How a Chicago civic organization became home to a Pulitzer-winning newsroom

David Greising

On this week’s podcast, Ellen and Dan talk with David Greising, the president and chief executive of the Better Government Association, a century-old civic nonprofit organization that is also home to a Pulitzer Prize-winning newsroom as part of a new collaboration with the Illinois Solutions Partnership.

The new partnership is funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. The BGA separates its investigations team and policy team in order to wall off its journalism from its advocacy work. In May 2022, Madison Hopkins of the BGA and Cecilia Reyes of the Chicago Tribune won the Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting for an investigation of the city’s history of failed building and fire-safety code enforcement, which proved lethal many times over.

Dan has a Quick Take on a new development at The Provincetown Independent. Co-founder and editor Ed Miller was a guest on the “What Works” podcast earlier this year. The Indie is trying something really interesting: A direct public offering, or DPO.

Ellen has a Quick Take on the INNYs — the Institute for Nonprofit News Awards. A reporter named Sally Kestin won for best investigative journalism in a small newsroom. We’re talking really small: She works for the Asheville Watchdog, a nonprofit news outlet in North Carolina with only one paid employee. The rest are retired journalists, many of them quite well-known. Kestin won the 2013 Pulitzer for Public Service at the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

A Texas daily is rescued with the help of a public radio station and the National Trust for Local News

The Denton County Courthouse in downtown Denton. Photo (cc) 2014 by Kent Kanouse.

By Dan Kennedy

Of the various new business models that are emerging for community journalism, mergers between public broadcasters and existing news outlets are among the most promising.

One of the projects that Ellen Clegg and I are tracking for our book-in-progress, “What Works,” is NJ Spotlight News, a nonprofit digital startup covering politics and public policy in New Jersey that was acquired several years ago by WNET. They’ve merged their operations, continuing to offer deep coverage on their website while rebranding the daily half-hour newscast that appears on NJ PBS.

There are other examples, the most ambitious of which is the acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times by WBEZ, which is converting the storied tabloid to a nonprofit. On a smaller scale, the mobile-first website Billy Penn is now part of WHYY in Philadelphia and Denverite was acquired a few years back by Colorado Public Radio.

Now comes another move that’s well worth keeping an eye on. Public radio station KERA announced earlier this week that it intends to acquire the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily newspaper that covers the suburbs north of Dallas. In a statement, owner and publisher Bill Patterson said, “This arrangement gives us the opportunity and the ability to preserve local journalism for the people of Denton County. As our population continues to grow, it’s imperative that we grow as well. With KERA’s commitment and expertise, our organization will be able to serve our audiences well into the future.”

What’s especially encouraging about the move is that it was facilitated by the National Trust for Local News, which raises money and connects legacy newspaper owners with possible buyers in order to keep them from either shutting down or falling into the hands of corporate chain owners. Terms of the Denton deal weren’t announced, but according to the National Trust, it was one of four that will be supported through a $17.25 million fund. According to Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, the co-founder and CEO of the National Trust:

Communities across the country are clamoring to ensure the long-term sustainability of their local and community news. This expected acquisition of a beloved and storied community newspaper by a strong public media station shows another way forward. This new “public media community anchor” model to keep local news in local hands has important implications for media sustainability that reach far beyond the hills of North Texas.

Hansen Shapiro, by the way, was a recent guest on the “What Works” podcast.

The National Trust is best known for helping to purchase 24 weekly and monthly newspapers in the Denver suburbs. The papers are now owned by a nonprofit organization (the papers themselves remain for-profit) and managed by The Colorado Sun, a for-profit digital startup.

The population of Denton is about 148,000, according to U.S. Census data. The Record-Chronicle doesn’t report its circulation to the Alliance for Audited Media, but this Wikipedia article claims that, as of 2011, it was about 12,500 on Sundays and 9,200 on weekdays. If the paper is like nearly every other daily, the circulation is no doubt smaller today.

The Record-Chronicle traces its roots to 1892. In recent years, it’s had a close relationship with the Dallas Morning News, the major metro in that region: the Patterson family sold the paper to the Morning News’ parent company, A.H. Belo Corp. (now the DallasNews Corp.), in 1999, only to buy it back in 2018.

I hope the Record-Chronicle thrives under its new arrangement, which is scheduled to become official in 2023. And I hope it serves as a model for many more such arrangements.

