How events help local news organizations connect with their audience

Bedford Citizen managing editor Julie McCay Turner, right, takes a photo of students and staff from Shawsheen Tech along with Bedford Police Chief Robert Bongiorno.

By Dan Kennedy

Community events give local news organizations an opportunity to connect with their audience — and to expand their audience as well. With that in mind, I drove to Bedford, Massachusetts, on Saturday morning for Bedford Town Day in order to check in with The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit website that combines paid and volunteer staff.

The Citizen, like about 100 other organizations, had set up a booth. Four or five volunteers rotated in and out while managing editor Julie McCay Turner and staff reporter Mike Rosenberg made their way through the crowd, which I’d estimate in the hundreds but could have been larger.

“We hope to get a few sign-ups,” said executive director Teri Morrow. She added that another goal was to get story ideas from community members. One person she had talked to, she said, had suggested profiles of interesting but relatively unknown people and organizations.

On the table were business cards and a larger sign with a QR code taking you to the Citizen’s website as well as free copies of the Citizen’s 2020 and 2021 Bedford Guide, a glossy publication that’s fill with ads and that serves as a fundraiser for the organization.

Turner was making her way through the fairgrounds, taking pictures and greeting people. She connected with Brian O’Donnell, a Bedford representative on the Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in nearby Billerica. O’Donnell introduced her to Allison Cammarata, the school’s brand-new director of community services and workforce development, who serves as the school’s public relations person.

Table sign with QR code

“We are relentlessly local,” Turner told Cammarata, explaining that she wants to run stories about Shawsheen in the Citizen but only if they feature Bedford students. Turner then called out “Bob! Bob!” Police Chief Robert Bongiorno, was walking by, and he stopped and chatted.

The Citizen competes with a Gannett weekly, the Bedford Minuteman, a once independent paper that now provides minimal coverage of the town. The Minuteman did not have a booth at Town Day, although it did send a photographer.

O’Donnell praised the Minuteman’s coverage of Shawsheen, saying that the school, which serves five towns, fits with the paper’s mission of reporting on regional news. “But in terms of what’s happening in Bedford — events, issues, discussions, exchanges — that’s happening in the Citizen now,” he said.

As I made the rounds and talked with people about where they get their local news, I found a high level of awareness about the Citizen, which was founded in 2012.

“The thing I like about the Citizen is that if there’s anything with the school committee or the select board or any issues that come up, they report on both sides of the issue,” said Alice Churella. “It seems to me to be totally unbiased.”

Others, though, said they got their news mainly through word of mouth, Facebook groups, the official town website and emails from the school department.

“I don’t read it regularly,” said Anna Smiechowski of the Citizen. “If I know something’s happening in town or I want to look something up, I’ll search it.”

In the rural heartland, indie newspapers survive with a back-to-basics approach

By Dan Kennedy

It’s something I’ve seen over and over in tracking the state of local news for the past dozen years. Despite the very real challenges community journalism faces from technological and cultural change, news organizations that are not burdened by corporate chain ownership can continue to serve as vital, financially sustainable operations.

A new report by Tony Baranowski, director of local media for Times Citizen Communications in Iowa Falls, Iowa, makes the point. While he was a fellow at the West Virginia University Reed College of Media and the West Virginia Press Association’s NewStart Program, he studied several newspapers in the Upper Midwest in depth and surveyed more than 50 small newspaper publishers across the country.

What he found was that, despite the narrative that local newspapers are dying, these independent papers were keeping their heads above water. Baranowski writes:

The strongest community news outlets are locally owned and managed by families or individuals with local ties that stretch back decades. That’s not an easy circumstance to replicate for a would-be publisher looking to buy or launch a news organization in a rural town, but it’s not a prerequisite, either. In fact, the common denominator is less longevity than fostering community spirit and pride within both staff-generated content and advertising in a traditional newspaper’s pages.

Among the people interviewed in Baranowski’s report is Jim Slonoff, the co-founder and publisher of The Hinsdalean, a free paper launched in suburban Chicago in 2006. I wrote about The Hinsdalean a couple of months ago to highlight its practice of signing up members of the community to write essays on a variety of topics. Although running unpaid columns is hardly new territory for local newspapers, The Hinsdalean actively recruits writers and limits them to a two-year term, ensuring a steady stream of fresh voices.

