While the journalism crisis is far from over, 2022 should see all sorts of innovation and progress with different models to sustain local news coverage.
That’s partly because growing public awareness of the crisis and why it’s critical to sustain local news is producing generous support for efforts to restore or replace coverage lost as newspapers closed or shrank.
An outstanding example is Spotlight PA, a thriving news startup providing statewide accountability and investigative coverage in Pennsylvania.
The venture just announced that it’s receiving $2 million over three years to expand its reporting and operations.
That will enable Spotlight PA to grow its staff from 16 to 20, including an operations team to help the nonprofit further expand with new bureaus and local coverage in Pennsylvania’s news deserts.
Launched in 2019, Spotlight PA is a partnership of legacy news organizations including The Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Tribune Review, The Patriot-News in Harrisburg and WITF Public Media.
It produces enterprise and investigative stories and shares them for free with 79 print, digital and radio media outlets in the state. It also publishes online at spotlightpa.org and through newsletters, and partners with national news organizations such as ProPublica.
Founding Editor Christopher Baxter came from New Jersey, where there’s still relatively robust statehouse coverage, and was shocked by how little coverage there was in Pennsylvania’s capitol.
“The fact that The Inquirer and the Post-Gazette, the two monsters, each had one person in Harrisburg, I was flabbergasted by that,” he said. “So many of the other papers had cut correspondents down to none or one, so the gap was already there.”
The situation prompted The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, a nonprofit endowed by the late cable entrepreneur H.F. Lenfest that publishes The Inquirer, to rally other foundations and donors to launch Spotlight PA with initial commitments of approaching $3 million. The startup operates independently, making its own coverage decisions, but The Inquirer handles some administrative tasks to lessen its overhead burden.
Baxter said it is a runaway success. One gauge of this, and a possible indicator of long-term sustainability, is growth in small donors, who contributed more than $250,000 last year and could exceed $500,000 this year.
This week, it announced a $1 million commitment from The American Journalism Project, an organization providing grants to nonprofit news outlets. That was matched by Lenfest Institute, providing the $2 million over three years to build Spotlight PA’s infrastructure.
“By combining the nimble, audience-first skills of a digital startup and the reach and institutional knowledge of legacy news publishers, Spotlight PA has established a national model for redefining statewide journalism,” Lenfest Institute Executive Director and CEO Jim Friedlich said in a release.
Also planned are new local bureaus, starting with a four-person Spotlight PA team planned for State College. That will about match the staff of the thinned out local daily and cover key institutions like Pennsylvania State University, Baxter said.
Another organization looking to strengthen statehouse coverage, States Newsroom, announced recently that it’s expanding its network with three additional newsrooms. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit runs a network of local newsrooms in 25 states and is adding Alaska, Arkansas and Nebraska.
Donations are also flowing to local and hyperlocal news outlets. I wrote last month about incredible community support for investigative teams at The Seattle Times and other papers.
This week, the American Journalism Project also announced grants to Block Club Chicago, which covers 32 Chicago neighborhoods; Sahan Journal, a Minnesota outlet focused on coverage of diverse and immigrant communities; and San Jose Spotlight, a nonprofit news outlet in San Jose, California.
These initiatives and the support behind them are wonderful.
But the U.S. still needs comprehensive, universal solutions to a local news crisis that’s seen the loss of 40,000 reporting jobs and left thousands of local communities with no local coverage.
On that front, the first priority is Congress approving tax credits for employing local reporters in the Build Back Better funding package.
That will save thousands of jobs at legacy media outlets, further the growth of new ventures like Spotlight PA and help sustain the overall local-news ecosystem.
Iowa reporters bumped: The GOP-majority Iowa Senate stopped allowing reporters to work at press benches in the Senate chamber, ending a tradition that lasted more than a century, The Des Moines Register reports. It notes that only about six states didn’t allow reporters access to House and Senate floors as of 2019.
This is excerpted from the free, weekly Voices for a Free Press newsletter. Visit the new Save the Free Press web site here.