Do you rely on your hometown newspaper to learn what’s going on down the block, in the local schools and houses of worship, at city hall? Then you probably know that it’s been a lean couple of decades for local journalism. Battered by online platforms, small newspapers have seen advertising revenue evaporate and readers’ attention relentlessly stolen by internet platforms.
Nationwide, about 2,500 newspapers have disappeared since 2005, nearly 400 in just the last three years, the vast majority of them local weeklies. Massachusetts was better off than most states, losing about 70 newspapers between 2004 and 2019. But still: That was 70 more communities that lost a source of news about their town councils, zoning boards, and high school sports teams.
For that reason, it has been heartening to witness the emergence of not one, but three news organizations in Marblehead over the past year.
As chronicled in a recent Globe article, the three were born after Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, decided to shift the Marblehead Reporter away from local news and toward more regional reporting.
One, the Beacon, was started by three family friends who were concerned about a lack of reporting on “things going on in our town that didn’t seem right.” A second, the Current, was launched by journalists who had left the Reporter and were looking to put their local sources to good use. The third, the Marblehead Weekly News, is a print publication that also posts PDFs of its pages online, where readers will hear the satisfying rustle of newsprint each time they turn a virtual page.
Each has a somewhat different business model — the Current, for instance, is a nonprofit financed by a combination of advertising, donations, and grants, while the Beacon is a for-profit dependent on ad revenue. Whether any survive will be a challenge in the coming year, when some experts forecast a recession that could reduce subscriptions and advertising dollars.
But the mere fact that Marblehead, a town of 20,000, has fostered three news startups in less than a year should give hope to anyone concerned about local news coverage across the nation.
To be sure, Marblehead is an affluent town with a thriving business district and highly educated residents, the kind of place with a strong market for news and the money to support it. But Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University who is writing a book on local news, points out that there are also less affluent communities that are well served by community news organizations. He has documented more than 250 hyperlocal news sites in Massachusetts, a list that does not include regional outlets like the Globe or WBUR.
The New Bedford Light, for instance, is a nonprofit digital news operation founded by seasoned journalists, with a staff of about a dozen reporters and editors. Its reporting on local news is free and often in-depth: Last year, one of its reporters partnered with ProPublica on an investigation of private equity’s aggressive investment in New England’s fishing industry.
A similar dynamic may be playing out elsewhere around the country.
Chicago, where the main newspaper for decades, the Chicago Tribune, has been through multiple staff reductions, has seen several innovative journalism enterprises created in recent years. Most prominently, Chicago Public Media, the nonprofit that operates WBEZ, an NPR affiliate, last year acquired the city’s tabloid daily, the Chicago Sun-Times, and converted it into a nonprofit. Since then, the two newsrooms have added dozens of journalists, said Tim Franklin, head of the Medill Local News Initiative, Northwestern University.
Franklin says equally novel approaches to creating local news operations have been springing up in affluent suburbs and lower-income rural communities around the nation. But the birth of hyperlocal news organizations isn’t keeping pace with the industry’s shrinkage: newspapers continue to close at the rate of about two a week, according to a Medill study.
For that reason, Franklin says he has joined an array of news publishers who say some form of government intervention may be needed to nurture news startups, particularly in lower-income urban communities or low-density rural areas. Providing tax credits to local publishers that hire or retain journalists is one approach that is on the table in some states; California and New Jersey have also created funds to finance journalism projects or to pay for young reporters to work in underserved areas.
In Massachusetts, legislators hope to soon launch a commission that will study news coverage in underserved communities; its work could lead to policies intended to strengthen or create hyperlocal news organizations.
Any talk of government intervention in the local news industry must be cautiously considered: Where government support extends, government interference is likely to follow.
But the local news industry is facing a steadily unfolding crisis that, if allowed to continue, can only weaken our civic bonds and democratic traditions. For those who care — and that should be all of us — what’s happening in Marblehead offers an encouraging example of what’s possible.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.