National media are thriving while locals are dying — yet there’s hope at the grassroots

Photo (cc) 2011 by Wayne Hsieh

Axios has a story on “journalism’s two Americas” — the thriving national media and struggling local news outlets, mainly newspapers. “The disparate fortunes skew what gets covered,” write Sara Fischer and Nicholas Johnston, “elevating big national political stories at the expense of local, community-focused news.”

The data they present isn’t new, but it’s striking nevertheless. Local reporters earn an average annual salary of $49,000, compared to more than $65,000 for national reporters. Of course, many of those national jobs are in the ultra-high-cost New York era, which means the disparity may not be quite as great as those two numbers suggest. Still, the national media are growing and hiring, while local newspapers — most of them owned by corporate chains and hedge funds — continue to eliminate jobs.

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Fischer and Johnston note that CNN is hiring 450 people for its new CNN+ streaming service. And Fischer reported just a little while ago that NBC is “adding hundreds of jobs to its digital organization,” mainly for news-oriented positions.

Not all news on the community journalism front is bad, though. The apocalyptic stories about what’s taking place at the grassroots invariably focus on chains owned by the likes of Gannett and Alden Global Capital. By contrast, entrepreneurs are launching for-profit and nonprofit digital startups at a dizzying rate. Chris Krewson, the executive director of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers writes:

Research shows new newsrooms are launching fast, 50 a year for the last five years. They’re for-profit, non-profit, public-benefit corporations, and LLCs; they’re a husband-and-wife team covering a small town; they’re a staff of dozens holding politicians to account at the statewide level….

They’re not replacing the newspaper. They don’t need to. This nascent industry has the potential to grow beyond the limitations of newspapers, to truly reflect and serve communities large and small, rural, urban, Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer… and on and on. We just have to stop thinking about saving the unsaveable and build businesses that serve the needs of communities first. In fact, what these publications are starting to offer is just as good, if not better, than the legacies they’re increasingly supplanting.

I’ve been tracking such projects since the late ’00s. From New Haven to San Diego, from Burlington, Vermont, to Batavia, New York, community journalists step up when there’s a market failure on the part of the local legacy newspaper. Ellen Clegg and I are following similar projects across the country.

There’s no question that these are tough times for local news. But there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic as well.

Tiny News Collective to provide funding to six local news start-ups

Six local news projects will launch or expand after winning a competition held by the Tiny News Collective — a joint venture of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers and News Catalyst, based at Temple University. News Catalyst receives funding from the Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute. According to the announcement:

Thanks to a partnership with the Google News Initiative, each organization in the first cohort will receive a $15,000 stipend to help create the capacity for the founders to get started. In addition, the GNI has funded their first year of membership dues in the Collective and LION Publishers.

The projects range from an organization covering education news in part of Orange County, California, to an outlet with the wonderful name Black by God, which seeks “to share perspectives that cultivate, curate, and elevate Black voices from West Virginia.”

Forty organizations applied. Among the judges were Kate Maxwell, co-founder and publisher of The Mendocino Voice, a news co-op that is one of the local news projects I’m following for a book I’m co-authoring with Ellen Clegg.

The Tiny News Collective strikes me as a more interesting approach to dealing with the local news crisis than initiatives unveiled recently by Substack and Facebook. Those require you to set up shop on their platforms. By contrast, the Tiny News Collective is aimed at helping community journalism entrepreneurs to achieve sustainability on their own rather than become cogs in someone else’s machine.

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Project Oasis documents the growth (and challenges) of digital local news

Photo (cc) 2015 by oarranzli

Digital local news is expanding rapidly, but the challenges of running community journalism projects sustainably are daunting.

Those are the conclusions of a recently released report by Project Oasis aimed at documenting the rise of alternatives as legacy community newspapers continue to shrink and shut down. The project, based at the University of North Carolina, is sponsored by Google News, LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers and Douglas K. Smith.

Project Oasis comprises several parts — a database of digitally focused news projects in the United States and Canada; a “playbook” full of ideas for those who are interested in starting projects in their own communities; and a research report written by Chloe Kizer and edited by Michele McLellan that offers a survey of what’s been learned.

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What’s most striking is how much growth there’s been, which is no doubt related to economics (journalists who’ve been downsized out of their jobs are looking to maintain their careers) and opportunity (communities that are either unserved or underserved by legacy media). Project Oasis identified 704 digital-native local news projects in the U.S. and Canada as of a year ago. Of those, 266 were launched in the past five years. In addition, a 2010 study found that there were 126 such projects, “indicating that the past decade has seen the number of local sites multiply six times over.”

