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Why a direct government subsidy for local news in Cambridge is a bad idea

Cambridge City Hall. Photo (cc) 2010 by andrew_cosand

Government assistance for journalism exists along a continuum. Media scholars such as Paul Starr and Victor Pickard have observed that the American press got an enormous boost starting in Colonial times by way of generous postal subsidies — a benefit that lasted until several decades ago, when market fundamentalists began demanding that the Postal Service cover its expenses. Public notices — advertisements that government agencies and corporations are legally obliged to take out in order to publicize certain types of meetings, contracts, bids and the like — are another form of subsidy.

As the local news crisis has deepened, other ideas have been put forward. As Ellen Clegg and I write in our book, “What Works in Community News,” an independent board in New Jersey, the Civic Information Consortium, has awarded some $5.5 million to fund reporting and information projects over the past few years. In California, a $25 million appropriation is paying the salaries of recent master’s degree journalism graduates at UC Berkeley to cover underserved communities over a three-year period. Legislators in New York and Illinois are moving toward approving tax credits for local news publishers to hire and retain journalists after similar efforts at the federal level have stalled.

The challenge is to keep government assistance as indirect as possible so that journalism can maintain its vital role as an independent monitor of power. Which is why an idea that’s being discussed in Cambridge goes too far.

Boston Globe reporter Spencer Buell writes that the City Council is considering a proposal to set aside $100,000 a year in public money to support local news over the next three years. If enacted, the money, to be administered by an independent board, could be awarded to Cambridge Day, a longtime and well-regarded local newspaper, as well as other outlets. Among the proponents: Cambridge News Matters, a nonprofit that has been working with Cambridge Day and could partner with others as well. (Disclosure: I’ve offered some advice and counsel to Cambridge News Matters when I’ve been asked, and I told them just recently that I thought this was a dubious idea.)

Mary McGrath of Cambridge News Matters told Buell: “We heard loud and clear that quality local journalism is critical to democracy, that you can’t have a cohesive community without an informed citizenry. The business model to deliver this kind of journalism is broken.” Buell also interviewed me. Here’s what I told him:

We want local news organizations to be able to cover government and other institutions and keep an eye on them — not always in an adversarial way, but always in an independent way. If you’re going to have a direct transfer of money from local government to local news organizations, you’ve lost that. So I just don’t think this is a good idea.

Philosophical objections aside, what’s being discussed is pretty short money to put journalistic independence at risk. As Buell notes, Cambridge News Matters hopes to raise several million dollars in private donations over the next few years. The Boston area is home to many local news startups that were launched in response to the giant newspaper chain Gannett’s abandonment of its weekly newspapers, including the Cambridge Chronicle. None of them, whether nonprofit or for-profit, has had to rely on direct government funding.

I’m a longtime admirer of Cambridge Day and its editor, Marc Levy, as well of McGrath and the folks at the nonprofit. I would love to see more local news coverage in Cambridge than Marc is currently able to provide, and I have no doubt that everyone involved in this would make strenuous efforts not to be influenced by any government funding they might receive. But I just don’t see how this is the way to go.

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Want to succeed in for-profit local news? Go local — and take charge of your own data.

Gordon Borrell may not be a name who’s familiar to you, but he’s a big deal in the world of local news: he’s the CEO of Borrell Associates, based in Williamsburg, Virginia, whose business is “tracking, analyzing, and forecasting 100% of what local businesses in the U.S. spend on all forms of advertising and marketing, right down to the county level for all markets.”

Over the weekend, he appeared on “E&P Reports,” the vodcast hosted by Mike Blinder, publisher of the trade magazine and website Editor & Publisher. Blinder was excited enough to contact me and make sure I gave it a listen. I did, and if you’re interested in the future of advertising for local news outlets, you’ll want to check it out.

Essentially, Borrell offered some basic wisdom about what community journalism organizations need to do if they want to compete successfully for advertising. They need to offer quality local content. And they need to be able to provide prospective advertisers with “first-party data.” That means information about their audience that they collect themselves rather than relying on distribution via third-party platforms. In other words: newsletters, yes; Facebook, no, at least not as a primary means of distribution.

