There’s been some confusion over Chicago Public Media’s acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times, a tabloid that is the city’s number-two daily newspaper. For example, The New York Times reported that “the ownership structure would be similar to that of The Philadelphia Inquirer, a big-city paper that the nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism has run since 2016.”
Well, no. The Inquirer is a for-profit newspaper owned by a nonprofit organization. If the Inquirer itself were a nonprofit, it would be barred from endorsing political candidates. In fact, the paper continues to endorse candidates and published an “Endorsement Guide” as recently as last fall.
What’s happening in Chicago is different. The ownership of the Sun-Times will be converted to nonprofit with its own board, according to WBEZ, the broadcast arm of Chicago Public Media. The Sun-Times itself reports that the paper will “convert from for-profit to nonprofit status.” That would make it the second major daily paper to become a nonprofit, following The Salt Lake Tribune. Recently the executive editor of the Tribune, Lauren Gustus, reported that the paper is healthy and growing under nonprofit ownership.
As I mentioned, there is one disadvantage to nonprofit ownership: news organizations can’t endorse candidates or advocate for certain legislative actions without endangering their tax-exempt status. Of course, there are plenty observers who see that as a feature rather than a bug. For instance, David Boardman, chair of the Lenfest Institute, greeted the news that the Sun-Times will no longer be able to endorse with this:
Not making endorsements is a plus. One of the great albatrosses of the newspaper business.
But endorsements can be useful, especially in smaller races to which voters may be paying minimal attention. Besides, it’s an infringement on free speech. Such a rule didn’t even exist until Lyndon Johnson rammed it through the Senate in order to silence political opponents back home in Texas.
In any event, with Alden Global Capital disemboweling the long-dominant Chicago Tribune, the announcement that WBEZ and the Sun-Times will soon be covering the region with a combined newsroom is good news. And it shows that people and institutions are willing to step up when market failure undermines local news coverage.
Launched in 2019, Sahan Journal covers immigrants and communities of color in Minnesota. Report for America places young journalists at local news outlets across the country for two- and three-year stints.
Grey Eagle’s photography has been published in a wide range of publications and featured on a billboard on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. She is also a co-producer of “Sisters Rising,” a documentary film about six Native American women reclaiming person and tribal sovereignty in the face of sexual violence.
Dan and Ellen offer quick takes on paywalls and media companies that target well-heeled readers, and on Evan Smith’s announcement that he’s stepping down as chief executive officer of The Texas Tribune.
Joshua Darr, a professor at Louisiana State University, is right in the What Works sweet spot: His research delves into the divisive partisan rhetoric that infuses our national political debate and whether communities with a vibrant local news source experience less polarization.
In the latest What Works podcast, Dan and Ellen talk with Joshua about his research, as well as the Trusting News project report on how local and regional news organizations can do a better job of connecting with conservative audiences.
Phil Balboni is a journalistic legend. His latest venture is DailyChatter, a nonpartisan newsletter that covers international news. The newsletter’s staff of experienced journalists based in Europe, Asia and the United States searches for “meaning and context in this immensely complex world.”
Before creating DailyChatter, Balboni was the founder, president and CEO of GlobalPost, the highly acclaimed international news site he launched in 2008. He was also the founder and president of New England Cable News, and was vice president of news and editorial director for WCVB-TV (Channel 5) in Boston. He has been awarded almost every major honor in broadcasting, including the Peabody, Murrow and Emmy.
In our latest podcast, Phil talks with Ellen and Dan about his passion for local news as well as his hopes for a newly created professorship at the Columbia School of Journalism that was endowed in his honor.
In Quick Takes, Dan analyzes the danger to the First Amendment posed by a New York court judge who ordered The New York Times to stop publishing confidential documents it had obtained about the notorious right-wing organization Project Veritas.
Ellen weighs in with news from Texas, where a right-wing activist named Frank Lopez Jr. is flooding the zone with disinformation about immigration, taking advantage of the void created when the local newspaper shut down.
Over the past few years, revenues at The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit community website in the Boston suburbs, have ramped up from zero to more than $100,000 a year. The Citizen has done it through voluntary memberships, sponsors, grants, the NewsMatch program and — perhaps most significant — an annual glossy publication called The Bedford Guide.
