Media, News

As Newspapers Fade, Journalists Are Finding New Ways to Cover Local News

Until January 2019, reporter Tim Swarens had devoted his entire 35-year career to journalism—the last 15 years spent as a reporter and editor at the Indianapolis Star. The end came as a shock. “I did not expect to end my career by being walked out the door by security,” he told me over coffee.

His work had earned him awards from numerous prestigious bodies, including the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, and the Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship for Editorial Writing. He loved his job, and assumed that his reputation would allow him to do it until retirement: “For me, there was never any alternative to being a journalist.” 

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, the number of newsroom employees at U.S. newspapers declined by nearly half between 2008 and 2018, from about 71,000 to 38,000. In some cases, contractions or shutdowns at major-market outlets (such as the Chicago Tribune) receive coverage in other publications. But the situation is even more troubling in smaller markets that are served by few local media. Newspapers such as the Star in Indianapolis are facing challenges because the traditional business model they relied on for much of the last two centuries—advertising, paid-classifieds and subscriptions—has collapsed. Moreover, unlike the Washington Post and other elite publications that are read nationally and internationally, regional publications are selling content into a limited local market.

Newspaper circulation is now lower than it was in the 1940s (when the number of households was a third the current level). Ad revenue—which peaked, in inflation-adjusted 2014 dollars, at $67 billion in the late 1990s—fell below $20-billion in 2014. According to a report commissioned by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, overall U.S. digital ad revenue in 2018 was over $100 billion, which sounds like good news. But newspapers have been able to access only a small part of this market (only $3.5 billion in 2014), as Facebook, Google and Amazon have captured at least half of all digital ad buys.

Thanks to the steady stream of sensational political stories generated by Donald Trump, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have enjoyed considerable gains in digital circulation. But high-profile successes such as this are few in middle America, where a single local newspaper may be the difference between accountability and impunity for politicians. Less local reporting means less transparency, less informed voters, and lower levels of civic engagement.

The weakening of local newspapers means that public discourse has become increasingly nationalized, which has contributed to political polarization and social fragmentation. Instead of focusing on local and regional campaigns that invite effective citizen mobilization and activism, such as ensuring the quality of schools, roads and utility networks, Americans increasingly treat politics as a subject of national-level gossip and entertainment.

Randy Shepard, a retired Justice on the Indiana Supreme Court, has taken to counting the local stories the Indianapolis Star covers each day. “The most common number of locally written stories in a given [edition] is five,” he told me. “Six runs a respectable second. Every once in a while, there are just four, not counting sports.” The rest consists of syndicated content.

Good regional reporting often is the key to breaking important national stories. For instance, the Jeffrey Epstein case was all but dead until Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald breathed life into it with her in-depth reporting. The Boston Globe spent years investigating sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests, a project that inspired journalists in other cities to do their own digging. A series of articles by Brian M. Rosenthal at the Houston Chronicle unveiled massive and systemic issues in Texas, with special-needs children being denied education services.

As for Swarens, he was on the edit desk when the Indianapolis Star broke the Larry Nassar sexual-abuse scandal—a project that consumed the efforts of two reporters for five months. In another era, it was routine to devote editorial staff to this kind of story. But today, it’s rare. And a world without this kind of reporting is a world in which the disgraced USA Gymnastics doctor might still be molesting teenage girls.

The challenge for experienced journalists such as Swarens is to find new outlets for their work. And in this respect, there is some good news. The same Pew report detailing a 47% decline in newspaper editorial employees between 2008 and 2018, from 71,000 to 38,000, also found a large uptick in employment in “digital-native” newsrooms, from 7,000 to 13,000.

Many of these new workers are filling the local-news void. Patch, founded in 2009, is an online-only network of platforms owned by Hale Global that, as of mid-2019, operated over 1,200 news websites. Block Club Chicago, Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, the Texas Tribune and the  Colorado Sun—founded in 2017, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2016 respectively—are examples of digital native outlets that have adopted a non-profit, subscriber- and donation-based online model that operates at relatively low cost and focus heavily on a defined local beat. (And not all new ventures are abandoning print. This includes the Provincetown Independent in Massachusetts, which serves the Outer Cape Cod areas of Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet and Eastham.)

