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.”

Chris Krewson of LION Publishers on the future of digital local journalism

Chris Krewson

Chris Krewson is the executive director of Local Independent Online News Publishers, better known as LION Publishers. The national nonprofit aims at supporting local journalism entrepreneurs and has some 400 members.

LION tapped Chris as its leader in 2019, and he brings significant digital experience to the job. In fact, he’s had many prior lives. He was the top editor at Billy Penn, a mobile-first local start-up in Philadelphia launched by the legendary Jim Brady that’s now part of public radio station WHYY. He’s also the former top digital editor for Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Morning Call of Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Dan has a Quick Take on a Poynter Online essay by Kathleen McElroy, director of the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin, who urges local journalists to consider staying in the game by publishing a local newspaper. Ellen discusses the new Harvey World Herald online site, which fills a need in a news desert just outside of Chicago.

And Chris clears up a crewcut pop-culture mystery for Ellen.

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

 

GBH News GM Pam Johnston on how public media can help fill the local news gap

GBH News general manager Pam Johnston. Photo © 2021 by Dominic Gagliardo Chavez/GBH.

Pam Johnston, general manager for news with GBH, has a deep background in local television in Boston at WLVI (Channel 56), and earlier at local stations in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Portland, Maine. At GBH, which is a public media company, she has a broad portfolio. She is responsible for local and regional news operations across all platforms, including radio, television and digital. She also supervises GBH’s contributions to two NPR programs, “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”

Pam joined GBH in 2012 as director of audience development for “Frontline,” the national investigative series, where she is credited with diversifying the audience and connecting them with long-form documentaries, virtual reality experiences and podcasts.

Dan has a Quick Take on a multimillion-dollar glitch in ad tech by Gannett, and Ellen reports on a union survey of workers at Tribune Publishing (now owned by Alden Global Capital) that reveals big gaps in pay equity.

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

Gannett falsely accuses the Journal of smear in report on ad-tech screw-up

They say Indianapolis is lovely in the summer. Photo (cc) 2009 by Willy Feng.

By Dan Kennedy

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that a glitch in Gannett’s online advertising software had resulted in ads appearing in the wrong places. For instance, to cite an actual example, an ad that was intended for USA Today’s national online audience might instead appear on the website of the Indianapolis Star.

So how did Gannett respond? With a defensive press release that falsely claimed the Journal story “implies Gannett intentionally shared inaccurate information to advertisers over a period of nine months.”

No, it didn’t. You can read the full Journal story, by Patience Haggin, for yourself, but this seems relevant: “Gannett said in a statement that it provided the wrong information and that it regrets the error, which it said was unintentional.” There is not one sentence in Haggin’s article contradicting Gannett’s claim that the error was inadvertent. Of course, the mistake might have been related to the fact that Gannett’s workforce is notoriously overworked and underpaid, but the Journal article didn’t say that, either.

What the story does confirm is that no one knows what is going on in the murky world of programmatic advertising, where digital ad space is sold through automated auctions by Google and, in this case, Gannett. It’s not at all like buying a two-column, six-inch ad on page seven in your local print newspaper. As Braedon Vickers, the ad-industry researcher who discovered the error, told the Journal, “Programmatic advertising relies on a lot of data being self-reported by those selling the ads. That this issue went undetected for so long suggests that the processes in place to verify this information are not sufficient.”

Writing in the trade journal Editor & Publisher, Gretchen A. Peck observed that Gannett’s “value proposition and trust” were undermined by the error. But she also quoted Krzysztof Franaszek, the founder of Adalytics Research, who said it appeared exceedingly unlikely that Gannett’s deceptive practices were intentional:

I think it’s likely a simple ad ops error. We tried to analyze this phenomenon from a number of different angles to determine if there was some kind of material benefit to Gannett of doing this, and after an exhaustive enumeration of possibilities, we found no rational explanation of how this would benefit Gannett.

Among the brands affected by the screw-up, according to Vicker, were Nike, Ford, State Farm, Starbucks and Marriott. Gannett’s statement said the error involved less than $10 million in advertising.

Gannett is the country’s largest newspaper chain, owning 100 or so daily newspapers and many hundreds of other media properties in 46 states. The company controls a good share of the local news outlets in Greater Boston and environs — including a number of weekly papers that have gone digital-only in the past year, and which recently dumped community coverage from most of its non-daily titles.

Lex Weaver, editor of The Scope, explains how to practice journalism as an act of service

Lex Weaver. Photo by Ruby Wallau via Northeastern University.

Lex Weaver is editor-in-chief of The Scope, published by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. The Scope is a  digital magazine focused on telling stories of justice, hope and resilience in Greater Boston, with an emphasis on communities of color. Their mission: practicing journalism as an act of service. They work to amplify the voices of those overlooked by traditional media.

