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Pulitzer congrats to Lookout Santa Cruz, featured in our book and podcast

Ken Doctor (via LinkedIn)

Congratulations to Lookout Santa Cruz, a digital local-news startup that on Monday won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting. The site was recognized for its reporting on a January 2023 flood and its aftermath. In the words of the Pulitzer board, Lookout Santa Cruz published “detailed and nimble community-focused coverage, over a holiday weekend, of catastrophic flooding and mudslides that displaced thousands of residents and destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses.” Here’s what Lookout Santa Cruz had to say about winning the award:

We reported quickly and carefully, vetting often scattered and confusing facts, making sure we got out the accurate news and information essential to individual and community decision-making. We documented in words, images and videos what people from the reaches of San Lorenzo Valley to Pajaro to Capitola were experiencing. We called on President Joe Biden to visit beleaguered South County as well as jaw-dropping coastal damage. We did what we always do, but at warp speed and still made sure that our deep reporting work got its usual double edits by our experienced, diligent editors.

Ellen Clegg and I looked at the Santa Cruz news ecosystem in our book, “What Works in Community News.” The region is served by two digital startups — Santa Cruz Local, originally a for-profit that launched in 2019 and that converted to nonprofit status after our book was finished, and Lookout Santa Cruz, a for-profit public benefit corporation right from the start. (A public benefit corporation is a for-profit that is legally required to operate with a public service mission.) We’ve also offered more depth on the two news organizations through our podcast, interviewing Santa Cruz Local co-founder Kara Meyberg Guzman and Lookout Santa Cruz founder Ken Doctor.

Lookout Santa Cruz is a high-profile, well-funded project that received $2.5 million in startup money from the likes of the Knight Foundation, the Google News Innovation Challenge and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Doctor, a former executive for a former newspaper chain, Knight Ridder, spent years writing about the business of news for publications such as Nieman Lab and his own blog, Newsonomics, which is now on ice.

Doctor’s entry into the Santa Cruz media scene was not without controversy. As we wrote in our book, “Another competing media outlet, the alternative weekly Good Times, greeted Lookout with a blast, claiming that Doctor was benefiting from the ‘false narrative’ that Santa Cruz was a news desert. Doctor responded by calling that ‘the greatest free publicity that we could ever get.'”

Guzman, too, expressed a bit of pique over Doctor’s arrival, telling us that she and her business partner, Stephen Baxter — unlike Doctor — had struggled to raise the money they needed to start Santa Cruz Local after leaving Alden Global Capital’s Santa Cruz Sentinel, though over time they were able to attract some money from Google and Facebook and build a viable business. Guzman described Santa Cruz Local’s mission as providing deep accountability journalism of local government and other institutions, while Doctor said Lookout Santa Cruz was aiming to become the “new primary news source” at a time when the Santa Cruz Sentinel was fading away.

Lookout Santa Cruz is also intended as the first in a series of Lookout Local sites. Maybe the Pulitzer will give Doctor’s project the prominence it needs to start building out his idea.

Two finalists of note

Lookout Santa Cruz was one of three projects profiled in “What Works in Community News” to receive Pulitzer recognition on Monday, though it was the only one to make it into the winner’s circle. Here are the organizations we followed that earned finalist recogition:

  • Mississippi Today, in Local Reporting, for a collaboration with The New York Times that offered a “detailed examination of corruption and abuse, including the torturing of suspects, by Mississippi sheriffs and their officers over two decades.” We interviewed Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White on our podcast in November 2022. (Mississippi Today’s Anna Wolfe won a 2023 Pulitzer for her coverage of official corruption.)
  • The Texas Tribune, in Explanatory Reporting, for a collaboration with ProPublic and “Frontline” that reports on “law enforcement’s catastrophic response to the mass shooting at a Uvalde, Texas elementary school and also for documenting the political and policy shortcomings that have led to similar deadly police failures across the country.” The Tribune is the subject of a chapter in our book.

Courage recognized

When we think about courageous journalists, what usually comes to mind are war correspondents. But courage can be found closer to home, too — as in the case of Lauren Chooljian and her colleagues at New Hampshire Public Radio, who were subjected to frightening harassment and daunting legal challenges while they were reporting on “corruption and sexual abuse within the lucrative recovery industry.” For their efforts they were recognized as a finalist in the Audio Reporting category. And here is a New York Times story (free link) on their ordeal.

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Catching up on the news about the news: Paywalls, NPR and the future of nonprofit media

Old-school paywalls. Photo (cc) 2008 by Dan Kennedy.

Are we really doing this again? Richard Stengel argues in the paywall-protected Atlantic (free link) that news organizations should publish their journalism for free during the 2024 campaign lest readers be driven to non-paywalled sources of misinformation and disinformation. He provides no advice on how these news organizations are supposed to pay their journalists, and he makes no mention of the many high-quality sources of free news that still exist — among them The Associated Press, NPR, the PBS “NewsHour,” The Guardian, BBC News, local public radio and television stations, national network newscasts and local TV newscasts. You may disdain that last suggestion, but surveys show that local TV news is the most trusted source of journalism we have, and it’s an important source of breaking news.

