Entrepreneurial Stalwarts and Start-ups
- A variety of legacy and start-up news outlets are currently attempting to fill the local news void, including digital sites, ethnic media, public broadcasting outlets and independently owned and operated newspapers.
- The leaders of these enterprises are experimenting with a variety of business models, including for-profit, nonprofit, publicly funded ones, as well as hybrid and cooperatives, in which the community owns the publication.
- Many of their endeavors show promise. But there is a critical need for more funding that would encourage the expansion of these enterprises into regions that lack a local news organization.
Throughout this country's history, strong local and regional newspapers have been both community builders and problem solvers. Publishers and editors of the most vibrant newspapers have served as a steadfast conscience in their communities and regions, exposing injustices and corruption, shining a light on the follies of corporate chieftains and bureaucrats, admonishing residents and public officials for their misdeeds and foibles, while simultaneously inspiring them with their editorials to pursue a different course. On the other hand, many in recent years – especially those owned by the large, private-equity-backed chains – have been dismissed as monopolistic tollgate operators who raised rates for advertisers and subscribers to maintain outsized profits, and failed to cover the concerns of their community, thereby giving no voice to the voiceless.
The goal in the coming years is to encourage a flowering of local news organizations that, like the very best newspapers published the 20th century, helped residents in a community solve problems by identifying the important issues of the day, encouraged economic growth and development, and nurtured social and geographic identity. As the large newspaper chains have struggled to adjust to the digital age, other news organizations have been more innovative – both with their journalism and their business models.
Entrepreneurs at digital sites, independently owned and operated newspapers, and ethnic media organizations, as well as public broadcasting outlets, have sought to thwart the rise of news deserts by providing critical news and information to underserved communities, engaging audiences on a variety of old and new platforms, even as they experiment with new business models. They have recognized that, instead of one business model that works for most organizations, as was historically the case, there will be many – for-profit, nonprofit publicly funded ones, as well as hybrids and co-operatives, in which communities own their local news organization.
Regardless of which business model they pursue, all these entrepreneurs need access to significant funding to continually experiment and develop long-term sustainable business models. And therein lies the shared challenge. Between 2005 and 2018, newspaper advertising revenue, which had historically funded local news gathering, dropped from almost $50 billion annually to less than $15 billion, resulting in the elimination of thousands of newsroom positions.101 At the same time, nonprofit and public funding has replaced only a small fraction of the loss.
To get a more accurate assessment of the country's local news needs, our 2020 report examines the current state of the country's 525 local news digital sites, 950 ethnic media organizations, 1,400 public broadcasting outlets and 2,400 independently owned and operated newspapers.
Everyone in this country has a political, social and economic stake in whatever replaces the 20th century print version of the local newspaper, in whatever form – print, broadcast or digital. The entrepreneurial news organizations profiled in this section face significant obstacles as they attempt to fill the local news void. Nevertheless, their experiences are beginning to provide a roadmap as to how to reverse the loss of news and reach those who live in news deserts.
The For-Profit Model: Enterprising and Independent
Thanks to the establishment in recent years of hundreds of local digital news sites and ethnic media outlets, the number of independent owners and operators of for-profit local news organizations is growing in this country. All this raises the possibility of a resurgence of locally owned news outlets. Among them: The hundred-year-old Bulletin in Bend, Oregon, purchased in 2019 in a bankruptcy auction by a state-based media company, with assistance from community leaders, who helped raised the necessary funds. The Mundo Hispanico in Atlanta, purchased in 2018 by a group of Latino investors. And the Santa Cruz Local, co-founded in 2019 by two veteran journalists who had previously worked at the local paper.
Because decisions can be made locally, without consulting layers of corporate bureaucracy, independent owners and operators have much more strategic flexibility than managers of corporate-owned newspapers and can respond much more quickly to the changing needs and expectations of residents and businesses in their community. However, like most small-business owners, they typically measure revenue in the low millions or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and often have slim profit margins. So, the founders, owners, publishers and editors have to be both creative and disciplined in their approach if they are to achieve long-term financial sustainability.
