Jody Brannon of the Center for Journalism & Liberty on the digital future and the danger of monopoly

Jody Brannon, director of the Center for Journalism & Liberty at the Open Markets Institute, started her career in print in her native Seattle. Never one to shy from a challenge (she’s an avid skiier and beamed in from the snowy mountains of Idaho), she transitioned to digital relatively early on in the revolution. She has had leadership or consulting roles at washingtonpost.comusatoday.commsn.com, as well as the tech universe.

She served on the board of the Online News Association for 10 years and holds a PhD in mass communication from the University of Maryland. The Center for Journalism & Liberty is part of the Open Markets Institute, which has a pretty bold mission statement: To shine a light on monopoly power and its dangers to democracy. The center also works to engage in grassroots coalitions, such as Freedom from Facebook and 4Competition. 

Dan’s Quick Take is on an arcane subject—the future of legal ads. Those notices from city and county government may seem pretty dull, but newspapers have depended on them as a vital source of revenue since the invention of the printing press. Now they’re under attack in Florida.

Ellen weighs in on a mass exodus at the venerable Texas Observer magazine, once a progressive voice to be reckoned with and home to the late great columnist Molly Ivins.

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

News entrepreneurs share lessons and a view of the future

Illustration by I Wayan Kerta, CC BY-SA 4.0

By Ellen Clegg

Keeping community journalism alive means defining precisely what it means to be local, Lillian Ruiz, co-founder and managing director of the nonprofit National Trust for Local News, told an online audience last week at a Shorenstein Center webinar

“As long as we can get that initial understanding of the local partner, the local infrastructure, the local information, and marry that with our pretty technical but also spiritual understanding of these spaces,” Ruiz said, “we can really come up with some interesting financial solutions—and some business solutions and operational solutions—that we hope over time will make sure some of the small publishers can invest their time, their energy, in initiatives and not necessarily survival.” 

The webinar was remote, as many things still are on the backside of the pandemic, but each Zoom square was occupied by an entrepreneur with a penchant for fresh thinking about sustainable business models for covering local news. Sponsored by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, the panel, entitled “Reinventing Sustainable Business Revenue Models for Journalism,” stood out for any number of reasons. For one thing, it was made up entirely of women and it was moderated by a woman. And each speaker was a founder or leader of a nonprofit news outlet or philanthropic initiative busy carving out a future for local news 

The panel included Sue Cross, CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit News, a network of more than 360 independent news organizations; Lauren Gustus, executive editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, the only metropolitan daily to transition to a nonprofit; Tracie Powell, founder of  The Pivot Fund, a philanthropic venture capital organization committed to supporting founders of color; Ruiz, whose National Trust for Local News worked to keep The Colorado Sun and other newsrooms under local ownership; Michelle Srbinovich, vice president for portfolio success at the American Journalism Project, a philanthropic venture capital firm that has raised more than $86 million to invest in local journalism; and Mary Walter-Brown, founder and CEO of the News Revenue Hub, a nonprofit founded to help digital news organizations build sustainable revenue streams through membership and audience engagement. The panel was moderated by Jennifer Preston, a senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center’s Technology and Social Change Project, former vice president for journalism at the John S. and James L. Knight Program and a former New York Times editor. 

During the panel discussion, Ruiz reflected on experience that grew out of the formation of the Colorado News Conservancy, a year-old collaboration by the National Trust  and The Colorado Sun. The conservancy, a public benefit corporation jointly owned by the National Trust and the Sun, last year acquired a family-owned group of 24 weekly and monthly newspapers in the Denver suburbs. My colleague, Dan Kennedy, wrote about the acquisition last June in his Media Nation column, noting that The Colorado Sun itself rose from the ashes of The Denver Post, now owned by the Alden Global Capital hedge fund.

The National Trust, Ruiz explained, looks for opportunities for impact investing in order to achieve social good. The local news crisis seemed like a natural target. “Ultimately, my co-founders and I, we came together because we saw a really similar need and a similar concern, which is that the US is losing far too many small and midsize community newspapers of all types,” she said. “These community-focused news organizations, they have longstanding trust and value, yet they are most in danger of being out of the loop on so many of these incredible resources and opportunities that exist.” 

Colorado made a great test lab, Ruiz said, because there was a strong local operating partner up and running in The Sun, which launched in 2018. “I had worked with them in the past,” she noted, “and I had a sense that this would be a good fit with their mission and their strategy and how they viewed the information landscape and the news landscape across Colorado. That was a huge ‘luck be a lady’ factor for us.”

The National Trust, she said, is very much focused on “iterating the answer” to an overarching question: “How do we mobilize and deploy community-focused financing and impact capital and how do we take those financing opportunities and capital opportunities and combine them with state-level support and partnership? Because those pieces together, the capital approaches, and the state-level support and partnership, are really what are going to build the enduring infrastructure that strengthens community news and preserves local ownership.”