The report also draws some conclusions based on 255 organizations that provided information about their operations. Among other things, those outlets tend to be small, with more than half reporting revenues of less than $100,000 a year. Many of the founders are journalists with little or no business background and no resources to hire someone to concentrate on revenue. As the report puts it:

Most founders launch their newsrooms because they are passionate about journalism and their communities. But few start with business expertise. Like their traditional counterparts, the new locals rely heavily on advertising revenue, although some have begun developing reader revenue.

The financial picture does improve as publications mature, according to the data. But this field on the whole is very young.

The report also contains the rather disturbing news that the founders of many sites who who consider them “profitable” aren’t actually paying themselves a salary. Overall, the survey found that most of the sites were for-profits dependent on advertising revenue, whereas a minority were nonprofits subsisting on grants and donations. The report found that those with more than one revenue stream were more successful.

The database of local news projects probably should be taken for what any such survey would be: out of date as soon as it’s published, but interesting as a snapshot in time.

The Massachusetts listings, for example, include some well-known successful projects such as Universal Hub and The Bedford Citizen. But they also include the Banyan Project, which spent years trying to launch a news co-op in Haverhill before giving up, while leaving out WHAV Radio, a nonprofit community radio station in Haverhill with a significant digital presence.

Overall, Project Oasis is a valuable addition to what we know about online local news start-ups. And if you’re thinking of launching a project yourself, you’ll definitely want to spend some time with the playbook.

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.”

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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.

Facebook to fund revenue models for community news projects

When Facebook has announced various initiatives to help news organizations, they have tended to benefit larger newsrooms that are less in need of assistance. For instance, when the News Tab was unveiled a year and a half ago, it was explicitly designed to benefit behemoths like The New York Times, The Washington Post and BuzzFeed.

As I wrote then: “At a time when local news is under unprecedented economic pressure, the News Tab will only widen the gap between relatively well-off, highly visible national news organizations and small local projects. The national sites will get paid; the local sites will be billed monthly.”

On Wednesday, though, LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers announced a $1 million, two-year initiative funded by the Facebook Journalism Project to help its members develop their revenue models. Anika Anand, deputy director of LION Publishers, writes:

Through an application process, we will select a group of LION member organizations that will receive up to two years of funding to hire someone who will focus primarily on revenue generation with the goal of making their position self-sustaining at the end of the two years. For our first cohort, we will prioritize news businesses pursuing sustainability through a revenue strategy focused on readers, major donors or advertisers. Every LION member will be considered eligible for this program — their tax status will not matter.

In other words, the program is open to for-profit and nonprofit ventures alike.

News organizations that are part of LION are sources of reliable journalism, and they’re providing it on the community level, where the news implosion has hit the hardest. With 262 members, $1 million isn’t going to go a long way. But we do seem to be at a moment at which Facebook and Google understand that they are going to have to pay for the news they’ve been using. The LION program is exceptionally worthy.

Let’s call this a good start.

Saving local news: Some ideas from philanthropy, business and technology

Photo (cc) 2016 by Dan Kennedy

Could the example of the late Gerry Lenfest save Tribune Publishing’s newspapers from the avaricious clutches of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital?

About a half-dozen years ago, Lenfest, a billionaire investor, unexpectedly became the owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer and its related media properties. It’s an incredibly convoluted story that I tell in “The Return of the Moguls,” but essentially he had acquired a piece of the Inquirer with the intention of flipping it, and he ended up instead with the whole thing.

Lenfest’s next move saved quality journalism in Philadelphia: In early 2016 he donated his media properties to the Philadelphia Foundation, which in turn set up a nonprofit that, after his death, became known as the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Today the Inquirer is in far better shape than many metro dailies.

Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, Jim Friedlich, executive director and chief executive of the institute, argues that Tribune newspapers could be saved if deep-pockets philanthropists acquired them and then emulated Lenfest — or simply ran them as for-profit enterprises, as with John and Linda Henry at The Boston Globe and Patrick Soon-Shiong at the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune. Friedlich writes:

An Alden purchase of all of Tribune doesn’t have to be a fait accompli. In fact, the threat of such a deal represents an opportunity for civic-minded local investors across the country, who could use this case not only to save a critical local news institution, but to reinvent it.

Soon-Shiong continues to be a major Tribune shareholder, and I recently wrote that he should consider rescuing the chain, which includes papers such as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in America.

***

As we know, local news is in crisis, and that has produced a considerable amount of ferment. Most of the attention right now is on Alden’s bid for a majority share of Tribune, which involves regional rather than strictly local news organizations. But there’s a lot happening at the grassroots as well.

For instance, Sarah Scire reports for the Nieman Journalism Lab on an ambitious effort to provide local news start-ups with the support they need to launch and continue operating. Imagine a journalist who’s been laid off by a corporate-owned newspaper and who wants to start something at the hyperlocal level. Where to begin?

According to Scire, the Tiny News Collective takes care of a lot of the back-end details that journalists are usually not trained to attend to themselves. “The project,” Scire writes, “will offer entrepreneurial journalists a tech stack, business training, legal assistance, and back-office services like payroll for around $100 a month.”