Still Publishing After All These Years
Until the 1970s, most newspapers were locally owned and operated. Even though the number of independent community-based newspaper owners has declined by a third since 2004, there are still about 2,400 surviving independently owned and operated newspapers. Roughly half are located in the country's outlying suburbs and rural areas. Many are the only consistent and comprehensive source of news for their communities, which are overlooked by reporters at regional television and newspapers, except in times of disaster.
The owners of independent newspapers usually live in the communities they cover, eat at the same restaurants, shop at the same stores and attend the same events as all other residents. They put down roots, in contrast to the publishers and editors of news organizations that are part of large chains, who are often transferred from property to property every few years.102 As a result, the fate of these independent news operations and the communities they serve is tightly intertwined, for better or worse.
Publishers of small newspapers that managed to survive have had to be especially creative in coming up with ways to diversify their revenue. With Facebook and Google collecting a majority of the digital revenue in most markets – even small ones – many independently owned newspapers still remain tethered to the print edition, still relying on print advertising and subscription revenue to pay the bills. But they are increasingly looking for ways to evolve beyond publishing a print newspaper.103 The most successful community newspapers have aggressively sought to diversify their revenue sources by sponsoring events, creating e-newsletters and podcasts, and establishing in-house digital agencies to assist local businesses with their advertising and marketing needs. All profits made from these new ventures are redeployed to support the journalism in their newspaper – in whatever form it is delivered.
Many of the surviving independent newspapers in the country are family owned and operated, such as the twice-weekly News Reporter in southeastern North Carolina, with a circulation of 10,000. The paper, which serves residents in one of the poorest counties in the state, received the Pulitzer Public Service Medal in 1953 for exposing the infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan into local police and fire departments. Les High, the grandson of that courageous publisher, is now the editor and publisher. He has tried a range of tactics to increase revenue and profitability, including offering videography and web design for local businesses, creating lifestyle magazines and charging for digital subscriptions. He hangs on, despite profit margins in the low single digits, out of a commitment to the community. "The economy, health, education – we know there are a lot of quality-of-life issues here in Columbus that will affect our future," he says. "And if we don't cover them, no one else will."104
While most of the third- and fourth-generation family-owned newspapers that have come on the market in recent years have been subsumed by large chains, a small, but growing number have been purchased – at least in part – by local residents who banded together to raise money to keep their hometown paper in local hands. In July 2019, with the support of local residents in Bend, Oregon, EO Media Group purchased the Bend Bulletin and Redmond Spokesman in bankruptcy proceedings for $3.6 million, beating out two out-of-state newspaper chains – Adams Publishing, based in Tennessee, and Rhode Island Suburban Newspapers Inc. (RISN). Executives at the Oregon-based EO Media credited the strong financial support of local residents, including the Bend Foundation, with helping them secure the winning bid. "It's reassuring for the future of community newspapers when a small independent company like EO Media Group can prevail, even when going up against the big companies that are buying up newspapers nonstop around the country," said the EO Media Group chief operating officer, Heidi Wright.105
Across the country, in Massachusetts, Fredric Rutberg, a retired judge, joined with three other local residents in 2016 to buy his faltering hometown paper from a large national chain and reinstate local ownership. The local group of investors purchased the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, along with two small dailies and a weekly in neighboring Vermont, from the Digital First newspaper chain, owned by the hedge fund Alden Capital. The new local owners immediately added journalists and marketing staff and invested in both print and digital upgrades and enhancements, including starting a lifestyle magazine and establishing an in-house digital ad agency. The new owners have had to temper their initial optimism. While circulation of the print newspapers stabilized, there has not been a dramatic uptick. With the coronavirus economic shutdown depressing revenue for the print paper, Rutberg, New England Newspaper's president and publisher, began focusing on launching a locally based philanthropic initiative to support the newspapers. His advice for those who want to purchase a newspaper: Raise enough money to not only purchase the paper, but also invest in it.106
West Virginia University, through its NewStart program, is hoping to inspire a new generation of journalists to buy a local newspaper that serves a marginalized community at risk of becoming a news desert. In April, the NewStart program, created in partnership with the West Virginia Press Association, announced a diverse group of fellows from across the country, the first to participate in an online master's program that provides guidance on developing "new business models during this time of forced innovation."107
Giving a Bigger Voice to the New Majority
While independent ownership has been decreasing among community newspapers, a significant demographic shift in this country – propelled by the growth of Hispanic residents – is nurturing exactly the opposite among ethnic news organizations. Independent ownership of minority and ethnic newspapers and magazines, especially, has increased over the past two decades.
