By Heidi Legg, Director of Special Projects at the Shorenstein Center
Heidi Legg is a long-time journalist who founded a digital local news startup, TheEditorial.com, before joining the Shorenstein Center as Director of Special Projects in 2018. Her work has been published in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Globe and Mail, The Ottaway Citizen and WBUR’s Cognoscenti.
The views expressed in Shorenstein Center Discussion Papers are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Harvard Kennedy School or of Harvard University.
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“Between 1970 and 2016, the year the American Society of News Editors quit counting how many newspapers had fallen, 500 dailies went out of business,” reported Jill Lepore in her New Yorker article this year titled Does Journalism Have a Future?. This comes as no surprise to those who follow news. Unless you live in a major urban center where a local paper has a wealthy owner, you have also seen the slimming down of your newspaper.
The decline has intensified. Between 2004 and 2018, nearly 1,800 dailies and weeklies closed. Today, half of U.S. counties have only one newspaper while 200 counties have none, according to a University of North Carolina study. Almost 400 digital upstarts have emerged, but they are mainly found in big cities and affluent areas. As another acute measurement of the state of affairs, we lost 45 percent of newspaper “newsroom” employees – journalists and editors who report the news – between 2008 and 2017, according to Pew Research.
Even the promise of a digital press has crumbled. Along with about a quarter of digital-native news sites, Lepore wrote that a third of the nation’s largest newspapers that tried to add a digital presence reported layoffs, including The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Boston Herald, The Denver Post and The San Jose Mercury News. A year ago, The Boston Globe’s Evan Horowitz predicted the dilemma: “While you might have hoped that the decline of printed newspapers was being offset by a rise in internet-based news coverage, that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
HuffPost’s early success was an example of the promise of the digital model. This new online newspaper adopted a legacy title “Post” but was built by bloggers and most were unpaid. Despite having circumvented some of the cost of reporters and taking in $146 million dollars in advertising revenue in 2018, it failed to turn a profit. The next generation experiments have also stumbled. BuzzFeed News laid off a hundred people in 2017 and double that number in 2019, and the youthful, venture-capital created Mic let go of most of its editorial staff and sold to Bustle for $5 million.
Local journalism is in crisis, off and online. Years of downsizing in the face of digital disruption have weakened regional and local news organizations. And the problem is growing worse, as advertising continues to shift in substantial measure to Facebook and Google. The Wall Street Journal reported that these giant tech platforms had secured over 86 percent of advertising growth in the industry by 2017. They now have 77 percent of all digital advertising revenue in local markets and 58 percent at the national level.
The Wall Street Journal’s recent examination of the state of local media noted the difference between newsrooms with money and those without: “A stark divide has emerged between a handful of national players that have managed to stabilize their businesses and local outlets for which time is running out.” WSJ also reported that “the pain was most pronounced among mid-sized papers with circulations between 100,000 and 200,000 – papers like Advance Publications Inc.’s Oregonian and A.H. Belo Corp.’s Dallas Morning News, where circulation dropped some 45 percent between 2012 and 2018. As print ads disappeared, the publishing cost of maintaining a bigger circulation became untenable for many papers.”
A metric for success in local news is the ability to afford the design and implementation of digital strategy. As has been seen with The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, a deep-pocketed owner can transform a legacy paper. As smaller papers fail to make the digital transition that larger players have made, we see a steep decline in local news. WSJ reporters Keach Hagey, Lukas Alpert, and Yaryna Serkez wrote in May 2019, “Local papers have suffered sharper declines in circulation than national outlets and greater incursions into their online advertising businesses from tech giants such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc…The shrinking of the local news landscape is leaving Americans with less information about what’s happening close to them, a fact Facebook recently acknowledged as it struggled to expand its local-news product but couldn’t find enough stories.” Hagey, Alpert, and Serkez point to the futility of digital subscription for local papers in their metrics. “The Times converts 3.6% of its readers and the Journal 4.5%, while Gannett, which has a big audience across its local papers, is especially inefficient, converting just 0.4 % of its digital audience into paying subscribers.”
