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.

MLK50 hires first executive editor

Adrienne Johnson Martin (Screenshot courtesy MLK50)

By Ellen Clegg

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?”

Wendi C. Thomas (Photo courtesy MLK50)

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 cut deals with Canadian publishers

Google and Facebook have a global reach. (“Kraken,” by LeGrimlin / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

By Ellen Clegg

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.”

Fake news: Duke researchers tally up ‘pink slime’ stories at Metric Media

Storytelling seems unlikely to be hijacked by reporter-bots. (CC: Creative Commons)

By Ellen Clegg

You’ve no doubt heard of “pink slime.” To put it in polite terms, it’s the pastel-hued meat paste used in some processed hamburger meat. (I’m not linking to a photo: You can thank me later.)

Thanks to an episode of “This American Life,” it’s also a term that was used to describe Journatic, a company that outsourced hyperlocal “news” written by poorly paid offshore reporters — and marketed to mainstream newspapers. Ultimately, the fake bylines assigned to writers in the Philippines were a bridge too far for newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, so Journatic lost traction.

But the drive to try to automate local news — eliminating skilled reporters, assignment editors, copy editors, designers, photographers, product specialists, and engineers — hasn’t gone away, unfortunately. During the run-up to the 2020 presidential campaign, “pink slime” journalism came oozing back in the form of Metric Media, a vast network of “news” sites that aspire to a kind of quick-scan faux legitimacy. As Priyanjana Bengani reported in the Columbia Journalism Review, the number of Metric Media sites tripled over the course of 2020, constituting a shadowy network of supposedly hyperlocal outlets that were in fact funded by political operations and agenda-driven agencies and “designed to promote partisan talking points and collect user data.” Metric Media is run by Brian Timpone, and “is rooted in deception, eschewing hallmarks of news reporting like fairness and transparency,” according to an investigation by The New York Times. 

So how bad is Metric Media? Where’s the beef? Two professors at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy at Duke University have applied some actual metrics to Metric in a new study released this month, and the results are deeply troubling — especially against a backdrop of greed-fueled corporate media consolidation that has created ghost newspapers and news deserts across the country. Duke researchers Asa Royal and Philip M. Napoli scraped the front pages of 999 Metric Media outlets every day for more than two months to assess whether the content was serving communities or meeting an audience. The results of their study, “Local Journalism’s Possible Future: Metric Media and its Approach to Community Information Needs,” show glaring gaps in coverage and toxic levels of contempt for local readers. Some of their top-line findings:

  • Most Metric Media sites lack any original content, and, in general, old content is not regularly updated. An overwhelming majority of stories appear to be automatically generated.
  • In one 78-day observation period, nearly two-thirds of outlets did not publish a single article written by a human being.
  • Stories about state and national politics are shown much more often than local news.
  • Instead of democratizing local news for individual towns, Metric Media operates hubs in each state; on an average day, those hubs generate around 45% of the content shown across the network, despite only making up 5% of the network’s population.
  • Metric Media dedicated an outsized amount of coverage to stories about electoral fraud in states where Donald Trump was contesting the vote during the 2020 general election.

Their conclusion: “Though the financial prospects for local newspapers are suffering, automated large-scale national operations appear, in this case, to be a poor substitute for the capital-intensive inputs of traditional local news.”

Royal and Napoli bring bracing gusts of data and fact to the ongoing effort to define what constitutes local news. And a reality check about the resource demands. When I was an editor at The Boston Globe, I was part of an effort to ramp up hyperlocal coverage in scores of cities and towns by creating twice-weekly print sections that were replated to zone in on targeted slices of the Globe’s coverage map: Globe West, Globe North, Globe NorthWest, Globe South. We hired reporters, editors, copy editors and advertising executives.

I spent a good part of a summer in the mezzanine-level production offices, the mailroom, and even on the loading dock on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester learning about the complex logistics of distribution and the timing of press runs. (Drivers knew the dimensions of their truck interior and calculated how many bundles of zoned sections would fit as they timed out their delivery route.) We experimented with different labels for the bundles and tested which were the most readable coming down the chute from the press. We leased office space in each region, bought scanners and copiers and computers.

