By Maaisha Osman
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The New Haven Independent, a nonprofit digital news organization, has been delivering local news to residents here since 2005. Several months before this year’s mayoral elections, the Independent hosted debates with candidates running for mayor, conducted candidate interviews on its community radio station, WNHH, and followed candidates door-to-door.
On Election Night, Nov. 2, the newsroom was packed with reporters, interns, volunteers, freelancers and radio hosts — an enthusiastic group dedicated to covering elections for mayor, city council and other positions locally and across Connecticut. The crew dug into takeout pizza amid artworks at La Voz Hispana de Connecticut, the Spanish-language newspaper where the Independent and WNHH are based.
Reporters and volunteers were sent out to 42 polling stations in New Haven and neighboring Hamden to call in results. Arrangements were made with the city to keep up with absentee ballots in order to report on the margin of victory between New Haven’s two mayoral candidates, incumbent Justin Elicker (who won re-election) and John Carlson. A live spreadsheet was posted on the Independent’s website to keep track of the votes. Later, reporters went out into the field to livestream candidates’ speeches and interview them.
While the Independent was gathering results, WNHH was relaying them to its audience and talking about them in a manner that was both raucous and entertaining. Anchored by the station’s morning host, Babz Rawls Ivy, the discussion featured former Independent reporter Markeshia Ricks, local journalist Michelle Turner and station manager Harry Droz — as well as a considerable amount of red wine. Joining them remotely was Christine Stuart, editor of the politics-and-policy website CT News Junkie, who provided some statewide context.
Ricks, a former reporter for the Independent, was one of Rawls Ivy’s panelists. She recalled the Independent as a go-to-place for people and campaigns where they could get the results immediately. She thinks that audience-engagement tools like Facebook Live have also played an integral part in their newsroom.
“You could watch it on local news,” she said, “but they couldn’t transmit it as quickly.”
In contrast to the widespread pessimism over the decline of local news, Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the Independent and WNHH, is optimistic.
“I think it’s the golden age of journalism,” he said. He loves the blend of textual form, photography and videography all merging to create a story. “You can bring the traditional view of journalism with these new tools to looking at stories in new ways [that are] so much deeper where you connect so much more to readers,” he said.
Bass cited a Black Lives Matter protest in May 2020, where he was on-site to cover what he thought would be a tiny gathering that no one knew about. The next thing he knew, there were thousands marching onto the highway and facing off with State Police while he streamed the event on Facebook Live. He said that 50,000 people watched and many people joined the march.
According to a Pew Research Center study, 48% of U.S. adults consume news on social media channels, with Facebook outpacing all other social media sites. The use of Facebook Live results in greater timeliness and a higher level of audience engagement.
Still, those who get their news primarily online are among the least trusting of news and less knowledgeable about current affairs. Americans are concerned about misinformation online being an even bigger problem than perceived media bias. But local broadcast news remains among the most trusted sources of information, with fewer news consumers citing local news as a source of falsehoods than any other type of media. With their relentless focus on local, the Independent and WNHH are helping to counteract distrust.
Bass thinks that mis- and disinformation in his newsroom are handled in a more skillful way because the communication is upfront. “Local [newsrooms] are better because you are showing up at the meeting in person,” he said. “At least here, when I am interviewing someone I have covered for 30 years, I can remember they lied about this last time, or I was wrong five times when asking the question.”
The need for local journalism has not changed over time, but the economic dynamics capable of sustaining a profitable model for local journalism have. Bass chose the nonprofit model for the Independent, he said, because he didn’t think there was enough money in for-profit, explaining, “I saw the model being destroyed.”
Strong engagement can help sustain and support strong, independent media for every community in the U.S.
A Nieman Lab report notes that as more community journalists launch nonprofits, they’re doing so with small staff and “a scrappy startup mentality” focused on direct engagement with audience and members. The bigger picture shows that nonprofit news outlets generated an estimated $500 million in revenue in 2019. Foundation grants make up the largest share of revenue.
Bass also lauded the nonprofit model because it’s funded by people who believe in journalism for the sake of democracy. “It actually fundamentally changes the way you do journalism,” he said.
Unlike flashier news websites, the Independent resembles a blog. There is a steady cascade of articles in reverse chronological order and a sidebar for smaller stories. Articles are edited quickly, so typos slip through, which they also make fun of in the newsroom. Readers who spot typos are rewarded with a mug adorned with the Independent’s logo.
Perhaps most important, the Independent has helped build community and inspired young journalists. Laura Glesby, who is just finishing her studies at Yale University, didn’t realize that she wanted to become a reporter until she started working as an intern at the Independent. She was one of the freelancers helping out on Election Night, and will begin working as a staff reporter at the Independent next month.
“I learned a lot from working here,” said Glesby. “And I love that the Independent does on-the-ground reporting where you get to meet people who aren’t just experts or politicians but just people who live here and hear their perspectives.”
Bass came to New Haven more than 40 years ago and has spent his career covering his adopted city, mostly at the Independent and, before that, the New Haven Advocate, a now-defunct alternative weekly. Now 61, he continues to believe in the importance of community journalism.
“I think the bedrock of democracy is local news,” said Bass. “That’s where the larger issue stemmed from, and I think that local reporting is the bedrock of a free press.”
Maaisha Osman is a graduate student at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. Additional reporting by Northeastern journalism graduate student Zhaozhou Dai.