Newspapers are dying; long live local news

Digital newsrooms are having a moment — but they’re not “replacing” something. They’re creating something new, which could do more

July 21, 2021 by Chris Krewson

About a quarter of the newsroom at the Chicago Tribune has left the building, accepting buyout offers from new owners Alden Global Capital, also known as the “worst owners in journalism” according to a former editor in their chain.

Local news is dying, right?

Well, not so fast; are folks really concerned about losing a once-daily wrap-up of select things that happened yesterday to a few days before, surrounded by 2D cartoons, used car ads, and lukewarm opinions about local politics, slathered on thin newsprint with fewer pages every year?

Probably not.

They are worried about losing accountability journalism, about keeping watch during public meetings where elected officials are making decisions — too often in secret — about where tax dollars are going. They’re wondering who will write about all the local businesses they patronize, about the restaurant openings and closings, about the successes (and, as a Philadelphia fan, the inevitable failures) of the local sports franchises — or about their kids’ schools.

Why, then, should we not fear the reaper that’s coming for newspapers?

Research shows new newsrooms are launching fast, 50 a year for the last five years. They’re for-profit, non-profit, public-benefit corporations, and LLCs; they’re a husband-and-wife team covering a small town; they’re a staff of dozens holding politicians to account at the statewide level.

What they are not is a replacement for the newspapers that are dying by the dozen, and that is OK. Look closer at Chicago, past the woes of the formerly mighty Tribune, and you’ll see an ecosystem taking root there and more broadly across Illinois: Block Club ChicagoCity BureauProPublica Midwest, the Better Government AssociationThe TriibeChalkbeat ChicagoBorderless Magazine, the Midwest Center for Investigative ReportingGrown In, the Illinois Eagle, the Chicago ReaderExtra Points, and McKinley Park News, among others.

They’re not replacing the newspaper. They don’t need to. This nascent industry has the potential to grow beyond the limitations of newspapers, to truly reflect and serve communities large and small, rural, urban, Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer… and on and on. We just have to stop thinking about saving the unsaveable and build businesses that serve the needs of communities first. In fact, what these publications are starting to offer is just as good, if not better, than the legacies they’re increasingly supplanting.

Block Club Chicago, for instance, has:

  • Revealed how a safety-net hospital on Chicago’s West Side meant to serve low-income people of color had vaccinated ineligible people in the wealthiest parts of the city, through more than 20 stories followed by and credited in the Washington Post, Vanity Fair and other national publications.
  • Launched a coronavirus hotline to answer questions from local residents in English and Spanish, answering more than 800 questions so far.
  • Covered the aftermath of a botched explosion in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, where homes and streets were enveloped in a thick cloud of dust and neighbors outside struggled to breathe. The explosion, which had been approved by the city, received major attention for a few days — but then the cameras left. Block Club reporter Mauricio Peña stayed, documenting what had gone wrong and why. Since the explosion, he’s written more than 50 stories about the environmental emergency and how it hurt the community, and as a result, city officials fined the demolition company and passed a law to increase fines for industrial polluters. More than a year later, his reporting continues, as he digs through documents and sends FOIA requests.

Meanwhile, Cassie Walker Burke from the nonprofit newsroom Chalkbeat Chicago tells me:

  • Chalkbeat Chicago was the only local news organization to cover the city’s Local School Council elections, which are a fundamental but overlooked tool of school participation. Its work around transparency in school council votes on police (a partnership with Block Club Chicago) pushed the district to begin tracking the votes and informing the public about how to log on — and its election guide was credited with boosting the conversation and singling out areas where the public wanted more information. The guide was a finalist in the public service category of the annual Education Writers Association awards.
  • Chalkbeat Chicago’s coverage of how school districts planned to spend emergency federal COVID-19 dollars pushed for more public disclosure of spending. In its third installment in a series with the Better Government Association, Chalkbeat detailed how one contract for used computers went to a campaign contributor of Lori Lightfoot — and how some of the devices purchased through that contract were not suitable for remote learning. As a result, the school district’s inspector general opened an investigation and the district sent a round of new devices to one of the schools that received poorly performing machines.
  • Analysis of enrollment data from the JROTC program showed that freshmen from at least 10 predominantly Latino and Black high schools were automatically enrolled in military-run programs. The inspector general opened an investigation into that practice as a result of our reporting.
  • In a yearlong series about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on boys of color, Chalkbeat Chicago pushed the school district to compile data that showed serious disparities in grades and attendance by gender and made that data public.

The long list of bright spots in Chicago goes on: The Documenters program — started by the journalism laboratory City Bureau — pays residents to attend public meetings and report about them, and City Bureau has also launched a daily government accountability newsletter in the city where the Documenters program got its start. Meanwhile, the Cleveland and Detroit Documenters sites have launched their own news products since then, a mix of local newsletters and collaborations with local news outlets.