Ethnic newspapers have historically been the prime source of relevant news and information for recent immigrants, everything from explaining how to use transportation systems in large cities to exploring big-picture issues, such as criminal justice and discrimination, overlooked by mainstream media. They have been described as "vitamin supplements for their communities and more" that "do not have to apologize to their readers for their social conscience."108
Almost 500 of the 950 ethnic news outlets in the UNC database are newspapers. Like many community newspapers, many older, more established ethnic papers are struggling to transform themselves and maintain profitability as print advertising and circulation decline, and younger generations of readers look to more mainstream media outlets and social media for both their news and information. In an attempt to remain relevant and profitable, the Chicago Defender, one of the most influential African-American papers in the 20th century, announced in 2019 that it was discontinuing its print edition, which had only 16,000 subscribers, and moving all its content online, where it reached an average of half a million visitors a month.109 Older Hispanic newspapers, such as El Diario/La Prensa in New York, are also struggling.110
But with the Latino population growing at a rate that surpasses all other white and nonwhite ethnic groups – especially in the South and Southwest – a new generation of owners and titles have gained loyal readers, as well as advertisers who want to pitch their consumer products to first- and second-generation immigrants and their families. There are more than 200 Hispanic newspapers in the UNC database. Many of the "Latino newspapers, news magazines and web-only periodicals are privately held, independent companies, owned by Latino immigrants," according to a recent survey of Latino news media.111 Many have only one or two people employed in the newsroom and are primarily focused on advocating around specific issues. Others have gained national and regional audiences with their more traditional journalism. Mundo Hispanico, purchased from Cox Media in 2018 by a group of Latino investors, has a print circulation of more than 70,000 that serves more than 200,000 Hispanic residents in the Atlanta metro area. It has also developed a national presence with its website, the third-largest Spanish-speaking site in the country. Under new ownership, and with low overhead, Mundo Hispanico is experimenting with new forms of content – documentaries, as well as expanded sports and food coverage – in an attempt to attract new forms of advertising and sponsorships.112
Most of the 173 Hispanic television stations that offer news are owned and managed by large corporations, including Univision and Comcast.113 However, many of the 37 Latino radio stations that offer news are small and owned by Latino community members. Radio has historically played an important role in reaching not only newly arrived Hispanic immigrants outside of metro areas, but also Native American populations living on reservations, which have very low broadband penetrations. A study by the Democracy Fund found that since 1998 the number of media outlets serving tribal communities has dropped from 700 to 200. "The only bright spot: radio stations increased from 30 to 59 over the past two decades."114
In contrast, digital outlets have struggled to gain a foothold in minority and ethnic communities with either readers or advertisers, who have failed to migrate from print and broadcast outlets to websites. A study by the City University of New York (CUNY) counted only 87 digital-only Latino publications, "most of them websites with small or no newsrooms."115 Many inner-city neighborhoods that are home to some of the largest concentrations of minority and ethnic communities have low broadband penetration and spotty wireless. Flint Beat, established in 2017 by a television reporter in response to the contaminated water crisis in that Michigan city, has struggled to gain an audience, in a city where 40 percent of households live in poverty and do not have internet subscriptions.116