The Tiny News Collective, a collaboration between News Catalyst and LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, is hoping to have a hand in starting news projects in 500 communities, half of them covering underserved populations.

***

Also worth watching is the Crosstown Neighborhood Newsletter project in Los Angeles — an effort to make smart use of data in order to produce a multitude of newsletters, each aimed at a tiny slice of the public. The editor, Gabriel Kahn, a professor at USC Annenberg, writes that Crosstown — “a collaboration between software engineers, designers and journalists” — recently launched 110 such newsletters in one day. He explains:

Our formula starts with data. We collect data about everything we can in Los Angeles, from traffic and crime to COVID-19 cases and building permits. Much of this data is hiding in plain sight, housed on local government dashboards that are hard to navigate. We divvy up the data by neighborhood. One citywide dataset about parking fines becomes 110 stories about how many more or fewer tickets were issued in each neighborhood during the COVID lockdown.

Crosstown reminds me of EveryBlock, a project started in 2008 by the pioneering data journalist Adrian Holovaty that was also heavily dependent on publicly available data. EveryBlock never really caught on, and it shut down in 2013. But far more information is online today than was the case a decade ago, and the tools for presenting it have improved considerably. It could be that the time for Holovaty’s idea has arrived.

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From coast to coast, local online news outlets dive into the COVID-19 story

Photo 1909 by Lewis Hines

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

From the Berkshires to the bayou, from the Pacific Northwest to southeastern Massachusetts, the COVID-19 pandemic is tearing through local newspapers.

Already under pressure from changes in technology and the decline of advertising, alternative weeklies and small dailies are teetering on the brink. Reporters have been laid off. Print editions have been suspended or cut back. Donations are being sought. And journalists everywhere are wondering if they have a future.

For the past 15 years or so, local, digital-only start-ups have stood out as a countervailing trend compared to the overall decline of the newspaper business. Though small in both number and scope, these entrepreneurial news organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, have provided coverage that their communities would otherwise lack. Yet they, too, have been battered by the novel coronavirus.

“They’re stretching their journalistic capacity,” said Chris Krewson, executive director of the 200-member LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, at a virtual conference last week sponsored by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, where I’m a faculty member. “Everyone’s seeing incredible jumps in traffic and audience and [newsletter] open rates and things like that. And the volume of stories has never been higher.

“At the same time,” he added, “the sorts of things that everyone has built their business around, certainly since 2010, are a challenge. You have a business built around where to go and what to do, and there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do. So you’re looking at the first waves of cancellations from advertisers.”

Over the weekend, I emailed a number of editors and publishers at free, digital-only news outlets to see how they were faring. Though they all said they are pushing ahead, they added that the economic and logistical challenges of covering the COVID-19 story have proved daunting. (Please click here for a complete transcript of our conversation.)

At least for the moment, the nonprofits have an advantage, since their funding — from grants, foundations and donations — tends to be in place months in advance.

“We operate on a tight budget, and are always scrambling for money for our long-term sustainability,” says Paul Bass, who runs the nonprofit New Haven Independent and WNHH Community Radio. “But we seek to set our budget each year at a level that can be supported by current deposits and a few multi-year commitments by our deepest-pocket long-term supporters, so that people know 12 months at a time that they have a job and the lights stay on.”

Dylan Smith, publisher of the nonprofit Tucson Sentinel in Arizona, worries about the long-term effect on his site — but adds that, for now, the reaction has been positive.

“We’ve been sent quite a number of three-figure donations out of the blue, and seen a substantial uptick in people signing up to contribute monthly,” he says. “That community support has really been heartening. Not only will it help keep the lights on, but the kind words and cold hard cash we’ve gotten let us know we’re doing something meaningful to help.”

By contrast, The Batavian, a for-profit site that serves Genesee County in western New York, is scrambling, according to publisher Howard Owens. “Two top-tier advertisers have dropped,” he says. “Our revenue is 95% advertising. I expect we’ll take a big hit before this is over.” He adds: “I’m more worried about my business’ ability to survive than I am worried about my own health. We have a PressPatron button on our site if anybody wishes to make a contribution.”

In at least one instance, the crisis has forced a publisher to postpone collecting any money at all. Jennifer Lord Paluzzi, a veteran journalist who recently launched her second start-up, Grafton Common, in the Worcester area, was hoping to ask for donations, but has decided to wait until the pandemic subsides.

“I was about to put a tip jar on my site that people could just put money in and help fund it,” she said at the Northeastern event. “But with everything that’s going on right now, with businesses closing, I’m like, OK, we’re going to skip the tip jar and entertain everybody.”