Typifying the young journalists who are pioneering these new experiments is Mónica Guzmán, co-founder of the Evergrey, a hyper-local daily newsletter that began serving Seattle in 2016. When the city’s Post-Intelligencer closed in 2009, the 146-year old newspaper still had 117,600 readers. Guzmán observed changes in her community that she believes could be traced to the Post-Intelligencer’s demise, including declining civic engagement and morale.

The Evergrey is one of several new local outlets started up through WhereBy.Us, a self-described “platform for community media businesses.” Revenue flows to the publication directly from subscribers and from ads embedded in the newsletter. The hyperlocal nature of the publication makes it attractive to clients looking to promote events. Sponsors such as the Seattle-based Gates Foundation also have committed to supporting the Evergrey, and their contributions are noted through the display of corporate logos—though the supporters do not have any editorial say in the selection or content of the associated articles. (This is important, because the line between legitimate editorial content and “branded” or “sponsored” content has become the source of controversy in some areas of the industry.)

A larger revenue stream originates with so-called client-created content, such as the material prepared for Vulcan Inc., a network of organizations and initiatives founded by philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen (1953-2018). The Evergrey created content dedicated to commemorating Allen’s legacy, and produced videos featuring local “catalysts” in Seattle, such as a venture capitalist who invests in entrepreneurs of diverse backgrounds, and a resident who started “Civic Saturdays.

One common characteristic of these newer digital-native operations (including Quillette) is that they operate with lean staffing. The Evergrey, for instance, has just three full-time employees and one part-time manager. But they are supported by centralized WhereBy.Us staff who offer assistance in video production, illustration, event planning and other specialized support services. The Evergrey doesn’t yet have the capacity to dedicate itself to in-depth investigative work. But it does provide an outlet for daily local news reporting.

As for Swarens, he’s leading a group of journalists who are studying all of these models, looking for one that would be right for Indianapolis. They haven’t gotten a name yet, but the above-described precedents show us what the outlet’s defining properties likely will be: timely online content delivery, a flexible revenue model built around subscriber engagement and corporate partnerships, a specialized focus on local news, and lean staffing. “It will take time to build a sustainable institution,” Swarens told me, “but this is [an] important project for our city, state, and country.”

 

Alexandra Hudson, an Indianapolis-based writer who has been published in TIME, The Wall Street Journal, Politico Magazine, and others outlets. She is a 2019 Novak Fellow currently writing a book on civility, civil society and civic renewal. She Tweets at @LexiOHudson. To read more of her work, visit www.alexandraohudson.com.

Comments

  1. Is it just me, or does anyone else find too many journalists are full of their own self importance?

    Let us remember, these are people who are not players, but mere watchers.

    My experience has been that every time the media reports on a story dealing with a filed I know something about, they get the facts wrong and spout silly conclusions.

  2. One idea I like from the Andrew Yang campaign, is the idea of Democracy Dollars. It’s an effective and relatively inexpensive way of washing out the worst effects of Crony Capitalism, especially in relation to the finance industry. But where ideas like these really gain currency, is when applied to News Media, our information sources and the types of curated content we wish to see. Currently, it is still possible to find what you are looking for online, provided you are specific enough to know what you are looking for in the first place, although increasingly studies and information that contradicts the cultural narratives of our time is being hidden behind a wall of curation, often buried on Page Seven of whatever search results we receive.

    So my idea would be to either make it possible to redirect your Democracy Dollars to a publication or content provider of your choice, or create a separate fund for people to spend on the subject matter that fascinates them. The reason for this is simple- whilst we all may fall victim to click bait curiosity and succumb to the urge towards partisan viewership, cheering for our particular own memetic tribe, we also have a conscious desire for objective journalism that investigates the venal wherever they may be found, as well as more uplifting content, especially of an informative or long form nature. In media, the assumption was that we were all dumb, with the attention span of gadflies, only interesting for our occasional tendency to upset the political establishment, by stubbornly voting the wrong way. However, the rise of people like Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris and Joe Rogan shows that there is deep yearning for lengthier, more subtle and nuanced content.