Like mainstream commercial television stations and community newspapers, many ethnic news organizations remain overwhelmingly reliant on advertising to support their journalism. With traditional advertising declining, and digital advertising failing to materialize, financial sustainability is a major concern. "Small print publications, including free newspapers that have served local communities for years, are struggling to get ads from the small community-owned businesses that traditionally supported them. … At the same time, the transition to digital platforms, mostly websites, has been challenging, because ad money is not migrating to the publications' online sites." With fewer resources, many struggle to produce original content.117
The key challenge for all ethnic media is "to keep the momentum going in a way that allows them to monetize their audience," says Melita Garza, professor at Texas Christian University.118 Acknowledging the dramatic demographic shifts that will occur in the country's population over the next two decades as the number of nonwhite residents surpasses that of white residents – and the importance of minority and ethnic populations in covering marginalized communities, the CUNY report concludes that the future of ethnic news organizations is "fraught with uncertainty but replete with opportunities."119
All Digital All the Time:
In February 2019, Kara Meyberg Guzman, who had recently resigned as managing editor of a California paper owned by Digital First because of "differences with the company's management," became her own boss, CEO and co-founder of Santa Cruz Local, a news site covering public policy issues in a city of 65,000 residents. The site was founded as a private, for-profit venture because it was "a quick way to get legal and financial protection" but "the ideals are similar to those of a nonprofit … to contribute to the greater good." Incorporating as a for-profit site also allowed the founders to weigh in on elections and endorse candidates for office, which nonprofit sites are not permitted to do.120
Roughly half of the 525 independent local sites in the UNC database are for-profit enterprises, although many, like Santa Cruz Local, also seek and accept grants from foundations and individuals. More than three-quarters of those sites focus on providing very local news, including coverage of routine government meetings, with the remainder tackling broad regional and statewide issues, such as education or politics. Many have been established by experienced and passionate journalists, like Guzman, who spotted a critical information need. While the number of newspaper journalists declined by 36,000 since 2008, the overall number of journalists employed in digital newsrooms has increased by 10,000, although many were hired by national sites.121
Digital journalists can have a significant impact on the quality of news and information available to residents in a community. A recent study by Duke University found that online-only media outlets were a relatively small component of the overall media mix, accounting for only about 10 percent of the 16,000 stories produced in news outlets in a hundred cities (ranging in size from 20,000 to 300,000) in a typical week. Nevertheless, 80 percent of the stories produced by digital sites addressed one of the critical information needs identified by the Federal Communications Commission – on topics such as education, health, the environment or local governance and politics.122
Yet, despite the best of journalistic intentions, many of the founders of these independent sites are struggling to gain a toehold in the market where they are located and produce enough income to achieve long-term financial security. Although 83 new local sites were added to the UNC database in 2019, an equal number disappeared, as sites that were active in 2018 went dormant. A Los Angeles Times study in 2015 found that one in four local digital sites failed within five years.123
Most of the sites in the UNC database – 90 percent – are located in metro areas, where there is more access to both for-profit and nonprofit funding, but also much more competition from other media, including other digital sites, as well as radio, television, and well-established print publications, including magazines and newspapers. This can make it very hard to gain traction and attract enough revenue from subscribers, sponsors or advertisers to support expansion of news coverage. As a result, many of the online sites have only a couple of journalists on staff.
