Reasons for optimism #9: Local news startups
Digital entrepreneurs and philanthropists are collaborating to replace lost coverage
You’re reading the My News Biz newsletter, which I send every Thursday. My goal is to help digital media entrepreneurs find viable business models.
Why write about “reasons for optimism” when so much is going wrong in our politics, economy, and environment? Optimism gives us confidence we can make things better. As I like to say, it’s another day of opportunity.
The declining quality of local news coverage in the US is contained in one statistic — newsroom employment. It peaked at 74,000 in 2006, and declined by almost 60% to 31,000 by 2020. The Pew Research Center‘s annual State of the News Media has lots of other sobering data on revenue and circulation that mirror this negative trend.
Even so, that employment statistic vastly underestimates the negative impact on quality journalism. By that I mean the kind of journalism that holds public officials accountable and covers issues relevant to people in their daily lives. That kind of reporting takes money and time to produce. Much of remaining local staff is churning out the easily produced crime reports, press releases, and sports.
A return to public service
People have noticed the decline in quality and have sought their news elsewhere. Paid circulation declined by more than half in that same period, according to Pew.
However, a groundswell movement has emerged to counter the negative trends. Concerned citizens, philanthropists, foundations, and public media organizations are collaborating to provide trustworthy news and information. The new news organizations span the spectrum of for-profit to non-profit, and the trend is global.
Here are some examples:
Let’s start with my hometown. The American Journalism Project announced the launch of a 25-person nonprofit newsroom in Cleveland to “produce high-quality journalism on a daily basis that centers community voices and lets residents help set the agenda for newsgathering”. The plan is to use this startup as a model elsewhere in Ohio. A coalition of philanthropies raised $5.8 million for the organization. Partners include the Cleveland Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, Visible Voice Charitable Fund, the Center for Community Solutions, the Char and Chuck Fowler Family Foundation, and the American Journalism Project. The organization will work with Cleveland Documenters, which trains and pays 400 local citizens to document public meetings and produce information for their neighborhoods.
LION, which stands for Local Independent Online New Publishers, aims to help its 275 members achieve financial sustainability. Most of its members are for-profit. It has also partnered with Google News Initiative and other organizations to produce a free Startups Playbook and other resources aimed at helping digital news entrepreneurs launch “financially sustainable and journalistically impactful” media organizations. LION’s Project Oasis database, in partnership with the University of North Carolina’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, lists more than 700 independent local news publications in the US and Canada.
The Institute for Nonprofit News helps support more than 360 independent news organizations in a new kind of news network. It describes itself as “nonprofit, nonpartisan, and dedicated to public service . . . INN’s members tell stories that otherwise would go untold – connecting communities, holding the powerful accountable and strengthening democracy”. Its $4.6 million in 2020 funding came from a variety of national and local foundations and nonprofits.
The Solutions Journalism Network was founded in the US in 2013 with the goal of making public-service journalism an agent of change in democratic societies through training programs and sharing of resources. It operates in 13 countries and partners with 177 media organizations to offer training and development resources. Thirty journalism schools are using their curricula. It has 52 employees and a budget of $9.4 million.
Local can mean my country, my language
The International Press Institute, based in Vienna, is a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists whose mission is “to defend media freedom and support independent journalism wherever they are threatened”. Its Local Media Survival Guide says, “Local news media are defined by how they serve their community. It’s ‘local’ journalism if it brings a geographically constrained audience together with the news that the audience needs, news that empowers people to tell their own stories to one another and to the world at large.”
Continuing with that idea, the European Journalism Centre (EJC), based in the Netherlands, offers programs to help journalism organizations build resilience in five areas: freedom of expression, funding, leadership, new forms of storytelling, and digital innovation. It has training materials in 15 languages. The Centre is an independent nonprofit with a budget of $8.3 million and 21 employees.
The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) describes its mission as empowering journalists in its network “to produce stories that lead to better governments, economies, and societies.” During the covid-19 crisis, ICFJ launched an information sharing network in five languages in which more than 10,000 journalists from 100 countries participated and shared some 840 articles. Its IJNet website offers training materials and expert advice in eight languages. Its Knight Fellowship program sponsors the activities of technology and entrepreneurship experts working with journalists on five continents. Its revenue comes from foundations, nonprofits, and individuales. In 2019 it had revenue of $20 million and 42 employees.
Hang on, it’s not all rosy
The examples above show the positive developments, but let’s not avoid the challenges. Clare Malone’s article in the New Yorker, “Is there a market for saving local news?”, also explores the limitations of some of the efforts in the US. The kind of solutions that work in big cities won’t work in “news deserts” of the rural US, where people tend to be poor, have little access to broadband, and are sometimes functionally illiterate.
In addition, not everyone realizes that local news media are in crisis. The Pew Research Center found recently that 71% of those surveyed believed that local news media were “doing well financially” while only 14% said they had paid for local news in the past year. The survey was pre-covid, in 2018. Those more likely to pay for news tend to be over 50, white, and have a college education.
The Partnership on AI (artificial intelligence) asked nine experts across media, academia, civil society, and industry, How Will AI Change Local News in the Next 5 Years? On the plus side, some said AI can help publishers know and understand their audiences better and thus monetize their loyalty and attention. AI can help provide better context on the news. On the downside, the media might end up profiling their users in ways that allow them to manipulate the users’ thinking in exactly the way that dictators do. And AI might deepen the socioeconomic divide.
And let’s not forget the journalists themselves. The Nieman Lab recently published research on the question, What does the career path look like for today’s local journalists? In one city, Seattle, the answer was: bleak.
Conclusion: The old saying that all politics is local fits with journalism as well. News that matters most to people is local. It covers issues and problems relevant to people’s daily lives. It helps them solve problems. People engage with their communities first on the personal and local level — my family, my friends, my religious or ethnic or social group, my neighbors, my co-workers, my town, my country, my region.
That kind of news always demands our attention.
However, much of the doomsaying news we consume is about global or national problems, amplified by social networks and for-profit media that depend on sensational headlines and images to monetize our attention. In other words, all the news is bad, all the time.
The movements to restore the strength of local news organizations happen below the radar of big media platforms. At the moment, the voice of local news is not as loud as the screeching directed at us on cable and social. But the volume is growing. It’s a movement that needs our help. It’s an opportunity for us to give our time, attention, and treasure.
This newsletter is based on an article on my website, Entrepreneurial Journalism.
Reasons for optimism #1: Andrew Yang
Reasons for optimism #2: Edwy Plenel of Mediapart
Reasons for optimism #3: Journalists collaborating around the world
Reasons for optimism #4: José Luis Orihuela’s ‘Digital Cultures’
Reasons for optimism #5: SembraMedia’s discoveries
Reasons for optimism #6: Jared Diamond and other cautious optimists
Reasons for optimism #7: The movement for trustworthy information
Reasons for optimism #8: Journalists discover marketing (finally)
Reasons for optimism #10: Podcasts