Like many of the people Baranowski spoke with, Slonoff said The Hinsdalean’s emphasis remains on print rather than digital. Slonoff said:

That’s the thing I don’t get about newspapers in general, because so many of them put so much money and resources into their websites with no return. We took the 180 degrees approach and said our money is coming from display advertising and real estate advertising. Why would we not focus on that? Facebook doesn’t bring us any money, Twitter and Instagram don’t. There’s nothing I get out of it that I know of, except we’re there. And we get a lot of likes and things and get a lot of this and comments and that feels good.

That might seem like a retrograde approach, but it’s one I’ve heard from a number of publishers who have to figure out how to break even.

The Provincetown Independent actually charges more for digital subscriptions than for a print-plus-digital combination, telling readers that “if we were to go online only, the savings in not having to print and mail the paper would not be anywhere near enough to make up for the loss of print advertising revenue.”

Last week I interviewed Jerry and Ann Healey, who sold their Colorado Community Media newspaper group earlier this year to The Colorado Sun, a start-up digital news organization, in a deal put together by the National Trust for Local News. They told me that, in many cases, when they offered a package combining digital and print, their advertisers weren’t interested — they wanted to be seen in the print newspaper. “In the community newspaper space, print is still a viable thing,” Jerry Healey said, “and the advertisers know that too.”

Then there’s Kris O’Leary of Central Wisconsin Newspapers, who told Baranowski that her readership includes Amish and Mennonite communities. Not much digital potential there.

Another of Baranowski’s findings is that newspapers with offices in the communities they cover tend to be healthier than those that have consolidated operations far from the people they serve.

If this sounds like Baranowski is recommending a back-to-the-future approach, it may be because he’s surveying local journalism in the rural heartland. A digital-first approach makes sense in affluent urban and suburban areas where readers can be persuaded to sign up for online-only subscriptions.

But in some parts of the country, technological advances have not changed the media all that much over the past several decades. It is in such places that journalism can do well by following a model that would have been familiar to our grandparents — independently owned newspapers, rooted in the community and supported by local businesses.

An ambitious plan to save local news by investing in community journalism

Golden, Colo., is among the cities and towns served by Colorado Community Media

By Dan Kennedy

Rick Edmonds of Poynter interviewed Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro and Lillian Ruiz about the National Trust for Local News, a project they founded to invest in community journalism projects around the country.

Their goal is to raise $300 million in order to finance deals like the purchase earlier this year of Colorado Community Media, a chain of two dozen weekly and monthly papers in the Denver suburbs. The papers are now being run by The Colorado Sun, a start-up website founded by a number of former Denver Post journalists.

My colleague Ellen Clegg and I interviewed Hansen Shapiro recently to ask her about the National Trust. We especially wanted to learn more about how she had arrived at the $300 million figure, which she had told Ben Smith of The New York Times might be enough to save every independent community paper in the United States that is at risk of shutting down or being sold off to a chain owner.

She told us that her estimate was based on research showing that there are about 4,000 independent weekly and daily papers — what she called “sub-large-chain titles,” to include those held by small regional chains — with perhaps as many as 2,400 owners. Here is how she described the National Trust’s strategy:

We’re approaching it two ways. One is inbound interest from publishers who are ready to retire and want to figure out what the next move is. Some of them have successors lined up, but they don’t have financing. Some of them don’t have successors lined up and their businesses are failing. And that’s the house-on-fire version. And some of them have great businesses. They don’t have a successor. They think they want to be out of the business in two years, and they’re like, could we start a conversation now so that so we can figure out something?

Any paper can be kept out of the hands of a hedge fund or a corporate chain is a victory.

How public pension funds are helping to finance the destruction of local news

This is Cerebrus, not Cerberus. Photo (cc) 2006 by Andrew Becraft

By Dan Kennedy

Public employee pension funds are investing — perhaps unwittingly — in the destruction of local news.

That’s the most important takeaway in a recent report by Julie Reynolds for the Nieman Journalism Lab. Reynolds writes that Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that has destroyed newspapers across the country, has financed a number of its deals with the help of Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm. That includes Alden’s acquisition earlier this year of Tribune Publishing, which owns major-market papers such as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and, in New England, the Hartford Courant.

Cerberus’ top investor is the California Public Employees Retirement System, followed by the Public School Employees’ Retirement System of Pennsylvania. Eight of Cerberus’ top 10 investors are public employee pension funds. “Perhaps it’s time to demand that public pensions divest from shadow banks that aid and abet the aggressive dismantling of the free press,” Reynolds writes.