While nonprofit ownership is verging on becoming a commonplace strategy for news startups, Ruiz discussed another potential route to innovation that is much harder to grasp: blockchain. From 2017 to 2019, Ruiz was a co-founder and chief operating officer at the Civil Media Company and the Civil Foundation, a nonprofit public charity “committed to the sustainability of trustworthy journalism around the world, founded on the principle that a free press is essential to a fair and just society,” according to her LinkedIn page. 

In its relatively short lifespan, Civil got a lot of media attention—goodbad, and meh. The Civil experiment had promise at the start. Founder Matthew Iles told Mathew Ingram of Columbia Journalism Review that he believed the only way to rectify the secular decline of the news industry was “to come up with something radical and fundamental,” to “design something where mission and business model are in alignment and in service of the mission of journalism.” Iles envisioned an open platform run by and for journalists, governed by members who invested in cryptocurrency tokens, with a constitution laying out standards and practices and a Civil Council of experienced digital news veterans who would uphold the founding principles and rule on community decisions about direction and coverage. The community, or audience, could presumably be empowered to weigh in on coverage by using cryptocurrency tokens to reward writers.

In fact, Vivian Schiller, a digital pioneer at The New York Times and NPR, was brought on as president of the Civil Foundation (she is now at The Aspen Institute). Civil awarded 14 organizations that signed up to be members grants of $1 million. But Civil’s bold idea foundered on economic realities: The blockchain investment bubble burst in 2018, and the tokens that Civil awarded journalists as part of their compensation never gained market value. Some journalists told NiemanLab’s Joshua Benton that they had to borrow money just to pay rent because the token-based salary model collapsed. And one of Civil’s core ideas, where the community of token-holders could appeal coverage decisions to the Civil Council, seems potentially problematic in an era of polarization.

Isles, the founder, told Poynter analyst Rick Edmonds in 2020 that he still believes a self-governing decentralized protocol—one that essentially uses cryptography to guard against hacking into original images and fact-based reporting—still holds merit. But the way forward— for journalism, at least—seems somewhat opaque. 

Indeed, while blockchain is hard for the average layperson to understand (and this primer from NPR is a good place to start), the terrain resembles the early, open-source days of the web, before commercialized browsers and apps and fast internet connections unleashed a flood of content and a later rise of corporate hegemons like Microsoft, Google and Apple. 

As Ruiz explained during the webinar, “We were extraordinarily early in the blockchain space. We started researching the project in 2016 and started rolling it out in 2017, and I think we could have communicated much more clearly … that blockchain is the underlying protocol. It’s what you build on top…” that’s relevant. It was, she said, “almost like a Substack model before there was Substack.” The founders were thinking “about how we could use it for creating more direct and clear relationships between readers and specific journalists. [About] how you could use payments on the blockchain to underwrite certain types of work. I think that’s going to continue to be the opportunity of blockchain, and I don’t think anyone has cracked it.” 

Researchers for the Starling Lab for Data Integrity at Stanford University are just setting out to analyze how blockchain technology can protect the veracity of information in three fields: history, law and journalism. Rebecca MacKinnon, a former CNN bureau chief in China and Japan and a digital policy scholar, did a stint as a journalism fellow last summer and began to frame what next steps might look like for an ethical framework governing a decentralized internet, sometimes called Web3. She shared a cautionary note: “To most proponents, the decentralized web offers an exciting opportunity to hit the reset button on many things that went wrong with Web 2.0. While it promises many novel innovations, Web3’s grandest ambitions sound eerily familiar. The Web3 world has adopted a narrative that proclaims it will not only provide a new economy but also set a new course for human freedom. Without an ounce of cynicism, I can say I’ve heard this story before.”

In the end, Ruiz counseled, journalism entrepreneurs should continue to experiment, in order to “open up really interesting spaces and places where we can rebuild or just completely override the things that were built for us on Web2 that no longer serve us.”

South Carolina supersizes the power of the press

Ready to roll (Photo | Ellen Clegg)

By Ellen Clegg

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.”

Ogden Newspapers buys western papers and one Goat Journal

Marissa Ames, editor of the Goat Journal (Photo courtesy Marissa Ames)

By Ellen Clegg

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. 

Damon Kiesow on how readers make sense of their world

Damon Kiesow and co-author Shuhua Zhou

By Ellen Clegg

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.

Northern light in Frostbite Falls

Rocky and Bullwinkle lunch box by Wired Rocky and Bullwinkle, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

By Ellen Clegg

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.

Print versus digital: Will they meet in the middle?

Printing press in Vermont, Robert N. Dennis Collection, Wikimedia Commons

By Ellen Clegg

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 [2008], 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.”

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.

Going local, going home: A California paper tries to slow political extremism

By Ellen Clegg

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.”

Life and The Times in Storm Lake, Iowa

Times Square in Storm Lake, Iowa

By Ellen Clegg

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.

Art Cullen in his Storm Lake Times office

 
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.

Dolores Cullen and Peach

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.