Still more on the internal crisis at NPR. Alicia Montgomery, who held several high leadership posts at NPR before moving to Slate, has written her own essay about what’s wrong with the network’s culture, partly in response to Uri Berliner, partly to get a few things of her own off her chest. Montgomery’s essay is nuanced, and she acknowledges that NPR’s culture can be more than a little twee. But here’s the money quote: “In another meeting, I and a couple of other editorial leaders were encouraged to make sure that any coverage of a Trump lie was matched with a story about a lie from Hillary Clinton.” That certainly reflects my experience as a listener — that though NPR may tilt left on culture, its coverage of politics too often indulges in both-sides-ism at its most reductionist. And here’s yet another piece prompted by Berliner’s essay, this one by NPR anchor Steve Inskeep.

Two digital news giants walk into a room… Richard Tofel, a founder and former president of the investigative nonprofit ProPublica, recently interviewed Evan Smith, a founder and the former CEO of The Texas Tribune, the largest statehouse nonprofit in the U.S. My colleague Ellen Clegg, who wrote about the Tribune for our book, “What Works in Community News,” offers her perspective on the encounter — which took place not in a room but in Tofel’s must-read newsletter, “Second Rough Draft.” As Ellen writes: “When two legends in digital publishing sit down to talk in unvarnished terms about the past, present and future of nonprofit journalism, it’s worth noting. And reading.”

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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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A new report finds that news deserts are spreading — but there are bright spots, too

Photo (cc) 2008 by Stefano Brivio

The release of a new report by Penelope Muse Abernathy on the state of local news is always a big deal. For 15 years now, she’s been tracking the extent of the crisis, and has done more than anyone to popularize the phrase “news deserts,” which describes communities without a source of reliable news and information. This week Abernathy, now at Northwestern University’s Medill School, issued “The State of Local News 2023.” It’s a downbeat report, although there are a few bright spots. Here’s a key finding:

The data and insights collected and analyzed in this 2023 report on The State of Local News paint the picture of a country and society increasingly divided between the journalism-have’s — mostly residents in more affluent cities and suburban areas where alternative news sources are gaining traction — and the journalism have-not’s, those in economically struggling and traditionally underserved metro, suburban and rural communities. This partitioning of our citizenry poses a far-reaching crisis for our democracy as it simultaneously struggles with political polarization, a lack of civic engagement and the proliferation of misinformation and information online.

Before I continue, a disclosure: Abernathy, who’s been a guest on our “What Works” podcast about the future of local news, was kind enough to provide a pre-publication endorsement of the book that Ellen Clegg and I have written, “What Works in Community News,” which comes out in January.

Abernathy’s principal collaborator on the new report is Sarah Stonbely, director of Medill’s State of Local News Project, who I interviewed in 2022 when she was at the Center for Cooperative Media, part of Montclair State University in New Jersey.

If you’d like a good summary of Abernathy and Stonbely’s report, I recommend Sarah Fischer’s overview in Axios, which leads with the prediction that the U.S. will have lost one third of its newspapers by the end of 2024.

The cleavage between affluent urban and suburban areas and less affluent urban and rural areas is one of the major challenges Abernathy and Stonbely identify, and it’s definitely something that Ellen and I noticed in our reporting for “What Works in Community News.” I recall asking folks at the start-up Colorado Sun why they were trying to stretch their resources to cover stories across the state rather than focusing on Denver. The answer: the Denver metro area was already fairly well served despite massive cuts at The Denver Post, owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. By contrast, there was very little news coverage in the more rural parts of the state.

As Abernathy and Stonbely put it: “The footprint for alternative local news outlets — approximately 550 digital-only sites, 720 ethnic media organizations and 215 public broadcasting stations — remains very small and centered around metro areas.” Indeed, this chart tells a rather harrowing tale. As you can see, people who live in news deserts are considerably less affluent and less educated than the national average.

The report also includes a section called “Bright Spots in the Local News Landscape.” Although the interactive map is a little hard to navigate, I can see that several projects that Ellen and I profile in “What Works in Community News” are included, such as NJ Spotlight News, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, The Texas Tribune, The Colorado Sun and the Daily Memphian.

The report also highlights The Boston Globe as one of its good-news stories, observing that, under the ownership of John and Linda Henry, the paper has thrived on the strength of its digital subscriptions. In a sidebar, Tom Brown, the Globe’s vice president of consumer analytics, tells Abernathy that digital growth continues, although at a slower rate than during the COVID pandemic. Retention is down slightly, too. “We are nonetheless still seeing overall strong retention,” Brown says, “and we are investing in several areas of the business with the goal of engaging subscribers more and, in particular, our new subscribers.”

