An update on our book about the future of local news

One of the more arcane aspects of writing a book is that you go through repeated rounds of editing, and each time you finish, you can let everyone know and take another bow, ha ha. Anyway, Ellen Clegg and I turned in the manuscript to our book about local news at the end of August, and then submitted our response to the first round of edits at the end of December.

Just now we submitted our response to what they call a “line edit” — a lighter edit aimed at clarifying what had been murky on previous rounds. So, yay us! After that comes the copy-edit and then the page proofs.

The book will be called “What Works in Community News: Media Startups, News Deserts, and the Future of the Fourth Estate.” It is scheduled to be published by Beacon Press in early 2024. You can find out more information — and our podcast! — at our website, What Works.

The government is not going to spend billions on local news. Nor should it.

Photo (cc) 2008 by Tyler

Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon Jr. offered a provocative idea today: a $10 billion fund to pay for non-paywalled, nonprofit local news in each of the country’s 435 congressional districts. The money, he wrote, would provide salaries for 87,000 journalists at 1,300 news organizations.

“Such a massive investment in local news isn’t going to happen next week and probably not next year, either,” he wrote. “But it is also not a pipe dream.” Well, in fact, it is a pipe dream. There is little or no chance of anything like this happening, and it probably shouldn’t.

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At a time when Congress can’t seem to pass supposedly bipartisan proposals to let the news industry negotiate with Facebook and Google for a share of their advertising revenues (the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act) or to provide tax credits to subscribers, advertiser and publishers (the Local Journalism Sustainability Act), the idea that the government is going to cough up $10 billion to support local news is absurd.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to Bacon’s top-down approach. Across the country, hundreds of local and regional news startups — nonprofits, for-profits and volunteer efforts — are going about the hard work of covering their communities. We’ve seen a plethora of them debut in Eastern Massachusetts just this year since Gannett began regionalizing and closing its weekly newspapers. And a brand-new one, The Concord Bridge, is slated to launch later this week.

The grassroots, one-community-at-a-time approach to solving the local news crisis is not perfect. It can be purely a matter of luck that one town gets good coverage and another doesn’t. It’s also easier to start such projects in the affluent suburbs than it is in more diverse areas. But the movement is growing, so perhaps the best thing we can do is let it develop.

As you probably know, Ellen Clegg and I are writing a book about a few of these projects that will be called “What Works: The Future of Local News.” Last year we wrote what might be called a “pretort” to Bacon’s column in an essay for Nieman Lab. Please have a look.

The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit in Boston’s suburbs, names a new managing editor

Wayne Braverman (via LinkedIn)

The Bedford Citizen, one of the first and most successful hyperlocal websites in the Boston suburbs, has hired its second managing editor. Wayne Braverman, a veteran journalist who most recently worked for Gannett, will succeed Julie McCay Turner, who announced her retirement earlier this year.

Turner and two other women founded the Citizen 10 years ago. Originally an all-volunteer project, the outlet slowly morphed into a professional operation that was able to pay Turner and a part-time staff reporter, Mike Rosenberg. The nonprofit continues to be run by a volunteer board of directors. Braverman’s hiring marks the first time that the Citizen will be run by someone who wasn’t one of the founders and thus represents a rather momentous transition. Turner will remain involved in the Citizen as well.

According to Braverman’s LinkedIn profile, he was editor of Gannett’s Boston Homes publication until about two weeks ago, when Gannett closed the publication. He worked as the internship coordinator for GateHouse Media, Gannett’s predecessor company, from 2002-’16 and has also worked as a radio host and public-speaking instructor. He earned a master’s degree in journalism from Boston University and a bachelor’s degree in political science from UMass Lowell.

The Citizen is among the projects that Ellen Clegg and I are writing about in “What Works,” our book-in-progress about the future of local news.

What follows is a press release from Teri Morrow, the Citizen’s executive director:

I want you to be among the first to know: Wayne Braverman — award-winning journalist and Bedford resident — joins The Bedford Citizen as Managing Editor this week.

Wayne brings both reporting and editorial experience as well as considerable enthusiasm for Bedford to the role.

During his career, Wayne has served as a reporter, senior editor, and managing editor in the Boston area. He’s worked for print and online publications. And he has experience expanding the scope of local news.

As you’ll read this week, Wayne says The Bedford Citizen is “considered by many professional journalists to be the model of how people can come together to create a new media outlet to provide residents with effective coverage of their community.”

I hope you are patting yourself on the back! That’s because you are one of the reasons journalists like Wayne consider The Citizen as a model of local journalism! Thank you for standing up for local news.

Throughout the interview process, Wayne shared that he is “ready to carry on the … mission of The Bedford Citizen.” And that he will “work with our staff and the people of Bedford to take [The Citizen] to its next evolutionary level.”

I hope you are as excited as I am to see what happens in the coming months and years with Wayne in the Managing Editor role. Should you see him around town, please share your thoughts and ideas about The Citizen.

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.