Gannett’s Reno daily seeks charity to pay for local government coverage

Photo (cc) 2007 by Natalie Hegert

Gannett is seeking charitable donations to cover the salary of the local government reporter at the Reno Gazette Journal, one of its dailies. According to executive editor Brian Duggan, the paper is trying to raise $100,000 over the next two years so that it can keep paying Mark Robison. Duggan writes:

Mark’s salary is entirely dependent on the RGJ Fund, which is a field of interest fund held by the Community Foundation of Northern Nevada. It was established by the RGJ in 2020 as a way to help our newsroom grow.

Here’s some background from the Community Foundation.

My first reaction was blind outrage. My second reaction was tempered outrage. Short term, there’s no question that this will help the community. More coverage is better than less coverage, and Robison’s stories are offered for free, outside the Gazette Journal’s paywall.

But in the medium and long term, helping Gannett — the largest newspaper chain in the country, notorious for cutting its newsrooms to the bone — makes it more difficult for anyone else to start or maintain an independent news project. In fact, there are two such projects in Reno — This Is Reno and the Reno News & Review. Why not help them beef up their coverage of local government?

It’s not unprecedented for nonprofit grant money to be given to for-profit news organizations. To be fair, it sounds like none of the foundation’s money are actually being given to the paper; the foundation is simply administering the fund. (I emailed the foundation seeking comment but did not receive a response.) But there are two aspects of the Reno situation that stand out:

1. Robison is covering a core beat, local government. Grant money is usually used for special reporting projects, such as The Boston Globe’s series on educational inequality, “The Great Divide,” paid for partly by the Barr Foundation. Because of the grant money, the Globe is providing more and different education coverage than it otherwise might. By contrast, would the Reno paper actually not cover local government without charitable contributions? (OK, maybe it wouldn’t.)

2. Gannett keeps slashing its coverage to pay down debt and to squeeze out as much revenue as possible. I’m sure Duggan and Robison are fine journalists. But the people who own their paper demonstrate little interest in providing deep reporting in the communities they serve. Thus the donors are, in effect, subsidizing Gannett’s cost-cutting.

There has to be a better way of helping local news in Reno.