5 trends that could save local news: A Q&A with Heidi Legg

 
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July 31, 2019

Last month, leadership at The Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio told employees that the 150-year-old newspaper of record for this once-booming steel town would be shuttering. Family owned since the late-1800s, The Vindicator couldn’t find a buyer. A few weeks from now, there will be no daily newspaper to cover this city of 65,000.

Vindicator reporters last year followed the paper trail to detail indictments related to an alleged bribery scheme involving a former mayor, a property developer and a city finance director. Youngstown, a place where journalism is apparently still very much needed, is on the verge of becoming a news desert — a place starving for journalism.

The Vindicator is just one of hundreds of local newspapers to go out of business since the internet became a part of daily life for many Americans. But there are emerging models of local journalism that may at least partially counter the information drought that follows when newspapers go under.

Heidi Legg, director of special projects at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy (also home to Journalist’s Resource) surveys the outlook for local news in a new discussion paper. Legg is a journalist who founded The Editorial in 2012 and whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Globe and Mail, The Boston Globe, GlobalPost and CNN.com, among other outlets. She identifies five news models that she says could save local journalism — and even democracy itself.

“The irony is not lost that free markets are possible because of democracy — a democracy protected and fostered by a free press,” she writes.

Legg interviewed a range of experts working in media startups and legacy news organizations to identify these five trends shaping the business of journalism:

  • The Billionaire Local Newspaper Club: This category includes local and mid-sized newspapers that get an infusion of cash from billionaire owners to ramp up their digital presence and editorial coverage.
  • Emerging Nonprofit Models: Eliminating the profit motive, nonprofit news organizations that get funding from private donors, tech companies and foundations are becoming more common. The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the American Journalism Project are two large players that each have $40 million to fund local news innovation.
  • For-Profit Models: There aren’t many new commercial startups in the local news space, but a few are trying to produce news while turning a profit by wading into digital consulting or hosting events.
  • Mobilizers: Projects like Report for America and ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network aim to bolster local news coverage and investigations with a national approach at a local level.
  • Accelerators: This last category focuses on organizations that train local news startups on how to improve their digital savvy. Examples include The Information Accelerator, the Lenfest Institute, Facebook Accelerator, Google News Initiative, and the Membership Puzzle Project at New York University.

We recently sat down with Legg to talk about the state of local journalism and her paper, “A Landscape Study of Local News Models Across America.” The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Journalist’s Resource: You write in your paper that local journalism is in crisis and that the promise of the digital press has crumbled. What’s the reality that local news organizations face today and why does it matter?

Heidi Legg

Legg: I was born in 1971, and since 1970 we’ve lost 500 dailies, at least. That was the count up to 2016. So in my lifetime, we’ve lost 500 dailies and counting. If you add in weeklies, some of the statistics we see are up to almost 2,000 dailies and weeklies combined. One of the most startling facts that I found is that 45% — and we’re getting closer to 50% — of all the staff inside newsrooms is gone, is just disappeared.

I think if we completely lose journalism and what has been a honed craft and turn it over to the belief that information should be free and there should be absolutely no gatekeepers, I really think democracy crumbles.

That’s what I wanted this paper to try and lay out: here are some hints of promise, and if you care about journalism or you care about democracy or you care about your local city or town, I’m hoping this paper is a guide to brainstorm around. There is no solution yet, I would argue.

JR: You identify five emerging trends for local news in the U.S. Can you walk through those in more detail?

Legg: I could see that there was this deep-pocketed category [of investors] that tended to be more commercial — but not necessarily. For example, [craigslist.org founder] Craig Newmark doesn’t actually own a newspaper but he’s giving tons of money to the industry, from universities to experimenting with products and ideas. And then you have someone like Jeff Bezos [founder of Amazon.com, who bought The Washington Post in 2013] and here in Boston, Linda and John Henry [John Henry co-owns the Boston Red Sox baseball team; he and Linda Henry bought The Boston Globe in 2013] taking their personal net worth and transforming a legacy paper.

I remember I asked [Post editor] Marty Baron, who I don’t know well, but he was here at the [Shorenstein] Center and I said to him, “What did you learn first and foremost from Jeff Bezos coming in?” And he said, basically, you have a brand that now can transport worldwide and you have no boundary of delivery, so just think about that, think about how ubiquitous this can be.

