By now it is widely understood that local news is in crisis. The United States has lost a fourth of its newspapers since 2005, and the loss has led to such ills as lower voter turnout in local elections, more political corruption, and the rise of ideologically driven “pink slime” websites that are designed to look like legitimate sources of community journalism.
Even in the face of this decline, though, hundreds of local news projects have been launched in recent years, from Denver, where The Colorado Sun was launched by 10 journalists who’d left The Denver Post in the face of devastating cuts, to MLK50, which focuses on social justice issues in Memphis. Some are nonprofit; some are for-profit. Most are new digital outlets; some are legacy newspapers. All of them are independent alternatives to the corporate chains that are stripping newsrooms and bleeding revenues in order to enrich their owners and pay down debt.
This trend is happening in the Boston suburbs, too, as Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, has closed many of its weekly newspapers and shifted most of those that remain from local to regional news. Affluent communities such as Marblehead, Concord, Bedford, and Lexington are all home to startups, with more scheduled to come online this year. So, too, is New Bedford, a gritty, working-class city where the nonprofit The New Bedford Light is filling much of the gap created by the shrinkage of Gannett’s daily The Standard-Times. (I’m also hoping to help facilitate a news startup in the community where I live.)
But these projects all must deal with the headwinds of chain owners. Gannett, a publicly traded company that controls about 200 daily papers, and the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, with about 100, have a stranglehold on readership and advertising in many communities, even where they offer little in the way of news and information.
Which raises a question: What if corporate chain ownership could somehow be made to disappear? As it happens, there are several Massachusetts examples that offer lessons for what happens when the slash-and-burn out-of-town owner sells to local interests.
Take Nantucket. Marianne Stanton, editor and publisher of The Inquirer and Mirror, purchased the weekly from Gannett in 2020 with the help of David Worth, a local businessman. Since then, she said in an interview, she’s expanded the editorial staff from four to seven full-time positions, upgraded the computer system, and boosted marketing and circulation efforts.
“We are doing this off of the revenues we earn,” she said, adding that Gannett had been planning to cut the budget and replace much of the local coverage with regional news even though “we were profitable, we were doing well.”
In Pittsfield, the story is similar. In 2016, a group of four local business leaders bought from Alden three small papers in southern Vermont as well as The Berkshire Eagle, once one of the most respected small dailies in the country, which had to slash much of its coverage following repeated budget cuts by Alden. They added staff, increased the size and improved the quality of the newsprint, and expanded coverage in areas such as investigative reporting and culture.
The upward trajectory has been somewhat uneven. In 2020 the Eagle cut back the number of days it offers a print paper from seven to five, a move that Frederic Rutberg, president and publisher, said was accelerated because of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The following year, the owners sold the Vermont properties. Still, there is little question the Eagle is doing far better than it would have under continued Alden ownership.
Rutberg said he believes that many more newspapers may be acquired by local owners as the chains realize that the economies of scale they hoped for may not exist. But what if that process could be speeded up? What if chain owners could be given incentives to unload their papers?
It’s something that Steven Waldman has been thinking about. The founder of Rebuild Local News, a coalition of more than 3,000 news and civic organizations, Waldman has put together a plan called Replanting Newspapers into Communities aimed at making it easier for the chains to sell and for local interests to buy. One of its goals is proposed federal legislation that would provide tax credits, pension relief, and loan guarantees for buyers that have a public service mission, and a range of tax incentives for chain newspaper owners to sell to such buyers. The proposal would also impose limits on new acquisitions by chain owners.
“I think we are in a new era where people understand that public policy has to be an important part of the discussion about how to save local news,” Waldman said in a recent podcast interview.
At a time of intense polarization at the national level, local news can be a way to bring us together — but overcoming the pernicious effects of corporate chain journalism is essential to providing the news and information we need to for self-governance. Independent local ownership is proving it can be done, one community at a time.
Dan Kennedy is a professor of journalism at Northeastern University. His latest book, “What Works in Community News,” coauthored with former Globe editorial page editor Ellen Clegg, who is launching a nonprofit news startup in Brookline, is scheduled to be published in 2024.