With very small staffs, most of the local digital sites are also constrained in their ability to provide a consistent supply of relevant news and information – especially to residents outside the major metro area. Additionally, most are located in affluent communities that tend to vote Democratic and not in economically struggling communities that voted Republican in 2016. Only three are located in the 200 counties that do not have a newspaper, including the Orleans Hub in upstate New York, and Mahoning Matters, a joint venture of McClatchy and Google, located in Youngstown, Ohio. When The Washington Post closed The Gazette in Montgomery County, Maryland, in 2015, the founder of Maryland Reporter, a digital newsletter that covers state government and politics, "spent a few weeks researching the possibilities for a nonprofit news website in Montgomery County," the state's largest county with a million residents. But he concluded "that I had neither the time or the energy to get such a site funded."124
As newspapers continue to struggle and disappear, the Local Independent Online News (LION) association, established in 2012, is hoping it can provide resources that will allow entrepreneurial journalists to establish websites that fill the information void, while also achieving long-term financial security. LION has some 260 members, 65 percent of which are for-profit. "There are a ton of reporting and editing and writing resources out there for reporters," says Anika Anand, founder of Evergrey in Seattle, part of the WhereBy.Us network. "But it is much harder to find resources around revenue and operations." With funding from two large grants received in 2019 and 2020, LION is hoping to provide the founders of digital sites with the resources to achieve long-term financial sustainability. It is creating a "tech starter pack" and enlisting a stable of consultants for both members and aspiring founders, so local publishers don't have to make decisions "semi-blindly on their own."125
Many of the early local news sites established between 2008 and 2012 envisioned a business model that relied primarily on digital revenue from local business. Robert Chappell, founder of Madison365, a local nonprofit news site in Wisconsin's state capital, believes, "Local news can work as a business when it's not owned by venture capital."126 However, as prospects of garnering enough revenue from digital advertising have diminished in recent years, many websites, even for-profit ones, are increasingly looking to the nonprofit world to supply those funds.
The Nonprofit Model: Increasingly Important for Newsrooms
Nonprofit dollars have nurtured the success of magazines, such as Consumer Reports and Harper's, as well as a small number of newspapers – including the Tampa Bay Times and The Citizen in Charlotte, Vermont – for decades. However, the rapid collapse of the for-profit business model that historically supported local newsgathering has prompted renewed interest in nonprofit funding of local news sites, as well as local newspapers, including The Salt Lake Tribune, which sought and received nonprofit tax status in 2019, allowing the paper to establish a foundation to accept donations.
ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, established in 2007 and 2009, demonstrated that, with the support of deep-pocketed individual donors and foundations, it was possible for national and regional sites to achieve long-term sustainability. More recently, local sites – such as Charlottesville Tomorrow in Virginia and VTDigger in Vermont – have been experimenting with nonprofit models that work on a smaller regional scale. Since 2008, nonprofit newsrooms have launched at an average of one a month, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), which counts 250 members. Half of the INN member sites cover state and local news. Almost all the sites pursue a civic mission of providing investigative and explanatory journalism. Eighty percent of the sites have at least one investigative reporter, while 70 percent filed open records requests in 2018.127
Despite the rate at which nonprofit newsrooms have been launched, there is still a gap in the funding needed to support the establishment of new sites, especially in economically struggling communities that are most likely to be at risk of becoming news deserts. A 2018 report by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard's Kennedy School pointed out the challenges. It noted that many large national and community foundations did not realize "just how much of the newspaper and commercial media workforce has been lost and why that matters." As a result, local and state news organizations received only about 5 percent – or $80 million – of the $1.8 billion in journalism-related grants made by more than 6,500 foundations between 2010 and 2015. Furthermore, the study found local and state news nonprofits also depended on a very limited pool of foundations for their support, with the Knight Foundation accounting for 20 percent of all funding of news organizations.128