The Guide is a 64-page magazine that serves as an introduction to the town. It is loaded with ads, and from what I can tell, all of them are local, from life sciences giant Millipore Sigma, which has a facility in Bedford, to the Cat Doctor. According to the Citizen’s executive director, Teri Morrow, the 2022 Guide (the third) which came out in December, will produce about $40,000 in revenues.
Now Gene Kalb, a Citizen board member who’s the main force behind the Guide, has been recognized by the trade magazine Editor & Publisher as one of its “Sales Supernovas.” He told E&P’s Robin Blinder that flexibility is a key to the Guide’s success, explaining:
The pandemic hit us just as we started our second annual Bedford Guide. The initial strategy was to approach retail establishments in town. During 2020 with almost all restaurants and retail establishments closed, we shifted our focus to larger corporate industries in town. Our publication is all about supporting our community, and the corporate neighbors in town stepped up to help us. With the retail landscape improving this year, we had a nice combination of retail and corporate advertisers.
Such revenues have allowed the Citizen to grow from an all-volunteer project to a news organization with paid employees — a managing editor, a part-time reporter and a part-time operations manager — as well as freelance fees for contributors.
Founded in 2012, the Citizen continues to grow in other ways as well. According to Google Analytics, the site had more than a million page views in 2021. Those of us who follow such things know that’s a statistic of limited value, but here’s another that’s rock-solid: about 2,200 people have subscribed to the Citizen’s free daily newsletter in a town with fewer than 5,400 households, for a penetration rate of more than 40%. (Caveat: Email being what it is, no doubt there are a number of families with more than one subscription.)
The Citizen is one of the projects that we are tracking for our “What Works” book project. It’s encouraging to see how people in the community have come together to create a vibrant and sustainable source of local news.
The Haverhill Gazette marked its 200th anniversary in 2021, and WHAV Radio has taken note of the occasion in a lengthy tribute. The Gazette, an independently owned daily for most of its existence, launched WHAV in 1947 under the auspices of a publisher who was distantly related to the Taylor family, which then owned The Boston Globe. The station was revived about 15 years ago and converted to a nonprofit, low-power FM station (it also streams) by local advertising executive Tim Coco, who continues to run it as an independent source of news.
Coco and David Goudsward trace the Gazette from its founding in 1821 to the present day. I had no idea that Haverhill’s favorite son, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, was the editor for a brief period in the 1830s.
A long series of events that led to the shrinkage of the Gazette began in 1957, when William Loeb, the notorious right-wing publisher of the Manchester Union Leader (now the New Hampshire Union Leader), took advantage of a strike at the Gazette by starting a competing paper, the Haverhill Journal. Coco and Goudsward write that the Gazette was sold to a consortium comprising The Eagle-Tribune, then of Lawrence, now of North Andover; The Sun of Lowell; and Vermont’s Burlington Free Press.
Although the arrangement somehow managed to pass antitrust muster, I’m old enough to recall stories that The Eagle-Tribune and The Sun weren’t going to let the Gazette get too good. The Gazette changed hands several more times and in 1998 was sold to The Eagle-Tribune. Today, the Gazette is a weekly. Both the Gazette and The Eagle-Tribune, which remains a daily, are owned by CNHI, a corporate newspaper chain based in Montgomery, Alabama. As Coco and Goudsward write of the Gazette:
It is better off than the thousands of newspapers that have succumbed in recent years, but still a shadow of its former self — the victim, first of consolidation that reduced it from a robust daily to a weekly, and then of the loss of its advertising base to electronic media.
For several years, I followed news coverage in Haverhill quite closely, as it was the first community chosen by the Banyan Project in which to launch a cooperatively owned news organization, to be known as Haverhill Matters. The idea never came to fruition despite years of planning. During those same years, Coco was building WHAV into a vital source of local news and information, both over the air and online.
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The New Haven Independent, a nonprofit digital news organization, has been delivering local news to residents here since 2005. Several months before this year’s mayoral elections, the Independent hosted debates with candidates running for mayor, conducted candidate interviews on its community radio station, WNHH, and followed candidates door-to-door.
On Election Night, Nov. 2, the newsroom was packed with reporters, interns, volunteers, freelancers and radio hosts — an enthusiastic group dedicated to covering elections for mayor, city council and other positions locally and across Connecticut. The crew dug into takeout pizza amid artworks at La Voz Hispana de Connecticut, the Spanish-language newspaper where the Independent and WNHH are based.
