The first priority at The New Bedford Light, a nonprofit news organization launching this spring, sets an ambitious course: a broad accounting of what the pandemic has done to the coastal city of 95,000, and how it can recover.
“We are collecting data, we are talking to folks on the ground,” founding editor Barbara Roessner said in a recent interview. “We are attempting to understand what we lost, how we move forward, what’s happened to the culture of the community, the culture of the neighborhood, when gathering places have shut down and some may never open up again.”
At an era of crisis and consolidation for local journalism, Roessner is assembling a full-time reporter, an editor, and a designer, a team of freelancers, and a board of directors that includes a former mayor, community members, and career journalists. The web publication, launching this spring at newbedfordlight.org, takes its name from the city’s lighthouses and the idea that journalism should serve as a beacon.
The Light will follow a public media business model. It will be free for readers and funded through foundation grants, sponsorships from local and regional businesses, and donations. The publication aims to raise about $600,000 during its first year of operations. Roessner is working pro bono, as is founding publisher Stephen Taylor, a member of the Taylor family that owned he Boston Globe from the 1870s to 1993.
“I hope New Bedford comes to think of us as a key member of the fourth estate,” said Taylor, formerly The Boston Globe’s executive vice president and president of Boston Globe Electronic Publishing.
The goal, Roessner said, is to be an integral part of the local community.
“New Bedford is a complex city with a richly textured populace and a vivid history,” said Roessner, who spent most of her career in Connecticut newspapers and was part of the Hartford Courant’s senior management team when the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize in 1999. “I hope that the community really comes to feel that they are a part of what we’re doing, and I think what I mean by that is that they feel reflected, embraced. That their stories are being told.”
Organizers have not finalized a launch date for the website but are working on stories and are hoping to be online in the coming months. The outlet hopes eventually to offer free media literacy classes for local residents with the goal of converting some participants into paid contributors.
Nonprofit, digitally focused news outlets have sprouted up across the country in recent years, from local and regional outlets such as the New Haven Independent and The Texas Tribune to national organizations such as the investigative outlet ProPublica and The Marshall Project, which focuses on stories about criminal justice.
Overall, however, the number of people working in US newsrooms fell about 23 percent between 2008 and 2019, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. The bulk of that decline came at newspapers, which were dealt repeated blows from the Great Recession, the rise of hedge fund ownership, and increased reliance on digital advertising and subscribers.
Those numbers do not include losses during the pandemic. The Poynter Institute counted at least 60 local newsrooms that have closed or merged since lockdowns began.
Those closures have far-reaching impacts: A 2018 study from researchers at the universities of Notre Dame and Illinois found that when a local newspaper closed, municipal borrowing costs increased, costing local governments and taxpayers an additional $650,000 per bond issue.
The nonprofit outlets that have emerged in recent years have reexamined the traditional way newspapers and broadcast media carried out their mission, said Magda Konieczna, an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University and author of “Journalism Without Profit: Making News When the Market Fails.”
“I think we’re much more aware of the fact that we’re serving a broad community,” Konieczna said. “We should be reporting not on that community, but with them. And we should learn about ways to figure out what the community wants, what the community needs.”
New Bedford and the surrounding area are covered by The Standard-Times, a daily newspaper that has published since 1850. It’s owned by Gannett, the Virginia-based media giant that owns about 90 other daily and weekly publications in Massachusetts alone. The newspaper has won New England Newspaper and Press Association awards for its photography, sports, and politics coverage. But in the last 15 years, former employees estimated its staff has declined from more than 50 news employees to fewer than 10.
Lisa Strattan, Gannett’s regional editor for New England, declined to specify how many editorial employees work at The Standard-Times and said a staff page listing eight employees may be outdated. Strattan said she was proud of the paper’s coverage during the pandemic, from high school sports to the fishing industry and people dealing with long-term complications from COVID-19.
“We prioritize our local reporting resources,” Strattan said. “We actually don’t try to do more with less, we try to do the right things. We have highly sophisticated analytics. We are able to determine through those analytics what content our readers and our potential readers and subscribers want to read about, at what time, in what way, on what platform.”
Roessner said she respects the work of Standard-Times journalists, noting that she spent her career working for news organizations whose owners demanded cost-cutting, including 29 years at the Hartford Courant, owned by Chicago-based Tribune Publishing.
“We are looking not to disrupt the local news ecosystem, as it exists now,” but to expand it, Roessner said. “We’re not looking to put anybody out of business.”
New Bedford’s mayor, Jonathan F. Mitchell, has encouraged more journalists to cover the area. In a 2019 State of the City address, he said local newspapers play an “indispensable role” in establishing “a bulwark of trust in a community,” and thanked Standard-Times reporters for “soldiering on despite the pressures in their organization to do less than they would like.”
“At a very elemental level, no city can function properly without a functioning default news source,” Mitchell said. “Especially at a time when folks don’t know what to believe, they need to turn to an institution they trust.”
And the city of about 95,000 has a range of issues that need coverage, said Bob Unger, a former editor at The Standard-Times who now runs a communications firm and has advised the founders of The Light.
“Important news about environmental challenges, education, race, social justice, the waterfront, and health care get a fraction of the attention they require, and local citizens are increasingly disengaged from local affairs,” Unger said.
Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.