Concerned over the state of local news, in 2019, the Knight Foundation pledged $300 million over five years to support local news initiatives and has encouraged other foundations to increase their funding.129 But many of the foundations with large endowments, by tradition and mission, have prioritized specific causes and missions unrelated to journalism, such as the arts, economic development, social justice or health. Changing the philanthropic priorities of a foundation presents considerable institutional obstacles that involve agreement among major stakeholders and board members. The majority of the annual income that the foundations' endowments produce – as much as 90 percent – may have already been designated for a specific purpose, leaving the foundation managers with little flexibility to redirect funds to local news. Finally, there is also a disparity between the endowments of many community funds in large metro areas compared with those in small and mid-sized communities. The Cleveland Foundation, for example has an endowment of more than $13.5 billion, while the Mahoning Valley Foundation, based in Youngstown, Ohio, which lost its daily newspaper, The Vindicator, in 2019, has an endowment of only $65 million.130
The Shorenstein report also noted the disparity between a dozen or so news sites that received substantial funding from major foundations compared with the vast majority of nonprofit newsrooms that received much smaller grants, often only enough to support a specific reporting project. Large grants from foundations are important, the report noted, because they provide news organizations with the financial wherewithal to ramp up their journalism in their early years and gain support from sustaining individual donors. Without an initial large grant, many founders of smaller nonprofit sites reported that they were forced to continually fundraise. In 2016, even the smallest of nonprofit news organizations relied on foundations – both large family and community ones and small community-based ones – for two-thirds of their funding.131
This has led to an aggressive effort in recent years by nonprofits to diversify their income sources. The 2019 survey of INN members found that 40 percent had developed four or more sources of funding, including individual donations, corporate sponsorships and syndication of content. With training on how to engage communities, the INN organizations have managed to increase donations from individuals to 39 percent of the total $450 million in revenue raised in 2019, while foundation funding had decreased to 43 percent from two-thirds in 2016. However, only 10 percent came from reader subscriptions or memberships, and two-thirds of those donors were deep-pocketed individual philanthropists, who contributed more than $5,000 each. This meant that most INN nonprofit news sites today still rely on either large grants from foundations or large donations from individuals for the majority – 80 percent – of their annual budget and for their long-term sustainability.132
While almost 40 percent of INN's nonprofit newsrooms generated more than $1 million in 2018, a third generated less than $250,000. With nonprofit funding in limited supply, significant grants often involve collaborations – among foundations and individuals with specific interests, and among for-profit and nonprofit news organizations. The Wichita Community Foundation, for example, is funding a journalistic collaboration among 11 news organizations – including the local newspaper, the NPR and commercial television affiliates, and various niche publications – to examine and report on the causes for the increased suicide rate in Kansas, one of the highest in the country.133
"Local [nonprofit] news organizations are networked with, or even part of, regional and national [for-profit and publicly funded] organizations," said Sue Cross, CEO and executive director of INN, "Many more local news organizations will form, but others will merge or team up. So we focus less on the number of separate [nonprofit] news companies and more on the total reporting force they support, in whatever form or set of alliances proves best at supporting robust public service reporting."134
INN says its 230 sites currently have 3,000 employees, with 2,000 being journalists. INN's goal is to drive a tenfold increase over the coming decade "and grow the field to a network of at least 20,000 nonprofit journalists by 2030," Cross said. "That would give the country a new backbone of civic coverage spanning local news, state coverage and national investigative and expert beat reporting."135
The Publicly Funded Model: Over the Air and Streaming
For many residents living in communities without newspapers and without easy access to high-speed internet, the primary source for local news is either the television or radio station. In 2019, slightly more than a third of American residents said they relied on local and regional television stations as the primary source of their local news, down from 47 percent in 2016. As many as a fourth of residents in small and mid-sized markets outside metro areas said they regularly listened to news radio.136
When watching television news, residents are most likely tuning to one of more than 820 commercial stations, instead of the nation's 169 public broadcasting television stations. With radio, they are most likely relying on one of 1,100 public radio stations affiliated with either NPR or American Public Media, instead of the more than 10,000 commercial stations.137 As viewership of local commercial television newscasts has declined in recent years – and local newspapers have disappeared – policymakers have begun to revisit the mission of public broadcasting and question whether more funding and programming on public television and radio should be dedicated to local news.
