National media are thriving while locals are dying — yet there’s hope at the grassroots

Photo (cc) 2011 by Wayne Hsieh

By Dan Kennedy

Axios has a story on “journalism’s two Americas” — the thriving national media and struggling local news outlets, mainly newspapers. “The disparate fortunes skew what gets covered,” write Sara Fischer and Nicholas Johnston, “elevating big national political stories at the expense of local, community-focused news.”

The data they present isn’t new, but it’s striking nevertheless. Local reporters earn an average annual salary of $49,000, compared to more than $65,000 for national reporters. Of course, many of those national jobs are in the ultra-high-cost New York era, which means the disparity may not be quite as great as those two numbers suggest. Still, the national media are growing and hiring, while local newspapers — most of them owned by corporate chains and hedge funds — continue to eliminate jobs.

Fischer and Johnston note that CNN is hiring 450 people for its new CNN+ streaming service. And Fischer reported just a little while ago that NBC is “adding hundreds of jobs to its digital organization,” mainly for news-oriented positions.

Not all news on the community journalism front is bad, though. The apocalyptic stories about what’s taking place at the grassroots invariably focus on chains owned by the likes of Gannett and Alden Global Capital. By contrast, entrepreneurs are launching for-profit and nonprofit digital startups at a dizzying rate. Chris Krewson, the executive director of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers writes:

Research shows new newsrooms are launching fast, 50 a year for the last five years. They’re for-profit, non-profit, public-benefit corporations, and LLCs; they’re a husband-and-wife team covering a small town; they’re a staff of dozens holding politicians to account at the statewide level….

They’re not replacing the newspaper. They don’t need to. This nascent industry has the potential to grow beyond the limitations of newspapers, to truly reflect and serve communities large and small, rural, urban, Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer… and on and on. We just have to stop thinking about saving the unsaveable and build businesses that serve the needs of communities first. In fact, what these publications are starting to offer is just as good, if not better, than the legacies they’re increasingly supplanting.

I’ve been tracking such projects since the late ’00s. From New Haven to San Diego, from Burlington, Vermont, to Batavia, New York, community journalists step up when there’s a market failure on the part of the local legacy newspaper. Ellen Clegg and I are following similar projects across the country.

There’s no question that these are tough times for local news. But there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic as well.

Tiny News Collective to provide funding to six local news start-ups

By Dan Kennedy

Six local news projects will launch or expand after winning a competition held by the Tiny News Collective — a joint venture of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers and News Catalyst, based at Temple University. News Catalyst receives funding from the Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute. According to the announcement:

Thanks to a partnership with the Google News Initiative, each organization in the first cohort will receive a $15,000 stipend to help create the capacity for the founders to get started. In addition, the GNI has funded their first year of membership dues in the Collective and LION Publishers.

The projects range from an organization covering education news in part of Orange County, California, to an outlet with the wonderful name Black by God, which seeks “to share perspectives that cultivate, curate, and elevate Black voices from West Virginia.”

Forty organizations applied. Among the judges were Kate Maxwell, co-founder and publisher of The Mendocino Voice, a news co-op that is one of the local news projects we’re tracking at What Works.

The Tiny News Collective strikes me as a more interesting approach to dealing with the local news crisis than initiatives unveiled recently by Substack and Facebook. Those require you to set up shop on their platforms. By contrast, the Tiny News Collective is aimed at helping community journalism entrepreneurs to achieve sustainability on their own rather than become cogs in someone else’s machine.

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.”

Trump’s postmaster general targets journalism with a devastating rate hike

Painting by J.C. Leyendecker (1874-1951). Uploaded (cc) 2020 by Halloween HJB.

By Dan Kennedy

As scholars from Paul Starr to Victor Pickard have observed, newspapers in the United States have benefited mightily from postal subsidies since the earliest days of the republic.

Starting in the Reagan era, though, the U.S. Postal Service has been run under the misguided notion that it should break even or turn a profit rather than be operated as a public service. As a result, postal rates for periodicals have been rising for more than a generation, putting additional pressure on newspaper and magazine publishers who are already straining under the economic challenges posed by technology, cultural shifts — and, now, the post-pandemic recovery.

The latest bad news comes in the form of a report from The Associated Press that rates on periodicals are scheduled to rise by more than 8% on Aug. 29. The AP story, by David Bauder and Anthony Izaguirre, says the increase is “part of a broad plan pushed by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to overhaul mail operations.”

DeJoy, you may recall, is the ethically challenged Trump appointee who slowed down mail service last year, thus imperiling vote-by-mail efforts in the midst of the pandemic. For some reason, he appears to have more job security than Vladimir Putin.

Now, you might think that rising postal rates would simply push publishers to hasten their transition to digital. But it’s a simple matter of reality that print advertising continues to play an important role in keeping newspapers and magazines afloat. For instance, earlier this year, Ed Miller, the co-founder and editor of start-up Provincetown Independent, explained that he offers a print edition alongside a robust website because otherwise it would be just too difficult to make money.