How an escapade on a frozen pond led one newspaper to reform its crime coverage

Photos (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy

By Dan Kennedy

One February day in 2020, an obituary caught Paul Cuno-Booth’s eye. At that time the police and courts reporter for The Keene Sentinel in rural western New Hampshire, Cuno-Booth had two years earlier written about one of those wacky incidents that editors and readers love.

A 47-year-old woman had driven out onto the ice on a pond, doing donuts, knocking over fishermen’s equipment and leading police on a slow-motion chase, throwing things out of her window as she drove. She was arrested and charged with criminal mischief and disobeying an officer.

Now, reading her obit, he learned more about the woman who’d been arrested on the ice that day. She’d had surgery for a brain tumor in 2016. She’d worked with mentally disabled people. She was a triathlete. Hers was a deep, well-rounded life, and the Sentinel’s story had reduced her to a caricature for the entertainment of its readers.

Cuno-Booth and others at the Sentinel started talking about how they could cover criminal justice in a way that reflected the complexities of the people they were writing about — people who were, in many cases, suffering from substance abuse, trauma and poverty. Crime coverage at the Sentinel, he said, was typical of most papers, consisting of “a lot of quick-hit articles,” press releases from the police, “not a lot of reporting, not a lot of context.” They decided they needed to make some changes. But where to begin?

From Cuno-Booth’s slideshow

Cuno-Booth described the Sentinel’s dilemma and the steps that it took to improve its coverage at the Radically Rural conference last week in Keene, New Hampshire. Sponsored by the Sentinel and the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship, the conference, now in its fifth year, featured panels on agriculture, housing, the environment and community journalism. Ellen Clegg and I interviewed the Sentinel’s president and COO, Terry Williams, on the “What Works” podcast a few weeks ago.

Cuno-Booth said he left the Sentinel but stayed in touch with the paper; he’s now a freelancer, working with New Hampshire Public Radio and other outlets. The paper’s crime coverage, he told the audience, was reoriented with the help of Kelly McBride, an ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Essentially, it came down to being more deliberate — individual crimes would not be reported unless the paper was prepared to follow them all the way through the court system, which immediately ruled out minor offenses. They’d look for trends rather than writing about, for instance, an 18-year-old picked up on an alcohol violation. They’d give people a chance to have stories about their earlier misdeeds be removed from Google search, although they’d remain in the Sentinel’s archives — a step taken by a number of news organizations in recent years, including The Boston Globe. Mug shots would rarely be published.

“I think it’s still very much a work in progress,” Cuno-Booth said. Nevertheless, that one moment of infamy for a troubled woman in 2018 has led to some significant changes in the way that the Sentinel covers crime and serves its community.

Hermione Malone tells us how philanthropies can partner with local news outlets

Hermione Malone, left, of the American Journalism Project

On this week’s podcast, Ellen and Dan talk with Hermione Malone, vice president of strategy and startups for the American Journalism Project. The AJP describes itself as a nonprofit venture philanthropy organization that focuses on supporting the future of local news.  The organization makes grants to nonprofit news organizations, partners with communities to launch new outlets, and coaches leaders as they grow and sustain their newsrooms.

Hermione oversees local philanthropy partnerships. In that role, she helps nonprofit news startups get launched and nurtures coalitions of community stakeholders and local philanthropies. Her career has included work in diversity and inclusion and in community outreach. As executive director of Go.Be, a New Orleans-based nonprofit, she coached businesses owned by people of color and women, helping them figure out how to grow.

Dan has a Quick Take on new research by Josh Stearns, senior director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund. Josh has fresh evidence that shows that local news is vital for democracy. Ellen’s Quick Take is on Permian Proud, a pink-slime site put up by Chevron that provides a gusher of one-sided PR spin.

Finally, don’t miss the Masterman Lecture at Suffolk University on Sept. 29. Dan is moderating the panel, discussing “The Decline of Local News and the Rise of Polarization.” He promises to inject some optimism into the proceedings.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Ethan Zuckerman on truth, trust and what it means for journalism

Ethan Zuckerman

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Dan and Ellen talk with Ethan Zuckerman, associate professor of public policy, communication and information at UMass-Amherst. He’s also founder of the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, which is studying how to build alternatives to the commercial internet. And Ethan co-founded a local news initiative with global reach, a blogging community called Global Voices. 

An alum of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard and the MIT Media Lab, he is the author of two books. The latest is titled “Mistrust: Why Losing Faith in Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform Them.” It’s a powerful look at the rise of mistrust in institutions, especially media, and how that mistrust is provoking a crisis for representative democracy.