    The Founding Fathers believed that Democracy could only thrive with an informed voting public. But for years our Media Companies and News Outlets have been spoon-feeding us narratives, and acting as gatekeepers for the spectrum of acceptable political discourse. But they made two mistakes. The first was to believe that Twitter was in any way representative of the views of ordinary folks, pushing them to over-ambitiously rush ahead in their project of letting culture steer politics. The second was in believing that the great unwashed masses could simply be educated out of their ‘ignorance’ and come to think like them, not realising that our circumstances of birth and the nurtured environment we grow up in has a profound influence on our attitudes and values, to the extent that many of our preferences are psychologically ingrained.

    Perhaps the ultimate culmination of this misconception lies not in America, but with Brexit. Because for years, the narrative around the British Public’s decision to leave the EU was framed as ignorant or ‘racist’. The cognitive dissonance necessary to make this sort of moral pronouncement is astounding. Last time I checked, the people moving to Britain from Poland, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria were white. It might be possible to levy the charge that the Brexit vote was influenced in some small part by bigotry or xenophobia, until one realises that any accusations of prejudice can only really ever stick on an individual basis, and that it is not unreasonable to want to preserve the comforts and culture of home. The key difference between the liberal raised in comfortable and wealthy circumstances, and the psychological conservative brought up in more austere surrounding, is that whilst the wealthy white liberals craves the excitement of new cultures and peoples, those born in humbler circumstances draw comfort and strength from the familiar.

    So the real failing on the part of media, both in the US and the UK, was in failing to understand their audience. They simply couldn’t predict that British people might feel strongly about an undemocratic and bureaucratic institution in Brussels, making decisions that governed the lives of British people. Similarly, they couldn’t understand that many Americans would want to see new opportunities distributed amongst their less fortunate fellow Americans, rather than to those flooding over the border in search of a better life. Indeed, they didn’t want to believe that even a relatively minor restriction in the labour market for the bottom 50%, might actually lead to the “blue-collar boom” Trump recently claimed. To them a person is just a person, and it’s inconceivable that one might want to show a preference to a fellow countryman, when there are so many desperate people wanting to come to America.

    The real advantage of Democracy Media would not simply come from allowing Politicians and Journalists to finally understand their voters and audience, beyond the transparent and superficial context of their ascribed political beliefs, but to better know the very real fears and hopes that govern our condition. Beyond that, it would end the fallacy that people are somehow shallow, lacking in attention span and ill-informed, simply because they don’t care to spend so much time and attention focusing on the Liberal Media’s obsessions. The future flowering of public intellectuals and greater diversity of thought within the commentariat, would dispel this myth once and for all. It might even lead to greater diversity and inclusion, just as the woke progressives want.

    A while, back my brother wanted to find an evening class to study ‘A’ level Maths, because he was working as an actuarial technician and needed to qualify as an Actuary and wanted to understand the Maths built-in to the complex models he worked with, on a daily basis. There wasn’t a single evening class in the whole of Norfolk, for ‘A’ level Maths. By contrast, History was incredibly popular, at almost every level- there was even an evening class in the next village, two miles down the road. My point is that would it shift the current narrative of Britain’s troubled colonial past, if the powers-that-be realised that there was a huge untapped commercial market out there, to attract students to their courses, and provide readers for their suddenly more lucrative books? I think it might.

    We might then learn that whilst the British Empire was awful by modern standards, it was relatively benign by comparison to it’s colonial competitors. That Britain’s current embedded wealth, far from coming from plunder, stemmed overwhelmingly from mutually beneficial trade. That whilst the ‘mission to civilise’ might seem repugnant to modern ears, it was viewpoint propagated by propaganda, which the British people had no choice but to absorb. The role of the mission to convert, religiously embedded in this colonial movement, might call into question the rise of newer, more secular faiths.