Northwestern University Professor Penelope Muse Abernathy tells the AP that the effect of higher postal rates could be devastating for small local news projects that are already struggling. “It is one of several nicks and slashes that can damage the bottom line, especially if you are an independent publisher who is operating at break even or in the low single digits of profitability,” she says. “And most are.”

Ironically, a section of the Postal Service’s website sings the glories of how subsidies helped foster robust journalism, quoting George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The essay starts like this:

From the beginning of the American republic, the Founding Fathers recognized that the widespread dissemination of information was central to national unity. They realized that to succeed, a democratic government required an informed electorate, which in turn depended upon a healthy exchange of news, ideas, and opinions.

At a time when the idea of government funding for journalism is being debated in the public square, postal subsidies stand out as a particularly benign way to go about doing that. As with tax benefits for nonprofit news organizations, postal subsidies are indirect. That makes it difficult for the government to punish individual media outlets for tough coverage — as is happening right now in Western Pennsylvania, where the Republican-dominated state legislature has eliminated funding for public broadcasters even as one station has persisted in calling out the Republicans for touting the “big lie” about the 2020 election. (Republican officials deny there’s a connection.)

It’s long past time for Louis DeJoy to hit the bricks and for the post office to be reorganized as a public service. Foremost among those services should be helping to provide the public with reliable, affordable journalism.

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.

The Big Bend Sentinel’s formula: Burgers, brews and, now, a national ad network

Lost Horse Saloon, Marfa, Texas. Photo (cc) 2014 by Thomas Hawk.

By Dan Kennedy

It seems like a story from a world we left behind. In late February 2020, I wrote a column about The Big Bend Sentinel, a tiny newspaper in West Texas that was supporting its journalism — and boosting the community’s connection with the paper — by operating a café next to the newsroom.

“Can drinks, community events and the occasional wedding subsidize small-town journalism?,” asked The New York Times.

Well, we all know what happened next. So I was pleasantly surprised last month when Max Kabat, the co-owner of the Sentinel, popped up on the podcast “E&P Reports” and announced that the Sentinel is alive and well.

To my frustration the host, Editor & Publisher owner Mike Blinder, didn’t really press Kabat on how the Sentinel’s café made it through the pandemic. But obviously it did. The Sentinel is based in Marfa, Texas, about halfway between Albuquerque to the west and San Antonio to the east. Kabat and his wife, Maisie Crow, are not your typical rural newspaper publishers — they’re refugees from Brooklyn, where Kabat worked in advertising and Crow was a photojournalist and documentarian. They still pursue those careers, even as Kabat serves as publisher of the Sentinel and a smaller sister paper, the Presidio International, and Crow acts as editor-in-chief.

As for whether the café is helping to support the Sentinel’s journalism, Kabat said the answer is yes:

We’re now actually making money. It was starting to make money. We have never not paid any of our expenses, our loans, the things that we’ve done to try to make this thing work. We’ve always been able to do that, which is great. And for the first time, we actually have money in the bank where we’re continuing to invest. We’ve never taken money out. We just continue to invest into the business because we believe in the idea. And that’s what we’re doing. The Sentinel [that is, the café] makes more money than the newspaper.

At the moment, Kabat says he’s pursuing another revenue-making idea that could support not just his newspapers but other community-based journalism projects as well — a national advertising network based on values rather than clicks. National ads have become nearly worthless for local news websites because Google has driven their value through the floor. Kabat’s idea, called Broadsheet, would enable like-minded publishers to connect with advertisers that would rather be seen on quality local websites. Kabat described his message to advertisers like this:

Put your money where your mouth is. If you make an ad that’s about building community and then you go buy every national television, blah, blah, blah, and you spray it programmatically, you know what that does? That takes 20% of the money that you spent on making that ad. And you take 80% of the money that you spent on this advertising campaign and you give it back to the things that are making us worse.

Among Broadsheet’s early possible clients are papers in Aspen, Telluride, Jackson Hole, the Hamptons and — closer to home — the Vineyard Gazette. That’s a lot of tourist dollars. Marfa itself is a tourist destination as well as the setting for the iconic James Dean movie “Giant.” But perhaps over time Kabat will be able to build his model out and use it to serve news projects in less affluent, more diverse areas as well.

I’m firmly of the belief that, for local news projects to succeed, they need not only to serve their community but to help re-establish the very idea of community. The Big Bend Sentinel is doing that in the most direct way imaginable.

How one news outlet uses volunteer opinion writers to build civic engagement

Graue Mill, Hinsdale, Illinois. Photo (cc) by Lyle.

By Dan Kennedy

Now here’s an interesting idea for engaging the community in local news. The Hinsdalean, a free weekly paper in Chicago’s suburbs, has a stable of 10 local opinion writers who take on such weighty topics as Christmas memories, moving back to town after living abroad, and thoughts about the meaning of regret. And here’s the best part: they’re term-limited.

