The Charleston Post and Courier, a family-owned newspaper in South Carolina that traces its lineage back to 1803, is wrapping up a remarkable year-long project that afflicts the comfortable and the corrupt on an industrial scale.
The project, called, “Uncovered,” harnesses the investigative power of The Post and Courier (the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2015) and puts it to work alongside 17 community newspapers, at least a few of which are struggling. The editors of The Post and Courier are direct about their dual targets, which they sum up in this headline: “News deserts and weak ethics laws allow corruption to run rampant in South Carolina.”
Their premise: Corruption festers when people aren’t looking, when the spotlight doesn’t shine.
As the story on the home page notes, “The stakes are high. Corruption could surge as so-called news deserts expand and federal and state prosecutors back off.” The editors issue a call to action: Let’s shine a light into the darkest corners.
Together, the coalition of newsrooms filed more than 50 FOIA requests and interviewed more than 560 public officials and whistleblowers. An online “corruption tracker” database enables readers who want to see what scandals the team dug up in a particular community.
Of course, competition for scoops is tightly woven into the culture of most newsrooms. Over the years, that drive to get the facts out has benefited readers. But newspaper closures continue to spread, and ghost newspapers haunt more and more communities, particularly in rural areas. In South Carolina, seven papers shut down last year and two more moved to online only, according to the South Carolina Press Association. So it can be a boon when newsrooms put aside the competitive spirit for a bit to map out an investigative project that proffers solutions across a broader circulation area and provides an incentive to keep subscribing to the town paper. As I’ve reported previously, ProPublica and MLK50: Justice Through Journalism teamed up to investigate predatory debt collection practices in Memphis in an award-winning series entitled “Profiting from the Poor: Inside Memphis’s debt machine.”
As South Carolinians are finding, this network effect amplifies the power of the press to hold public officials accountable. As the Post and Courier editors write: “We have only begun.”
Not all newspaper acquisitions involve hedge funds that gobble up trusted titles with deep community roots. Sometimes quieter transactions take place outside major urban centers that augur well for the preservation of local journalism, or at least strike a faint chime of hope. One such deal: Ogden Newspapers, a family-owned company founded in 1890, is purchasing Swift Communications, which publishes community papers in western mountain resort towns as well as niche agricultural titles like the Goat Journal.
Robert Nutting, the CEO of Ogden (and the billionaire owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates), and Bill Waters, CEO and chairman of the board of Swift Communications, had nothing but positive things to say about the move, according to a report in Editor & Publisher – although the announcement came as a surprise to some staff members. Here’s Nutting: “We are particularly excited to be working with a team that has been recognized as an innovator in community journalism.” And here’s Waters: “We know the time has come to pass the baton of stewardship to new owners who can carry forward the important mission.” The sale is scheduled to close December 31. No purchase price was disclosed.
Just take a minute and mark those words: stewardship, mission, community journalism. They’re hopeful signals that Ogden does not intend to emulate vulture capital owners who have carpet-bombed local newsrooms across the nation. As my colleague Dan Kennedy writes, about half of us are likely reading a shadow paper that is owned by, or is in debt to, Alden Global Capital, Apollo Global Management or Chatham Asset Management. Even now, like Muncher in “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” Alden is hungrily eyeing Lee Enterprises, which owns 77 daily papers.
The 20 publications that Ogden has just acquired convey the spice and tang of the communities they cover and are most likely the sorts of publications, bursting with news about local politics and personalities, that James Madison had in mind when crafting the First Amendment of the Constitution. Some 11 of them are in Colorado’s high country, according to Colorado Public Radio, with titles like the Steamboat Pilot & Today and The Aspen Times. Others are dedicated to raising goats and maintaining the family farm, endeavors which touch on crucial issues like climate change and the nation’s groaning supply chain. A recent headline in The Fence Post: “Biden administration extends trucking waiver.”
The Steamboat Pilot & Today, for example, is a daily print newspaper distributed throughout Routt County, Colorado, which has a population of 25,000. “Its police blotter section is the source of a very popular and somewhat hilarious little book called Ski Town Shenanigans, which recounts bear, moose and partying episodes common to the area. It is a lovely little local rag, which we all rely upon to know what is happening in our part of the Rockies,” says Janice Symchych, an attorney and a 10-year resident of the surrounding ranch country who says she aligns with those “who share a collective sense of the importance of grassroots news and communication.”
Marissa Ames, editor of the Goat Journal in Greeley, Colorado, says she’s optimistic: “Any time in journalism when we have stability and a promise of something bigger it’s really exciting.” The Journal, now in its 100th year, is published every other month and is broadening its coverage to include stories about goats raised for angora fiber, goats used as pack animals and goats raised for milk and meat. Ames says she hopes Ogden can help increase the Journal’s digital presence. The print edition has a circulation of about 3,000, she says, but the Facebook page has more than 12,000 followers. “This is very much community journalism,” she tells me in an interview. “No matter where you live, who you love, or how you look, if you’re kind to your goats, we represent you. That ties us together as a community.”
