I had a chance Thursday to talk about news deserts and ghost newspapers with Gina Baleria, the host of the podcast called “News in Context.” Baleria is a former radio journalist who’s now an assistant professor of journalism, media writing and digital media at Sonoma State University. You can listen to our conversation or grab the feed right here.
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.
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.
Big doings at the Statehouse later today as the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses will conduct a hearing about H.181, a bill to create a special commission that would study local journalism in underserved communities.
The hearing will take place at 11 a.m. in Room B-1. I’ll be among those testifying in favor.
This nearly got derailed yesterday over complaints that the hearing had been scheduled on short notice. Fortunately, the chairs of the committee agreed to hold a second hearing within a few weeks.
The state of local journalism is grim — and the hedge funds that have scooped up hundreds of newspapers over the past decade have made things even worse than they otherwise might be.
That’s the conclusion of a new report from the University of North Carolina. Titled “The Expanding News Desert,” the study finds that corporate chains controlled by private equity and hedge funds cut more deeply, shut down more papers, and demonstrate less regard for journalism’s civic mission than was the case with “the historic practices of traditional print newspaper companies.” Here’s how the report’s author, Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC, describes the strategies pursued by what she calls these “new media barons”:
The standard operating formula often included aggressive cost-cutting, the adoption of advertiser-friendly policies, the sale or shuttering of under-performing newspapers, and financial restructuring, including bankruptcy. At the most extreme, their strategies have led to the closure of hundreds of local papers and diminished the important civic role of newspapers in providing reliable news and information that helps residents of a community make important decisions about governance and quality of life issues.
This has enormous implications for Greater Boston, where two leading hedge-fund-owned chains, GateHouse Media and Digital First Media, already control most of the local papers, and where a third, CNHI, has put its four dailies in the Merrimack Valley and on the North Shore up for sale. Those papers — The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News, and the Gloucester Daily Times — are at risk of falling into the hands of either GateHouse or Digital First, which are likely to double down on the deep cuts that have already been made.
Digital First, controlled by Alden Global Capital, currently owns three papers in Massachusetts — the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg, The Sun of Lowell, and its most recent acquisition, the Boston Herald. Although I’ve written about Digital First on several occasions previously (for instance, see this), I was struck in reading the UNC report by just how bad things are.
Digital First’s profit margin in 2017 was 17 percent, far higher than that of other newspaper companies, including GateHouse. And it achieved that margin by destroying newsrooms — in some cases literally. The newsroom at the Fitchburg paper was shut down last year, with the paper’s journalists being told to work out of their homes. In the suburbs of Philadelphia, reporters at two Digital First papers “must work remotely,” Abernathy writes, “because the Pottstown Mercury’s mold-infested newspaper building has been condemned.”
The top-line numbers at Digital First are breathtaking. Between 2012 and ’17, employment at 12 Digital First papers decreased by 52 percent, from 1,766 to 849, according to a survey conducted by the NewsGuild. Yet as bad as that period was for the newspaper business as a whole, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that total newspaper employment dropped by about one-fourth from 2012 to 2016 — only about half the rate of journalistic job destruction at Digital First.
GateHouse, meanwhile, has expanded massively in recent years — from 379 newspapers with a total circulation of 3.1 million in 2014 to 451 papers and 4.3 million in circulation today. The company controls well over 100 community weeklies in Greater Boston and environs as well as dailies such as the Providence Journal, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham, and The Patriot Ledger of Quincy. According to the UNC findings, GateHouse’s decimation of the ProJo, which it purchased in 2014, has been especially brutal:
By July 2018, newsroom employment had been cut by 75 percent, bringing the staffing levels below 100. According to the NewsGuild-CWA, there were fewer than 20 reporters and columnists responsible for covering both state and city government.
GateHouse has also embarked on a strategy of selling business and marketing services to advertisers through subsidiaries of its hedge-fund owner, Fortress Investment Group — “raising questions,” as the report puts it, “about the role of a local newspaper’s sales department in supporting local businesses.” Readers are fleeing GateHouse’s shriveled papers. Revenues, profits, and share prices are all down. All of that calls into question, Abernathy writes, whether GateHouse’s aggressive acquisition strategy is sustainable.
The depredations of Digital First and GateHouse are taking place amid the cratering of local journalism nationwide. Among the UNC report’s findings:
- About 60 daily newspapers and 1,700 weeklies have closed since 2004, an overall decline of about 25 percent.
- Nearly 200 of the 3,143 counties in the United States no longer have a newspaper. More than 2,000 counties have no daily paper.
- Residents in these “news deserts” — that is, areas without newspapers — “are generally poorer, older and less educated than the average American.”
What can be done about the decline of local journalism and the rise of predatory hedge-fund newspaper chains? There is no one answer. The report notes that LION Publishers (Local Independent Online News) counts about 525 local digital news operations, both for-profit and nonprofit. Some, such as the New Haven Independent, The Batavian of Batavia, New York, and VT Digger, a statewide project based in Montpelier, Vermont, do an outstanding job of covering local and regional news. Yet many such operations are tiny and, as the report notes, a 2015 survey found that one in four failed. Although you could argue that three in four surviving is actually a pretty good track record, that’s not nearly enough to water the news deserts that are spreading across the countryside.
“There is a compelling need,” Abernathy writes, “for philanthropic foundations, community activists, local government, concerned citizens and potential founders of nonprofit news organizations to work together from the beginning to identify communities most lacking coverage and the funding needed to sustain a start-up news organization in those communities.”
That would be a good start, as would programs to boost civic and media literacy, another recommendation of the report. Without quality local news, it’s hard for people to participate in their communities in a meaningful way — or even to understand why they should. Corruption runs amok. Apathy reigns. And the underpinnings of democracy rot away.
When I began my research for “The Wired City” in 2009, I was optimistic that a new generation of online-only community news sites would rise to fill in at least some of the gaps left behind by shrinking legacy newspapers. Eight years later, the more prominent of the sites I reported on are still alive and well. The New Haven Independent, The Batavian, Voice of San Diego, and statehouse news services like CT News Junkie and The Connecticut Mirror are as vital today — if not more so — than they were back then.
But though there has been some growth, especially at the grassroots level, the hope for reasonably well-funded new forms of local journalism with the heft to hold government to account is largely unfulfilled. Efforts such as the Worcester Sun (disclosure: I’m an unpaid adviser) and WHAV Radio in Haverhill hold promise, but they’re still looking for a viable way forward. News deserts are spreading.
Paul Farhi of The Washington Post takes a look at an especially difficult case — East Palo Alto, California, a poor, mostly minority community in the shadow of wealthy Palto Alto. And he finds that in an area crying out for strong local journalism, the best that they have is East Palo Alto Today, a nonprofit with a print publication that only comes out once every other month.
Farhi also cites a study by the University of North Carolina on the role of hedge funds and other financial instruments in destroying local journalism. I intend to spend some time with that study in the days ahead.