How a Chicago civic organization became home to a Pulitzer-winning newsroom

David Greising

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with David Greising, the president and chief executive of the Better Government Association, a century-old civic nonprofit organization that is also home to a Pulitzer Prize-winning newsroom as part of a new collaboration with the Illinois Solutions Partnership.

The new partnership is funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. The BGA separates its investigations team and policy team in order to wall off its journalism from its advocacy work. In May 2022, Madison Hopkins of the BGA and Cecilia Reyes of the Chicago Tribune won the Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting for an investigation of the city’s history of failed building and fire-safety code enforcement, which proved lethal many times over.

I’ve got a Quick Take on a new development at The Provincetown Independent. Co-founder and editor Ed Miller was a guest on the “What Works” podcast earlier this year. The Indie is trying something really interesting: A direct public offering, or DPO.

Ellen has a Quick Take on the INNYs — the Institute for Nonprofit News Awards. A reporter named Sally Kestin won for best investigative journalism in a small newsroom. We’re talking really small: She works for the Asheville Watchdog, a nonprofit news outlet in North Carolina with only one paid employee. The rest are retired journalists, many of them quite well-known. Kestin won the 2013 Pulitzer for Public Service at the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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

Ed Miller of the startup Provincetown Independent on competing with Gannett

Provincetown Independent co-founders Ed Miller, the editor, and Teresa Parker, the publisher. Photo by Sophie Ruehr; used with permission.

Ed Miller is co-founder and editor of The Provincetown Independent. Founded in October 2019, the weekly competes with Gannett’s Provincetown Banner. The Independent covers Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet and Eastham, and Miller explains why he believes that a print-centric strategy is essential on the tip of the Cape.

The Independent is a hybrid organization — a for-profit public benefit corporation that works in tandem with a nonprofit that Ed and co-founder and publisher Teresa Parker have also created. Up until now, the nonprofit, the Local Journalism Project, has operated under the fiscal sponsorship of the Center for the Study of Public Policy. But they have now created their own independent nonprofit and applied for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. (Disclosure: Dan is an unpaid adviser to the Independent.)

As we learned from Ed in planning this podcast, the first meeting of the new LJP board was happening the very day the episode was taped.

Ellen has a Quick Take on the abysmal results for the News Leaders Association newsroom diversity survey.

Dan reports on a startup newspaper in Queen Creek, Arizona, that will be called the Queen Creek Tribune and will make its debut on Sunday, April 24. It will be a total-market penetration print paper with a 20,000 press run.

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

Your thoughts on the future of legal ads in the digital era

I got some really thoughtful responses here and on Facebook to my post arguing that Massachusetts law should be changed so that government entities can take out legal advertising in digital-only news organizations and not just in print newspapers.

There’s no question that such a change would create unintended consequences, but change is necessary at a time when fewer and fewer local news outlets have a print component. Anyway, let me take on three issues raised by readers.

Print newspapers are the only proper outlet for legals. Honestly, there just isn’t a good case for this, and for a very simple reason: print newspapers are disappearing. I suppose you could make an argument that legals ought to be restricted to print in communities where that is still an option, but that’s becoming increasingly unrealistic.

Ethan Forman, a reporter for the Gloucester Daily Times, worries that if digital is an option, local officials will choose one of the websites owned by the Gannett chain, which has been shutting down many of its weekly newspapers. “If we lose legal ads to digital, which I guess is inevitable,” Ethan says, “then these zombie Gannett websites will benefit and it will strip newspapers of this ad revenue…. If digital legal ads are allowed, I’m sure it will go to this zombie website instead of us because rates will be cheaper.”

Ethan makes a good point, and perhaps the legislative fix that state Reps. Ken Gordon and Alice Hanlon Peisch are working on could include a provision requiring that legals can only be placed in a news outlet — print or digital — that has a certain level of presence in the community. You don’t want to base it on paid circulation, because many digital outlets are free. So perhaps web traffic or newsletter subscriptions could be used as a proxy. You might also come up with some sort of objective requirement for publishing a certain amount of local news in order to be eligible for legals.

Nonprofit news outlets should not be a forum for legals. This argument comes from Ed Miller, the co-founder and editor of The Provincetown Independent, a for-profit print and digital news organization. Ed writes:

You point out, correctly, that one powerful argument for the publication requirement is that legal notices be published in a forum independent of the government, as an anti-corruption measure. But virtually all of the new online-only publications are organized as nonprofits, which are not independent of the government. They are dependent on being approved as legitimate by the IRS and the state.