Because Borrell is placing renewed emphasis on local content, he’s moving his annual conference from Miami to the Walter Cronkite journalism school at Arizona State University.

Pretty wonky stuff, but it validates a lot of what Ellen Clegg and I have written about successful local news outlets in our book, “What Works in Community News.” They have to make themselves essential to their communities, and the way to do that is to be present in people’s lives. Irrelevant content from distant locales, the strategy that corporate-owned newspaper chains are pursuing, appeals neither to readers nor to advertisers.

Moreover, at a time when nonprofit has proven to be the path forward for many local media organizations, Borrell holds out the hope that for-profit news can succeed as well. That said, Borrell is pessimistic enough that he told Blinder he thinks we’ve entered the “final phase” of local news. The goal is to be one of the survivors.

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Talking about ‘What Works in Community News’ with Adam Reilly of ‘Greater Boston’

I was on GBH-TV’s “Greater Boston” Wednesday evening to talk about “What Works in Community News,” the book I co-authored with Ellen Clegg. And though it was great to see old friend Adam Reilly, we were, unfortunately, up against the Celtics (Al Horford!), which is what we were all watching. (Yes, our segment was prerecorded.) So if you’d like to catch up with our conversation, here you go.

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A great night in Dorchester

Many thanks to Joyce Linehan, who hosted Ellen Clegg and me for a book reading for “What Works in Community News” Monday evening in her Dorchester home. About 70 people atternded, including some old friends from The Boston Phoenix. Among the highlights: Ed Forry, founder of the Dorchester Reporter, showed up, bearing a copy of the Reporter’s 40th anniversary edition. I asked him to sign it.

Joyce has been hosting book readings since 2015, and here, in her newsletter, she explains how she does it. She certainly knows what she’s doing, and Ellen and I were honored to be her guests. And the Celtics won!

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Ellen Clegg and I will be speaking about our book in West Roxbury this Monday

Ellen Clegg and I will be speaking at an event for our book, “What Works in Community News,” this Monday, May 6, from 6 to 7:45 p.m. at the West Roxbury branch of the Boston Public Library, 1961 Centre St. We’ll be sponsored by the Friends of the West Roxbury Branch Library, and books will be for sale. Free and open to the public.

A Nebraska weekly is saved, and Ellen Clegg offers her advice and perspective

“What Works in Community News” co-author Ellen Clegg speaks with the Nebraska Examiner about the former owners of that state’s oldest continuously published weekly, who’ve jumped back in to save the paper. Paul Hammel writes that Bev and Ron Puhalla sold The Pawnee Republican but gave up their retirement when the new owner walked away last fall. Bev Puhalla is quoted as saying:

We didn’t want to see the town lose its newspaper. I mean, who’s going to tell the story when all the sheriff’s deputies threaten to quit on January 1 because they haven’t gotten a raise? Who’s going to tell that story?

Ellen tells the Examiner, “The media business has always been hard, and it’s harder than ever now.” But she adds that local news entrepreneurs across the country are finding a way forward — including Clegg herself, as she is a co-founder of Brookline.News, a nonprofit just outside of Boston. Her advice to the Puhallas and others: “You’re doing important work, and it’s hard to find the formula that works. But don’t lose hope — it’s too important.”

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WNET cuts force NJ Spotlight News to trim its staff; plus, E&P unveils public media vertical

NJ Spotlight News is based at NJ PBS in Newark. Photo (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy.

The ongoing shakeout in public media continues. The trade publication Current reported earlier this month that WNET, the nonprofit giant that controls public radio and television stations in New York City, Long Island and New Jersey, has eliminated 34 positions since December.

