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Community-based entrepreneurs are leading the way in solving the local news crisis

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The local news crisis has led to no end of policy proposals, funding initiatives and angry denunciations of the harm done to journalism by the likes of Craigslist, Google and Facebook.

Ideas for responding to the crisis include paying recent journalism school graduates with state tax revenues to cover underserved communities, as in California; mandating that state agencies direct half of their spending on advertising to community media, as has been proposed in Illinois; and creating tax credits that would benefit subscribers, advertisers and publishers, the subject of several federal and state initiatives.

And those are just a few.

Though all of these have some merit, they share a fundamental flaw: They are top-down solutions to problems that differ from one community to another.

There is an old saying that goes back a dozen years to the earliest days of hyperlocal digital news: Local doesn’t scale. In fact, I’d argue, the real solution to the local news crisis needs to come from the bottom up – from folks at the community level who decide to take their news and information needs into their own hands.

Examples range from relatively large operations such as The Colorado Sun, a digital startup founded by 10 Denver Post journalists who became frustrated with the depredations of the Post’s hedge fund owner, Alden Global Capital, to small outlets such as Sahan Journal, a Minnesota-based project that covers the state’s growing African diaspora.

Reinventing community journalism at the grassroots is the theme of “What Works in Community News: Media Startups, News Deserts, and the Future of the Fourth Estate,” written by Ellen Clegg and me. Clegg is retired from top editing positions at The Boston Globe, is a co-founder of the digital nonprofit Brookline.News and teaches journalism at Northeastern University and Brandeis University. I’m a journalism professor at Northeastern and the author of two previous books on the future of news.

“What Works in Community News” examines about a dozen projects in nine parts of the country. What they have in common is dedicated leadership at the local level – entrepreneurial journalists who are developing new Business models on the fly.

A growing crisis

There is no question that the local news crisis is real and growing. According to the most recent report by the Local News Initiative, based at Northwestern University’s Medill School, nearly 2,900 newspapers, mostly weeklies, have closed since 2005. That’s about a third of the total.

Weeklies have traditionally served as the beating heart of community journalism, covering local government, schools and neighborhood issues – not to mention more quotidian matters such as weddings, births, deaths and youth activities that can help draw neighbors together.

A plethora of research suggests that communities that lose their local news source suffer from a variety of ills. Voter turnout declines. Fewer people run for political office. There is even what we might call a corruption tax, as local officials who borrow money to build, say, a new fire station or high school have to pay a higher interest rate in places without reliable community journalism.

Perhaps most disturbing is that news consumers now feed their habit with outraged commentary from divisive national outlets, especially cable news, which in turn helps worsen the problem of partisan polarization that is ripping us apart.

Folks who attend school board meetings ought to be talking about test scores and teacher salaries. Instead, they are all too often yelling at their friends and neighbors about such Fox News-driven controversies as COVID-19 restrictions, critical race theory and books they want to ban.

So how might a community without an adequate news outlet go about meeting the needs of its residents?

Entrepreneurs step up

What happened in Bedford, Massachusetts, is instructive. A suburb of about 14,000 people located northwest of Boston, the town was at one time home to a weekly newspaper called the Bedford Minuteman. That once-robust weekly had by 2012 been downsized by its corporate owner, GateHouse Media, which later merged into Gannett, the U.S.’s largest newspaper chain.

Three members of the League of Women Voters who had been monitoring local government and reporting back to the membership asked themselves: Why not write this up for the benefit of the public?

Thus was born The Bedford Citizen, one of the projects that we feature in our book. Over the years, the nonprofit website has grown from an all-volunteer operation into a professional news organization, funded through initiatives ranging from voluntary membership fees to an annual glossy guide that’s filled with advertising and mailed to every household in town.

Today, the Citizen has a full-time editor, a part-time reporter and paid freelancers alongside a contingent of unpaid contributors. The Minuteman, meanwhile, faded away and was shut down in 2022 under Gannett’s ownership.

In recent years, hundreds of such projects have sprung up, both nonprofit and for-profit. Are there enough to offset the several thousand papers that have closed and continue to close? No. But Clegg and I are optimistic about the continued growth of independent local news.

Three men hold signs saying 'democracy depends on journalism' as they protest against policies at The Denver Post newspaper.
Members of The Denver Post newsroom protested in 2016 for fair contracts and against continued layoffs before several employees left to start the nonprofit Colorado Sun in 2018. Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Helping underserved communities

One problem that is not easily solved is what to do about underserved populations, especially in rural parts of the country and in urban communities of color.

We visited several projects in such areas, and what we found was that the folks who are running them are struggling.

At the Storm Lake Times Pilot, publisher-editor Art Cullen, a Pulitzer Prize winner, told us on our podcast that he and his brother, John, the paper’s president, do not pay themselves a salary and that they’re collecting Social Security.

Wendi C. Thomas, the founder of the award-winning MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, in Memphis, Tennessee, began by running up credit card debt, although she was eventually able to attract grant money.

Ultimately, it is in these lower-income communities where some top-down attention is needed.

The most ambitious initiative to support local news through philanthropy is Press Forward, a consortium of more than 20 foundations that will provide independent community news outlets with $500 million over the next five years. That barely scratches the surface of what is needed, though, and the foundations are now attempting to leverage that money by raising another $500 million at the local level.

In our view, such efforts should be seen as a supplement rather than as an all-encompassing solution.

Consider, for instance, the NewsMatch program administered by the Institute for Nonprofit News. NewsMatch provides funds to local outlets based on how much they are able to raise on their own. Nonprofit journalism leaders need to educate philanthropists in their own communities that news is worth supporting just as much as youth programs or arts and culture. For-profits need to demonstrate their value to would-be subscribers and advertisers.

What Clegg and I have observed in our reporting across the country is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Anything can work; anything can fail.

Above all, the local news crisis will not be solved by elected officials or national foundations, though they can surely help. Rather, it will be solved – and is being solved – by visionary entrepreneurs at the grassroots who listen to the needs of their communities.

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