These successes are worth building upon, and we should applaud any and all efforts that apply brainpower and business plans to community news. It is worth noting in the above examples, however, that no single news organization is trying to do everything the Chicago Tribune or the Sun-Times used to do. It isn’t necessarily a best practice that one company must try to do all those things at the same time, every day, and bring in enough money to pay all the people required. The Internet is all about unbundling.

Newspapers were called “the daily miracle” because they did many things for one low price, and they did it every 24 hours. It would indeed be a miracle to come up with a business plan to do all those things today, so let’s stop wondering why it can’t be done — and start figuring out what can.

Become a LION member to join Block Club Chicago, Chalkbeat, and more than 300 other independent local news publishers in our member community.

What journalism businesses could be

The membership of organizations like LION Publishers and the Institute for Nonprofit News points toward this unbundled, distributed future. We’re seeing networks form and publications and news businesses taking a different approach to problem-solving around coverage that was once dictated by a daily or weekly print schedule.

What we’re describing here is, in fact, an ecosystem. Inspired by the ecosystem approach developed by the Democracy Fund, our team at LION recognizes that these new digital-native sites don’t operate in a vacuum. A healthy ecosystem might include the news business’s proprietor being a member of the local Chamber of Commerce, or that there are partnerships with local libraries or universities in place. Perhaps most importantly, there is not one template for every community.

The challenge, of course, is making sure those ecosystems are healthy.

In North Carolina, a couple organizations are at work funding this transformative work and helping beyond the check — the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund and the North Carolina Local News Workshop. This approach acknowledges that it’s going to take a range of organizations to serve the state’s communities, especially ones that weren’t well served by newspapers as they used to exist. Accordingly, they fund and support organizations that have enough trust to reach communities — say, farmworkers in Western and Eastern NC who speak Indigenous languages, who might not look like newsrooms as they have existed before. A specific example would be the NC Local News Intern Corps from last summer.

How we get to a more sustainable future

So how do we get from where we are — hundreds of fledgling news businesses, burgeoning collaborations and a fractured media landscape rife with misinformation — to where we want to go? For us at LION, that landscape looks like thousands of low-overhead companies ultimately providing, in aggregate, more coverage and services than communities have ever had.

At the risk of sounding like we at LION have all the answers — we do not! — I’m fairly confident in saying that a good start would be by making the process of starting a news business easier. It’s confusing, expensive and there’s no clear path — and yet dozens of people are doing it every year anyway. Here are a few things we’re doing to alleviate this:

  • Adding strategy at the beginning of the process, using some of the tools of Silicon Valley that were built to help companies scale up. Instead, we’re applying them so entrepreneurs can find what markets exist for the businesses they hope to launch, so they are purpose-built and right-sized from Day One.
  • Finding resources to support these entrepreneurs as they launch those efforts. For instance, the first cohort of Tiny News newsrooms will receive a $15,000 stipend from the Google News Initiative to help them launch. The American Journalism Project has partnered with the Wichita Community Foundation to match funds and invest in a new branch of The Beacon for their city, a multimillion dollar investment in local news for that region.

What else can be done?

  • Drive down the cost of technology: It’s too expensive to run small digital news businesses. Everything from the actual technology of publishing — a CMS, CRM, email newsletter tool, etc. — adds up quickly, and that’s before the normal costs of business like a payroll provider or the various insurance products that publishing responsibly demands. One way to help here would be encouraging vendors to serve this growing new audience with more affordable solutions, recognizing the potential market of thousands of new customers it would spur.
  • Direct more philanthropic support at the local level. The American Journalism Project and INN’s NewsMatch are outstanding examples of sustained efforts to channel philanthropic dollars toward the worthy cause of more informed communities. Cultivating major donors, with news sites thinking more like universities, featuring endowed reporting positions, might be another solution.
  • Pressure state press associations, which tend to be protectionist toward their dwindling members of legacy print publications, to open their doors to our digital members, allowing them to become “publications of record” and establish legal advertising and other public notices as revenue streams.

There are plenty of other potential solutions; we should, as a growing industry, explore them all.

What can you do? If you live in or around Chicago, support the vital work of Block ClubChalkbeatCity Bureau, or any of the organizations named above: subscribe, become a member, read and share their vital work. If you’re not a Midwest reader, find your local independent digital newsroom and give them a try. Or maybe start one of your own; you’ll be in good company, and we’ll do our best to support your effort.

You can also donate to LION Publishers or the Institute for Nonprofit News as we try to nurture this field.

Refocusing our efforts here, on supporting these existing publishers while helping more of them enter these fragile ecosystems, helps us create the future we think needs to exist — thousands of new, small, thriving news businesses dispersed widely from coast to coast.

Chris Krewson is the executive director of LION Publishers, which provides teaching, resources, and community to independent news entrepreneurs as they build and develop sustainable businesses.

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