By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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Illinois seeks to bolster community journalism. Plus, a local news round-up.

The Illinois Statehouse. Photo (cc) 2023 by Warren LeMay.

Illinois lawmakers this week unveiled a massive package aimed at bolstering local news. According to Mark Caro of the Local News Initiative, based at Northwestern University in Chicago, the package comprises two separate bills:

The Journalism Preservation Act would require Big Tech companies such as Google and Facebook to compensate news organizations for the content that they share, display or link to on their platforms. The Strengthening Community Media Act offers a broad array of incentives, tax breaks and scholarships intended to repopulate local newsrooms. Included in that bill is a provision that calls for 120 days’ written notice before a local news organization may be sold to an out-of-state company.

As I’ve said before, I’m less than enthusiastic about going after the tech platforms, which presupposes that they are somehow stealing journalistic content without paying for it. Facebook executives have made it clear that they can live quite nicely without news. With respect to Google, media outlets find themselves in the awkward situation of demanding compensation while at the same time depending on the search giant to drive traffic to their websites. Indeed, any one of them could insert a simple line of code in their sites that would make them invisible to Google. None of them does. I would like to see Google and Facebook do more for local news, and maybe it ought to be mandated. But this bill seems like too much of a blunt instrument, as does similar legislation being pushed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar at the federal level.

The second Illinois bill includes a number of different ideas. I particularly like the proposed requirement for a 120-day notification period. As Steven Waldman, the president of Rebuild Local News, said recently on the podcast “E&P Reports,” a mandatory delay can give communities time to rally and prevent their local newspaper from falling into the hands of chain ownership.

Other provisions of the Strengthening Community Media Act would mandate that state agencies advertise with local news outlets, provide tax credits to publishers for hiring and retaining journalists, enact additional tax credits for small businesses that advertise with local outlets, and create scholarships for students who agree to work at a local Illinois news organization for two years or more.

It’s good to see action taking place at the state level given that several federal proposals in recent years have gone nowhere despite bipartisan support. It’s also notable that the proposals were drafted by Illinois’ Local Journalism Task Force, which was created in August 2021. Here in Massachusetts, legislation was signed by then-Gov. Charlie Baker way back in January 2021 to create a commission that would study local news. I had a hand in drafting that legislation and would be one of its members, but the commission has yet to get off the ground.

There are several other developments in local news that are worth taking note of.

• Gannett is making a $2 million investment in its Indianapolis Star aimed at bolstering the newsroom and the advertising sales staff. Two top Gannett executives recently appeared on “E&P Reports” about Gannett’s plans to reinvest in its properties. Unfortunately, Holly V. Hayes of the Indy Star writes, “This is the only site in the USA TODAY Network, which includes more than 200 local publications across the country, where such an investment is being made.” My hope is that if the investment leads to a boost in circulation and revenues, then it will serve as a model for what Gannett might do elsewhere.

• A new hyperlocal news project has made its debut in Boston. The Seaport Journal, a digital news outlet, covers the city’s newest neighborhood. Meanwhile, the Marblehead Beacon, one of three independent projects covering that town, has announced that it’s ending regular coverage but will continue to “pursue periodic and unique pieces, and shift away from daily, weekly, or otherwise regular articles.” A reminder: We track independent local news organizations in Massachusetts, and you can find a link to our list in the upper right corner of this website. Just look for “Mass. Indy News.”

• Local access cable television plays an important role in community journalism by carrying public meetings, providing a platform for residents to make their own media, and, in some cases, by covering the news directly. Unfortunately, cord-cutting has placed access television at risk since stations’ income is based on a fee assessed to cable providers for each subscriber. In CommonWealth Beacon, Caleb Tobin, a production technician at Holbrook Community Access and media and a junior at Stonehill College, argues in favor of Massachusetts legislation that would impose a 5% fee on streaming services. “While often viewed as a relic of the past,” Tobin writes, “the services that cable access stations provide are more important now than they’ve ever been.”

• Many thanks to Tara Henley, host of the Canadian podcast “Lean Out,” who interviewed Ellen Clegg and me about our book, “What Works in Community News.” You can listen here.

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Congratulations to this year’s Yankee Quill Award winners

Ellen Clegg

I am excited to share some big news about my friend and collaborator Ellen Clegg. Ellen has won a 2024 Yankee Quill Award, given by the Academy of New England Journalists, for her “contributions to the betterment of journalism,” which include a long and distinguished career at The Boston Globe; her work on our book about local journalism, “What Works in Community News,” and our podcast; and her co-founding and ongoing leadership of Brookline.News, a digital nonprofit startup.

