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer and its related media properties. It’s an incredibly convoluted story that I tell in “The Return of the Moguls,” but essentially he had acquired a piece of the Inquirer with the intention of flipping it, and he ended up instead with the whole thing.

Lenfest’s next move saved quality journalism in Philadelphia: In early 2016 he donated his media properties to the Philadelphia Foundation, which in turn set up a nonprofit that, after his death, became known as the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Today the Inquirer is in far better shape than many metro dailies.

Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, Jim Friedlich, executive director and chief executive of the institute, argues that Tribune newspapers could be saved if deep-pockets philanthropists acquired them and then emulated Lenfest — or simply ran them as for-profit enterprises, as with John and Linda Henry at The Boston Globe and Patrick Soon-Shiong at the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune. Friedlich writes:

An Alden purchase of all of Tribune doesn’t have to be a fait accompli. In fact, the threat of such a deal represents an opportunity for civic-minded local investors across the country, who could use this case not only to save a critical local news institution, but to reinvent it.

Soon-Shiong continues to be a major Tribune shareholder, and I recently wrote that he should consider rescuing the chain, which includes papers such as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in America.

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As we know, local news is in crisis, and that has produced a considerable amount of ferment. Most of the attention right now is on Alden’s bid for a majority share of Tribune, which involves regional rather than strictly local news organizations. But there’s a lot happening at the grassroots as well.

For instance, Sarah Scire reports for the Nieman Journalism Lab on an ambitious effort to provide local news start-ups with the support they need to launch and continue operating. Imagine a journalist who’s been laid off by a corporate-owned newspaper and who wants to start something at the hyperlocal level. Where to begin?

According to Scire, the Tiny News Collective takes care of a lot of the back-end details that journalists are usually not trained to attend to themselves. “The project,” Scire writes, “will offer entrepreneurial journalists a tech stack, business training, legal assistance, and back-office services like payroll for around $100 a month.”

The Tiny News Collective, a collaboration between News Catalyst and LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, is hoping to have a hand in starting news projects in 500 communities, half of them covering underserved populations.

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Also worth watching is the Crosstown Neighborhood Newsletter project in Los Angeles — an effort to make smart use of data in order to produce a multitude of newsletters, each aimed at a tiny slice of the public. The editor, Gabriel Kahn, a professor at USC Annenberg, writes that Crosstown — “a collaboration between software engineers, designers and journalists” — recently launched 110 such newsletters in one day. He explains:

Our formula starts with data. We collect data about everything we can in Los Angeles, from traffic and crime to COVID-19 cases and building permits. Much of this data is hiding in plain sight, housed on local government dashboards that are hard to navigate. We divvy up the data by neighborhood. One citywide dataset about parking fines becomes 110 stories about how many more or fewer tickets were issued in each neighborhood during the COVID lockdown.

Crosstown reminds me of EveryBlock, a project started in 2008 by the pioneering data journalist Adrian Holovaty that was also heavily dependent on publicly available data. EveryBlock never really caught on, and it shut down in 2013. But far more information is online today than was the case a decade ago, and the tools for presenting it have improved considerably. It could be that the time for Holovaty’s idea has arrived.

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EveryBlock in Boston

The New York Times today has a too-brief story on hyperlocal Web sites that attempt to aggregate local news down to the neighborhood level. The focus is on EveryBlock, founded by the noted programmer-journalist Adrian Holovaty, best known for creating ChicagoCrime.org and the Washington Post’s Congress Votes Database.

The EveryBlock site for Boston is down at the moment. (Noon update: Now up.) When I’ve checked it out in the past, it has struck me as intriguing, but not ready for prime time. Enter a zip code and you get a pastiche of blogger, media and government information that doesn’t add up to a whole lot. But it’s easy to imagine its growing into something pretty useful.

Web pioneer Holovaty goes solo

This is big news. Adrian Holovaty, one of the most important journalists you’ve never heard of (or maybe you have), has quit washingtonpost.com to strike out on his own after winning a Knight grant to experiment with hyperlocal journalism. His project will be called EveryBlock.

Holovaty, who’s in his mid-20s, is the master of the mashup, in which datastreams are merged to create something new and useful. Using publicly available data from the Chicago Police Department, he created ChicagoCrime.org, which automatically sorts crime information and plots it on Google Maps. (If you’d like to see such a feature in Boston, forget it — although the Boston Police deserve credit for their innovative blog, they do not make crime data available in a form that would allow an outside programmer like Holovaty to make sense of it.)

Another Holovaty special: The Congressional Votes Database at washingtonpost.com.

I saw Holovaty speak last summer at the Media Giraffe conference at UMass Amherst. I thought his most interesting comments were in response to a question as to whether he considers himself a journalist. His answer: absolutely. He laid out the differences between an electronic journalist and a traditional journalist like this:

  • Gathering news: A traditional journalist calls sources and conducts research. An electronic journalist writes programs to fetch data.
  • Distilling the news: A traditional journalist decides what’s worth including in her report for print, online or broadcast. An electronic journalist decides which data queries are worth showing to readers.
  • Reporting the news: A traditional journalist writes or broadcasts news stories. An electronic journalist puts together Web presentations.

Do young people who want to pursue careers in journalism need to become programmers? Well, it’s certainly a promising field for those with the inclination and talent — but it’s not absolutely necessary. In fact, the Congressional Votes Database depends on contributions from traditional journalists, who do old-fashioned tasks such as deciding which are the key votes and describing them. At best, such journalism is a skillful amalgamation of old and new.

You can watch a video of Holovaty demonstrating ChicagoCrime.org here. And here is an excellent Q&A with Holovaty posted in the Online Journalism Review.

Photo of Holovaty (cc) by JD Lasica. Some rights reserved.