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.

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.

A conversation about the local news crisis in a time of polarization

I’d like to let you know about a special program coming up on the crisis in community journalism. Titled “The Decline of Local News and the Rise of Polarization,” the event is part of the Masterman Speaker Series and the Ford Hall Forum at Suffolk Law School. It will be held next Thursday, Sept. 29, at 5 p.m. in Sargent Hall, 120 Tremont St., in the Blue Sky Lounge on the fifth floor.

I’ll be moderating, and I promise to inject some optimism into the proceedings. We’ve got a great panel:

  • Joshua Darr, associate professor of political communication at Louisiana State University. Ellen Clegg and I interviewed Darr earlier this year on the “What Works” podcast about his research into polarization and local opinion.
  • Renée Loth, an opinion columnist for The Boston Globe and a former editorial-page editor of the Globe.She is currently an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
  • Charles St. Amand, practioner in residence in Suffolk’s communication and journalism department and a 31-year veteran of community journalism, most recently as editor of the Sentinel & Enterprise in Fitchburg.

The program is free, but you do need to register. Just click here.

We end our summer podcasts with a round-up of local news items. See you in September!

Rainbow Arch Bridge, Lake City, Iowa, the center of a bizarre newspaper war. Photo (cc) 2014 by David Wilson.

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I dive into our reporter’s notebooks after our scheduled guest had a last-minute medical emergency, catching up with NJ Spotlight News, the emergence of The Lexington Observer, the transition at The Texas Tribune, and the turmoil at The Graphic-Advocate (both of them!) of Lake City, Iowa.

Ellen also has a rave for Emily Rooney’s “Beat the Press” podcast and her recent interview with legendary WCVB-TV news anchor Natalie Jacobson, who’s written a memoir about her life and career.

Like Boston’s Orange Line and Green Line, the “What Works” podcast will be off the intertubes for a few weeks as Ellen and I race to meet the deadline for our book about the future of local news. You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

How local news helped Callie Crossley with her research for ‘Eyes on the Prize’

Callie Crossley. Photo via GBH News.

Callie Crossley of GBH News is a multitalented broadcast journalist and producer. She hosts “Under the Radar with Callie Crossley” and shares radio essays each Monday on GBH’s “Morning Edition.” She also hosts “Basic Black,” which covers news events that have an impact on communities of color. Crossley’s work on “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years” won numerous awards.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Ellen and Dan, Crossley shares her views on the thinning out of local news outlets and offers sage advice for next-generation journalists. Callie and Dan were regulars on “Beat the Press,” the award-winning GBH-TV show that featured media commentary, which ended its 22-year run in 2021. In 2019, both of them received the Yankee Quill Award from the New England Society of Newspaper Editors.

In Quick Takes on developments in local news, Dan laments the rise of robot journalism, and Ellen reports on an effort by publisher Lee Enterprises to fight off a takeover bid by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

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

Northeastern’s Myojung Chung and John Wihbey on attitudes about regulating social media

Myojung Chung

In the latest “What Works” podcast, Professors Myojung Chung and John Wihbey, colleagues from Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, share the findings from their new working paper, published by Northeastern’s Ethics Institute.

They and their colleagues examined attitudes about the regulation of social media in four countries: the U.K., Mexico, South Korea and the U.S. With Facebook (or Meta) under fire for its role in amplifying disinformation and hate speech, their research has implications for how the platforms might be regulated — and whether such regulations would be accepted by the public.

John Wihbey

In Quick Takes, Ellen Clegg and I kick around WBEZ Radio’s acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times, which will result in the newspaper’s becoming a nonprofit organization. We also discuss an announcement that a new nonprofit news organization will be launched in Houston with $20 million in seed money. Plus a tiny Easter egg from country artist Roy Edwin Williams.

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

Jaida Grey Eagle on Sahan Journal, Report for America and telling the stories of Native American women

Jaida Grey Eagle. Photo via Indigenous Goddess Gang.

Our latest “What Works” podcast features Jaida Grey Eagle, a photojournalist working for Sahan Journal in Minneapolis through Report for America. She is Oglala Lakota and was born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and raised in Minneapolis.

Launched in 2019, Sahan Journal covers immigrants and communities of color in Minnesota. Report for America places young journalists at local news outlets across the country for two- and three-year stints.

Grey Eagle’s photography has been published in a wide range of publications and featured on a billboard on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. She is also a co-producer of “Sisters Rising,” a documentary film about six Native American women reclaiming person and tribal sovereignty in the face of sexual violence.