Cerberus turns out to have quite a track record, and it extends well beyond its role in helping Alden destroy local news. As Reynolds reports:

The firm has been accused of profiting from the Sandy Hook school massacre, because it promised to unload its ownership in gun manufacturers but then didn’t — at least not until its company Remington Arms went bankrupt in 2018. And Cerberus is the owner and founder of Tier 1 Group, the company that trained four members of the Tiger Squad that assassinated and dismembered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The role of public pension funds in newspapers isn’t new. CNHI, based in Montgomery, Alabama, owns 89 local news outlets in 21 states, including The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover and its affiliated papers north of Boston. CNHI, in turn, is owned by the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

But though CNHI has cut deeply over the years, its track record isn’t nearly as grim as that of Alden. At least in Massachusetts, its newspapers remain well-staffed enough to do a reasonably good job of covering their communities.

In the trade magazine Editor & Publisher, Gretchen A. Peck reports that Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild-CWA, wonders if Alden’s purpose in buying up newspapers is to exert political influence aimed at staving off regulation:

Schleuss speculated whether there might be political play behind these newspaper acquisitions. The NewsGuild president also opined about legislative remedies that Congress might enact to force hedge funds like Alden to be “radically transparent” about their investors. That would allow the public to discern if investors are earnest and market-minded or if they’re bad actors attempting to hold sway over the press.

It’s a real concern, though to date I haven’t seen any signs that Alden has an agenda other than cutting its papers to the bone and squeezing out whatever profits remain.

Peck’s article is also accompanied by a “publisher’s note” that is interesting mainly because it represents one of the few occasions when Alden has deigned to address the way it’s running its newspapers:

Publisher’s Note: E&P reached out to Heath Freeman of Alden Global Capital, welcoming his comment and contribution. The company’s crisis manager responded, post-deadline, with the following remark he attributed to MediaNews Group’s COO, Guy Gilmore: “A subscription-driven revenue model, long overdue payments from tech behemoths including Google and Facebook for the use of our content and the modernization of non-editorial operations are some of the keys to ensuring local newspapers can thrive over the long term and serve the local communities that depend on them.”

Black newspapers across the country collaborate via Word In Black

By Dan Kennedy

The trade magazine Editor & Publisher reports that 10 Black newspapers have created a network to provide news in communities of color across the country. The Effort, called Word In Black, is part of the Fund for Black Journalism, which was launched a year ago by the Local Media Association, according to E&P’s Evelyn Mateos.

Word In Black, she adds, “covers racial equity, K-12 education, police reform, healthcare disparities, social justice, politics, opinion, sports and LGBTQ.” Nick Charles, who’s heading up the project, tells Mateos:

[These] 10 different publishers sometimes have different mindsets, different politics, and they live in different parts of the country. So, people in Texas don’t have the same ideas about a lot of things that people in New York may have. But their affection and love for communities are what binds them. Collaboration is going on because people realize that to survive and to meet our mission as journalists, we have to band together.

The papers range from New York to Sacramento, but nothing locally. It would be great to see The Bay State Banner become part of this. It would also be interesting to see if The Emancipator, a nationally focused website sponsored by The Boston Globe and BU’s Center for Antiracist Research, could find a way to collaborate.

Oases in the News Desert?

The capitol in Springfield, Ill. (Screenshot from The Capitol Connection blog)

By Ellen Clegg

In a flurry of summer’s-end legislative action, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a measure that could have broad implications for the news industry in the Land of Lincoln. Illinois Senate Bill 134, which Pritzker signed into law on Aug. 23, establishes a 15-person Local Journalism Task Force to “conduct a comprehensive study relative to communities underserved by local journalism in Illinois.” As first reported by Andrew Hensel of the Illinois Radio Network, the task force will launch on Jan. 1, 2022, and is expected to recommend a slate of public policy and business strategy solutions (both private and nonprofit) to Pritzker and the Illinois General Assembly by Jan. 1, 2023.

Granted, that seems like a long way off, especially when clocked in Pandemic Time. But the new law is just the latest sign that the gutting of local newsrooms and the spread of “news deserts” is of more than academic interest.

State and local politicians need to get their message out, if only to demonstrate their continued relevance and constituent service to voters. And as hard-right, nationalized news sources churn through social media channels and gain currency in the public square, Democrats like Pritzker and his cohort in the Illinois General Assembly are justified in sounding more than a little eager to cultivate a local press corps, at least in part because state house and city hall journalists are more likely to focus on the prosaic and often nonpartisan details of governance that underpin civic life.