Reporters attended town meetings and zoning board hearings and wrote everything from news stories to profiles to arts and entertainment features. Certainly, local government, schools, and police forces generated data that could be automated — data that readers wanted. And with a modern digital strategy, that data can be scraped and turned into news bites that are readily consumable, even welcome. But local doesn’t really scale — even if the cost structure of the rumbling, industrial print production cycle is stripped away for digital. Journalism that matters still means sustained investment in on-the-ground observation, in humans who can produce sustained beat reporting, painstaking investigations, pinpoint editing, and memorable visuals and design. Add in live events that allow for a robust exchange of ideas, even if only on Zoom, and advertising and marketing. “Pink slime” sites neglect a signal fact of human history, much in evidence during pandemic isolation: Connection and community are enduring. Storytelling is a timeless craft, which strengthens those bonds. In the end, that seems unlikely to be hijacked by an algorithm or a reporter-bot.

A news collective films the first rough draft of history

Unicorn Riot reporters filmed an Enbridge pipeline protest. (Screen grab courtesy Unicorn Riot)

By Ellen Clegg

After George Floyd’s murder last year ignited protests across the country, Troy Patterson, writing in The New Yorker, observed that despite a glut of cable news coverage, viewers might “still feel starved for context.” While it is a “moral duty to witness the scenes of uprising,” he wrote, a shift in focus could help viewers make sense of the sometimes chaotic scenes that were unfolding on their streets. “It may be wiser to attend to this nationwide conflagration as a local news story,” he wrote, and went on to commend one outlet doing just that: Unicorn Riot, a free-ranging, non-hierarchical media collective, was providing video feeds from protests in a number of communities and continuously updating them with interviews from local residents.

I checked in with Dan Feidt, a reporter/producer for Unicorn Riot who helped launch the site in 2015. Feidt, a web developer living in Boston, had seen the power of on-the-ground reporting that provided an alternative point of view during the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. Feidt and others set up video channels to stream live media from Occupy encampments. “The audio was a kind of murmuring buzz of activity—the sound was really intriguing, and putting it out live had a  grip on people’s attention, and it spread really fast,” he said. He was inspired: “Let’s take the lessons we learned and try to do live video, but also written pieces, investigations, FOIA requests … and let’s make it non-commercial and nonprofit.”

In 2015, Unicorn Riot was started on a shoestring; in 2019, revenue amounted to just over $115,000, from audience donations. In addition to investments in video equipment, Unicorn Riot had to buy helmets and flak jackets after reporters were injured by flash-bang grenades and rubber projectiles launched by police during protests after Floyd’s murder. 

Current staffing levels are small—about 10 people—with reporters in Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Denver, and South Africa. Freelancers contribute as events warrant. There’s no both-sides-ism here. Unicorn Riot is committed to amplifying marginalized voices, to elevating social justice campaigns—on July 1, Unicorn Riot videographers were recording as climate activists put their bodies in front of heavy equipment to stop construction of an Enbridge tar sands pipeline. In a media-saturated culture, where audiences are used to packaged television broadcasts on the one hand, or the maddeningly fractal ecosystem of Twitter on the other, there’s value in watching a raw, live video feed, observing the size of the giant pipeline drill bit, and weighing the conviction it must take to get in its way. There’s foreign coverage, too. In a recent story, contributor Emici Thug conducts a Q&A with a Brazilian poet participating in the nationwide protests against President Jair Messias Bolsonaro.

“I think there’s a huge problem with generational access in the media in the United States,” Feidt said. “I don’t think that millennials have much access to newspaper editorial pages or analysis and commentary in media institutions. Because we actually did try to talk to young people, our stuff came across so differently. There’s a lot going on, and you’re not hearing from them anywhere.”

More than 100 years ago, writing in The New Republic, journalist Walter Lippmann and his co-author Charles Merz asserted that “a sound public opinion cannot exist without access to the news.” It’s unclear what Lippmann might make of Unicorn Riot, but the site’s raw feeds from protests around the country and around the world are nothing less than a first rough draft of history. 