Assuming the sale goes through, as of January 1, Ogden Newspapers will publish 54 daily newspapers. Nutting promised to keep the focus on local content, and vowed those operations will remain largely unchanged, according to Colorado Public Radio.
In the Boston Globe’s boxy old brick Dorchester plant, Damon Kiesow and his colleagues on the digital side sometimes seemed beamed in from the future. For starters, they occupied the innovation-focused “Globe Lab,” housed in an airy open space on the second floor where classified advertising salespeople had once reigned supreme. The fat classified sections that helped fund the Globe’s journalism for so long were a thing of the past. The lighted ticker tracking phone calls from people eager to buy a classified ad in the print edition had disappeared, along with most of those ads and a significant chunk of revenue. The midcentury industrial cubicles were gone, too, replaced by sleek tables and digital screens.
The irony was intentional. Instead of ad salespeople working the phones, Kiesow and his colleagues were working to develop and refine the Globe’s digital strategy for a new epoch. Kiesow, now the Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, was developing mobile products for Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com. Working with a team focused on emerging technologies in mobile, social and the internet of things, Kiesow immersed himself in research on human-centered design and mobile-first culture.
The seeds of that research are flourishing as Kiesow and fellow researchers in the academic world continue to contribute important new insights about readers and how they interact with a print newspaper versus a digital site. Now, he and his colleagues have published two papers that explore an essential fact: “[e]ach medium of news delivery has a unique set of attributes that facilitate or impede news consumption,” they write in a study in Digital Journalism entitled “Affordances for Sensemaking: Exploring Their Availability for Users of Online News Sites.” Kiesow is lead author of the paper; he’s joined by two other journalism professors, Shuhua Zhou at Mizzou and Lei Guo of the University of Nebraska.
At first, this premise may seem simplistic. But Kiesow and his co-authors conducted in-depth interviews with readers to understand their experience as they consumed news online and found a “complex relationship between people, processes, and technologies.” Kiesow notes that even though digital news subscriptions in the United States have doubled in the past four years (half of those gains went to the New York Times and the Washington Post), key questions remain: “What happened to the high hopes all news publishers first had when experimenting with digital platforms 25 years ago? We built it, why did they not come? Or more accurately, why did they not pay, especially in support of local newsrooms?”
A partial answer, the researchers find, is the fact that editors and news producers in the 1990s had a sense that print and online audiences might differ and diverge, but did not have a full understanding of the essential signposts that characterize each experience, signposts that help readers make sense of information.
The digital study comes about six months after a similar study of print readers, entitled “The Values of Print: Affordances and Sensemaking for Newspaper Consumers,” published in Journalism Practice. Kiesow and his colleagues talked extensively to long-time newspaper subscribers to understand how they perceived the physical characteristics of the print product and how their longtime experience with print affected the way they consumed news and made sense of the world. In both papers, the researchers analyzed reader responses in a novel way: They applied a concept from the field of perceptual psychology known as “affordances.”
Overall Kiesow finds reason for optimism about the industry’s capacity to change and adapt. “Journalists are not blindly resistant to change for-the-better,” he recently tweeted, “they are just busy and appropriately cynical about easy answers, trendy solutions and corporate jargon that often arrives in a box called ‘innovation.'”
In fact, he and his colleagues write, the constant predictions of the complete demise of the print newspaper “may blind us to some of the innovative efforts undertaken by newspaper companies. Those blinders also lead us to ignore some of the hard-earned lessons of the print past, leaving us with unanswered questions about the digital future.”
I recently caught up with Kiesow by phone. What follows is an excerpt of our discussion, in Q&A form.
Q. What prompted you to look at news readership through the lens of perceptual psychology?
A. It depends on how far you want to go back! It started when we launched BostonGlobe.com in 2011. I came in as the project was already under way, all the basic stuff was done, we were building and testing. I was not working on the website specifically but I was working on the replica edition, and we were trying to build a tablet app and we were working on iPhone apps. As part of that, there was research going on about how to design BostonGlobe.com that [Globe research director] Sue Dimanno was leading. If I could oversimplify some of the findings, our quote-unquote print readers were really interested in knowing what’s in today’s paper. And our quote-unquote digital readers were interested in knowing what are the newest, latest updates.
That was fine because we had Boston.com, which was a digitally focused product that didn’t really highlight the Globe’s journalism in the same way. It wasn’t the centerpiece of it, so to speak. The challenge was, and it was a major discussion, was, “Well, when we have a site called BostonGlobe.com, it’s going to feature the quality journalism from the quote-unquote newspaper… how do you design and offer and present that material.” Because you’ve got two audiences who are not dissimilar demographically or geographically or psychographically. But they have a different psychological need to consume the news, to make sense of the news, by seeing it in a package. Which is the print or the replica edition. Versus readers who say, “No, I want to curate my own experience,” which is the firehose of digital.