“Robust local journalism is vitally important and I look forward to reviewing the recommendations from the task force as we seek to maintain and grow a strong press corps in Illinois,” Pritzker said in a statement. Illinois state Rep. Dave Vella, D-Rockford, put it more bluntly to Hensel: “You used to have a bunch of local reporters who gave us insight into what is going on in our cities. As the years have gone by, local news has gone by the wayside. I believe it is way too important to let that happen.” The Illinois task force will include appointees from politics, academia, professional associations and citizens’ groups.

In her path-breaking research on U.S. counties where no newspaper is published, Penelope Muse Abernathy, visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, classified two Illinois counties as news deserts. Hamilton and Pulaski counties are not home to any newspaper, although, the research notes, there are newspapers in adjoining counties that circulate there. Cook County, by contrast, where Chicago is situated, is home to 87 newspapers.

A similar effort is under way in Massachusetts. Early this year, Beacon Hill approved the creation of a commission to study journalism in underserved communities in the Bay State, thanks to a prolonged effort by state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and state Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn. My research partner, Dan Kennedy, was present at the creation and will be a commission member. I’m certain he’ll keep this space updated, as well as his readers at Media Nation. The commission is charged with studying the ratio of residents to media outlets, the history of local news in Massachusetts, print and digital business models for media outlets, the impact of social media on local news, strategies to improve local news access, public policy solutions to improve the sustainability of local press business models and private and nonprofit solutions as well as identifying career pathways and existing or potential professional development opportunities for aspiring journalists in Massachusetts.

Ehrlich, who is working on logistics, promises to announce more details very soon. She has a sweeping vision. “I’d like to see the commission we’re starting here in Massachusetts in every state in the country,” she told me in an email. “Though there are national commonalities, each state has unique regional and ownership differences so a state-by-state approach makes sense. Perhaps Massachusetts and Illinois can confer as we go.”

Although I’ve voiced skepticism about the conflicts that government support might pose for the news business, Louisiana State University researcher Joshua Darr offered a countervailing view in a recent interview. Print newspapers have benefited from government support before, he argues, in the form of historic discounts in postal rates and exemption from the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act so kids could deliver the product to local doorsteps. “Of course, you don’t want to [get government to] support the news but lose what makes it unique and valuable. Indirect support might be more valuable, whether that is local news credits to people directly to buy subscriptions to local news, or whether that is helping news outlets to collectively bargain with the tech companies to negotiate ad revenues. As opposed to pure subsidies or loans or cash transfers or, certainly, making [newsrooms] report to any sort of commission or government body.

Back in the Illinois capital of Springfield, Jason Piscia, public affairs reporting director at the University of Illinois Springfield, is already spinning out possible solutions. As he wrote in a recent post on The Capitol Connection blog, “I’m hoping this task force can present some ideas that are financially and politically possible. I don’t want to get ahead of the group’s work, but tax credits for news subscriptions, government-sponsored foundations that support journalism and forgiving student loans for journalists who commit to work in rural regions are all adaptations of initiatives used to support other industries.”

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect Penelope Muse Abernathy’s new title.

A documentary tracks the demise of Denver’s daily newspapers — and the rising of the Sun

Photo by Brian Malone

By Dan Kennedy

In the documentary “News Matters,” Dean Singleton, who sold a majority share of his newspaper chain to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital in 2013, tells a gruesome story.

He recalls being sent out to a one-car accident after midnight when he was a young reporter working in Wichita Falls, Texas. The police officer at the scene told him the driver had been killed. Singleton, though, could see that the driver’s arms and legs were still moving, so he pressed the officer. The answer: the body would keep jerking around for a while, but that didn’t make him any less dead.

“That’s kind of where print newspapers are today,” he says.

“News Matters,” by Brian Malone, tells the story of Denver’s two daily newspapers — the Rocky Mountain News, which folded in 2009, and The Denver Post, formerly the crown jewel of Singleton’s empire, now being torn apart by Alden. The Post at one time had between 250 and 300 reporters; today it has about 60. As retired Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron says, that’s not nearly enough to cover a metropolitan area the size of Denver, with a population of about 2.9 million.