The current version of The Scope launched in the fall of 2017 and was based on a brilliant prototype created by then graduate students Emily Hopkins (now a data reporter at ProPublica), Priyanka Ketkar (now a multimedia editor at Lakes District News in British Columbia) and Brilee Weaver (now a social media manager for Northeastern’s external affairs office.) As our Northeastern colleague Meg Heckman, The Scope’s first adviser, reminded us the other day, it was initially called The Docket, but we changed the name for a couple of reasons: 1) We wanted to cover more than criminal justice; 2) people outside of Northeastern thought we were a project of the law school.

Thanks to a Poynter-Koch Fellowship, The Scope has a full-time editor-in-chief. Catherine McGloin was The Scope’s first full-time editor and our inaugural Poynter fellow. She started in the summer of 2019 and did a tremendous amount of work to build both content and audience — a feature called Changemakers, editor coffee hours in Nubian Square and email newsletters were all her idea. She was followed by Ha Ta.

Lex has continued to help The Scope grow in terms of content, audience and partnerships.

In our weekly Quick Takes, Dan looks at The Boston Globe as it turns 150, and Ellen reports on a California bill aimed at funding local public interest journalism.

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

How events-as-journalism cast a New York Times story in a different light

By Dan Kennedy

It was an unremarkable story. On Jan. 26, The New York Times published a real-estate feature about Robbinsville, New Jersey, a community that has become increasingly prosperous and desirable since changing its name from Washington Township 15 years ago. But the article contained within it the kernel of an unpleasant truth that it would take a smaller news organization to highlight.

The Times story, by Dave Caldwell, included this:

A few years after the opening of the mixed-use Town Center development of shops, restaurants and residences, one of the first of its kind in the state, Amazon opened a fulfillment center in Robbinsville in 2014, and a corner of the township became a warehouse hub. So the township was able to build a high school, a municipal building and a police training facility without raising property taxes. That drew more residents and, in turn, more businesses….

The Amazon fulfillment center and other warehouses are on the eastern side of the Turnpike, providing separation from Town Center.

Pretty innocuous-sounding. But warehouse development is a hot issue in New Jersey — so hot that it was the subject of an hour-long event last Wednesday sponsored by NJ Spotlight News, one of the news organizations being tracked by Ellen Clegg and me for our book project, “What Works: The Future of Local News.” Spotlight, a nonprofit that focuses on state politics and policy, merged several years ago with NJ PBS.

Events can be another way of doing journalism, and Spotlight does a lot of them. The one I attended, titled “Warehouse Growth in New Jersey: Impacts and Opportunities,” shed some unexpected light on the Times’ assertions. The keynote speaker, Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, explained it this way:

About a month ago, The New York Times had a great profile of Robbinsville and all its progress. And it gleefully pointed out that its proud warehouse development was sited far from its Town Center, as if that were some remarkable feat. What the Times didn’t mention was that Robbinsville residents enjoy all the tax benefits of those warehouses with none of their impacts. Because what they’ve managed to do is outsource them completely to Allentown and Upper Freehold, where they’ve dumped them on their border. The traffic, air pollution, crime and noise that are all centered on the residential areas of two communities that derive exactly none of their benefits that don’t stop at the municipal border. It’s a nice trick if you can manage it, and it’s Exhibit A for why we desperately need to think beyond municipal borders.

Rasmussen’s point was that regional and state governments need to regulate runaway warehouse development in New Jersey in order to prevent exactly the kind of situation that the Times praised — locating the facilities on the outskirts, where they detract from the quality of life in other communities.

Micah Rasmussen

Before sitting in on the webinar, I had no idea what an issue warehouse development is in New Jersey. I am not going to go into any details except to observe that Rasmussen and the panelists, moderated by Spotlight reporter Jon Hurdle, had plenty to talk about.

One of the panelists, Kim Gaddy, national environmental justice director of Clean Water Action and a New Jersey activist, spoke passionately about the disproportionate effects of warehouse development on communities of color.

“When we think about the proliferation of warehouses throughout our region and concentrated in Black, brown and low-wealth communities that have historically borne the brunt of this,” she said, “it is for this reason that we believe that we cannot talk about where or how warehouses are distributed but why is it that we need these facilities in the first place.”

Kim Gaddy

The rest of the panel comprised a representative from the warehouse industry; an official from the New Jersey League of Municipalities; and the executive director of New Jersey Future, a planning and land-use organization.

My purpose in attending was not to become an expert on New Jersey’s warehouse issues. Rather, I wanted to see how a small news organization makes use of events to extend its reach. The webinar itself reached nearly 250 people, and is now the subject of a story on Spotlight’s website. The discussion also provided ample material for follow-up stories.

There was nothing especially wrong with that New York Times story. But there was a lot more to it — and it takes journalism that is invested in the communities it covers to bring that to light.

The Doctor is in: Why a respected media analyst decided to start a local news site

Ken Doctor. Via Newsonomics.