In digital, if you put the same stories on the front page for 12 hours, people think your website is broken. So there was this tension between those two needs. Again, to oversimplify, how do we serve the print audience and the digital audience on a digital platform? How do you make both of these experiences accessible to different parts of the audience who want it but without making those two presentations interfere with each other because they are completely incompatible? This is still an ongoing struggle.
At McClatchy, we had a very popular replica edition and we developed this line of thinking there, in thinking about digital strategy, which was what I would call: edition versus firehose. The pond versus the stream. The pond is nice, calm and self-contained. You can swim to one side or the other. It’s accessible, you can see the end of it. Whereas the stream is always changing. You can swim upstream or downstream but you have to work the entire time. We began to think about it that way and assess it. It’s a psychological need, potentially more than something just like habit or digital comfort.
Q. Why did you start by looking at print?
A. We started with print not because print is better, or that print is the end goal of the study but because of the theory that print does a really good job in supporting the cognitive needs of readers to understand the news. But that did not necessarily happen intentionally. I think that happened over time through the evolution of the medium. Things we are all familiar with. We put things in sections because it made more sense. We labeled things clearly like opinion. The top of the page is more important. Bigger headlines are more important. Bigger photos. All these conventions evolved with the technology and with the audience. … if print developed these signals over time, and those signals were developed symbiotically to really support explanation and understanding of the news, then which of those were lost, enhanced, improved, degraded, ignored when we moved to digital?
Q. Can you tell us, in lay terms, what “affordances” are?
A. Affordances are just the opportunities or the actions that an object in the environment offers to you as an observer or a user. A rock has an affordance to throw it, or it has an affordance to build a foundation with it, or it has an affordance to put it on a piece of paper to hold down the paper. It has all these options that are not, in this case, designed into the rock. Because a rock is just a thing. But depending on your needs and your experience and your perception of the object, you’re going to perceive it to have different opportunities for use.
We argued that affordances offer a theoretical lens to understand print, or any other media, in how they facilitate the acquisition of information and how people make sense of the news.
There’s 10 or 12 affordances that we’ve identified between the two studies, things like timeliness, genre, retrievability, importance, immediacy. There are a couple that apply more to digital [than to print], like hypertextuality and interactivity.
Q. Is the reading experience different for print and digital?
A. Digital is great for finding and learning facts. I can look up any known sports score, election result, budget number etc. almost instantly. Print is better (we argue) at communicating narratives. Part of that is because the habit of getting/reading the paper daily enforces a very curated experience literally designed for relevance and continuity. Online, I may read on the same topic from five different sources over a week. Some coherence is lost in that process. Online is a sea of distractions and I may end up falling into a deep well of cat videos as easily as reading the latest city council update.
We have a psychological need for completeness. We start a task and finish a task. You want to start a book and finish the book. That’s a basic, we like to finish things. You open up a [print] edition, you start it, you finish it. You’re done. You can check the box. You open up a digital site, and you start it and you never, ever finish it. You don’t ever know if you know everything you need to know.
That’s cognitively taxing. We would theorize that it reduces your perceived value of the product, because you’ve learned something, but did you learn everything you needed to know? Or did you miss something more important? So there are all these… tradeoffs. You have an unlimited amount of information, but you don’t ever know if you’ve read the right information. You have an unlimited availability to see the latest update, so, you’ve got timeliness. But you have no way to know if the update changed two minutes after you closed the browser. It creates this huge tension, and we would argue that some of those key tensions that are created in that environment are directly related to sense-making of the news…
What is the actual goal of the reader? It’s not to sign up for a newsletter or read this sports story today. It’s to be informed, to understand. What are those deeper psychological needs that they are actually chasing? I would argue that the goal of news is to help people understand their world, their community.
Q. In your digital paper, you write: “The question facing local news publishers now is: ‘What do readers want, what do they value and what do they think is worth paying for?'” You conclude that answering that essential question “requires us to better understand how news is presented in print and on digital platforms and how those mediums support or neglect the reader’s need to make sense of the world.” Are you saying that we’re really just in the early stages of understanding digital?
A. It took print 150 years to develop the maturity of the storytelling model. And that storytelling model includes the moment from assigning the story to designing the story. To delivering the story. That’s all part of the storytelling model in print. It took 200 years for the ramifications of the printing press to shake itself out, right? We’re only 20 years in to digital news.
Q. What’s next?
A. There’s a level we haven’t gone into in the research yet, which is a level deeper in the newsroom process. This question eventually leads to: Do we have to write stories differently? Do we have to assign stories and write them and frame them [differently]? When we write our stories, we assume a physical relationship on a printed page between content blocks, so to speak, between articles. So you either need to figure out how to recreate that physical relationship in digital or you need to write stories differently in a way that doesn’t rely on that physical relationship as a cue to understanding. We’ve relied on that metaphor because we’ve always had it in print. It doesn’t translate.