Ethan will be visiting Northeastern’s campus later this fall, so stay tuned for details.

Dan has a Quick Take on Brian McGrory’s announcement that he will step down as editor of The Boston Globe to become director of the journalism program at Boston University. Ellen checks out The Daily Catch, a hyperlocal news outlook covering Red Hook, New York.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Catching up on some stories about local news that you might have missed

By Dan Kennedy

There are a number of important stories in local journalism that are flying by, and I want to put down a marker. No need to go into detail — just click on the links to find out more.

  • California sets aside $25 million in government money to support local journalism.
    • The move follows the creation of the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, which this year will distribute $3 million for specific projects such as a plan to expand news coverage across Jersey City; an online radio program in Creole for the Haitian community; and an oral history on efforts to clean up drinking water in Newark.
    • Unlike New Jersey, the California initiative will be used to pay reporting fellows from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism to cover under-represented communities.
  • The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would set aside antitrust law to allow news organizations to bargain collectively with Google and Facebook for compensation, was dealt a huge setback.
    • U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, succeeded in adding an amendment that would make it more difficult for news organizations to moderate comments. The lead sponsor of the bill, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., responded by withdrawing the legislation but said she’ll be back.
    • LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers and a number of organizations came out in opposition to the proposal, calling it “ill-advised” and “enormously problematic.” A similar law in Australia has been criticized for lining the pockets of large publishers — mainly Rupert Murdoch — while doing little for smaller players.
  • Google News Showcase, touted as a source of revenue for news outlets whose content would be featured, has been stalled because the giant platform has been unable to reach agreements with several key publishers.
    • Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, was offered $6 million a year to feature journalism from its flagship USA Today  as well as its local papers, according to The Wall Street Journal. Gannett’s reported counter-demand: $300 million.
  • Speaking of Gannett, a nauseating development has surfaced in a sexual-abuse lawsuit against the company’s Democrat & Chronicle newspaper in Rochester, New York.
    • According to the independent Rochester Beacon, the company is arguing that seven former newspaper carriers who say they were molested by a supervisor should have filed for workers’ compensation at the time the alleged abuse took place.
    • The carriers were 11 and 12 years old at the time of the alleged incidents.

Terry Williams of The Keene Sentinel tells us about journalism in rural communities

Terry Williams, right, speaks on rural journalism at the Knight Media Forum 2020 in Miami. Photo (cc) 2020 by the Knight Foundation.

The “What Works” podcast is back from its August hiatus. This week, Ellen and Dan talk with Terrence Williams, president and COO of The Keene Sentinel in Keene, New Hampshire, one of the oldest newspapers in the country.

Terry and the Sentinel are the creators of the Radically Rural conference, now in its fifth year, which will be held Sept. 21 and 22. The conference looks at issues such as housing, farming, the environment and — most important to us — community journalism.

Dan has a Quick Take on The Salt Lake Tribune’s new venture, called Mormon Land, an interesting example of how a local news organization can leverage news in its own backyard in order to attract a national audience.

Ellen highlights a podcast called Shevotes, which recounts the battle for suffrage and recounts historic efforts at voter suppression. Award-winning journalists Ellen Goodman and Lynn Sherr cohost, and actress Christine Baranski makes a contribution, too.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

New Jersey newspaper group buys four Central Mass. weeklies from Gannett

Millbury Town Hall, 1900. Photo (cc) 2017 by the State Library of Massachusetts.

By Dan Kennedy

Some really good news for Central Massachusetts: a small but growing newspaper chain based in New Jersey is buying four weeklies from Gannett. The sale of The Millbury-Sutton Chronicle, The Grafton News, The Landmark of Holden and the Leominster Champion to CherryRoad Media gives all four of them a new lease on life — literally in the case of The Landmark, which had been scheduled to shut down Sept. 15, David Dore reports in the Chronicle.

According to the CherryRoad website, the company “is focused on using technology to strengthen communities through their local newspapers. We believe the newspaper is an essential resource for developing strong communities. By using technology, we can supplement the printed newspaper with enhanced digital capabilities.”

“Very welcome journalism news in a place in need of it,” tweeted Mark Henderson, whose aggregation project The 016 tracks local media in the Worcester area.

In her recent “State of Local News” report, Northwestern University journalism professor Penny Abernathy identified the rise of regional chains such as CherryRoad as being among the trends to watch as money-losing Gannett unloads newspapers. “Two-thirds of the 82 papers Gannett sold in the past two years were snapped up by two regional chains, CherryRoad Media and Paxton,” she wrote. “Six of the 10 largest owners in 2022 are regional chains, with between 50 and 142 papers in their growing empire.”

