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Opinion | Heidi Legg

New sources of hope for local journalism

(Illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe)

Last year, Facebook announced a new content stream called “Today In” to aggregate local news from reputable sources, only to discover it couldn’t find enough local news to fill it. Such is the decimated landscape for local news in America. Between 2004 and 2018, nearly 1,800 dailies and weeklies closed, and although almost 400 digital upstarts have emerged, they are mainly found in big cities and affluent areas. In addition, we lost 45 percent of newsroom employees between 2008 and 2017, according to Pew Research.

Local journalism is in crisis, online and off. Years of downsizing in the face of digital disruption have weakened regional and local news organizations. And the problem is growing worse, as advertising continues to shift in substantial measure to Facebook and Google. The Wall Street Journal reported that these giant tech platforms had secured over 86 percent of advertising growth in the industry by 2017. They now have 77 percent of all digital advertising revenue in local markets and 58 percent at the national level. That leaves little for the local newspaper.

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More pressing, these platforms have also won all of the attention. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and their offspring, which includes YouTube, Instagram, and WhatsApp, have secured their dominance as the blazing fire that has captured a rapt audience in this new attention economy. Meanwhile, they are collecting vast amounts of user data, which they couple with their crystal ball capabilities of extracting insights into consumer behavior. Centered in the regulation-free environment of the United States, where privacy rights are virtually nonexistent and previous channels of information and fact have been obliterated, they control more information and income than many world nations. It is the Wild West.

However, a new strategy has emerged in the absence of a robust revenue model for local news. There is a new movement of mobilizers: well-organized journalism-focused initiatives to support local news outlets, many of which are bleeding to death.

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A few of these mobilizers are beginning to have a real impact: the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, Report for America, and the newly launched American Journalism Project, which has already secured $42 million in committed funding. CatchLight.io, an amplifier of diverse visual storytellers, and American Press are also hinting at creating mobilizing efforts to shore up local news.

The ProPublica Local Reporting Network has shown the most promise, pairing local reporters with a seasoned investigative reporter from afar who works with them to track their story. Both the local newsroom and ProPublica publish the story in an effort to support investigative journalism in communities where newsrooms are without the time and know-how to dig deep into investigative work. ProPublica reports that 14 local newsrooms are participating in the initiative, and seven projects are specifically focused on state government.

Mobilizing college students is also underway. In its second year, Report for America is placing 61 paid student journalists in 50 newsrooms spanning 30 states and Puerto Rico. This year 940 students applied for the 50 spots, and those selected will join newspapers, public radio stations, digital-first nonprofits, the Associated Press, weeklies, and local TV stations, all in an effort to bolster local news. They hope to have 250 reporters in the field in 2020.

But all eyes are on the American Journalism Project, a venture journalism fund created by John Thornton, founder of the Texas Tribune, and Elizabeth Green, cofounder of Chalkbeat. Together they have secured $42 million in commitments from some of the leading funders in journalism, many of the same ones behind ProPublica. These include the Knight Foundation, Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, Arnold Ventures, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, and industry giant Facebook, through its Journalism Project. These funders are supporting this new nonprofit venture in finding solutions to reinvigorate local news that are scalable and building an ecosystem of social enterprises for news. The premise is built on the belief that local journalism is a public good and therefore a nonprofit enterprise that should be focused on civic news. The question is: Will this funding be used for editorial or for digital transformation?

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This summer, “civic news organizations,” as the American Journalism Project calls them, will be selected to benefit from the funding collective. Poynter reports that this group of newsrooms will include a few startups, with a preference for nonprofits, but most recipients will have already launched in their local communities as nascent yet sustainable ventures. “The objective is to create much more high-impact, ‘mission-driven’ reporting on state and local governance; the grants will be for ‘revenue raising and tech capacity,’ ” Thornton told Poynter.

The hope is that philanthropic capital will bolster a movement of civic newsrooms. The Knight Foundation has long donated to news nonprofit startups and is committing almost half of the funds, announcing a $20 million, five-year commitment. The target is to fund 35 civic news organizations and newsrooms over the five years.

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Two revenue paths have diverged in local news: donations or digital subscriptions. As a result, we see for-profits like the major dailies and national magazines doubling down on transforming into digital juggernauts that can compete on those platforms in delivery and win back subscribers. We also see upstarts and legacies converting into a nonprofit for public good, where donors keep the newsroom afloat. Either way, an independent press is the only way to keep misinformation at bay and democracy alive. Let’s hope more mobilizers and funders join the effort.


Heidi Legg is director of special projects at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She previously founded The Editorial, a local digital news startup in Cambridge.