We’ve set up all these false dichotomies between print and digital, between young and old, that kind of thing. It’s not relevant to the question of are you actually serving people news in the way that they need it in order to make sense of their lives. And the answer isn’t the same for every person. I think you can still identify clear gaps in any current product that could be improved to make it more valuable to them and therefore make them more likely to pay for it. Potentially.
At first glance, the northern Minnesota town of International Falls doesn’t seem like the place for a cutting-edge experiment in sustaining local journalism. Known mostly for its frigid winters and for inspiring “Frostbite Falls, Minnesota,” the fictional home of Rocky and Bullwinkle, the town was in danger of being scorched by the hot winds of the expanding “news desert.” That story is all too familiar, but let’s fill in some blanks. Alden Global Capital, now the second-largest owner of U.S. newspapers (after Gannett), bought the weekly in 2020. In June 2021, the Journal published the final issue in its 110-year history, Burl Gilyard of MinnPost reported.
U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat whose father was a newspaper columnist, had this to say: “… the International Falls Journal is a reminder of the value of local journalism,” she told Gilyard. “For more than a century, it has empowered its readers by providing them with accurate, relevant information about their communities. It has captured moments big and small that together tell a beautiful story of the region that will live on.” (In March, Klobuchar and a bipartisan coalition introduced the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would give publishers a “safe harbor” to negotiate collectively with digital platforms.)
The International Falls Journal was out, but not down. In a lively piece on October 20 in the Columbia Journalism Review, Lauren Harris has the details of what happened next. A cloud computing company based in New Jersey called CherryRoad had already purchased a nearby newspaper in Minnesota called the Cook County News-Herald from local owners, with plans to expand. As Harris reports, CherryRoad CEO Jeremy Gulban worked with the editor of the News-Herald, Brian Larsen, to relaunch a newspaper in International Falls after Alden closed it down rather than sell. CherryRoad has since acquired 26 small-market newspapers, according to Harris.
“People want to walk in every day and buy a paper, tell you about their grandmother’s 90th birthday, about a trip they just took,” Gulban tells Harris. “And that’s not going to go away, in my opinion, even as these communities become more digitally advanced, because that’s what small town life is all about.” Ultimately, that may mean that the discussion about what strategies work best to save local news needs to take on more of a local accent, whether it’s a Fargo twang or a Texas drawl. Newsroom experiments in urban (or urban-ish) regions with easy access to digital pipelines and a ready pool of Gen Z talent might not necessarily translate to small-town Minnesota or Iowa. Those newsrooms might not have the resources to launch digital newsletters, podcasts or big-tent events. Yet their connection to their subscribers, and the larger community, runs just as deep and is just as worthy of a sustainable future. The CherryRoad experiment certainly points the way.
Writing for The Atlantic in 2009, Michael Hirschorn asked a burning question about the future of The New York Times: “Can America’s paper of record survive the death of newsprint? Can journalism?”
Times indeed were tough for the publicly traded Gray Lady, which was trying to weather a harrowing economic recession, a crippling credit crunch and significant drops in advertising revenue and circulation. As Hirschorn wrote at the time: “As of December , its stock had fallen so far that the entire company could theoretically be had for about $1 billion. The former Times executive editor Abe Rosenthal often said he couldn’t imagine a world without the Times. Perhaps we should start.”
Downsizing followed. Pieces of the assembled Times Company empire were sold off, including The Boston Globe and the Times Company’s share of the Fenway Sports Group, which owns the Boston Red Sox.
But Hirschorn’s prediction was premature. The Times has become a bellwether in the industry as it navigates the transition from print to digital, instituting a paywall in 2011 for digital readers and launching a clutch of newsletters and standalone digital products like the Cooking and Games apps. Yet the Times still reports a print circulation for Sunday of 860,364, according to the Alliance for Audited Media report on the total combined average for the six months ending March 31, 2021. That’s down, but it’s not insignificant. Closer to home, my collaborator Dan Kennedy reported in September that the Globe’s “strategy of focusing on digital subscriptions is paying off.”
Kennedy cites recent figures from the Alliance for Audited Media. The Globe’s paid weekday circulation was 331,482 for the six-month period that ended in the first quarter of this year. That’s up 81,201, or 32%, over the same period a year earlier. The Globe’s paid Sunday circulation was 387,312, up 73,347, or 23%. It’s clear that print circulation is still sliding and paid digital subscriptions are mission critical. As Kennedy reports:
“Weekday print was 77,679, a decline of 16%. Sunday print is 135,696, down nearly 15%. Paid digital now accounts for nearly 77% of the Globe’s circulation on weekdays and 65% on Sundays — numbers that no doubt had a lot to do with the hunger for local and regional news during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
These figures demonstrate that the existential question about the future of newsprint is still smoldering. Recently, Mark Jacob of the Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, posited that print and digital publishing might ultimately “meet somewhere in the middle,” with 24/7 digital news streams all week long and a Sunday-only print bundle. The former Times chief executive, Mark Thompson, gave his own frank assessment during an exit interview when he stepped down in August 2020. As Sarah Scire of Nieman Lab reported, Thompson told interviewers: “I believe the Times will definitely be printed for another 10 years and quite possibly another 15 years — maybe even slightly more than that. I would be very surprised if it’s printed in 20 years’ time.”
