Philanthropy is increasingly important to America’s local news system, as it struggles and searches for ways to survive.

But even with more than $1 billion donated in recent years, that’s not enough to replace tens of billions of annual revenue that used to support newspapers, and restore nearly 40,000 newsroom jobs lost since 2008.

My position is that we ultimately need to find business models to sustain and grow locally owned, for-profit news organizations nationwide. They must be independent, deeply invested in communities and driven to succeed as both businesses and public assets.

An intriguing example was announced last week in Denver. A coalition of nonprofits helped the Colorado Sun, an online outlet started in 2018 by Denver Post veterans, acquire a chain of 24 weekly and monthly suburban newspapers.

Financing came from a new nonprofit, the National Trust for Local News. It now jointly owns the Colorado News Conservancy, holder of the suburban papers, with the Sun, an employee-owned, public-benefit corporation.

To learn more about the potential of such deals and nonprofits in news, I interviewed a leading evangelist of the movement, Steven Waldman.

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Steven Waldman
Steven Waldman

New York-based Waldman co-founded the National Trust for Local News.

He’s also co-founder and president of Report for America, a nonprofit launched in 2017 to place emerging journalists in temporary jobs. It pays half their salaries and asks newsrooms to pay a quarter and raise a quarter from donations.

Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:

Q: Congratulations on the latest Report for America class. Is the pipeline of applications up or down?

A: It’s going up. Partly because of the economy there are no jobs out there, so that makes recruitment easier and the quality’s really good. We had 1,800 applicants for 130 slots. At this point the limits on our growth really have more to do with how much money we can raise.

Q: So there’s capacity in newsrooms and communities to keep growing?

A: Yes. I’m not sure I would’ve said that a year ago but what seems to be finally happening is the local philanthropic world — foundations, civic leaders and folks like that — are finally waking up to the fact that collapsing local news is not good for their community. These folks that don’t care about journalism per se, they’ve never funded journalism, are now starting to.  

Q: The Colorado project is very structured for that situation. Is it scalable?

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A: It remains to be seen whether this exact model is replicable. There are particular pieces to this deal that may be unique to it. But I definitely think the broader theory of replanting newspapers into community institutions absolutely is scalable.

Q: Maybe I’m a dinosaur, but I still see value in for-profit news organizations. How much emphasis should we put on sustaining them versus seeding new nonprofits?

A: I think the emphasis should be more on community based versus mega-chains more than nonprofit versus for profit.  

Q: How do we make the nonprofit approach equitable and extend to rural areas that may need journalism help more than cities?

A: Those are the conversations. In some ways it’s the Achilles heel of our model — if there’s no place to embed someone because it’s a total news desert, then we’re not as useful.

I have hope that if you create a mechanism that pumps capital into the system, creative things can happen. You could imagine people in rural areas getting together, saying there’s support where we can get payroll subsidized, maybe we’d have more of a chance.

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There’s no substitute for someone in the community fired up about creating something. But you can make it easier for them, so if there’s a group of citizens or civic leaders who want to solve this problem, they can get help.

Q: Are your nonprofits permanent tools, or bridges until new business models emerge?

A: I think it’s a permanent state of affairs that the nonprofit sector should be a bigger part of the local-news puzzle, and that doesn’t mean all of it, just more than it’s been. Hopefully there will be enough improvements in the commercial sector that it doesn’t have to go all the way to being an entirely nonprofit world. But I think a mix is where we’re going, and where we ought to go, and that does require people to be creative and change the way they think. Supporting local journalism should be as much a civic obligation as supporting local schools or libraries or museums.

Q: If legislation passes to help local news, maybe there’s hope for for-profits.

A: It would be very arrogant and premature to conclude that there’s no role for the for-profit sector in local news. There’s a decent chance there’s going to be some equilibrium where there are commercial models that are sustainable and healthy. I’m a little skeptical that they’ll be able to sustain labor-intensive accountability reporting, so it’s possible you’ll end up with a hybrid that’s a mix of commercial entities that need a nonprofit supplement.

Q: We’re doing that here. Is support coming from the Biden administration?

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A: I haven’t seen much. One thing that they could do very quickly is, they have all this money appropriated for advertising for COVID vaccination. They could decree right now that half that go to local news organizations. That’s something they could do through executive action that could have enormous impact. That would put a lot of money into local news right away and serve the other function of helping get people vaccinated.

Q: You produced a great 2011 report on the media situation for the Federal Communications Commission. Is it time for another?

A: I love a good report as much as anyone, but I feel like we’ve studied this a lot and we now have to act — act quickly and dramatically.

Editor’s note: The National Trust for Local News is not a co-owner of the Sun, as initially report in this column. It jointly owns the Colorado News Conservancy, a corporation formed to acquire 24 suburban papers, with the Sun.