Editor Nancy Barnes adds that though the Globe is ramping up its coverage of the Greater Boston area as well as in Rhode Island and New Hampshire, it can’t fill the gap created by the gutting and closure of local weekly papers at the hands of Gannett, the giant newspaper chain that until recently dominated coverage of the Boston suburbs and exurbs.

“Having returned to Boston after many years away, I have been stunned by the decimation of local newspapers across Massachusetts and New England,” Barnes says. “However, our coverage strategy is not tied to specific Gatehouse newspaper communities [a reference to Gannett’s predecessor company]. We cover greater Boston in depth, but we don’t have the bandwidth to be the local news source for everyone.”

This week’s Medill report is the first of a multi-part series. Future chapters will be released over the next few weeks and into January.

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Paul Bass, a hyperlocal pioneer, talks about his national network of arts and culture reviewers

Paul Bass checks the 2021 New Haven election returns. Photo by Maaisha Osman. Used with permission.

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Paul Bass, the founder and former editor of the New Haven Independent. Bass is originally from White Plains, New York, but he arrived in New Haven in the late 1970s to attend Yale, and he has been reporting on all the quirks and glory of his adopted hometown ever since.

Bass was the main subject of my 2013 book, “The Wired City,” and is one of the news entrepreneurs featured in our forthcoming book, “What Works in Community News.” Bass launched the New Haven Independent in 2005 as an online-only nonprofit.

Last fall, Bass announced he was stepping aside as editor, handing the top job over to managing editor Tom Breen. But he’s continuing to play a role at the Independent and its multimedia arms, and he has just begun another venture: the Independent Review Crew, which features arts and culture reviews from all over, including right here in Boston via Universal Hub.

Ellen has a Quick Take on The Texas Tribune, the much-admired nonprofit news outlet started by Evan Smith and others in Austin. The Tribune has been a model for other startups, so it rocked the world of local news last month when CEO Sonal Shah announced that 11 staffers had been laid off.

I report on another acquisition by Alden Global Capital, the New York-based hedge fund that has earned scorn for the way it manages its newspapers. Alden acquired four family-owned newspapers in Pennsylvania. Worse, the family members who actually ran the papers wanted to keep them, but they were outvoted by the rest of the family.

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

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The Texas Observer resuscitates itself with a $300,000 infusion

The Texas Observer, a progressive publication that has been covering politics in the Lone Star State since 1954, has survived its near-death experience — at least for now. The Texas Tribune reports that the one-time home of the late, legendary Molly Ivins has raised $300,000, most of it through a GoFundMe, since announcing it would close and is now plotting a path forward.

This is good news, of course. Still, telling your readers that you’re going to shut down unless they respond to an emergency appeal does not constitute a business model. The reality is that the Tribune, a large, well-funded nonprofit that is grounded in reporting rather than ideology, has established itself as the one essential outlet for coverage of politics and public policy in Texas.

I hope the Observer can survive — but if it does, it will be in the shadow of the Tribune.

Earlier:

In the end, the Texas Observer couldn’t survive the rise of digital media

Molly Ivins. Photo via Wikipedia.

The Texas Observer, a highly regarded publication that was once the home of the late, great Molly Ivins, is shutting down and laying off its 17-person staff, which includes 13 journalists. The Texas Tribune has the story and notes:

The closing of the Observer raises questions about whether small progressive publications can survive the digital and demographic transformation of journalism and the information ecosystem during a time of rapid social and technological change.

Indeed, the Tribune, a nonprofit digital startup with more than 50 journalists, would be foremost among the new wave of publications that led to the Observer’s demise.

The Observer had been in turmoil for quite some time. My “What Works” partner, Ellen Clegg, talked about it on our podcast a year ago this week. Click here and go to 29:00.

Mary Margaret White of Mississippi Today talks with us about journalism and southern culture

Mary Margaret White

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Mary Margaret White, the CEO of Mississippi Today, a nonprofit digital news outlet that has been covering the state for more than six years. The staff has a robust presence at the statehouse in Jackson and provides cultural and sports coverage as well.

Mary Margaret is a Mississippi native. She has a bachelor’s in English and journalism and a master’s in Southern studies from the University of Mississippi. She also spent almost 10 years working for the state, with jobs in arts and tourism. Her work has appeared in The Listening Post CollectiveThe New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and on Mississippi Public Broadcasting radio.

I’ve got a Quick Take on a major transition at the New Haven Independent. Last week the indefatigable founder, Paul Bass, announced he was stepping aside as editor of the Independent. The new editor will be Tom Breen, currently the managing editor. Luckily, Bass isn’t going anywhere but will continue to play a major role.

Ellen’s Quick Take is on another big transition at The Texas Tribune. Economist Sonal Shah is becoming CEO at the Tribune in January. Shah, who has had leadership roles at Google, the White House, and other high-impact organizations, replaces co-founder Evan Smith, who is taking a role as senior adviser to the Emerson Collective. It’s a big change at a pioneering nonprofit newsroom. Smith says he’ll continue to spread the local news gospel in his new role.

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

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.

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