Nancy Lane, the chief executive of the Local Media Association, an industry group, told Jacob that “we know there are markets where big metro dailies only publish a few days a week, so they’re not far off from becoming a weekly.” The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was a pioneer among larger regional newspapers, moving print to Sunday only and handing out iPads to subscribers so they can read a digital replica edition. The iPad experiment has proven popular, publisher Walter Hussman Jr. told Jacob, so this month, he’s expanding it to another newspaper he owns, the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Tennessee. “We’re going to do what the customers want,” Hussman said.
Other legacy newspapers are following suit, according to the tally by Medill. The Tampa Bay Times publishes a print edition on Sunday and Wednesday. The McClatchy chain, which lays claim to 65 million readers in 30 markets, stopped printing Saturday papers at all of its outlets. The Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming, a Lee Enterprises paper, dropped its Monday and Tuesday print editions last year, Jacob reports, noting “that made Wyoming the first state with no seven-days-a-week local newspapers.”
Predictions about the demise of print make a nice headline for pundits (writing primarily on digital platforms, it should be noted.) Yet reading habits differ from market to market, and across audience demographics, so the end of any single newsroom’s press run is likely to vary widely. But, as Jacob writes, one thing is clear: “The daily print habit is eroding.”
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.
Using surveys, spreadsheets and other tools of political science, Joshua Darr has been working to bring statistical power and precision to the question of the relationship between news deserts and the nation’s divisive partisan discourse.
Darr, a researcher at Louisiana State University, published an intriguing study a few years ago that found a signal amid the noise of the 2012 presidential race. Darr and two research partners – Matthew Hitt of Colorado State University and Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M University – checked election returns in counties where a newspaper had closed and found that voters there were more likely to pull the lever straight down the ticket for a single political party. The reason, they theorized, was that without a reliable source of local news, voters went national. In other words, when local papers closed, news consumers turned to national outlets like CNN, MSNBC, Fox and the New York Times.
Confronted with a lack of information about local issues and candidates, and buffeted by the nasty rhetoric staining that presidential race, they were more likely to cast nuance aside and vote their party. As Darr told me in an interview shortly after his study came out: “There’s plenty of research that we cite in the paper showing that national sources have more polarizing language, that they talk more about elite partisan conflict. And that reading about those things can make people more polarized themselves.”
It’s a promising line of inquiry, one that could draw much-needed public attention to the impact of greed-fueled corporate acquisitions of local newspapers. Quantifying social outcomes that are linked to the loss of a robust Fourth Estate could help make the case for potential remedies, such the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, a measure cosponsored by U.S. senators Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Kennedy, R-La., and U.S. representatives David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Ken Buck, R-N.Y., that would allow publishers to team up to negotiate collectively with digital platforms.
In 2019, Darr received an unexpected gift from Julie Makinen, the executive editor of the Desert Sun, a Gannett paper in Palm Springs, California: the chance to test his theories in a real-world laboratory. Makinen read the group’s research on split-ticket voting in the Journal of Communication and reached out. Makinen and then-opinion editor Al Franco decided to see what would happen if the Desert Sun op-ed page stopped running national political columns for the month of July 2019 and devoted space solely to local issues and local voices. As Makinen wrote at the time: “… folks who have lost their local newspaper or have given up on it turn to national news outlets. Then, they apply their (increasingly hardened) feelings about national politics to their local city council or state legislature. The result? More partisanship close to home.”
Makinen and Franco put out a call for local opinion columns and letters on local issues like downtown development, the environment and historic preservation. They worked with first-time writers, activists, and business leaders to refine their copy for publication. During the super-local month, Darr and his colleagues conducted surveys of Sun readers in the Palm Springs area. As a control, they surveyed readers in Ventura, California, where the Ventura County Star, another Gannett paper, kept using national columnists during the same time period. Darr, Hitt and Dunaway published their results in March in a book called “Home Style Opinion: How Local Newspapers Can Slow Polarization.”
Their conclusion: “… after this quasi-experiment, politically engaged people did not feel as far apart from members of the opposing party, compared to those in a similar community whose newspaper did not change. While it may not cure all of the imbalances and inequities in opinion journalism, an opinion page that ignores national politics could help local newspapers push back against political polarization.”