    Once we overcome this ‘chronological snobbery’, it might even lead us to question the basic assumptions woven into the tapestry of our modern worldview. It might force us to see that all of history has been a delirious and infected sleep caused by the deprivation of abject poverty and the brutal necessities it invokes. It might cause us to be more forgiving of Governments in the Developing World, who only want to utilise their resources to provide a similar mechanism for their own desperate and impoverished peoples- and spur us to provide alternate means for their ascension. It might make us finally realise that only two hundred years of the slow, painful progress provoked by the Enlightenment process has begun to alleviate our sickness-ridden slumber. Perhaps it might even cause us to stir from our now fitful and restless sleep, and awaken to the dawn of a New Renaissance.

  3. At first glance this appears to be a good way to fund publications, but I reckon this list would become one of ever growing controversy. Would The Daily Stormer or The Antifa Headbasher be allowed? How about Playboy? May I give it to a Youtube creator, for example Mark Dice, Dave Rubin, or Tim Pool instead? And let’s not forget the potential conflict between the separation of church and state that may arise if I want my money to go to the Catholic Herald or the Satanist Sentinel.

    As I see it, this becomes an indirect way for the government to fund preferred publishers. A list curated by and for the benefit of whom?

    I prefer to not have the government involved in my personal purchases. Let it deal with roads, sewers, and the fire brigade.

    Generally, people pay for things they value, so either they don’t value newspapers or the ones that are free online provide them the reporting they want, or at least find sufficient.

    When the city’s Post-Intelligencer closed in 2009, the 146-year old newspaper still had 117,600 readers.

    I can’t find how much a yearly subscription for the defunct paper once cost, but let’s assume it was the same $4 per week as the Seattle Times. At $208 per subscriber per annum that was about $24.5 million plus whatever advertising the Post-Intelligencer earned. I confess I don’t know a newspaper’s business model, but I reckon one ought to be able to produce a decent local newspaper, perhaps only in digital form, on that budget. One hundred reporters each paid $70,000 in total compensation is only $7 million. Outsource accounting and IT, eliminate HR and other non-core departments, and perhaps it’s viable. For the sake of comparison, the Seattle Times employs about 240 people, though that number may include the two printing plants’ staff, one of which the newspaper just announced will be closed.

  4. How would you get around the effective gag that SLAPP suits presents to free speech and free expression? As you are undoubtedly aware, we have our own recent troubled history with super-injunctions.

    I tend to think that the track record of the free press is perhaps over-rated, but it an important function nonetheless. Andrew Norfolk’s work in bringing the Rotherham scandal to light shows how vital investigative journalism is. However, I am forced to admit that I don’t have any easy answers to the problems you raise. The issue is that currently the media is completely out of step with the views of ordinary people, and investigate journalism that simply reports the news, rather than feeling the constant need to editorialise it, is very much on the decline.

  5. This phenomenon is not unique to speech issues as it’s also done in business and other areas. I think the judge should have the discretion to levy penalties to include the defendant’s legal fees against those filing nuisance suits. Perhaps also sanction lawyers who pursue this vector of attack. Hefty fines and disbarring ought to knock some sense into noggins and dissuade others. Also, often before the suit goes to trial the defendant’s lawyer asks the court for a motion to dismiss. This is uncommonly granted, but I think strengthening the requirement for a judge or someone employed by the court to more closely scrutinise what evidence is presented in the filing might catch more of these abuses.

    Re Rotherham, I recall several other newspapers were contacted and they declined. Many newspapers have been captured by group of activists who see themselves more as spokespeople and they excuse their inaction as “doing no harm” (against the "oppressed people of colour) and “speaking truth to power” (where typically those deemed to be powerful are simply white). I doubt making everyone get a newspaper subscription would sort that issue.

  6. It is a matter of money. Local newspapers used to be funded in three roughly equal parts: classified ads, regular ads, and subscriptions. Classified ads have gone to Craigslist. Regular ads now have to go through google or another ad services, who takes a majority of the revenues. And subscriptions…well, people expect stuff for free these days.

    Solutions? Not easy. One might be to allow news organizations immunity from anti-trust laws when they negotiate their cut of the web advertising revenues from google news and similar sites. I am open to other ideas. But without a solid revenue stream, you can’t support a news team.