The country's public broadcasting system, which is 53 years old in 2020, is a relative newcomer compared with commercial broadcasting in the United States, which dates back a century. It was set up in a time when television entertainment and cultural programming was in the early stages of its existence, with only three commercial networks. The PBS stations were established to address what was perceived as a deficit in educational programming, such as "Sesame Street," and cultural programming, such as "Masterpiece Theatre." NPR was offered several years later "as a sort of after-thought."138
Federal funding of public broadcasting has been relatively level in recent years. In 2019, Congress allocated $447 million to fund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, of which two-thirds ($298 million) went for programming and staffing at PBS stations, and slightly more than one-fifth ($99 million) went to NPR stations.139 Depending on the station, federal funds amounted to between 20 and 40 percent of total revenue, with most of the rest coming from individual giving (40 percent at PBS and 60 percent at NPR) and corporate sponsorships. But most of the government funds – especially at PBS stations – continue to be used for entertainment and news programs that attract a national audience, even though many of those entertainment programs are now offered on multiple platforms, including Amazon and Netflix.140
Only 13 of 169 PBS stations – ranging from WNET in New York to WVUT in Vincennes, Indiana, the smallest station – produce four or more daily local news shows each week. There is an average of four full-time journalists per PBS station, with the majority covering national news. In contrast, the country's 820 commercial television stations that offer news programming employ an average of 35 to 40 per station, almost all focused on state and local news.141
As a result, both critics and champions of public broadcasting invariably look to the recent success of NPR – not PBS – as a potential roadmap for revitalizing local news on public television and expanding the news coverage on radio. "NPR stations in Boston, New York, San Francisco, St. Louis and Dallas have become local news powerhouses," producing both expansive local coverage of news and investigative and exploratory journalism.142
At the national level, the total operating budget for NPR in 2018 was $252.1 million – less than the amount PBS receives from government funding alone. While 69 percent of the 1,100 public radio stations report that they offer "local news," Robert Papper, who is director of the annual survey conducted by the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), points out that not all of these stations have reporters that "cover" or "gather" the news.143 Rather they employ hosts and moderators of news shows, who interview experts and other journalists who have reported on the breaking news story for another news outlets.
Since the 3,000 journalists employed by NPR represent less than 10 percent of the 34,000 newspaper journalists lost over the past decade, NPR reporters have to pool resources and be selective about which stories they cover. Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison has created a loose beat system, assigning different specialties to different stations – for example, agriculture to a station in the western part of the state on the Minnesota border.144 The Kansas News Service draws on the talent at three NPR stations in Kansas, plus one in Kansas City, Missouri. Three fulltime and two part-time journalists provide coverage of the state legislature, as well as in-depth coverage of the environment and education.145
NPR stations in both Texas and California have formed collaborations that produce big projects and daily newscasts. The Texas Newsroom, which launched in 2019, produces six weekday statewide newscasts that draw content from public radio stations across the state. The California Dream project, a collaboration of five public radio stations, produced a series of stories in 2019 on issues of economic opportunity and disparity in the state. In 2020, the same California stations are teaming up to focus on "boosting reporting for and from underserved regions" of the state.146
National public radio is available to 95 percent of the country, including areas that do not have high broadband penetration. Especially in more remote small and mid-sized markets, radio is critical in local news. Both Wisconsin and Vermont Public Radio have a goal of employing a journalist in every county in their states.147 But current funding – from both the government and the nonprofit world – can only be stretched so far. In his annual survey of radio stations for the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), Syracuse University professor Robert Papper found that the "number one concern" of both commercial and public radio was "financial sustainability."148 Even with a reporter in every county, Noah Ovshinsky, news director at Wisconsin Public Radio, is "skeptical that we can fill that vacuum" left when a community loses a newspapers. "That would be a pretty big ask," given current funds."149
The 2018 report by Harvard's Shorenstein Center noted that two-thirds of the $795 million in grants from foundations in 2016 went to 25 public broadcasting stations in 10 states.150 "Such concentration means that public media organizations across the great majority of states lack the foundation funding necessary to evolve into central hubs for local and state news reporting, filling gaps in newspaper coverage and nurturing other local news nonprofits," it concludes.