The experiment is not without controversy. 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. Darr countered that view in a telephone interview, saying, “It’s important for people to be able to express their opinions on national politics, and there are myriad ways to do that. But I don’t think there’s necessarily a good reason for local newspapers to devote some of their precious op-ed page space to things that aren’t local. I think they should be maximizing their comparative advantage in the marketplace by giving people things that they can’t get anywhere else.”
Darr also told me that political scientists have a term for the politicization of, well, everything: political translation. “Something that wasn’t previously political becomes political. And it increasingly seems like party is an overarching identity that includes all these other identities underneath it. Whenever an issue comes about, it seems as though people have to figure out the partisan framing in order to understand it.”
Darr, Hitt and Dunaway concede that the Sun experiment did not diversify opinion in terms of bringing in new voices. Instead, people in power who could employ PR agencies to write op-ed pieces dominated the pages. As Makinen told the authors: “Our results show that a home style opinion page alone may not diversify the pool of writers. If history is any indicator, upending these entrenched hierarchies will require deliberate effort by editors, activists and organizations.”
But the authors turn that into a call to action. “We propose that philanthropists and newspaper owners prioritize training and supporting opinion editors. … Finally, we suggest reinvigorating professional associations, which could distribute trainings and best practices to opinion editors, particularly regarding diversity and representation,” Darr, Hitt and Dunaway write. Noting that journalism philanthropy has quadrupled in the last decade – they report that $1.7 billion in journalism grants were given out between 2009 and 2019 – they express a hope that “more philanthropic dollars should be given to supporting, hiring and retaining [opinion editors].”
The Desert Sun was not immune to economic pressures that weigh on every newsroom. Franco took a buyout in 2020, and the newspaper’s printing press was shut down and moved to Phoenix. Inspired in part by Darr’s experiment, Makinen and others in the community formed a nonprofit and raised enough money to hire a new opinion editor.
Where would he like to take his research? Darr told me he would like to launch a similar experiment in a large, diverse city to “test some hypotheses about international news and communities, or the impact of increasing the diversity of op-ed writers.” He’d also like to research what happens when a local news site gets launched, whether a nonprofit or a newsletter or Substack, to see “what it means for the local news ecosystem.”
Hollywood is a long way from Storm Lake, Iowa. So it might come as a surprise that the bible of the entertainment industry, The Hollywood Reporter, calls the documentary film “Storm Lake” a “vital celebration of the role of community-based news gathering at a time when media revenues are way down and the credibility of the press has taken a hammering across much of the country.”
The film by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison tracks two years in the life of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Storm Lake Times, a twice-weekly newspaper with a staff of 10 covering Storm Lake and a handful of other small towns in rural Buena Vista County, Iowa. Cameras follow editor Art Cullen, who won a Pulitzer in 2017 for editorials on Big Agriculture and the climate crisis, his wife, Dolores, who is chief photographer, photo editor, and culture writer, and their son Tom, general assignment reporter. The documentary recently won honors at the Provincetown Film Festival.
The film is noteworthy in its focus on the role a small-town newspaper can play in stitching together the social fabric of rural communities through sharp, knowledgeable (not to mention truthful) reporting. It also depicts how tough it has been for smaller newsrooms to scrap it out in the face of a secular decline in advertising made unimaginably steeper by the uncertainty of the pandemic.
Like many newspapers, large and small, the Times is surfing new revenue streams to make up the gap through targeted digital advertising, philanthropic fund-raising, and circulation. The paper is part of the newly formed Western Iowa Journalism Foundation, along with La Prensa in Denison, which covers the Hispanic population, the Carroll Daily Times Herald in Carroll, and the Greene Recorder in Greene. The nonprofit foundation aims to “help build a stronger democracy in western Iowa by protecting, strengthening, and expanding local public interest reporting.” At last count, it has raised about $26,000. The coronavirus pandemic has also brought into sharp focus the critical role that a local news outlet can play during a public health crisis – disseminating authoritative information from experts and discrediting misinformation. An analysis by the Brookings Institution found that in early April 2020, half of the 2,485 counties that reported cases of coronavirus had either no local newspaper or only one surviving paper. Fifty-seven percent of those counties had no daily newspaper. Two-thirds were rural counties.
Masked and vaxxed, I recently flew to Minneapolis and drove a hard-to-find rental car south through tall corn and sprawling wind farms in northwest Iowa to Storm Lake, population 10,000, to talk with Art and Dolores in the Times newsroom. Their address: Times Square, also known as 220 West Railroad Street. I also got to meet Peach, a mellow white -and-ginger dog who ambled around the newsroom. What follows is a lightly edited Q&A.
Q: How has the pandemic affected readership?
Art: Readership has been growing, partly because we have a bit of dim celebrity from the movie. We dropped to a circulation of 2,800, but now we’re back up to 3,000, publishing twice a week. If we can get to 4,000 at our current rate, we can float the boat, mainly through circulation revenue. Leading up to the pandemic, we were losing our retail advertising base, so we knew we had to make the transition to reader revenue. That’s pretty difficult when circulation is stagnant to declining.