Among those interviewed for the film is Greg Moore, a former managing editor of The Boston Globe, who was the Post’s top editor for 14 years before resigning in 2016 rather than implement cuts demanded by Alden. Moore recalls being grilled by Alden’s bean-counters over every issue imaginable, and some that weren’t imaginable, like “Why do you have photographers?” and “Why can’t you be the same size as some pissant paper in New Jersey?”

If there is a central character in “News Matters,” it’s former Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett, who wrote a searing editorial in 2018 referring to Alden as “vulture capitalists” and calling on community leaders to buy the Post. Plunkett becomes emotional when he recalls the cuts that followed Moore’s departure, saying, “I felt like I was floating out of my body, not even attached to the real world. And I just had this very clear thought — this is where The Denver Post dies.” Plunkett resigned not long after writing the anti-Alden editorial.

Toward the end of the film, we see some of the Post journalists who we’ve gotten to know — Larry Ryckman, Dana Coffield, Tamara Chaung and Jennifer Brown — starting a new venture, the online-only Colorado Sun. “The journalists you see up here today are the owners of The Colorado Sun,” Ryckman tells the small crowd that had gathered, “and we will be the ones calling the shots.”

Singleton’s retort: “The Colorado Sun has no future in my opinion … There’s no business model there.”

Well, the Sun is still shining, and it appears that it may be on track toward becoming a sustainable business. The film takes us into the early days of COVID-19. “Ad revenue has fallen off a cliff,” Ryckman says, “but it has greatly increased membership.” Earlier this year, the Sun acquired a group of 24 weekly and monthly newspapers in Denver’s suburbs.

And the once-mighty Denver Post continues to shrink.

If you’d like to see “News Matters,” you’d better hop to it. I only found out about it last week, and it turns out that Rocky Mountain PBS is taking it down on Wednesday. For the next couple of days, you can watch it here. There’s also information about hosting a screening that you can find at the film’s website.

In Washington State, an evening newspaper rises from the dustbin of history

By Dan Kennedy

If the morning daily newspaper is an endangered species, then the evening paper shuffled off to extinction many years ago. Now Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, is bringing it back.

Not really, and I’ll get to that in a moment. But first a little background.

Evening papers were dominant back when factory work was the way that tens of millions of Americans made their living. You’d work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., come home and read the evening paper. Later, as we shifted to more of a white-collar, 9-to-5 culture, morning papers became the primary distribution vehicle for newspaper journalism. Evening papers faded away, and eventually few, if any, remained. The Boston Evening Globe, for instance, stopped publishing in 1979.

Today, of course, the news cycle is entirely different, with stories posted online around the clock, sometimes not to show up in print until days later — if ever.

Some of us, though, continue to like the day’s paper, whether online or in print. The daily paper represents a curated news report — the considered judgment of the editors as to what the day’s most important news is. Again, to use the Globe as an example, you can access a list of the stories in that day’s print edition (unfortunately, it seems that stuff always gets left out) or read the paper in the form of an e-edition — a PDF of that day’s paper that looks like the print edition. The Globe offers two versions, both so-so.

What The Spokesman-Review has done is revive its old evening paper, the Spokane Daily Chronicle, in the form of an e-edition that’s posted each afternoon. As reported by Kristen Hare of Poynter Online, the idea isn’t to compete with The Spokesman-Review, as it did back before the Chronicle folded in 1992 (even under common ownership); rather, it’s to boost the bottom line and give people who live in the Spokane area another reason to buy a digital subscription or keep the one they’ve already got.

“Our view is the e-edition is the gateway drug to our web presence for traditional readers,” publisher Stacey Cowles told Hare. “If they love it enough, it could help solve our huge manufacturing and distribution cost headache. But additional online pages have to be meaningful to make a difference. More stock listings don’t cut it.”

Added editor Rob Curley: “We were realists on this. It wasn’t about how are we going to make this a bigger pie, it was how are we going to hang on to the pie that we have when we know we’re going to continue to push subscription prices?”

If all this sounds retro, keep in mind that Curley is a pioneer in digital journalism, first at the Naples Daily News in Florida and, in the pre-Jeff Bezos age, at The Washington Post, where he presided over the launch of a digital-only local-news site in Loudoun County, Maryland. I met him in 2015 when I was researching my book “The Return of the Moguls” and Curley was editor of California’s Orange County Register under the ill-fated ownership of Aaron Kushner.

Print and print-like products continue to play an important part in keeping newspapers alive — as in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where The Berkshire Eagle is actually buying a used printing press in order to boost is color capacity. Someday, newspapers may drop their print editions entirely, or go weekend-only. Until that day comes, though, it makes sense to serve the print-oriented readers who pay the bills.