Reporters and volunteers were sent out to 42 polling stations in New Haven and neighboring Hamden to call in results. Arrangements were made with the city to keep up with absentee ballots in order to report on the margin of victory between New Haven’s two mayoral candidates, incumbent Justin Elicker (who won re-election) and John Carlson. A live spreadsheet was posted on the Independent’s website to keep track of the votes. Later, reporters went out into the field to livestream candidates’ speeches and interview them.
While the Independent was gathering results, WNHH was relaying them to its audience and talking about them in a manner that was both raucous and entertaining. Anchored by the station’s morning host, Babz Rawls Ivy, the discussion featured former Independent reporter Markeshia Ricks, local journalist Michelle Turner and station manager Harry Droz — as well as a considerable amount of red wine. Joining them remotely was Christine Stuart, editor of the politics-and-policy website CT News Junkie, who provided some statewide context.
Ricks, a former reporter for the Independent, was one of Rawls Ivy’s panelists. She recalled the Independent as a go-to-place for people and campaigns where they could get the results immediately. She thinks that audience-engagement tools like Facebook Live have also played an integral part in their newsroom.
“You could watch it on local news,” she said, “but they couldn’t transmit it as quickly.”
In contrast to the widespread pessimism over the decline of local news, Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the Independent and WNHH, is optimistic.
“I think it’s the golden age of journalism,” he said. He loves the blend of textual form, photography and videography all merging to create a story. “You can bring the traditional view of journalism with these new tools to looking at stories in new ways [that are] so much deeper where you connect so much more to readers,” he said.
Bass cited a Black Lives Matter protest in May 2020, where he was on-site to cover what he thought would be a tiny gathering that no one knew about. The next thing he knew, there were thousands marching onto the highway and facing off with State Police while he streamed the event on Facebook Live. He said that 50,000 people watched and many people joined the march.
According to a Pew Research Center study, 48% of U.S. adults consume news on social media channels, with Facebook outpacing all other social media sites. The use of Facebook Live results in greater timeliness and a higher level of audience engagement.
Still, those who get their news primarily online are among the least trusting of news and less knowledgeable about current affairs. Americans are concerned about misinformation online being an even bigger problem than perceived media bias. But local broadcast news remains among the most trusted sources of information, with fewer news consumers citing local news as a source of falsehoods than any other type of media. With their relentless focus on local, the Independent and WNHH are helping to counteract distrust.
Bass thinks that mis- and disinformation in his newsroom are handled in a more skillful way because the communication is upfront. “Local [newsrooms] are better because you are showing up at the meeting in person,” he said. “At least here, when I am interviewing someone I have covered for 30 years, I can remember they lied about this last time, or I was wrong five times when asking the question.”
The need for local journalism has not changed over time, but the economic dynamics capable of sustaining a profitable model for local journalism have. Bass chose the nonprofit model for the Independent, he said, because he didn’t think there was enough money in for-profit, explaining, “I saw the model being destroyed.”
Strong engagement can help sustain and support strong, independent media for every community in the U.S.
A Nieman Lab report notes that as more community journalists launch nonprofits, they’re doing so with small staff and “a scrappy startup mentality” focused on direct engagement with audience and members. The bigger picture shows that nonprofit news outlets generated an estimated $500 million in revenue in 2019. Foundation grants make up the largest share of revenue.
Bass also lauded the nonprofit model because it’s funded by people who believe in journalism for the sake of democracy. “It actually fundamentally changes the way you do journalism,” he said.
Unlike flashier news websites, the Independent resembles a blog. There is a steady cascade of articles in reverse chronological order and a sidebar for smaller stories. Articles are edited quickly, so typos slip through, which they also make fun of in the newsroom. Readers who spot typos are rewarded with a mug adorned with the Independent’s logo.
Perhaps most important, the Independent has helped build community and inspired young journalists. Laura Glesby, who is just finishing her studies at Yale University, didn’t realize that she wanted to become a reporter until she started working as an intern at the Independent. She was one of the freelancers helping out on Election Night, and will begin working as a staff reporter at the Independent next month.