The need for social distancing may prove challenging to The Mendocino Voice, a for-profit site in California that is in the process of shifting to an employee- and member-owned co-op. The founders, publisher Kate Maxwell and managing editor Adrian Fernandez Baumann, had envisioned a series of meetings across Mendocino County to whip up enthusiasm and to refine the details of what the co-op would look like. But now they have to figure out other ways to do that.

“The challenge is how to work with the funders and re-create our plan for a series of community forums and member meetings virtually,” Maxwell says. “However, we cover a large area and are always looking for ways to better reach remote readers, so in the end this shift could be very valuable to refining the tools we use to engage with our readers and strengthen our membership campaign.”

Despite such difficulties, the journalists I reached all expressed enthusiasm for covering what may prove to be the biggest story of our lifetime.

“As an organization that focuses a lot of our effort on covering state and local government, it’s a massive story for us,” says Andrew Putz, editor of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit MinnPost. “I just looked, and we did 34 stories in the last week tied in some way to Minnesota’s response to the pandemic. So to answer your question more directly: We’re throwing everything we have at it.”

Adds Smith: “We’re working our asses off. I think I had 14 or 15 bylines in one day last week. And that’s not counting multiple updates to some stories.”

Although most of these small news organizations have offices, working at home is nothing new. Both Putz and Smith say they’ve been communicating with reporters via Slack. “We’ve been working remotely for a decade already,” says Smith. “I have a couple of reporters I haven’t even seen face-to-face yet in 2020.”

And all agree that health and safety come first. “If they feel like they must attend a meeting/press conference/interview,” says Putz of his reporters, “we’ve asked them to exercise their judgment — and to make sure they know that there’s no story that’s worth them jeopardizing their health.”

For the time being, Owens has abandoned his office in downtown Batavia. He says he and his wife, Billie Owens, the site’s editor, have an agreement that neither can leave the house without the other’s permission. Their one staff member as well as freelancers are all working from home.

“It’s not just about keeping them/us safe,” he says. “It’s about flattening the curve. We need to give our government, health-care systems and private sector time to build capacity to deal with a pandemic that will last for a year or two.”

The exception is Bass, who has not yet stopped his reporters (except for one in his 70s) from covering stories in person. He says his journalists have been instructed to stay six feet away from people they’re interviewing and photographing, and he will continue to reassess.

“My guess is, especially as government meetings shift online, we will be doing fewer in-person interviews,” Bass says. “Also, math suggests that some of us will get sick, which will certainly diminish our reporting capacity. But for now it’s full steam ahead, with fingers crossed. We love our community and feel we have an important role in strengthening it.”

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Local online news publishers and editors speak out about the COVID-19 crisis

Commentary at WGBH News.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a particularly difficult challenge for publishers of community online-only news sites, whether they are for-profit or nonprofit. Over the weekend I emailed editors and publishers of several such news organizations to see how they are getting along. Below are their lightly edited answers in full.

Q: How are you dealing with the challenge of covering the COVID-19 pandemic in your community?

Paul Bass, who runs the New Haven Independent and WNHH Community Radio, which are both nonprofit organizations: We’re working like maniacs. We feel this is the time when the work we do — informing as well as stitching together community — is more important than ever.

Kate Maxwell, publisher of The Mendocino Voice, a for-profit that is moving toward a cooperative ownership model: We are covering it in all the ways we can come up with! We do have experience with prolonged breaking emergency coverage through wildfires and power shutdowns, unfortunately. We created a central landing page and are using multiple social media platforms to reach people, including livestreaming press conferences, interviews with public health officials and medical experts, and live tours of preparedness at medical facilities.

We’re writing multiple daily updates, creating several guides to information and resources, increasing our newsletter, live-tweeting important forums, increasing our Spanish translations and Spanish language interviews, and regularly surveying our readers, as well as taking live questions during events and interviews. We’re being careful to make our updates clearly dated, sharing information about state and federal changes, and keeping coverage in digestible and clear formats. We’ve gotten some great ideas from other LION publishers as well. 

We are hiring formerly underemployed but experienced local freelance reporters to expand our coverage.We are working quickly to hire even more reporters and implement ideas we had considered previously and in other sustained emergencies, such as text services. We are reaching out to public officials, business leaders and community groups to discuss how to best fact-check evolving information moving forward. We are also talking with everyone about how we can best support our community to provide a service that also lessens the blow of economic impacts of this pandemic, which will be hard on our already struggling local economy and health-care system. This includes considering what might happen in the case of multiple emergencies as we approach “wildfire season.”

Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit in Genesee County, New York: Early on, even before orders were issued, I recognized that I probably wouldn’t be going out of the house much to cover things. I had never done livestreaming before. I had never done a video interview and recorded it or livestreamed it. So I quickly figured out how to do all of that, and we did our first livestream interview on March 15.  We’ve done 15 or so since. Continue reading “Local online news publishers and editors speak out about the COVID-19 crisis”