What local news outlets can do to overcome suspicion on the right

Photo (cc) 2008 by TimothyJ

By Dan Kennedy

Previously published at GBH News.

Recently I had a conversation with a hyperlocal news editor who wanted to talk through a dilemma. Her website, which covers such matters as town boards, schools, housing, public health and charity events, is resolutely nonpartisan. From the beginning, her goal has been to bring together people from varied backgrounds and with different political beliefs. Yet her sense was that most of her readers, like her, were liberal. What could she do to reach out to conservatives?

Her dilemma is not unique. Surveys show that people trust local and regional news more than they do the national media. Ideally, local news can help overcome the hyperpolarization that is tearing us apart at the national level and foster a spirit of community and cooperation.

Increasingly, though, the divisions that define national life are inescapable. Our school systems are rippling with rage over masks, vaccines and how kids are taught about racial justice. Discussions about policing have devolved into binary sloganeering about defunding the police or backing the blue.

And well-meaning journalists, mostly liberal but wanting to give a voice to everyone, wring their hands.

Last week, the research project Trusting News, a joint venture of the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute, released a report on how local and regional news organizations can do a better job of connecting with conservative audiences. More than 3,400 self-identified conservatives responded to a survey, and 91 of them were interviewed by 27 media outlets around the country. (In New England, the participants were New Hampshire Public Radio, Vermont’s Burlington Free Press and The Day of New London, Connecticut.)

The report, written by Marley Duchovnay, a research associate at the University of Texas’ Center for Media Engagement, and Gina M. Masullo, associate director of the center, makes six recommendations. Three of them are of particular interest:

  • “Build relationships with people who have conservative and right-leaning viewpoints in your community and listen to them.”
  • “Include a variety of voices from people with conservative and right-leaning views in stories. Journalists should be cautious of using ‘conservative’ or other terms as catch-all labels for people who may have very different beliefs.”
  • “Consider diversity of political beliefs and backgrounds when hiring for the newsroom.”

The first two bullet points are just good journalism: get to know your community, and don’t assume everyone on the right drives “a pickup truck with the Confederate flag on the back,” as Masullo put it at a webinar held last week to explain the findings. The third, though, is potentially problematic. News organizations don’t ask job candidates about their political views, nor should they. So how do we go about ensuring ideological diversity in the newsroom?

“I think more the idea is to, in your recruitment strategy, try to hit rural areas, more conservative areas,” said Masullo. And yes, that seems fine in theory. But with the journalism economy continuing to shrink, hiring is not an everyday occurrence — and the need to hire people of color to diversify overwhelmingly white newsrooms has to be a top priority.

I was also struck by another finding in the report — that material from wire services in local media outlets contributes to perceptions of liberal bias more than the local content does. At the webinar, the presenters cited Mark Rosenberg of the Victoria Advocate in Texas, who told them: “National news drives distrust in the media far more than local news, it was surprising and frustrating to hear. 95% of what I do is local, but the syndicated copy and columns is what is driving distrust. That is something that recurred in all three interviews that I did.”

To invoke the old cliché, this presents both a challenge and an opportunity. For daily newspapers like the Advocate, which have positioned themselves as a single source for community, national and international news, it’s difficult to imagine how that problem could be solved — especially when some of the respondents complained even about The Associated Press, known for its lack of bias.

Most weekly papers and hyperlocal websites, though, focus exclusively on their community, which means that they avoid offending conservatives who don’t want to see national and international news that has what they consider to be a liberal slant.

One approach that even the editors and publishers of daily papers could consider is thinking about how they can de-emphasize national news, including syndicated columns, in their opinion sections. Earlier this week my research partner, Ellen Clegg, interviewed Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University about a study he conducted along with two other scholars. The study attempted to show what happened when the Desert Sun of Palm Beach, California, dropped national opinion content for a month and went exclusively local. The result was a slight but measurable decline in polarization.

“The experiment is not without controversy,” Clegg writes. “The Trump-Biden presidential race and the COVID pandemic arguably showed how much local election laws, local public health policies and local governments matter in setting the course of the nation’s future. Abandoning coverage entirely — and opinion page columns do constitute a form of coverage all their own — could seem irresponsible to some.”

Still, for many daily newspaper editors, running syndicated material in the opinion section isn’t a way to serve readers so much as it is an aversion to new ways of doing things. More local opinion journalism, combined with some national content from the left and the right, would seem like a good mix.