But, frankly, Donald Trump did wonders for the newspaper industry. It really did wake people up to the fact that freedom isn’t free, democracy has a price, and it costs just about as much as a cup of coffee. Readers have started paying that price. Although the New York Times and Washington Post rates of gain have slowed, they’re still increasing their digital subscriptions. The Star Tribune [in Minneapolis] and The Boston Globe are doing OK.
On a smaller scale, we’re experiencing the same thing. We were breaking even before, but it wasn’t like we were cutting the fatted calf! Detroit decided they didn’t want to advertise in print any more, so we lost $70,000 worth of auto advertising, and health insurance went up. Essentially, we’ve got to fill a $110,000 hole annually through circulation and fund-raising.
Dolores: We’re using Facebook and Twitter to tease stories in order to drive subscriptions.
Art: We’re talking with foundations, but they move at glacier-like speeds, and we’re losing money like a wildfire. Things have improved since May, and we broke even a couple of months, but it was pretty ugly for a long time.
Q: Your front page focuses on local people and events, and leaves national political debates to the editorial page. Does that allow you to cut across partisan divisions and reach a broader readership?
Art: Well, yeah, it does. It softens things. I can help create common conversations, whereas if we’re writing about [US senator] Chuck Grassley visiting Storm Lake, then all of a sudden people say, “Well, you’re taking a partisan view of that.” And no, we’re actually not, unless it’s on the editorial page, where we make it clear we are progressive populists.
Dolores: We take pride in writing about local people. We just heard today that someone caught a long-nosed gar. It’s a strange fish, with a snout, and that will probably be on our front page, along with the people who caught it. I don’t know anyone who’s caught one of those here. I’ve learned to squeeze tidbits out of people that are doing interesting things, to go out and get pictures with the idea that this is the first draft of history.
Art: People sometimes fail to comprehend that I’m agnostic on the front page. It’s not like we’re dealing with politics that much, anyway. We’re more pictures of fish. Stuff that people are actually interested in.
Dolores: We did put the Trump boat parade on Storm Lake on the front page.
Q: Gannett has eliminated editorial pages in some of its papers, in part because of a fear that strong opinions alienate readers. Have you considered that strategy?
Art: Honestly, our front page today is about infrastructure challenges to our city water and sewer systems. It’s not about [former congressman] Steve King or Chuck Grassley or [former US senator] Tom Harkin or any of that other stuff. People often fail to appreciate how the newspaper is constructed, as you’re well familiar.
[Eliminating editorials] is a loss. It’s tragic. It’s stupid, too, because one of the things I’ve noticed in my research is that if you’re doing an email newsletter, the strongest response rate is on opinion pieces. I’ve noticed that to be true on the email newsletter we do. People want opinion. They don’t want snark, I don’t think, but they want well-informed opinion or [laughter] well-written sarcasm. I think it’s a mistake for Gannett to eliminate it.
Q: What lessons are you taking away from the pandemic?
Art: Well, post-election, democracy prevailed. And our circulation has been going up. People have been really eager to find out what the straight facts were about the pandemic. We were aggressively asking: “How many cases are there at Tyson?” [the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Storm Lake.] On the editorial page, I was hollering about it, but Tom, our general assignment reporter, was being very diligent and straight about it. We worked with ProPublica on an investigation [in December 2020.]
Dolores: We’d get calls from people saying, “Keep it up, keep it up.” It really bothered me that people were dying, and [the official response] was sort of like, “Oh, let’s just go on, nothing to see here.” That’s when I began combing Facebook and talking to people to find out who was sick, and who had died. I would write one story, and people would call and say, “Oh, yeah, I survived, too.”
Art: On our editorial page, I was excoriating them for their cynical approach to the way they treated vulnerable people.
Q: So you’re poking powerful institutions in town. How does that go over with advertisers?
Art: Well, it doesn’t matter much any more, there’s no ads, and Tyson isn’t going to buy any ads with us. I used to be a little more shy.
MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, the award-winning Memphis nonprofit newsroom committed to reporting on “the intersection of poverty, power, and policy,” is staffing up. Wendi C. Thomas, the innovative and tireless founding editor and publisher, announced on July 29 that she has hired veteran journalist Adrienne Johnson Martin as executive editor.
“As we move from startup mode to sustainability, it’s essential that our leadership bench has depth and that’s what Adrienne brings,” Thomas said in a story posted on MLK50’s website. “I am elated that she’s joining the team and I look forward to building the organization together.”
The addition of top-level editing talent is a noteworthy pivot point for any news organization, but it’s especially significant for a four-year-old startup that is positioning itself for long-term growth and impact. When Johnson Martin starts in September, MLK50 will have six full-time and two part-time editorial employees. Thomas noted on Twitter that the MLK50 leadership team is all-women, and of the top five newsroom jobs, three are held by Black women, one by a Latina, and one by a white woman. As she tweeted: “It is so satisfying to build the newsroom I always wanted to work in.”