Ellen Clegg and I also offer our quick takes on paywalls and media companies that target well-heeled readers, and on Evan Smith’s announcement that he’s stepping down as chief executive officer of The Texas Tribune.

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

How local news can ease polarization: Our conversation with Joshua Darr

Joshua Darr

Joshua Darr, a professor at Louisiana State University, is right in the “What Works” sweet spot: His research delves into the divisive partisan rhetoric that infuses our national political debate and whether communities with a vibrant local news source experience less polarization.

In the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Darr about his research, as well as the Trusting News project report on how local and regional news organizations can do a better job of connecting with conservative audiences.

In addition, I offer a quick take on plans by Axios to expand local news sites into 25 cities in 2022, and Ellen looks at a promising network of nonprofit newsrooms planned across Ohio.

You can listen here or on your favorite podcast app.

Why Phil Balboni has turned his attention to local news

Phil Balboni. Photo (cc) 2016 by Sylvia Stagg-Giuliano.

Phil Balboni is a journalistic legend. His latest venture is DailyChatter, a nonpartisan newsletter that covers international news. The newsletter’s staff of experienced journalists based in Europe, Asia and the United States searches for “meaning and context in this immensely complex world.”

Before creating DailyChatter, Balboni was the founder, president and CEO of GlobalPost, the highly acclaimed international news site he launched in 2008. He was also the founder and president of New England Cable News, and was vice president of news and editorial director for WCVB-TV (Channel 5) in Boston. He has been awarded almost every major honor in broadcasting, including the Peabody, Murrow and Emmy.

In our latest “What Works” podcast, Balboni talks with Ellen Clegg and me about his passion for local news as well as his hopes for a newly created professorship at the Columbia School of Journalism that was endowed in his honor.

In Quick Takes, I analyze the danger to the First Amendment posed by a New York court judge who ordered The New York Times to stop publishing confidential documents it had obtained about the notorious right-wing organization Project Veritas.

Ellen weighs in with news from Texas, where a right-wing activist named Frank Lopez Jr. is flooding the zone with disinformation about immigration, taking advantage of the void created when the local newspaper shut down.

You can listen here or on your favorite podcast app.

The Bedford Citizen’s ad-rich annual guide gets a shoutout from Editor & Publisher

Over the past few years, revenues at The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit community website in the Boston suburbs, have ramped up from zero to more than $100,000 a year. The Citizen has done it through voluntary memberships, sponsors, grants, the NewsMatch program and — perhaps most significant — an annual glossy publication called The Bedford Guide.

The Guide is a 64-page magazine that serves as an introduction to the town. It is loaded with ads, and from what I can tell, all of them are local, from life sciences giant Millipore Sigma, which has a facility in Bedford, to the Cat Doctor. According to the Citizen’s executive director, Teri Morrow, the 2022 Guide (the third) which came out in December, will produce about $40,000 in revenues.

Now Gene Kalb, a Citizen board member who’s the main force behind the Guide, has been recognized by the trade magazine Editor & Publisher as one of its “Sales Supernovas.” He told E&P’s Robin Blinder that flexibility is a key to the Guide’s success, explaining:

The pandemic hit us just as we started our second annual Bedford Guide. The initial strategy was to approach retail establishments in town. During 2020 with almost all restaurants and retail establishments closed, we shifted our focus to larger corporate industries in town. Our publication is all about supporting our community, and the corporate neighbors in town stepped up to help us. With the retail landscape improving this year, we had a nice combination of retail and corporate advertisers.

Such revenues have allowed the Citizen to grow from an all-volunteer project to a news organization with paid employees — a managing editor, a part-time reporter and a part-time operations manager — as well as freelance fees for contributors.

Founded in 2012, the Citizen continues to grow in other ways as well. According to Google Analytics, the site had more than a million page views in 2021. Those of us who follow such things know that’s a statistic of limited value, but here’s another that’s rock-solid: about 2,200 people have subscribed to the Citizen’s free daily newsletter in a town with fewer than 5,400 households, for a penetration rate of more than 40%. (Caveat: Email being what it is, no doubt there are a number of families with more than one subscription.)

The Citizen is one of the projects that Ellen Clegg and I are tracking for our “What Works” book project. It’s encouraging to see how people in the community have come together to create a vibrant and sustainable source of local news.