Ellen is not the only journalist I’m associated with who won a Yankee Quill. Ed Miller, the co-founder and editor of The Provincetown Independent, has built a unique news organization — a  print and digital outlet that’s a for-profit public benefit corporation, with a nonprofit arm known as the Local Journalism Project that supports certain types of public interest reporting at the Independent. (Disclosure: I’m a member of the Local Journalism Project’s advisory board.)

There were three other winners as well: George Brennan, a longtime editor on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard who also worked a stint at the Globe; Izaksun Larrañeta, executive editor of The Day in New London, Connecticut; and Mark Pothier, a veteran journalist and Globe alumnus who helped start the nonprofit Plymouth Independent and is now its editor and CEO. (A further disclosure: I’m a proud member of the Yankee Quill Class of 2019, and yes, I had a hand in picking this year’s honorees.)

The five will be honored at the New England Newspaper and Press Association convention on March 23. Here’s the press release, including bios of the winners. Congratulations to everyone!

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We’ll be talking about ‘What Works’ at the Harvard Book Store on Monday, Feb. 26

If you’re in the Boston area, Ellen Clegg and I want to let you know about a book event we’ll be hosting on Monday, Feb. 26. We’ll be talking about “What Works in Community News” at the Harvard Book Store, right outside of Harvard Square, at 7 p.m. Our presentation will be followed by a book signing. The event is free, and registration is not required. More information here.

“[T]here are signs that things are looking up,” writes Serge Schmemann in The New York Times. “In their book, Ms. Clegg and Mr. Kennedy chronicle various ways in which local and regional news organizations — whether paper, digital or radio — are trying to restore local coverage. Most are nonprofits, often assisted by a number of foundations that assist news start-ups. It’s not a flood, but what is certain, they write, ‘is that the bottom-up growth of locally based news organizations has already provided communities with news that would otherwise go unreported.’”

We would love to see you there.

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Talking about the local news crisis, media trust and our book with Jon Keller

Many thanks to old friend Jon Keller of WBZ-TV (Channel 4) for featuring the book that Ellen Clegg and I wrote, “What Works in Community News,” on his Sunday “Keller at Large” program. You can watch our two-part conversation here.

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Laura Pappano tells us about her book covering public schools and parent activism

Laura Pappano, a Quincy Patriot Ledger reporter from 1986-1992, talks about her book “School Moms” at a launch party at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle.

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg talks with Laura Pappano, an award-winning journalist who has written about education for more than 30 years. Laura has a new book out from Beacon Press. The title is “School Moms: Parent Activism, Partisan Politics, and the Battle for Public Education.” By the way, Beacon also published our book, “What Works in Community News.” Ellen and I recorded our segments separately because Ellen was traveling. So don’t worry, we’re not breaking up.

Ellen has a Quick Take on a philanthropic gift from Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, that is designed to cover full tuition for many graduate students in journalism at City University of New York. That’s good news for students wondering whether to take on $50,000 or more in tuition debt to get a master’s degree in journalism at a private university. Craigslist destroyed the classified ad market, but Newmark continues to make his mark as a philanthropist.

I offer two cheers for billionaire newspaper ownership. With the news business dealing with a difficult round of layoffs, a number of media observers have jumped to the conclusion that billionaire owners are not the solution to what ails journalism. Well, of course they aren’t. No one ever said otherwise. But the record shows that civic-minded ownership by wealthy owners has proven to be a workable solution to the local news crisis in several cities.

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

A funding dispute in Baltimore highlights a challenge over nonprofit news and racial equity

Tracie Powell at the 2019 Knight Foundation Media Forum. Photo (cc) 2019 by the Knight Foundation.

My reporting and podcast partner Ellen Clegg has published a first-rate analysis for our What Works website about a dispute over nonprofit news funding in Baltimore, relating it to her work in Memphis, where she wrote about MLK50, a small project with Black leadership, and the Daily Memphian, a large, well-funded, mostly white website.

In Baltimore, there’s a similar dispute taking place between the Beat and the Banner, the latter a digital publication launched by hotel mogul Stewart Bainum and intended as a comprehensive replacement for the venerable Baltimore Sun, which has fallen on hard times. Ellen takes note of a piece written for Poynter Online by Tracie Powell of the Pivot Fund about a huffy tweet posted by David Simon, best known for his work on “The Wire,” in which he accused the Beat of a racially based shakedown when a Beat collaborator tagged him in a fundraising tweet.