Now, though, it appears that CherryRoad can no longer be regarded as a regional chain. Most of its 71 papers (including three it acquired in Michigan just last week) are in the central part of the country, from Minnesota to Texas. The Massachusetts papers are its first on the East Coast. There are plenty of other communities in Massachusetts that need reliable local news coverage, so I hope we see more. There’s no substitute for local ownership, but a chain that’s actually committed to local journalism is surely the next best thing.

Last fall, Ellen wrote about CherryRoad’s move into Minnesota.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution may be about to drop its daily print editions

Going, going, gone? Photo (cc) 2015 by J.C. Burns.

By Dan Kennedy

Anyone who was around 15 or 20 years ago would be surprised at the persistence of print. Back when newspapers started moving to the web, it seemed likely that print editions would soon become part of the past.

But as visions of lucrative interactive advertising gave way to the realities of Craigslist, Google and Facebook, print emerged as a way to slow down the decline of the newspaper business. The value of print advertising, though on the wane, held up far better than digital ads. And you could charge a lot for home delivery. Even as digitally focused a newspaper as The Boston Globe continues to earn more than half its revenues from the print edition.

Now that may be changing. For years, media observers have been predicting that daily print would eventually disappear. Under this scenario, most papers would continue with one big weekend print edition while switching to digital-only for the rest of the week. In 2019, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette did just that, giving their subscribers iPads so they could continue to read the paper.

The next major news outlet to make that move may be The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, according to bloggers Maria Saporta and John Ruch. The move may be announced at a staff meeting this Thursday. In a staff memo, editor Kevin Riley said:

It’s been a while since we’ve had an in-person newsroom staff meeting, but don’t worry, I promise there won’t be any shoes dropping at this meeting. Instead, I would like to get together and share exciting information as we plan for our future. The leadership team hopes you leave the meeting feeling as optimistic as we do about our path forward — a path that allows us to continue to produce our meaningful work for a long time to come.

The challenges to cutting back to a weekly print edition are several. You need to find people who are willing to deliver the paper once a week, which represents a considerable loss of income. There’s a lot of down time for the presses, calling into question their continued viability. (The AJC outsourced its printing to The Times of  Gainesville in 2021.) The paper loses some of its visibility, making it more difficult to promote.

But there are real benefits, too, which is why the AJC may be doing it. According to paid circulation numbers that the paper reported to the Alliance for Audited Media earlier this year, print had fallen to just 39,917 on Monday, the lowest day of the week, and to 94,786 on Sunday. That shows the benefits of continuing with a weekend print edition. Overall circulation was 82,776 on Monday, 137,637 on Sunday.

Click here to access original

Advertising, which once accounted for 80% of a typical newspaper’s revenue, has been in an industry-wide downward spiral for many years — from a peak of nearly $49.5 billion in 2005 to an estimated $9.6 million billion in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. Reader revenue, meanwhile, has been slowly rising, and now accounts for slightly more than half of all revenues.

In such an environment, it makes sense to cut back on print. Digital subscriptions don’t bring as much money as print, but the expenses are far lower. If The Atlanta Journal-Constitution succeeds, expect to see a lot more papers follow.

The final toll at Gannett: 400 employees laid off and another 400 jobs left unfilled

By Dan Kennedy

When Gannett imposed devastating cuts last month, we had no way of knowing how devastating. It was clear that journalists had been laid off and papers closed across the country, but our largest newspaper chain kept the details to itself.

Now we know. Angela Fu, writing for Poynter Online, reports that Gannett laid off 400 employees and won’t fill another 400 open positions. Altogether, that’s about 6% of the money-losing company’s workforce, although Fu noted that the company did not provide details on how many of those cuts were on the news side and how many on the business side.

There’s also this nugget, referring to remarks by Gannett Media president Maribel Perez Wadsworth:

Asked if Gannett was committed to its small and medium-sized publications, Wadsworth said at Wednesday’s meeting that local journalism has never been more important and that in order to have strong journalism, the company also had to have a strong business, according to two attendees.

Yes, local journalism is so important to Gannett that the company keeps cutting it, over and over again. Here in Eastern Massachusetts, where Gannett closed or merged a couple of dozen weekly papers over the past year and all but abandoned local news, we’re seeing a flowering of independent projects to fill the gap. The opportunity is there, but Gannett just isn’t interested in it anymore.

Earlier: