The local journalism crisis isn’t over yet, but there are some positive stories to report in this week’s Voices for a Free Press newsletter.
One is the turnaround at The Salt Lake Tribune, which was rescued from the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital in 2016.
Paul Huntsman, part of a prominent and wealthy Utah family, bought the paper and converted it to a nonprofit.
This didn’t avoid cutbacks. The Tribune ended a joint operating agreement with the rival Deseret News, and both ceased daily printing last December, leaving Utah’s most populous city with only weekly printed papers.
But progress is happening under the new model, Executive Editor Lauren Gustus announced in a Nov. 10 column.
The newsroom is 23% larger than a year ago, and the company is investing in new equipment and employee benefits, such as a 401(k) match.
“Structural changes, the ability to sell our own advertising and print subscriptions that came with our exit from the joint operating agreement, a focus on what matters to readers and, critically, your support have helped us achieve sustainability,” she wrote.
One thing readers asked for was more print editions, so The Tribune is restoring a Wednesday print edition, in addition to Sunday. Let’s hope it’s successful enough to keep growing and restoring more editions.
Another successful new approach is the online, nonprofit investigative outlet ProPublica, founded in 2007 by Paul Steiger, a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, with another Journal veteran, Richard Tofel.
On Tuesday the National Press Foundation announced that Steiger and Tofel won its W.M. Kiplinger Distinguished Contributions to Journalism Award “for creating a new model of nonprofit journalism.”
The announcement describes how ProPublica was created to pursue investigative reporting as a public good and went on to win six Pulitzer Prizes, among numerous other awards.
“It also developed a new partnership model that brought news organizations together to report, edit and distribute investigative reporting, the most expensive part of most news organizations’ budgets,” the announcement said.
These are great milestones. But philanthropy alone can’t solve the journalism crisis and restore local news coverage lost since 2008 — 40,000 newspaper newsroom jobs and hundreds of local papers evaporated.
This was driven home by a national association of community foundations, which this week urged Senate leaders to fund tax credits in the Build Back Better package that would save thousands of local reporting jobs.
“Many of us have provided substantial funding for efforts to replace what has been lost in the implosion of local news production, but the problems are too big and complex for philanthropy to do it alone. Saving local news will require some help from the federal government,” the Community Foundation Public Awareness Initiative wrote to Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Ranking Member Mike Crapo (R-Idaho).
The letter explains why this is critical and deserves public support:
“Local news vacuums are rapidly being filled by social media, partisan hyperbole and harmful disinformation. Without professionally developed, fact-based news and information, residents are not equipped to make decisions on important issues for themselves. This leaves entire communities without information to address problems or identify opportunities for their best development. Democracy itself is endangered.
“As we know from our experience working on issues at the local level — public health, affordable housing, air and water quality, and education improvement among them — none of these can be addressed successfully without the record-keeping and accountability provided by professional journalists.”
A recent story in The Washington Post showed how true this is and the consequences. It found zero reporting about a New Jersey state Senate candidate’s “history of posting bigoted, misogynistic and derogatory comments on social media.”
The area’s local papers are gone or decimated and barely cover local news, the story explained, leaving voters in the dark about a deeply problematic candidate who ended up winning the election.
No wonder politics are such a mess nowadays: A system that requires an informed electorate is breaking down.
Yet the success of several news ventures backed by philanthropy is evidence that new models are being developed to sustain journalism.
The Tribune and ProPublica models won’t work everywhere. But their progress is another argument for temporary federal support, to preserve what’s left of local newsrooms while the rest of this essential industry stabilizes and finds ways to survive.
This is excerpted from the free, weekly Voices for a Free Press newsletter. Visit the new Save the Free Press web site here.