Johnson Martin brings a broad range of media experience. She was most recently managing editor of Duke Magazine, Duke University’s alumni publication, and was part of the Los Angeles Times team that won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for spot news for coverage of the Northridge earthquake. She covered radio, television, and film for The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, and served as associate features editor there.
“I love that I’ll have the chance to be in community with a team that knows we don’t have to live in a zero-sum world and is committed to telling the stories of those on the losing side of that paradigm — these are journalists who use their talents in service of justice,” Johnson Martin told MLK50. “What’s better than that?”
Thomas, an editor and reporter at The Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer and the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, launched MLK50: Justice Through Journalism in 2017 as a one-year project focusing on economic inequality in Memphis 50 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Her initial fund-raising round: $3,000 from friends and family. “I started with nothing,” she told me in a recent phone interview. “I lived off of credit cards for the first year-and-a-half while we were launching.”
As revenue from philanthropic donations grew, she paid that debt off, and set a path for growth. In 2020, Thomas won the prestigious Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting for a series that exposed Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare’s rapacious debt collection policies. The MLK50 series, produced in partnership with ProPublica, got stunning results. Ultimately, the hospital erased almost $12 million in patient debt.
The Selden Ring prompted new interest from fund-raisers. But Thomas also speaks openly about the difficulty journalists of color face in raising philanthropic dollars. In fact, according to Borealis Philanthropy, which focuses on social justice and transformation, between 2009 and 2015 a scant 6% of the $1.2 billion in grants invested in journalism, news and information in the United States went to organizations serving specific racial and ethnic groups. Only 7 percent went toward projects that served economically disadvantaged populations.
“After our story published, funders that had told me ‘no’ called me,” Thomas said. “Now nothing had changed, they knew I was working with ProPublica when they told me we were risky, we weren’t big enough. This is part of why I’m so explicit and vocal about it, because people should not have to clear the bars that I’ve had to clear.”
I’ll share more of Thomas’ wide-ranging, wise interview in a future post.
Google and Facebook are the epitome of sheer American chutzpah — as American as, say, Mark Zuckerberg wakeboarding across a lake on the Fourth of July, waving the Stars and Stripes in an irony-free display of patriotism. But both tech giants also have a global reach — and ambitions that seem to extend at least as far as the Kármán Line.
So it’s no surprise to learn that both companies recently signed deals with a slew of Canadian publishers, including digital startups as well as storied newsrooms like The Globe and Mail in Toronto. David Skok, CEO and editor-in-chief of The Logic, a digital news site that covers Canada’s innovation economy, provides a cogent explanation in his latest “Letter from the Editor” — and explains why he’s skeptical that Big Tech will ever truly have the public’s interest at heart.
(Skok founded the for-profit business, tech, and politics site three years ago, after stints at the Toronto Star and the Boston Globe, where he was managing editor and vice president of digital. Before landing at the Globe, Skok was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, where he co-authored a noteworthy white paper on disruption in the news industry with Clayton M. Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor. Entitled “Breaking News,” it’s still worthy of a read.)
Eight Canadian publishers signed up to partner with Google News Showcase starting in the fall. Google will pay the publishers for content, and in return, the media sites will be able to sell online advertising and sign up new subscribers. Google Canada is doing its best to sound like an advocate of robust and unfettered coverage of community news. Or even like a friendly neighbor you might want to have a Labatt’s with. “We’ve never relied on high-quality, community-based journalism more than we have during the Covid crisis,” Sabrina Geremia, an official at Google Canada, told The Globe and Mail (subscription required). But neither Google or the publishers would comment on the value of the agreement, or the duration of the license. Facebook is launching a similar initiative, signing up 14 Canadian partners for its News Innovation Test.
Skok talked to a half-dozen publishers who were not part of the Google News Showcase deal. They asked to remain anonymous, but didn’t mince words: all told Skok they were angry that “the Big Tech platforms were applying restrictive and opaque criteria to privilege select publishers and employing a divide-and-conquer approach in a race to get ahead of the threat of legislation.” Skok points to a tantalizing initiative in Denmark, where a change in European Union copyright law has prompted publishers to join forces in order to bargain collectively with Google and Facebook. Google, Facebook, and now Amazon continue to rake in a significant portion of digital advertising dollars, leaving low-rent programmatic scraps for news sites. (Google’s share of the U.S. digital advertising market last year was 28.9%, and Facebook accounted for 25.2%, according to the Wall Street Journal. Amazon rose to 10.3% from 7.8% in 2019.)
“Big Tech’s sheer wealth, scale and influence mean these decisions will profoundly shape what you read, distorting the marketplace of ideas,” Skok writes. “This is not simply private-market players paying fair-market value in exchange for products — it’s private companies using their trillion-dollar market caps and immense bargaining power to steamroll an entire sector in pursuit of their own self-interest.”