So the billionaires — that was one category. The second category was to look really closely at non-profits, many of which are small. The poster child is the Texas Tribune. It’s a great story. It also has 4,300 — maybe close to 5,000 — paid [subscribers]. Look at that compared to The Boston Globe, which has 120,000 paid subscribers. Now, The Boston Globe has legacy. They have brand. They’ve been around a long time. They’ve converted old readers. But it’s hard to really compare these emerging, successful nonprofits to the commercial, digital plays. So I really wanted to home in on these nonprofits and look at them in their own category and market size.

Then I looked at for-profits. They have a larger span because you have these legacy players who have a bigger digital hold already. But you also have some really interesting, innovative startups, many in the newsletter-only space, where they push a newsletter every morning. They’re not worried about all the other legacy pieces that existed in a newsroom because they’re starting from scratch. So whether it’s 6AM, or WhereBy.Us or the Charlotte Agenda or the Pittsburgh Incline — which is now folded into public radio — they’re just a newsletter.

JR: Are those on a paid subscription basis?

Legg: They’re giving their newsletter for free, some of them. But what they’re doing, which is where it gets a little interesting to watch, is some of them are charging people in the community for digital expertise, which can get a little funky because where’s the [separation of] church and state? So here you have WhereBy.Us, who is going to give you your morning newsletter but they’re also offering services to do web design and digital consulting to companies in the town. One could argue that perhaps they might be compromised if their biggest client needs to have a story told about them. I think that’s worth watching. Where it gets even funkier is some of these — WhereBy.Us being an example — are then calling their news arm of their enterprise a public benefit corporation. So they’re able to take grant money to do their news stories and then their for-profit business is around web services, events, product placement in the email. You’re seeing this really new hybrid happening in the news space.

The next category is called mobilizers. They’re basically a bunch of new efforts to bolster local newsrooms. I would argue that Journalist’s Resource could be a mobilizer, although you don’t charge for it. But, Report for America, the ProPublica Local News Network and the American Journalism Project all say that they have a mission to help bolster local newsrooms. So if you’re The Burlington Free Press or The Seattle Times or The Dallas Morning News, you can now have a Report for America, young, American college student come for a year and help on your desk. You can have a ProPublica Local News Network affiliation where ProPublica uses one of their investigative journalists at their head office working with your local journalist to help crack a case. And then the American Journalism Project claims they are going to be doing some venture investing into local news. We’re all looking forward to seeing what that looks like. So [mobilizers] are not standalones, they’re there to bolster.

And then the last category is accelerators. The reason I put that one in is because it would be unfair not to recognize that Google and Facebook are making some strides in the market. Certainly there’s a lot of controversy around that. When people look at their annual revenue and profit and say [these efforts are] a blip on their books. But look, something is something.

The Information is a very interesting B2B [business-to-business] for-profit, new digital magazine out in Silicon Valley. I would argue that they have the best of the digital tools because they’re in Silicon Valley, built by Silicon Valley kids and they will bring a number of people out every year from different markets — including international markets — to come and learn how to transform your digital idea for news into a digital juggernaut.

BoiseDev is another really interesting one to me. They’re in Boise, Idaho, started by this guy named Don Day. He writes about development and business in the Boise area. Maybe it becomes a B2B product. He’s charging $10 a month and he has 260 paid users in only five months. Even though he started it in 2013, he wasn’t charging anybody. His will be interesting to watch.

[Update: BoiseDev rolled out its paid subscriber model in November 2018. As of August 1, 2019 it has more than 350 subscribers, according to Day.]

The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat is another great one to watch. They charge $10.50 a month. This is one where a bunch of local residents with some cash bought the local paper back from the Halifax Media Group. They do 15 newsletters, a regional magazine and they seem to be having some pretty good traction. Ten dollars feels, in some of the smaller markets, [to be] the number that consumers say, “OK, for 10 bucks I can make sure my local paper exists and I can get some quality news.”

JR: You said there’s no solution, but is there a model that’s better poised to sustain local journalism? Put another way, a local news organization looking at your research, what can they get out of it?

