Congress must step up and help save local newspapers.
But that’s only part of what’s needed to end a journalism crisis that’s left hundreds of communities with no local news, increased polarization and enabled a misinformation epidemic.
Committed owners, willing and able to support a news organization despite industry turmoil, are also essential.
Such benefactors have stepped up and acquired daily papers in some of America’s largest cities, including Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.
But the greatest need is in smaller and rural communities, where thousands of newspapers closed in recent years, leaving little to no local reporting. In places where papers continue, many are ghosts, owned by chains investing less and less in journalism.
That’s why I was thrilled to learn that David Syre, a pillar of Bellingham’s business community, is bankrolling a new local newspaper and digital news site for Whatcom County.
While this is a rarity now, it could be a model for other communities if Congress comes through with temporary supports that make publishing a newspaper in small towns more feasible.
The as-yet-unnamed paper will launch in January with a weekly print edition and a daily report online. Syre hired a colleague of mine, Ron Judd, as executive editor to lead a staff of six to 10 people.
Both Judd and Syre said they respect The Bellingham Herald, the local daily, and want it to succeed. But that paper, now part of a hedge-fund-owned chain, has downsized, dropped Saturday editions and covers less local news.
“I feel like the news vacuum in Whatcom County is really pronounced and really deep,” said Judd, who moved to Bellingham 20 years ago.
Judd said it’s damaging to have a newspaper “that’s been stripped by a chain to its bare working parts. There’s an appearance of a watchdog there, people think there’s somebody watching the government. They’re not.”
Publishing a printed newspaper makes their startup stand out from hundreds of digital news ventures that emerged in recent years, particularly in coastal cities.
“The print product to me is critical. It’s a different thing — you feel it in your hands, it’s on the street,” Judd told me.
Print is more expensive than pixels but Syre is committed. He said print is a superior medium, and printed newspapers’ story layouts are an art form.
“How they’re put together … is in a way a form of art,” he said. “It stimulates your mind the way art does — ‘Ok why did they put it there?’ — and then the headline and the byline and how it was articulated. All of this is a form of art that is lost on the internet.”
That was driven home last year when he couldn’t get his usual newspapers delivered to his farm and had to read them online.
“I just couldn’t get the same communication connection from a computer or my phone that I could by physically holding that paper and seeing how it was put together, seeing how it related to the ads,” he said.
Syre, 80, grew up reading newspapers on the same farm with no radio or TV. He became a lawyer, entrepreneur and developer, known for the Bellis Fair Mall and Semiahmoo resort, as well as some ups and downs. Now his family operates a hardwood lumber business and he’s an artist.
The mall, resort and other projects were part of Syre’s vision for Bellingham and Whatcom County to have a distinct identity, apart from Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.
That also led to him to backing an alternative weekly paper, Cascadia Weekly, for years. During last year’s downturn he commissioned a study of options for the struggling paper. One was to shift to local, hard news to “supplant” the Herald, “taking ground it has ceded in terms of journalism, readership and ad revenue.”
Syre opted to start fresh doing local news, hired Judd and charged him with building a new product and newsroom.
Another option was to make the paper a nonprofit, as some dailies have done. But Syre firmly believes the for-profit model is superior for news publishing, especially after his many years of involvement with nonprofits and fundraising.
Under a nonprofit model, Judd “would have a harder time, he would have voices he would have to pay attention to, rather than one voice, my voice, which is very quiet,” Syre said.
When the process began Syre wasn’t aware of legislation proposed in Congress to sustain local news. But he said that could help dramatically, helping the business break even sooner and enable the hiring of more reporters.
One bill would help small and large news organizations get fairly compensated by tech giants using their content. Another would provide $250 tax credits to households subscribing to local news, plus credits to publishers employing journalists.
“I’m optimistic that if you can sustain local news — that means reporting — I am very optimistic that the subscriptions and the advertisements will follow, especially with this legislation,” he said.
Syre is unique, a Medici for Bellingham and a unicorn for an entrepreneurial journalist like Judd to find.
But I think their startup could be a model for other smaller cities and regions looking to restore local news coverage where there’s none, and spark competition and perhaps more investment by thinned-out incumbents.
Just a little nudge from Congress, providing temporary tax credits and the chance to be fairly compensated by tech giants profiting off local news content, can make this sort of renaissance happen in towns across the country, with or without a David Syre.