I think Ed exaggerates a bit — there are many for-profit digital news organizations, and some of them are quite successful. But he’s right that most of them are nonprofits. Where I really disagree is with his notion that nonprofits are not sufficiently independent to carry legal ads.

Nonprofit news organizations large and small are doing excellent work in holding government to account. I don’t think the idea that they are insufficiently independent to run legal ads holds up. I honestly can’t see what problems might arise — that they might be intimidated into changing the wording of an ad after it’s been published online lest they lose their nonprofit status?

Government threats to pull legal ads pertain to for-profits and nonprofits alike. Last year, for instance, Colorado media-watcher Corey Hutchins reported that a newspaper owner in the Denver area abjectly apologized for a racist April Fools Day joke in the hopes of retaining $10,000 in legal ads. It failed, as the city council voted to take its business elsewhere.

Ed himself told a Northeastern University audience last year that the Independent has been unable to attract legal ads, which he attributed to his newspaper’s tough coverage of local officials. Good for him for not giving in — but it shows that officials do, in fact, have leverage over community news outlets regardless of whether they are for-profit or nonprofit. (Disclosure: I’m on the Independent’s informal advisory board.)

Ed also argues that digital-only legal ads exclude readers who aren’t online. True enough. But again, you can’t will a print newspaper into existence in a community that doesn’t have one.

Digital is a flawed format for creating a permanent archive. This is a real concern, not just for legal ads but for the very digital news organizations that would carry them. “This has to be addressed in the law to force news websites to take archiving seriously, but the law has to be flexible to enough to adapt to changing technology,” says Aaron Read, an engineer with The Public’s Radio in Providence, Rhode Island. “That’s not a trivial task.”

I guess the question here is for how long legal ads must be “preserved and secure in a tangible record that is archived,” as the law requires. A hundred years? Five hundred? Or long enough that it’s fulfilled its purpose, which in most cases would be for a much shorter period of time.

Legals could be printed out and stored at public libraries. Or PDFs could be created and uploaded to a separate repository. That’s probably not a forever solution, but I suspect that we’ll still be able to read PDFs 50 years from now. As I noted on Saturday, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association keeps an online repository of legal ads, and if the MNPA ceased to exist (perish the thought!), presumably someone else could take it over.

Preserving websites is a real challenge, though. Print newspapers, at least, can be microfilmed and viewed in their original format indefinitely. Too much of the web, by contrast, just seems to go away.

As Ethan notes, it’s inevitable that legal ads are going to move to digital-only news sites — that is, if we can keep them on news sites and not just have them move to government platforms. Now’s the time to think these issues through in order to serve the public as effectively as possible.

Trump’s postmaster general targets journalism with a devastating rate hike

Painting by J.C. Leyendecker (1874-1951). Uploaded (cc) 2020 by Halloween HJB.

As scholars from Paul Starr to Victor Pickard have observed, newspapers in the United States have benefited mightily from postal subsidies since the earliest days of the republic.

Starting in the Reagan era, though, the U.S. Postal Service has been run under the misguided notion that it should break even or turn a profit rather than be operated as a public service. As a result, postal rates for periodicals have been rising for more than a generation, putting additional pressure on newspaper and magazine publishers who are already straining under the economic challenges posed by technology, cultural shifts — and, now, the post-pandemic recovery.

The latest bad news comes in the form of a report from The Associated Press that rates on periodicals are scheduled to rise by more than 8% on Aug. 29. The AP story, by David Bauder and Anthony Izaguirre, says the increase is “part of a broad plan pushed by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to overhaul mail operations.”

DeJoy, you may recall, is the ethically challenged Trump appointee who slowed down mail service last year, thus imperiling vote-by-mail efforts in the midst of the pandemic. For some reason, he appears to have more job security than Vladimir Putin.

Speaking of subsidies, you can support Media Nation — and receive a weekly newsletter with exclusive early content — by becoming a member for just $5 a month. Just click here.

Now, you might think that rising postal rates would simply push publishers to hasten their transition to digital. But it’s a simple matter of reality that print advertising continues to play an important role in keeping newspapers and magazines afloat. For instance, earlier this year, Ed Miller, the co-founder and editor of start-up Provincetown Independent, explained that he offers a print edition alongside a robust website because otherwise it would be just too difficult to make money.

Northwestern University Professor Penelope Muse Abernathy tells the AP that the effect of higher postal rates could be devastating for small local news projects that are already struggling. “It is one of several nicks and slashes that can damage the bottom line, especially if you are an independent publisher who is operating at break even or in the low single digits of profitability,” she says. “And most are.”

