How National Trust for Local News aims to sustain community journalism

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Summary

Background: The newly established National Trust for Local News works “with communities to catalyze the capital, new ownership structures, and business model transformations needed for established local and community news organizations to thrive and remain deeply grounded in their communities.” Its first success came in spring 2021 when the Trust helped shepherd 24 community newspapers in Colorado into new local ownership. The Trust is focused on small newspapers, both for-profit and nonprofit, with a particular interest in community weeklies.

Snapshot

Goals:

  • Keep local news in local hands: There are about 6,500 community newspapers in the United States. This is the group’s “target market.” The team aspires to work to assist as many as 4,000 of those papers. Time is of the essence, as many of the publishers running these community papers are nearing retirement age and may be looking to sell or step back from the daily grind. 
  • Change the narrative around print: The predominant view in the industry is “print is dead or dying.” Indeed there are many geographic areas without a traditional daily newspaper. But at the same time there are still independent local news publishers in many areas, in the form of community weeklies. Trust co-founder Fraser Nelson wants to draw attention to “all these incredibly vibrant, sometimes profitable newspapers” that have served their communities, some for as long as 150 or more years. The Trust sees these papers as civic assets, “economic development drivers” that serve unique purposes, meeting community needs that are not necessarily met “even by public media in these communities, but certainly not met by the larger dailies that may be outside of their immediate geographic area,” Nelson said. The Trust sees print as a preferred medium among readers and advertisers in many communities, and is focused (at least for the foreseeable future) on maintaining print presences.

Methods: According to the Trust’s website, it “will invest in the succession, transformation, growth and stabilization of trusted local and community news via equity and debt.” Some ways it’s trying to accomplish those aims:

  • Broker financing and set up community ownership to help retiring community newspaper owners, preventing the sale of papers to hedge funds or other non-local entities. According to Nelson, “When the community owns [the paper], it becomes less about an individual’s retirement and more about how do we grow the resource that this provides our community.”
  • Advise newsrooms on how to modernize, such as helping them adopt efficient operating practices (such as accounting or payment software), improve publishing technology, and expand community engagement.
  • Connect newsrooms to outside resources such as training materials, journalism grants, and national networks. Because these community papers may be used to operating in isolation, they are oftentimes unaware of the resources available from groups like LION, Old Town Media, INN, and others.
  • Revise the business/governance models and operations, such as helping find a new publisher, exploring partnerships, and finding efficiencies that can redirect money and staff time back toward doing the journalism. The Trust doesn’t necessarily favor public non-profit ownership over private ownerships or hybrid models, such as public benefit corporations, collaborations or consolidations. Instead, it looks to identify and apply business and governance models that will improve local service and move the newspapers toward long-term sustainability.

How it Operates:

  • Staff: The organization has three staff members: A CEO and two managing directors. It also has a “very active” 5-person working board.
  • Budget: Just under $1M, a significant portion of which is spent on legal expenses related to the deals it works on.
  • Funding sources: The Trust received seed funding from the Knight Foundation and Google News Initiative, and has since received other foundation grants as well. The Lenfest Institute for Journalism serves as its fiscal sponsor.

What Your Organization Can Learn

  • Before trying to save or invest in something (whether that’s an internal project or a whole outside company), talk with the audience and potential audience to see whether the product is needed, valued, and get a sense of how it’s received in the community.
  • Do due diligence on the financial situation and opportunities of the company.
  • Your organization may not be the right fit, so when possible, try to connect those you’re rejecting with other options that may align more with their needs. (For example, the Trust refers start up digital first non-profits to the American Journalism Project)
  • Look to similar efforts in other industries for strategies, such as when groups buy land to keep it from being developed. “We have certainly been inspired by the land conversation efforts,” Nelson said, and how that movement has grown and spread over time, and is focused on the long-term picture.

Learn More

This case study was produced in partnership with Gather as a part of the 2021 Local that Works webinar series, which provides insight into innovation in local public service journalism in the U.S.

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