It’s complicated, so read Ellen’s post, in which she also recounts an eye-opening (and jaw-dropping) conversation she had with a white media type in Memphis.

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More news about our book

Photo (2012) by Dan Kennedy

I want to let you know about a couple of media hits this weekend for “What Works in Community News.”

First, Billy Baker of The Boston Globe quotes my co-author, Ellen Clegg, and mentions our book in a feature on The Local News, which covers Ipswich and Rowley and is one of a number of nonprofit startups founded to fill the gap left behind when Gannett abandoned its weekly papers in Eastern Massachusetts. “This is what the founders envisioned, which is a lot of little newspapers in all the little towns in New England,” Ellen told Baker. As Baker notes, Ellen doesn’t just write about it — she also does it, as she’s also the co-founder and co-chair of another startup, Brookline.News.

Second, Colorado College journalism professor Corey Hutchins writes about our book in his well-read newsletter, “Inside the News in Colorado.” I visited Colorado in September 2021, mainly to report on upstart Colorado Sun but also to learn more about how the Sun fits into the state’s larger journalistic community One afternoon I drove from Denver to Colorado Springs in order to interview Hutchins. “I don’t know of any other state where there’s such a focus and attention from folks here who want to support a thriving local news ecosystem matched with attention from funders, smart media thinkers from around the country,” he told me.

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Talking ‘What Works’ with Medill’s Mark Caro

Thanks to Mark Caro, editor of the Local News Initiative at Northwestern’s Medill School, for a great conversation with Ellen Clegg and me about our book, “What Works in Community News.” The interview has been picked up by Poynter Online as well.

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Texas Tribune staff members will seek to unionize

At What Works, my colleague Ellen Clegg offers some analysis on news that the staff of The Texas Tribune has announced plans to unionize. The Tribune is one of the projects that we profile in our book, “What Works in Community News.”

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Why large foundations need to step up for smaller local news projects

Postcard of Athens, Ohio, via Wikimedia Commons

In the course of our reporting for “What Works in Community News,” Ellen Clegg and I were confronted with a reality that cuts against our usual optimism: that though news startups across the country are helping to fill the gap created by the decline of legacy newspapers, the new media landscape is unevenly distributed.

Large regional and statewide nonprofits like The Texas Tribune and NJ Spotlight News are doing reasonably well, though the Tribune has recently hit a few bumps and Spotlight has never been a fundraising behemoth. Smaller projects serving affluent suburbs, like a number of startups in Eastern Massachusetts, are doing well. But there are few independent news outlets serving low-population rural areas and urban communities of color, and those that do exist are often overlooked by the larger philanthropic organizations.

Corinne Colbert writes about that reality for a newsletter called Local News Blues, which I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of until my friend and teacher Howard Owens of The Batavian pointed me to it a few days ago. Colbert is cofounder and editor-in-chief of the Athens County Independent, a nonprofit digital startup that in southeastern Ohio. Late last week she wrote a commentary headlined “Does big philanthropy really care about our smaller news markets?” Now, you know the rule about question headlines: the answer is almost always “no.” She observes:

Nearly 60% of foundation grants go to national and global nonprofit outlets, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News. Local outlets — which INN defines as those serving audiences at the county, city or town level or having a specific focus — represent almost one-fourth of nonprofit news jobs, but we get less than 20% of foundation funding. That gap represents millions and millions of dollars.

Recently the Houston Landing, a well-funded nonprofit with strong backing from the American Journalism Project, imploded when the publisher fired the highly regarded editor and the top investigative reporter without offering any logical explanation. The Landing may recover, but there’s been a serious lack of transparency. Meanwhile, projects that Ellen and I have written about such as MLK50 in Memphis and the New Haven Independent have never been able to attract much in the way of national funding, even though both are performing vitally important work.

Nonprofits are bringing news and information to communities in ways that for-profits often no longer can. But it’s time for major foundations — including Press Forward, a $500 million effort comprising 22 philanthropies — to bring renewed efforts to helping not just large, sexy projects but more quotidian efforts as well. Fortunately there are signs that Press Forward gets it.

“Small markets … present business challenges that corporations are often unwilling to face,” writes Colbert, “and those challenges make launching or growing a local news operation especially difficult. National funders could ease those burdens, but first they have to acknowledge our existence — and our importance.”

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