Howard Husock, who served on the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from 2013 to 2018, is calling for "a new Carnegie Commission" that would explore ways to re-evaluate the role of public media in producing more local news. Among the questions he suggests exploring: Does it still make sense to prioritize investments in over-the-air infrastructure, or would rural broadband be the appropriate successor? Should the bulk of funding still be dedicated to television, the most expensive form of production? How can public media better reflect the country's full range of cultures and viewpoints?151
The Lessons Learned: 2004 to 2019
Approximately 1,800 of the 2,100 communities that have lost a newspaper since 2004 do not have another nearby news outlet covering issues of very local concern – such as the quality of schools in that community or the spread of an infectious disease. Without a journalist covering school board meetings, vetting candidates for local office and covering everyday events and celebrations, residents in thousands of small and mid-sized communities are living in a news desert, without access to reliable information about important issues that can determine the quality of their lives now and in the future. Most of these communities are struggling economically. Many also lack the technological infrastructure, such as high-speed internet, that facilitates communication of news and information in the 21st century.
As local newspapers vanished, numerous rounds of layoffs simultaneously depleted the reporting and editing staffs at the nation's metro and state dailies. Although journalists at other media outlets – digital sites, public broadcasting outlets, regional television stations and ethnic media – have attempted to step into the breach, their efforts have failed to significantly reverse the trend.
In 2020, there were many fewer journalists covering important routine government meetings in small and mid-sized markets or producing major investigative and analytical pieces on state and regional papers that held government officials accountable. Most digital sites, ethnic news organizations and public broadcasting outlets have only a handful of journalists on staff. And most are located in major metro areas, where they have more access to funds, but are constrained in their ability to provide comprehensive and consistent news coverage to underserved communities – inner-city neighborhoods, outlying suburbs and rural communities that have lost their hometown paper.
Most local news organizations – whether for-profit, nonprofit or publicly funded – are small businesses, and cash is the currency of small business. They tend to operate month-to-month, or quarter-to-quarter, without significant cash reserves. A bad quarter can sink them financially. All news organizations – the surviving newspapers, digital sites, ethnic media organizations and public broadcasting outlets – are struggling to transform their business models to meet the challenges of the digital age. The savviest entrepreneurs are constantly seeking ways to engage new audiences and diversify their income. But they need money to innovate, and that has been in short supply.
A journal article in 2009 surveyed the rapidly changing media landscape and asked whether news organizations of the future would be transformed or diminished.152 In 2019, it is apparent the local news ecosystem is both transformed and diminished. The current demand – and critical need – for local news outstrips the supply.
From 1990 to 1999, the Public Service Medal, the most prestigious Pulitzer Prize, was awarded, in unprecedented fashion, to three small, but mighty newspapers: The Washington Daily News in North Carolina, for "revealing that the city's water supply was contaminated with carcinogens." The Virgin Island Daily News, "for its disclosure of the links between the region's rampant crime rate and corruption in the local criminal justice system." And the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota, "for its sustained and informative coverage … in the wake of flooding, a blizzard and a fire that devastated much of the city, including the newspaper plant itself."153
The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us, yet again, of the vital importance of local news. Interest in and appreciation for local news has surged in recent months, as residents in cities and rural communities have searched for accurate, reliable and comprehensive information about what is occurring in their own neighborhood. Yet, at this very moment, local news organizations, large and small, for-profit and nonprofit, are confronting a dire economic threat to their existence.
Even in their drastically diminished state, surviving local newspapers still remain a vital source of local news and information. A recent study found that local newspapers produce more than half of all original local stories that address a critical information need – such as education, the environment and the health and safety of our community. This suggests the importance of public policy and philanthropic efforts that support the viability of strong local newspapers, as well as digital-only news outlets, ethnic media and public broadcasting. In order to replenish and revive the local news ecosystem, and address the information needs of underserved communities, there needs to be both a significant increase in funding and a recommitment to journalism's civic mission.