A crucial concern that isn’t really addressed in the report but that did come up at the webinar is the importance of not pandering to people with right-wing views. Though the goal of broadening the conversation and bringing more voices into the tent is a laudable one, we can’t forget that it’s conservatives — radicals, really — who have gone off the rails, embracing lies about the outcome of the last election, the Jan. 6 insurrection, vaccinations, mask-wearing and such. Trusting News director Joy Mayer, though, told the participants that the very nature of the study tended to weed such people out.

“The people who self-selected into this research were not the people with the most extreme views and the most extreme distrust,” Mayer said. “If you are willing to spend an hour sitting and talking to a local journalist, you have to believe that they want to change. You have to believe they’re worth an investment of your time. The whole world is not made up of people who would be grateful for an hour to spend with a journalist.”

If journalists who run local news projects want to serve everyone in their community, and not just the more liberal elements, then the fundamental ideas outlined in the report are worth paying attention to: listen; be fair; don’t resort to cheap labels in describing those with different views.

I don’t know if it can help. But getting past the divisions that are ripping us apart is perhaps the most vital challenge facing us today. If there is to be solution, it’s got to start at the local level.

After cutting print days, the locally owned Berkshire Eagle buys a new printing press

Pontoosuc Lake, Pittsfield. Photo (cc) 2006 by the Massachusetts Office of Tourism.

By Dan Kennedy

Ten months after reducing the number of days it appears in print, The Berkshire Eagle is upgrading its printing capabilities. According to a message from Eagle president Fred Rutberg, the paper, based in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is in the process of acquiring a 9-year-old Goss Magnum press that will make it possible to print in color on every page. The move is aimed at making the paper more appealing to both readers and advertisers, Rutberg says.

Last October the Eagle moved from a seven- to a five-day print schedule, dropping its Sunday and Monday editions and transforming the Saturday paper into an all-weekend edition. The Eagle’s satellite papers in Brattleboro and Bennington, Vermont, ended a day of print as well.

At the time, Rutberg described the move as an acceleration of plans that were already in the works, explaining that the COVID pandemic had hit advertising hard. The Eagle ran a long story describing print cutbacks at other papers around the country, presumably to show readers that the lesser emphasis on print shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the paper was on the skids. Indeed, executive editor Kevin Moran told New England Public Media that the move would not result in any layoffs.

“COVID-19 really put a chilling effect on some of our advertising revenue,” Moran was quoted as saying. “But on the second hand, ever since the middle of March, we’ve seen a really big increase in our digital-only subscriptions.”

The Berkshire Eagle has been one of the good-news stories amid the local-news crisis of recent years. Once regarded as one of the best small dailies in the country, the paper was laid low under the ownership of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. In 2016, Rutberg led a group of investors who bought the Eagle back from Alden and began the slow process of rebuilding what the bean-counters had torn down. The Associated Press put it this way in a 2019 feature:

It’s easy to get carried away — The Eagle is still struggling, and its survival is far from assured. Readers are trickling, not flocking, back.

But if it does fail, it won’t be for lack of effort. The Eagle’s owners, editors and staff are waging an all-out campaign to revitalize local journalism in the Berkshires and southern Vermont.

Rutberg’s announcement that he’s buying a new press is surely good news, but it shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the Eagle favors print over digital. Click on the subscribe button and it’s all about digital, with the paper offering various deals for digital-only and digital-plus-print subscriptions. The reality is that even as papers (can’t we come up with a better name?) and readers continue to shift to online, print remains more lucrative. The value of print advertising has simply held up better than digital, which was driven into the floor by Craigslist, Google and Facebook.

In his message to readers, Rutberg said:

When I announced last year that we were reducing The Eagle’s print editions from seven to five days a week, I also told you that we had adopted a long-term strategy of Being Digital.

Judging from the mail I received, many of you surmised that we had decided to abandon print, and that the announced reduction in print frequency was the beginning of the end of The Berkshire Eagle print edition. That was not the case last year, and it is not the case now. I hope that the substantial investment we are making in print, as evidenced by our purchase of the Magnum printing press, will put those thoughts to bed.

The Eagle isn’t out of the woods. But in the five years that the Rutberg group has owned it, it’s provided far more quality journalism to its communities than would have been the case under Alden. And it has a fighting chance of becoming a profitable, sustainable business.

There is no substitute for committed local ownership.