Running toward the Renaissance of local news

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On May 9, The Salt Lake Tribune publicly announced that it was pursuing federal approval to become a nonprofit, citing years of steep advertising declines for the privately held, Pulitzer Prize–winning newspaper.

The news was shocking/not shocking for anyone in the local news industry, and many were quick to add this as another chorus in the endless noir opera “Death of a News Industry.” Previous stanzas included the shuttering of more than 1,300 weekly and daily newspapers in recent years, local news institutions selling their historic buildings to tech billionaires and vulture capitalists slashing newsroom jobs to one quarter what they were a decade ago.

So it’s easy — even obvious — to add the news in Salt Lake as something defeatist, a newspaper basically crying “Uncle.”

But if you’re reading the tea leaves, that’s not what’s happening.

Local news is headed into a Renaissance. And just like what happened when some of civilization’s brightest minds pulled humanity out of the Dark Ages, two things are certain: It will not look anything like the past, and it will shine like a beacon.

In fact, it’s just starting to catch fire.


On March 9, something interesting happened in Denver. Colorado Public Radio announced the purchase of digital news site Denverite from Jim Brady’s Spirited Media. CPR News executive editor Kevin Dale and CPR CEO Stewart Vanderwilt were quick to assure everyone that each would maintain its unique voice.

What they didn’t say was that, on March 9, 2019, Colorado Public Radio — with a combined newsroom of 40-plus with several new news jobs yet unfilled — was poised to be the largest employer of journalists in the state of Colorado.

The Denver Post, long-suffering at the hands of owner Alden Capital, had recently lost a third of its newsroom in a single day of layoffs. A single day. It had just over 60 newsroom employees before that day.

And if the Post continues its trajectory — which, I’m sorry to say, is inevitable — the largest news institution in Colorado will be a public radio station. A locally owned, mission-driven, nonprofit news institution.

CPR quickly followed up on the Denverite acquisition by announcing it would be building a newsroom office in downtown Denver — just as Post journalists were getting used to their digs 20 minutes away from downtown.

Weeks after the announcement in Denver, WHYY announced it had purchased the independent news site Billy Penn, also from Spirited Media. And previously, in February 2018, WNYC, KPCC and WAMU announced purchase of assets from Gothamist and associated sites DCist, LAist and DNAInfo.

(In fairness to history, this path was paved six years ago in St. Louis, when KWMU began talks to merge with independent news site The Beacon. Disclaimer: My consulting firm, Coats2Coats, orchestrated work leading to the powerhouse of those combined newsrooms — but all credit for that vision goes to KWMU CEO Tim Eby and Beacon Editor Margie Freivogel. Simply brilliant.)

So, this Renaissance is about mergers and acquisitions. Large yawn. Meh.

No. These are dynamic moments in an otherwise quiet story that has been foreshadowed, seeded and cultivated over the past few years. While many local journalism analyses — and hand-wringing — have focused on the decimation of local newspapers and the frantic pace of consolidation of local TV stations, nonprofit news has been growing and flourishing.

Consider:

  • Over the past decade, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has invested millions of dollars to grow local and regional journalism capacity through programs such as Local Journalism Centers (or Collaborations) and Regional Journalism Collaborations. (Disclaimer: My consulting firm, Coats2Coats, has performed a number of evaluations of the LJCs and RJCs, and wrote the playbook for CPB to deploy for future collaborations.)
  • After a decade of concentrated growth, the nonprofit news sector now pulls in almost $350 million in total annual revenue, dominated in particular by the organizations started almost a decade ago, according to a report by the Institute for Nonprofit News (nine years old itself). The organization boasts 180 members.
  • And, also quietly, in the past few years, local public radio newsrooms have added more than 1,000 journalists to their newsrooms across the country – some in places seen as news deserts by the algorithms of Facebook’s “Today In…”
  • In October 2018, CPB invested $1 million in the Editorial Integrity and Leadership Initiative, an effort to mentor and grow 100 editorial leaders in public media. The program, based on previous work done by Coats2Coats, is being executed by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. The Initiative may be the largest concerted effort to grow editorial leadership capacity in any medium.

Against this backdrop, it’s not crying “Uncle” for The Salt Lake Tribune to seek nonprofit status. It’s simply where the puck is going.

And here’s my prediction: In the next 18 months, a media company will announce it is donating the assets of a newspaper — though not its real estate — to a local university that just happens to have a journalism school and a public radio/television license, as the tax benefit is greater than its earnings.

Count on it.


This inflection point comes at a major surge in funding for news from global technology companies, foundations and new initiatives:

  • Google announced in March 2018 that it was investing $300 million over three years via the Google News Initiative to build “a stronger future for news.” 

  • In January 2019, Facebook announced a similarly sized investment: $300 million over three years “to support local news.” 

  • In February 2019, The Knight Foundation announced it was going all in on local news and would invest $300 million over five years “to rebuild trust in democracy from (the) local level up.” 

  • The American Journalism Project, a new effort launched in 2018, announced in February it was launching with $42 million in initial funding, with ambitions of growing much bigger. 


Why these are good investments: The Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy’s report, “Crisis in Democracy: Renewing Trust in America,” released in February at the Aspen Institute, found growing divides in consumers’ trust in news — except at the local level, where trust in news GREW.

Public media has been doubling down on local news and has been collaborating with independent, nonprofit and sometimes for-profit news sites to build journalism capacity and better serve their communities. But for every success in Denver or St. Louis (and others, such as Louisville Public Media, which likely will be the next public media outlet to employ more journalists than the city’s shrinking newspaper) there is much to be done. And it starts with working together.

Here are a few ideas about how to accelerate the Renaissance:

  • Collaborate to build capacity. Working together, informally or all the way to a merger, is the most efficient, transformative and audience-focused way to serve a community’s news needs. Nonprofits are not slaves to ad impressions or CPMs. They’re measured on impact, and that can happen on your site, on air, in a tweet, in a conversation, anywhere. You just have to do the work and go where the audience already is.
  • Fund into where the puck is going. Many nonprofit news organizations are in markets where the desire to level up is great (I’m looking at you, New Orleans), but the ability to get there needs a financial and technological boost. It also will contribute to deepening the community content flowing through the pipes, so that interfaces such as Facebook’s “Today In…” aren’t overrun with crime and car crashes.
  • Take membership to the next level. Membership has become the darling of conversations about diversifying revenue streams for news organizations. (If your news organization has started substituting “membership” for “subscriptions,” you know what I mean.) Public media is masterful at membership, and far too many startup journalism sites have failed because they thought it would be easy to mimic. It’s not.
  • Amplify and broaden the conversation with major funders and technology companies about public media — at the local level. It’s easy to understand why they often get overlooked — each is locally owned, so it’s difficult to work at scale. (Hence the cliché of “If you’ve worked at one public radio station, you’ve worked at one public radio station.”) As founding executive director and CEO of the Local Media Consortium, believe me when I say there are ways to overcome this.
  • Merge these conversations with efforts by community foundations to invigorate their communities. Mission-driven news organizations and mission-driven community foundations share similar goals for an informed, productive and involved community, but too often, these conversations happen in separate rooms. A great place to begin bringing them together is the Community Foundations Program at the Knight Foundation.

As a journalist who has worked in literally dozens of newsrooms, it is painful to watch the decline of trusted newspapers and the consolidation of ownership (and voices) of local TV stations. And it is easy to be pulled into that noir opera at every turn. But there is light glimmering on the horizon.

Run toward it.

Rusty Coats is founder and president of Coats2Coats. This commentary was first published on his blog.

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