I learned about this recently in a conversation with Julie McCay Turner, managing editor of The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit website northwest of Boston. Julie is from Hinsdale, and she keeps up with her hometown through the paper’s lively website. She discovered this unique exercise in civic involvement through a column by the paper’s editor, Pamela Lannom, who was soliciting new writers to replace the five who were cycling out. One slot will be reserved for a high school senior. No politicians, please. And writers are not allowed to use these unpaid positions to tout their businesses or nonprofit organizations.

“Over the years I’ve come to think of many of these writers as my friends,” Lannom wrote. “I might not see most of them more than once a year, but the stories they share create a connection. Reading their columns each week is one of my favorite parts of my job.”

Local opinion can help drive interest in community news and help to overcome the polarization that characterizes national culture these days.

Several months ago I wrote a piece for GBH News about a study conducted by three scholars on what happened after The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, California, dropped from its opinion pages all syndicated columns and references to national politics for one month.

The researchers compared The Desert Sun’s readers to those of a control paper and found that polarization was less than what might otherwise have been expected. The numbers were small and didn’t really prove anything one way or the other. But, as the three observed, the effect was salutary regardless of the actual numbers since the experiment pushed the paper to pay more attention to what was taking place in its own backyard.

“Local newspapers are uniquely positioned to unite communities around shared local identities, cultivated and emphasized through a distinctive home style, and provide a civil and regulated forum for debating solutions to local problems,” they wrote. “In Palm Springs, those local issues were architectural restoration, traffic patterns and environmental conservation. The issues will differ across communities, but a localized opinion page is more beneficial for newspapers and citizens than letters and op-eds speckled with national political vitriol.”

The Hinsdalean itself is a great story, and characteristic of what happens when the legacy news outlet falls victim to market failure. Hinsdale once had a paper called The Doings, which ended up getting absorbed by the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune was subjected to years of downsizing and bad ownership under Tribune Publishing — a situation that only grew worse recently when Tribune was sold to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

The Hinsdalean, meanwhile, was founded nearly five years ago and has established itself as an award-winning news source. Here’s how its About page begins:

The first issue of The Hinsdalean was published Sept. 28, 2006. This weekly newspaper is dedicated to covering Hinsdale, focusing on the people who live and work here. The founders built the newspaper around the philosophy of community journalism the way it was meant to be. That philosophy recalls simpler times when one newspaper covered one town. The Hinsdalean, which is delivered free each Thursday morning, is the only newspaper that delivers every issue to every home in Hinsdale.

Independent local news is succeeding in hundreds of communities across the country. We need more.

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.”

Are cooperatively owned news projects an idea whose time has finally come?

Kevon Paynter. Photo via Bloc by Block News.

By Dan Kennedy

Among the more intriguing business models for news organizations is the co-op. They’ve been slow to get started, but their time may finally be coming. For years I followed the Banyan Project’s efforts to launch a demonstration site in Haverhill, Massachusetts, which ended up falling short. The Mendocino Voice is transitioning from for-profit to a co-op that will be owned by employees and readers. And the Voice is not alone.

Last week I sat in on a webinar called “Cooperatives in a Changing Media Landscape,” part of the Next Gen Entrepreneurship online conference. Two people immersed in co-ops discussed their experience: Kevon Paynter, co-founder and executive director of a project called Bloc by Block News, which reports on news in Maryland and aggregates the work of other publishers; and Jasper Wang, the co-owner and vice president of revenue and operations at The Defector, a mostly sports site founded by former employees of Deadspin, which in its heyday was part of the Gawker network. The moderator was Olivia Henry, a graduate student at the University of California in Davis.

The two projects are very different. The Defector was born big, launching last year with 19 employees — 18 of them editors and writers — and 10,000 subscribers. It currently has 39,000 subscribers. According to Wang, everyone is being paid a salary. The lowest is $58,500, with the possibility of making more depending on how much revenue the site is generating. (It’s more complicated than that, but never mind.)

Jasper Wang. Photo via McSweeney’s.

“We’ve been financially sustainable since pretty early on,” Wang said. The site is owned by the employees, he added, with everyone participating in the governance of the site.

For those of us who are concerned about the local news crisis, Bloc by Block is intriguing. Paynter said the spark for it came during the 2016 election. When he went home to New Jersey to vote, he said, he knew who he would cast his presidential ballot for — but he didn’t have a clue about many of the other offices that were also being contested.

“I had no idea who to vote for when it came down to the local issues,” he said. He added that when he started talking with people after the election, many told him they simply vote for one party, Google the candidates or “we kind of make a guess the night before.”

Bloc by Block is supported by nonprofit foundation money, including Maryland Humanities; Paynter sees covering the arts and culture as part of his local news mission. The project is developing a mobile app that will allow users to see news from multiple publishers. Noting that there are more than 130 newspapers in Maryland, Paynter said, “There’s a discoverability issue, and we want to solve for that.”

Unlike The Defector, Bloc by Block is what Paynter calls a “multi-stakeholder cooperative,” with ownership shared among readers and the publishers whose news is being aggregated. Readers themselves can cover local governmental and neighborhood meetings, he added.

“It’s really about civic engagement as well as news,” he said, explaining that he wants his audience to “not simply be passive consumers of information but active participants.”