Ironically, a section of the Postal Service’s website sings the glories of how subsidies helped foster robust journalism, quoting George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The essay starts like this:

From the beginning of the American republic, the Founding Fathers recognized that the widespread dissemination of information was central to national unity. They realized that to succeed, a democratic government required an informed electorate, which in turn depended upon a healthy exchange of news, ideas, and opinions.

At a time when the idea of government funding for journalism is being debated in the public square, postal subsidies stand out as a particularly benign way to go about doing that. As with tax benefits for nonprofit news organizations, postal subsidies are indirect. That makes it difficult for the government to punish individual media outlets for tough coverage — as is happening right now in Western Pennsylvania, where the Republican-dominated state legislature has eliminated funding for public broadcasters even as one station has persisted in calling out the Republicans for touting the “big lie” about the 2020 election. (Republican officials deny there’s a connection.)

It’s long past time for Louis DeJoy to hit the bricks and for the post office to be reorganized as a public service. Foremost among those services should be helping to provide the public with reliable, affordable journalism.

In Provincetown, a startup weekly newspaper is challenging Gannett

Launching a community news outlet at a time when local news is under siege might seem like a foolhardy risk. But journalists with an entrepreneurial spirit are taking that risk — and, for some, it’s paying off.

Take, for example, The Provincetown Independent. Founded in October 2019, the weekly competes with Gannett’s Provincetown Banner. According to co-founder and editor Ed Miller, the Independent already has more than 100 advertisers and a full-time staff of 10, including three editors and three and a half reporters, as well as a number of freelancers. He and the other co-founder, publisher Teresa Parker, are aiming for break-even and a staff of 20 by year five.

“The fact is that the majority of these legacy small-town papers are actually doing perfectly well,” Miller said last week at an event at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism via Zoom. He added, though, that “they’re not making anybody rich.”

The Independent covers four towns — Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet and Eastham. The paper has both a print and a paywalled digital edition. Although a number of local news startups are digital-only, Miller said he’s convinced that print is necessary for a for-profit enterprise such as his, since it’s a more effective way to attract advertisers. (The Independent is a public-benefit corporation, which means, according to its About page, that it is “committed to prioritizing the social and environmental benefits of our corporate decision-making.”)

The formula has worked, he said, noting that the current edition comprises 32 pages, 27% of which are advertising.

One type of advertising he’s not getting are legal notices, a problem he blamed on town officials who don’t like the tough coverage the Independent is providing. Instead, legals continue to go to the Banner and another Gannett weekly, the Cape Codder, whose coverage area overlaps with the Independent in Eastham.

Miller began his career as a small-town newspaper owner in the town of Harvard in 1973, an experience that led him to co-write a 1978 book called “How to Produce a Small Newspaper.” He worked for four years for the Banner before deciding to launch his own venture, saying that GateHouse Media, which later acquired Gannett and took its name, “pretty much systematically stripped it of all its staff and other capacities.”

Become a member of Media Nation today

As for the Independent, he said the paper now has paid print circulation of about 3,200 (subscriptions plus newsstand sales), with another 450 digital-only subscribers, most of whom live far from Cape Cod.

The paper’s revenues last year were about $640,000, with $217,000 coming from subscriptions and $242,000 from advertising. Nearly $70,000 came in the form of government assistance related to the pandemic, and another $74,000 was from donations and grants to the Independent’s nonprofit arm, which it uses to pay interns and cover the cost of in-depth reporting on issues like climate change, affordable housing, health care and LGBTQ issues.

Although not every local news startup is as successful as the Independent, there has been an upsurge in recent years of independently owned community outlets. Some are for-profit, some are nonprofit. Some are online-only, some have a print edition. Some were launched to challenge a chain-owned newspaper, some were founded in communities with no news outlet. Later this week, LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers will release a study showing that the number of independents in the U.S. and Canada has risen by 50% over the past five years.

What all of these startups have in common is that, even with the challenges to local news posed by the likes of Craigslist, Facebook and Google, independents can succeed.

“We hear from people in various other places where their papers have really withered and they’ve heard about what we’re doing,” Miller said. “Every place is different. What we’re doing out here in Provincetown is geared to this place. People will need to find their own ways of making this work wherever they are.”

Correction. This post has been updated regarding the length of Miller’s tenure at the Provincetown Banner and the Independent’s total print circulation.