    Free-lancers and part-timers are nice, but their work still need editing and curating. Without that, all you get is a race to the most sensational. Unless you offer reporters a reliable income they will spend more time promoting themselves on social media than worrying about accurate reporting. And few will spend 5 months on a deep investigative report without solid financial (and legal) backing.

  7. Without adequate funding, few will do long-term investigative reporting because they cost a lot to do, payment is deferred until the story breaks, and then only if it breaks as not all investigations pan out with clear information to report.

    This is a bit like those who start businesses. If you are under-capitalized, you can’t invest and handle the losses necessary to get sufficient size to then become profitable. Even Amazon took a long time of growth and losses before it turned into a profitable enterprise.

  8. Yes, I’ve seen that too, where reporters get details wrong. But “watchers” is basically what the police do, what referees do, what many researchers do, and what financial analysts do. Remove watchers and the results are unlikely to be positive.

  9. Few people invest in a business that only breaks even like the P-I scenario you spun. I’m sure the thought of taking it over occurred, and the people who were there decided it wasn’t a good idea. For starters, you suggest they could get rid of the print version while also assuming the subscriber base and price paid would remain the same for a digital version. And even if they did, would they have the resources to spend on journalists doing investigative work without a known payback on that work?

    All are free to start a non-profit business in the news space. It’s possible, fragmented sources of news will be the new norm, along with national/international news players.

  10. It’s not just you.

    I stopped taking journalists seriously when I dug deeper into what someone had been reported to have said and found the actual quote to have a very different (and far less sinister) meaning than the journalist’s paraphrase/interpretation.

  11. The complaints about national journalism – its ideological bias and attachment to faddish opinion – are valid. Nonetheless, the danger posed by the collapse of local journalism is very real and is already having visible consequences.

    The migration of literate interest to a handful of national elite opinion factories is exactly one of the things that has transformed our politics into a passively watched freak show. One clear sign of this is how much complacency/indifference/alienation is now growing into a kind of voters’ strike. Many local and Congressional races are showing some of the lowest voter turnouts ever recorded. I doubt this is unrelated to collapsing local journalism.

    One result is the growing importance of fringe politicians and fringe voters. If turnout is 15% or so, like the last New York mayoral primary and general election, you get fringe voters electing De Blasio. Same with Occasional Cortex. Then we all stand around wondering what the hell is going on.

  12. The Americans could solve the problem by moving to the ‘‘English System’’ of dealing with costs. In that system the loser usually pays the winner’s legal costs. These costs are usually ‘‘taxed’’ in that they are discounted to about 60% of the actual costs. However, where a judge believes that a losing party has been especially naughty, then indemnity costs can be imposed. Indemnity costs are the actual legal costs.

    Under the American system the parties each pay their own costs in most courts. This why they have to have the ridiculously cumbersome SLAPP nonsense. Make vexatious litigants liable for the other side’s costs and they may think twice about launching frivolous suits.

  13. When reporters started calling themselves ‘journalists’ I lost interest in there self-satisfied asses. Many of the best reporters of the 20th century were high school graduates - and better writers than you find among ‘journalists’ today.

    Learn to code.

  14. I am probably not the best example, but I have never read much local news. I am sure this makes me a horrible person. I have moved around a lot due to work, so this might explain a lot it. I am pretty happy with the way things are run where I live, so I guess that might explain why I have not been spurred to local activism.

    Several years ago I decided to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, at a whopping $30 per month. I soon found myself spending a lot more time at websites that charged nothing for their content and I gradually stopped reading WSJ altogether, then cancelled. I did not see any value in the information provided there over what was freely available. So, I just made a decision to support publications like Quillette and numerous others.

  15. are there any studies to support the oft-repeated assertion that absence of local media inexorably leads to less civic engagement?

    my own bit of anecdata is that regardless of the presence of media, there is always 10-15% of the population in a given area that are highly engaged, while there may be another 20-30% who are somewhat engaged (usually only when some planning/zoning or infrastructure decision directly affects them). and the rest are apathetic/indifferent. I certainly stand to be corrected if I am mistaken.

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