How Anne Galloway built VTDigger into Vermont’s largest news organization

Anne Galloway speaks at VTDigger’s 10th anniversary celebration in 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell, courtesy of VTDigger.

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Anne Galloway, the founder and editor-at-large of VTDigger in Vermont. Like many journalists, she was laid off in 2009 from her job as Sunday editor of the Rutland Herald and The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.

VTDigger, which is a nonprofit, started with a $16,000 budget with no employees. As Galloway put it in a recent letter to readers, it has grown beyond her wildest dreams. It’s the largest newsroom in Vermont, with dozens of employees and more than 550,000 monthly readers. Galloway not only built the organization, she also wrote notable investigative pieces. Among other issues, she broke open a fraudulent scheme that involve developers at Jay Peak. I visited Galloway and wrote about the newsroom in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls.”

Earlier this year Galloway stepped aside from her management position in order to concentrate on investigative reporting.

Ellen has a quick take on a study about the state of U.S. democracy from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The study says it’s critical to fight disinformation, and advocates rebuilding trusted local news sources.

I report on a promising merger between public radio station KERA and the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily newspaper that covers the suburbs north of Dallas. This move 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. Our podcast with Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, CEO and co-founder of the trust, can be found here.

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

A Texas daily is rescued with the help of public radio and the National Trust

The Denton County Courthouse in downtown Denton. Photo (cc) 2014 by Kent Kanouse.

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.

Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro on her national campaign to invest in local news

Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, CEO and co-founder of the National Trust for Local News. She is also a senior research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School in New York. At the Tow Center, Dr. Hansen Shapiro’s work focuses on the future of local journalism and the policies needed to assure that future. Her research involves audience engagement and revenue strategies, as well as the relationship between news and social platforms. She holds a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Harvard Business School.

The National Trust for Local News is a nonprofit that is dedicated to “keeping local news in local hands.” The Trust works with local news publishers, philanthropists and socially conscious investors, and, as I’ve reported, worked with other collaborators to buy 24 weekly and monthly newspapers in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado, perhaps saving them from hedge fund ownership.

I’ve got a Quick Take on a recent newsletter by past “What Works” guest Kristen Hare of Poynter, who reported on local media people who are starting to fight back against the abuse they’re receiving from some of the more sociopathic members of their audience.

Ellen weighs in on the death of Tim Giago, the founder of the first independently owned Native American newspaper in the United States, and dives back into the Dumpster fire in the newsroom of The Aspen Times in Colorado.

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

An ambitious plan to save local news by investing in community journalism

Golden, Colo., is among the cities and towns served by Colorado Community Media

Rick Edmonds of Poynter interviewed Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro and Lillian Ruiz about the National Trust for Local News, a project they founded to invest in community journalism projects around the country.

Their goal is to raise $300 million in order to finance deals like the purchase earlier this year of Colorado Community Media, a chain of two dozen weekly and monthly papers in the Denver suburbs. The papers are now being run by The Colorado Sun, a start-up website founded by a number of former Denver Post journalists.

My colleague Ellen Clegg and I interviewed Hansen Shapiro recently to ask her about the National Trust. We especially wanted to learn more about how she had arrived at the $300 million figure, which she had told Ben Smith of The New York Times might be enough to save every independent community paper in the United States that is at risk of shutting down or being sold off to a chain owner.

She told us that her estimate was based on research showing that there are about 4,000 independent weekly and daily papers — what she called “sub-large-chain titles,” to include those held by small regional chains — with perhaps as many as 2,400 owners. Here is how she described the National Trust’s strategy:

We’re approaching it two ways. One is inbound interest from publishers who are ready to retire and want to figure out what the next move is. Some of them have successors lined up, but they don’t have financing. Some of them don’t have successors lined up and their businesses are failing. And that’s the house-on-fire version. And some of them have great businesses. They don’t have a successor. They think they want to be out of the business in two years, and they’re like, could we start a conversation now so that so we can figure out something?

Any paper can be kept out of the hands of a hedge fund or a corporate chain is a victory.

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