Regional news projects are no substitute for local coverage

For reasons that I can’t quite grasp, there seems to be an irresistible urge on the part of news entrepreneurs to think regionally rather than locally. Maybe a regional focus makes fundraising easier. Maybe folks think it makes little sense to build out a digital infrastructure for a project that serves just one community.

There’s no doubt that some of the best journalism start-ups are regional or statewide, with The Texas Tribune leading the way. Yet truly local projects such as the New Haven Independent, The Batavian, The Mendocino Voice and, closer to home, The Bedford Citizen, The Provincetown Independent and Ipswich Local News provide a service that just can’t be replicated by a regional project that might be focused on, say, state politics and policy.

The latest to argue for a regional approach is Christopher Baxter, the executive director and editor-in-chief of Spotlight PA, which produces investigative reporting in Pennsylvania. Writing in Nieman Reports, Baxter says his site uses a “hub-and-spoke” model to provide statewide stories to local news organizations, which in turn feed local stories back to the hub. He writes:

This “hub-and-spoke” model using statewide entities like Spotlight PA, VTDigger, Mississippi Today, Mountain State Spotlight, and many others provides a ready pathway to scale coverage to local cities and towns without building new organizations in every location. The hub provides the organizational support and wide distribution platform, maintaining a focus on Capitol and statewide stories, while the spokes focus on local stories, always with an eye toward what might be of interest to a statewide audience.

So far, so good. But then he adds: “To be clear, this approach won’t replace the heyday of local journalism, when every town council meeting, zoning meeting, and school board meeting was covered.” And yet that’s what’s desperately needed — and it’s exactly what’s being provided by the local projects I mention above.

Back in 2015, I interviewed Anne Galloway, the founder of VT Digger, a statewide site based in Vermont’s capital, Montpelier. At that time Digger was just beginning to expand into local coverage in Chittenden County, where Burlington is located, and Windham County, in the southern part of the state.

Digger has been grown considerably since then. But in perusing the site, it seems clear that it’s stuck mainly to its original mission of providing first-rate investigative coverage of statewide issues, while occasionally branching out into local stories like the recent newspaper battle in Charlotte.

That’s as it should be. But real local journalism of the sort that covers “every town council meeting, zoning meeting and school board meeting,” as Baxter puts it, is perhaps the greatest unmet need today. Let’s let the regionals do what they do best — and keep pushing for local coverage of community life.

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Still more on The Berkshire Eagle and the racist column

The fallout from The Berkshire Eagle’s decision to publish a racist column by “conservative activist” Steven Nikitas continues. Today The Boston Globe weighs in with a story that is currently ranked second among the paper’s top trending articles. (My earlier posts, with links to Nikitas’ column and editor Kevin Moran’s response, are here and here.)

The story, by Callum Borchers (a former student of mine), includes a misguided interpretation of the First Amendment by a journalist and blogger named Dan Valenti:

Dan Valenti, an adjunct professor of journalism at Berkshire Community College, said the Eagle made “absolutely the right call” when it chose to print the Nikitas column. If anything should have been withheld, it was Moran’s defense, which Valenti contended was unnecessary.

“The Eagle had a duty to publish it to start this very debate that has followed,” said Valenti, who runs a news and commentary blog called Planet Valenti. “We have to decide in this case whether we believe in the First Amendment or we don’t.”

The first of these two paragraphs represents Valenti’s opinion, and though I strongly disagree with him, he’s welcome to it. But the second paragraph is just plain wrong. All of us enjoy the protections of the First Amendment — including The Berkshire Eagle, which had an absolute right under the First Amendment to publish Nikitas’ column, reject it or (my preferred option) use it as the basis for reporting on racism in the community.

Following Valenti’s logic, I shouldn’t be wasting my time on this blog post — I should be emailing Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial-page editor of The New York Times, demanding my First Amendment right to a regular column. Once a week would be fine; I like my day job and wouldn’t want to have to give it up.

Valenti expounds on his views of the First Amendment at some length in this recent post on the Confederate flag. As you might guess, he believes its display is protected by the First Amendment. And it is! Anyone can fly it on his or her private property. And everyone has a First Amendment right to urge the state government of South Carolina to remove it (or not) from public display. (For some reason Valenti is also very excited about the difference between various types of Confederate flags.)

By the way, Eagle editor Kevin Moran, whose column defending his decision to publish Nikitas’ column has been controversial in its own right, has been a busy guy lately. Anne Galloway of the nonprofit news site VT Digger reports that New England Newspapers Inc. — part of the incredible shrinking Digital First chain — laid off 10 editorial employees last Friday. Among the papers affected were the Eagle and Vermont’s Brattleboro Reformer, Bennington Banner and Manchester Journal. Moran is regional vice president of the papers.

No snark. Though I disagree with Moran’s decision to publish Nikitas’ column, his explanation shows that he did so with the best of intentions. And I’m sure he’s devastated by the cuts at these once-thriving newspapers.