“I learned a lot from working here,” said Glesby. “And I love that the Independent does on-the-ground reporting where you get to meet people who aren’t just experts or politicians but just people who live here and hear their perspectives.”
Bass came to New Haven more than 40 years ago and has spent his career covering his adopted city, mostly at the Independent and, before that, the New Haven Advocate, a now-defunct alternative weekly. Now 61, he continues to believe in the importance of community journalism.
“I think the bedrock of democracy is local news,” said Bass. “That’s where the larger issue stemmed from, and I think that local reporting is the bedrock of a free press.”
Maaisha Osman is a graduate student at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. Additional reporting by Northeastern journalism graduate student Zhaozhou Dai.
At the time, the new Globe.com site had been launched with a paywall, and featured the Globe’s journalism. Although print revenue is still significant, the paywall strategy seems to be paying off now in terms of digital subscriptions. Kiesow and others were working on emerging technologies in mobile and social media. Kiesow focused on human-centered design: how readers interact with a print newspaper versus a digital side. Does some 150 years of experience reading print make a difference? Why is doom scrolling on digital platforms so exhausting? Tune in and find out.
Plus Ellen takes a quick look at a powerful newspaper collaboration in South Carolina that is rooting out scandal after scandal, and Dan offers an update on the vibrant digital archive of the late, great Boston Phoenix, housed at Northeastern University and now freely available online.
The Charleston Post and Courier, a family-owned newspaper in South Carolina that traces its lineage back to 1803, is wrapping up a remarkable year-long project that afflicts the comfortable and the corrupt on an industrial scale.
The project, called, “Uncovered,” harnesses the investigative power of The Post and Courier (the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2015) and puts it to work alongside 17 community newspapers, at least a few of which are struggling. The editors of The Post and Courier are direct about their dual targets, which they sum up in this headline: “News deserts and weak ethics laws allow corruption to run rampant in South Carolina.”
Their premise: Corruption festers when people aren’t looking, when the spotlight doesn’t shine.
As the story on the home page notes, “The stakes are high. Corruption could surge as so-called news deserts expand and federal and state prosecutors back off.” The editors issue a call to action: Let’s shine a light into the darkest corners.
Together, the coalition of newsrooms filed more than 50 FOIA requests and interviewed more than 560 public officials and whistleblowers. An online “corruption tracker” database enables readers who want to see what scandals the team dug up in a particular community.
Of course, competition for scoops is tightly woven into the culture of most newsrooms. Over the years, that drive to get the facts out has benefited readers. But newspaper closures continue to spread, and ghost newspapers haunt more and more communities, particularly in rural areas. In South Carolina, seven papers shut down last year and two more moved to online only, according to the South Carolina Press Association. So it can be a boon when newsrooms put aside the competitive spirit for a bit to map out an investigative project that proffers solutions across a broader circulation area and provides an incentive to keep subscribing to the town paper. As I’ve reported previously, ProPublica and MLK50: Justice Through Journalism teamed up to investigate predatory debt collection practices in Memphis in an award-winning series entitled “Profiting from the Poor: Inside Memphis’s debt machine.”
As South Carolinians are finding, this network effect amplifies the power of the press to hold public officials accountable. As the Post and Courier editors write: “We have only begun.”
Our guest on the latest episode of the “What Works” podcast is Rhema Bland, the first permanent director of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting at the University of North Carolina school of journalism. She was appointed in October 2020 after working in higher education as an adviser to student media programs. She is a veteran journalist who has reported and produced for CBS, the Florida Times-Union, WJCT and the New York Daily News.
The Wells Society was co-founded by award-winning journalists Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ron Nixon and Topher Sanders. The society is named after the path-breaking Black journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, who fearlessly covered the lynching of Black men and was present at the creation of the NAACP. The society’s mission is essential to the industry: to “increase the ranks, retention and profile of reporters and editors of color in the field of investigative reporting.” Bland and her colleagues host training seminars for journalists across the country, focusing on everything from entrepreneurship to racial inequality to COVID-19.
Also in this episode, Ellen talks about Ogden Newspapers’ purchase of Swift Communications, which publishes community papers in western ski towns as well as niche agricultural titles like the Goat Journal. And Dan shares news about federal antitrust lawsuits that are in the works against Google and Facebook by more than 200 newspapers.
You can listen here and sign up via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever fine podcasts are found.