Sahan Journal: The promise and the pivot

Becky Dernbach on Somali Minnesota TV (Photo courtesy Sahan Journal)

By Ellen Clegg

When Mukhtar Ibrahim, a longtime Minnesota journalist, launched the digital nonprofit Sahan Journal in the summer of 2019, he was determined to fill in the blanks in coverage of the state’s vibrant immigrant communities. Actually, it was more of a relaunch. Ibrahim, a former reporter for Minnesota Public Radio and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, first put up a website in 2013 in order to provide “authoritative, fair and original reporting and analysis about issues related to Somalis in the diaspora, in East Africa, and the greater Horn of Africa.”

His early website showed potential, but without the support of an organization or wealthy donor, publishing out of his apartment in St. Paul on a voluntary basis got old. He turned his attention back to his journalism career, but his dream remained. (On a pre-pandemic visit to the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, I noticed that Ibrahim’s portrait is displayed in an array of prominent alumni biographies in Murphy Hall, home to the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication.) Ultimately, Ibrahim got the backing he needed from Minnesota Public Radio, which agreed to pay his salary for 18 months, and found space to create his own newsroom at the Glen Nelson Center at American Public Media in St. Paul, an incubator for new ventures. Funders and partnerships now include the Emerson Collective, the Knight Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, and the Facebook Journalism Project, among others.

A recent look at the Sahan Journal home page shows a broad range of coverage, with compelling stories and photos on the Minneapolis City Council race, an investigation into failing charter schools, a deep dive into data that show how immigrant communities are contributing to the Minnesota economy, and four videos explaining the Covid-19 vaccination process in Spanish, Somali, Hmong, and English. Eight years after his first foray into digital publishing, the timing seems right. As Ibrahim explains his mission on the Journal website, “Nearly all of Minnesota’s population growth is coming from populations of color; since 2010 the non-Hispanic white population has grown by 1 percent, compared with 26 percent among populations of color. So, who’s telling their stories?”

The International Institute of Minnesota, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrant communities, estimates there are as many as 150,000 Somalis living in Minnesota—80 percent of them in Minneapolis. (Ibrahim was born in Somalia and moved to Minnesota in 2005, part of a wave of immigration that began in the early 1990s when faith-based organizations and refugee resettlement groups began sponsoring Somalis fleeing civil war.) Minnesota is still predominantly white, and a sometimes uneasy mix of urban gentrification, burgeoning communities of color, rural burgs, struggling Iron Range towns, and sprawling exurbs. But if anyone can put the Marge Gunderson Fargocliche to rest once and for all, it’s journalists like Mukhtar Ibrahim who are determined to tell new stories and spotlight emerging voices in communities of color.

Perhaps as important as the launch two years ago is a recent pivot, a hard-won insight crucial to defining what “local news” is. Like any number of media entrepreneurs, Ibrahim keeps a watchful eye on data, on audience, and on engagement. When a pioneering charter school that serves Somali families was set to close, the Sahan Journal’s education reporter, Becky Dernbach broke the news and began calling parents. For many of her sources, it was the first time they’d heard the news. Dernbach and Ibrahim realized they couldn’t just press publish and assume the story would automatically find an audience. Sahan Journal reporter Aala Abdullahi wrote a separate story about what happened next, when the Journal pivoted to use targeted social media and Somali television to reach parents. “We had to find a creative, culturally relevant, and digestible way to communicate the months-long reporting that Becky had so diligently put together,” Abdullahi wrote.

The Journal recognized that there was a language barrier—parents spoke Somali, Spanish, Oromo, or Amharic as a first language. And there was a higher level of engagement on Facebook and WhatsApp. That’s why the Journal partnered with Somali TV Minnesota, a Somali-language channel on Facebook Live that reaches a large Twin Cities audience and allows live questions from viewers. “Essentially,” Abdullahi wrote, “we realized that we needed to create a version of this story that came to life through video or audio, produce it in a more familiar language, and publish it on a platform where our audience already existed.” As of early June, the show, which aired May 27, had been viewed 9,000 times.

It was Sahan Journal’s first live event, and the staff hopes it won’t be the last. Other ideas in play include fliers summarizing the key points of the charter school story, which could be distributed to parents and concerned neighbors in the Somali community. The most important lesson? Abdullahi nails it: “We also recognize that one size does not fit all. That is to say, we expect that with every community we want to develop deeper relationships with, there will be a specific avenue or method that works best. And we intend to keep asking the most important and relevant audience-centric questions—Who do we want to reach? Who is left out? What is the best way to connect them with news?—in order to get there.”