Among the operations affected is NJ Spotlight News, a hybrid operation comprising a website covering public policy and politics in New Jersey and a daily newscast that is broadcast on NJ PBS. Spotlight executive director John Mooney told me that the cuts resulted in “a couple layoffs” at his organization. Spotlight is also one of the projects that we profile in our book, “What Works in Community News,” and Current ran an excerpt in December.

Until very recently, public media had seemed largely insulated from the economic pressures that have affected other sectors of the news business, especially newspapers. In rapid succession, though, layoffs have hit a number of outlets, including Colorado Public Radio (also briefly profiled in “What Works”), WAMU in Washington and NPR itself. Boston’s two public broadcasters, WBUR and GBH, have also said they may have to reduce staff.

• E&P goes public (media). Current itself is about to get some competition. Editor & Publisher, a trade publication that covers the news business, announced this week that it is starting a vertical aimed at covering public media. E&P publisher Mike Blinder said in a press release:

We spent most of 2023 assessing the state of public media through editorial reporting and interviews with executives managing local public media operations across the U.S. We recognize that these key executives have been underserved in accessing essential information to continue building audience and revenue.

E&P’s venture, called Public Pulse, is free, whereas Current is paywalled. Current, though, has a reputation for being well-sourced and authoritative. We’re going to talk with Blinder about Public Pulse on the “What Works” podcast in an episode that should drop around the middle of next week.

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Poynter reviews ‘What Works,’ pairing it with a book by old friend Brant Houston

Bill Mitchell has a kind review at Poynter Online of our book, “What Works in Community News,” pairing it with Brant Houston’s “Changing Models for Journalism.” He writes:

In practical terms, they are essential reading for anyone considering a news startup. For most people, journalist or not, launching a news venture without consulting these volumes invites the sort of outcome awaiting a novice cook attempting a French feast sans recipe.

Mitchell really gets what co-author Ellen Clegg and I are up to, noting that the book is the hub of a larger enterprise that includes a podcast, updates to our website and, last month, a conference on local news at Northeastern University that drew about 100 participants.

Also, a fun fact: Brant was my editor when I started working as a stringer at The Daily Times Chronicle in Woburn, Massachusetts, in 1979. Not long after I started, he told me that he was thinking about leaving, and that if I stuck around, I might be able to take his job. And so I did, working at the paper for 10 years before kicking around for a while and eventually landing at The Boston Phoenix.

Brant has also been a guest on our podcast.

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Talking about ‘What Works in Community News’ with Rhode Island PBS

I don’t know what we thought was so damn funny, but Ellen and I enjoyed having a chance to talk recently with G. Wayne Miller and Jim Ludes, the hosts of “Story in the Public Square,” about our book, “What Works in Community News.” The program is produced by Rhode Island PBS and the Pell Center at Salve Regina University.

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Alden Global Capital to close eight weekly papers in Minnesota

The hedge fund Alden Global Capital, notorious for hollowing out its newspapers, is shutting down eight weekly newspapers in Minnesota. Louis Krauss of the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune reports that six of the papers are part of the Southwest News Media group and two are under the auspices of Crow River Media.

“The closings will leave the communities without their long-time local papers,” Krauss writes. “Two of the papers, the Shakopee Valley News and Chaska Herald, have been published for more than 160 years, while the Jordan Independent was founded 140 years ago.”

Alden owns 68 dailies and more than 300 weekly publications through its MediaNews Group as well as another seven larger-market dailies through Tribune Publishing. Tribune recently sold The Baltimore Sun to David Smith, the head of Sinclair Broadcasting; Smith’s first act was to meet with his staff and berate them. Alden also owns New York’s Daily News but for some reason has separated it from its Tribune holdings. In Massachusetts, Alden owns the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

A number of startup projects that Ellen Clegg and I wrote about in “What Works for Community News” were founded by people who quit an Alden-owned paper rather than continue to put up with round after round of cuts. Examples include relatively large outlets like The Colorado Sun and small projects like The Mendocino Voice and Santa Cruz Local.

Now it looks like some opportunities are about to open up in Minnesota for entrepreneurial-minded journalists.

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