For a number of years, Ken Doctor was among our most valuable observers of the news business through his Newsonomics website and his must-read articles at Nieman Lab.

A former Knight Ridder executive, Doctor recently rejoined the ranks of working journalists. He’s the founder and CEO of Lookout Local, a digital local news site in Santa Cruz, California. Ken hopes that Lookout Local can provide a model of what works in the local news ecosystem. He says he wants to change the conversation.

In Quick Takes for the week, Dan shares his crowdsourced research on independent news organizations in Massachusetts, and Ellen unpacks a study published by an economic think tank in Cambridge that quantifies the impact when hedge funds acquire local newspapers.

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

Financial prospects keep sliding as Gannett prepares to shift away from local

Photo (cc) 2009 by Kevin Walsh

By Dan Kennedy

Gannett’s recent move away from local news is not taking place in a vacuum. Financial prospects for the country’s largest newspaper chain continue to deteriorate — and the company’s insistence on degrading its journalism rather than building it up is going to make it that much harder to attract new readers.

As I reported last week, the chain is reassigning staff reporters at most of its Massachusetts weeklies to cover regional beats rather than local news. Although Gannett officials have not commented, I’m told that the three exceptions will be the Cambridge Chronicle, the Old Colony Memorial in Plymouth and the Provincetown Banner. I’m also told that a few weekly reporters will be reassigned to Gannett’s dailies rather than to regional coverage of issues such as climate change and racial justice.

What we still don’t know is what, if any, coverage the Gannett weeklies will provide of such basics as governmental meetings and elections. Maybe part-timers will be used. Maybe they’ll just skip it. There were already a number of Gannett weeklies without any real local coverage, so that’s nothing new.

Meanwhile, the chain’s business continues to slide at its 100 or so daily newspapers and 1,000 weeklies and other properties, according to Poynter business analyst Rick Edmonds. Revenue for the fourth quarter was $827 million, a decline of 5.5%, as its much-ballyhooed increase in digital subscriptions appears to be driven by steep introductory discounts.

Edmonds writes that “as Gannett targets reaching 2 to 2.2 million digital subscriptions by the end of 2022, it faces the double challenge of holding the introductory subscribers as they move up to higher rates while also continuing to quickly add new subscribers.” And rather than invest in journalism, Gannett is putting money into sports gambling and marketing services.

And NFTs.

It’s an ugly tale. For Massachusetts readers, it’s a tale that extends back to the early 1990s, when Fidelity began rolling up community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts. From Fidelity to the Boston Herald to GateHouse Media, which morphed into Gannett, it’s been 30 years of cuts, with very little in the way of good news.

Support your local independent news outlet.

Babz Rawls Ivy, the radio voice of New Haven, shares her life and wisdom

Babz Rawls Ivy and Dan Kennedy outside her home in New Haven. Photo by Babz.

Babz Rawls Ivy is host and co-producer of “LoveBabz LoveTalk” on WNHH-LP radio in New Haven. But that doesn’t begin to describe her. So let’s add a few more words: Force of nature. Wise presence. Storyteller.

WNHH is a low-power FM community station launched seven years ago by the New Haven Independent, a pioneering online nonprofit news site. Paul Bass, founder and editor of the Independent, wanted to bring powerful local voices onto the airwaves. Babz Rawls Ivy brings truth-telling to a whole new level.

Rawls Ivy’s show is on the air every weekday from 9 to 11 a.m. If you’re in New Haven, you can hear it at 103.5 FM. You can also listen live on the Independent’s website and on its Facebook page, where programs are also available after the show. Past programs are also available on a number of other platforms, including Apple Podcasts. Just search for “WNHH Community Radio.”

In our Quick Takes for the week, Dan shares the latest on Gannett’s downgrading of local coverage, and Ellen asks whether retired journalists are the new seed capital for startup digital sites.

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

Tracking independent local news projects in Massachusetts

By Dan Kennedy

After I reported last week that Gannett was dropping most local news from its Massachusetts weekly newspapers in favor of regional coverage, I heard from a few independent hyperlocal publishers, several of them with projects I wasn’t familiar with. So I started compiling a list of independent news organizations, putting out the word for nominations on Twitter and Facebook.

The titles came pouring in. Independent journalism is alive and well in Massachusetts, and though I’m sure many of the projects I found are economically marginal, they’re providing the kind of granular community coverage that you just can’t get from a corporate chain-owned newspaper. There are weekly newspapers on my list as well as digital-only projects, a few dailies and even a couple of radio stations.

I’ve got nearly 200 entries, sortable by the name of the project, the community and the type. Some, like the Berkshire Eagle, serve multiple communities; most cover just one town or neighborhood. I’ve added a link to the menu bar for easy access. Meanwhile, please keep those nominations coming — just send an email to me at dan dot kennedy at northeastern dot edu.

Check out the full list by clicking here.