Legg: If you want to be a non-profit and you’re OK with the rules that come with a non-profit, that is a way to get some injection of capital. I’m hard pressed to say which model is better because you could also do a digital play where you see — for example, WhereBy.Us and Richland Source — doing some digital consulting in their local communities. I worry about the [separation of] church and state issue, so that one’s not perfect either.

The one that I feel most hopeful about are these large legacies turning around, which is really surprising to me because I wanted it to be the digital kids that come and disrupt and create on their own. I just don’t think you can do it unless you have really deep pockets.

So I’m really banking on some of these legacy papers, places like The Dallas Morning News and The Oregonian and The Seattle Times and The Boston Globe and The Philly [Philadelphia] Inquirer and The Miami Herald. Or, go find some local weeklies that need an injection of capital. I think trying to get a digital subscriber at a very low price point is probably the way out, but I don’t think we know that yet.

JR: You said that “democracy crumbles” without local journalism. Isn’t the counter that we get enough news from other sources? Don’t we have enough coming at us?

Legg: We have a deluge for sure. But if we’re all watching the [former special counsel Robert] Mueller testimony and we’re all watching the Democratic debates and we’re all watching President Trump’s Twitter, who’s looking after what’s happening at city hall? Who’s looking after the real people? And that’s what journalism’s job was. It wasn’t to be the only gatekeeper in town. It was to keep a town honest.

People still have to go to their local hospital, their local school, ride their local bus, and if somebody isn’t giving that context, I don’t know how that works. It feels a little unruly to me. We have this disconnection going on in our society, we see depression and suicide rates up. I think it’s all linked to this lack of local tapestry that holds us together. You and I can jump on a plane and be in Japan in a few hours, but our kids also have to go to school down the street. You have to be able to function where you live. I sound sort of romantic about that but the proof is showing us that people aren’t happy. They don’t trust institutions, we have a rise in mental health issues, people are apathetic, they’re not voting, they’re disengaged.

One of the roundups that JR did, which was so great, showed that when there was no local paper, the bond yield — the cost to borrow money — is much higher. It also showed that less people run for city politics. You just don’t have an engaged environment. I would say there’s a price in that and local news is a really big piece.

JR: There have been reports of editorial interference since billionaire Sheldon Adelson bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2015. With Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post, the general perception is that he is not interfering in the Post’s editorial decisions. Still, having a billionaire owner can complicate coverage for a media outlet. What are your thoughts on the boundaries or lack of them between billionaire owners and newsrooms?

Legg: As I note in the paper, there is also the Sinclair Broadcasting problem where the Sinclair family has gone and bought all these local networks and they literally said on record that we’re here, President Trump, to be your mouthpiece.

It’s our job to ensure that we, as journalists, give that context. We need to explain that the Marty Baron-Jeff Bezos model, to date, is working. That the Brian McGrory-John-and-Linda-Henry model, to date, is working. And that the Adelson model is not working, that the Sinclair model is not working. It’s up to us to demand in the industry that we are a profession, like architects and lawyers and doctors, and that our editors in our newsrooms are independent, and that our editors demand that and stand up to power. And when we see [editors] who are doing that, that we celebrate those, we remind the public that’s what gives you a healthy democracy. I don’t think we can say, “No billionaire owners.”

JR: But from one perspective the Sheldon Adelson/Sinclair model is working, in the sense that they have a message and they’re effectively publicizing that message.

Legg: [New Yorker staff writer] Jill Lepore talks in her article about how in the early dawn of America, it was more that situation — you had left-leaning and right-leaning newspapers. That is a model we can return to. We can just say, “These are left, these are right.” But that feels disappointing to me. I don’t have a quantitative measure to put behind that. I just know that we are hyper-polarized in this country and I feel like a newsroom is a place that can start to bridge and act as a voice of reason.

I don’t think it means we shouldn’t have The Atlantic, which says, “We’re left leaning,” or Reason Magazine, who clearly declared they’re libertarian, or The National Review, which clearly says, “We’re right leaning.” I think that’s fine. But I’d like to know that in my town or city, there are a couple of truth-tellers. I hope this paper gives a shout out to those newspapers that have decent, fair, equitable newsrooms.

 

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