Most cities and towns lack a local billionaire owner, and many local papers are being consolidated under single umbrella owners, or purchased by private equity firms. Both consolidation and private equity ownership in local news have led to massive layoffs. A recent bid by the hedge fund firm Alden Global Capital to buy Gannett, the nation’s largest chain of daily newspapers which includes USA Today, is a prime example. While the hostile takeover bid was defeated in a proxy fight, it still revealed Alden’s questionable practices. As reported in The Washington Post, Alden now controls more than 100 local newspapers and it is currently being investigated by the federal government for moving close to $250 million of employee pension savings, a total of 90 percent of the retirees’ savings, to invest in high-risk positions in two funds it owns. Alden now owns The Denver Post, The San Jose Mercury, and The Boston Herald under the brand MediaNews Group. It also owns The Orange County Register and The Press-Enterprise in southern California.
But even with the tension over who will finally own Gannett, it is worth noting that its digital subscriptions are only at 538,000 Americans, as reported by USA Today. This is a small amount for a newspaper with national reach, considering The Boston Globe, which covers only one major metro area, now has over 120,000 subscribers. The Washington Post has 1.5 million digital subscribers and The New York Times, 4.5 million.
Alden’s bid for Gannett was one in a long list of purchases by the private equity firm. Alden has long been the nemesis for many in the newspaper business given the way it cut costs. The Washington Post also reports the hedge fund has cut jobs more rapidly than other owners of newspapers. The Post reported that in 2016, while Alden managed over $200 million of pension money from its newspaper employees, it then financed the $52 million buy of the Orange County Register and Press-Enterprise in southern California. The Labor Department is looking at whether Alden used the pension money to buy the other assets.
On May 30th, news broke that GateHouse Media and Gannett are in merger talks, which would bring together the two largest newspaper groups in the country looking to trim costs and transform in this exceedingly difficult local news environment.
Sinclair Broadcasting Group is another major player in local news and the largest owner of television stations in the United States. Its failed bid $4 billion to acquire Tribune Media, which owns over 40 television stations across the country, would have given Sinclair a hold on media for 72 percent of American households. Offering original programming on 193 channels, Sinclair holds enough stations to reach 39 percent of all American homes. Last year, Sinclair was criticized for its right-wing bent that was amplified in a viral video which spliced together clips of newscasters reciting the exact same words. Sinclair is controlled by the family of founder Julian Sinclair Smith and headquartered in Maryland. Sinclair chairman David D. Smith has been a longtime Republican donor, who recently announced he would operate as an outlet for the Trump administration: “we are here to deliver your message.” The Intelligencer reports that “Sinclair formally promised to provide favorable coverage to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign (in exchange for access to the GOP nominee). Since the election of President Trump, the media giant has ordered all of its affiliates to air commentary that advances White House talking points, and coerced their own anchors into saying that the mainstream news media is biased against the president.”
The Newhouse family, the owners of Condé Nast Inc., the media company that includes Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker along with 25 local newspapers, social news site Reddit, and a holding in Discovery Communications, is selling newspapers. In May, The New Orleans Advocate bought The Times-Picayune from Advance Local Media, the Newhouse family’s media empire.
Given the difficult economic reality and limited opportunities for capital, it seems nearly impossible for there to be innovation in the local market. This said, there are limited signs of progress.
For the purpose of this landscape study, we have focused on two types of local news: digital startups in local news — both nonprofits and for-profits — along with the purchase of legacy newspapers and magazines by wealthy owners.
Here are a number of emerging trends across the U.S. in local news:
The Billionaire Local Newspaper Club: Local newspapers are getting massive infusions of capital from wealthy individuals and families, to help them get up to speed digitally so they can compete against Facebook and Google, which have the data and audience.
Emerging Nonprofit Models: In the past few years we have seen a snowball effect in the rise of nonprofit news, as well as the consolidation of resources in the nonprofit space. The Lenfest Institute and American Journalism Project are two large players, which each have $40 million to give to local news experiments. They grew their funds with money from private industry donors, tech companies, and foundations. This has helped foster a surge in nonprofit support, from the Annual NewsMatch donation campaign to the Institute for Non Profit News (INN), which has grown to be a network of over 200 nonprofit media organizations in North America that share best practices, pool resources, and receive training in new technologies and business development.
For-Profit Models: We are seeing very few commercial local news startups, but there are a few trying to make a dent as commercial enterprises. What is most notable is the turnaround of legacy newspapers by deep-pocketed and business-minded owners and the roll-up of many legacy papers by private equity firms.
Mobilizers: Mobilizing organizations, including Report for America, the American Journalism Project, and ProPublica’s Local News Project, are setting out to bolster local newsrooms with external support and staff.
Accelerators: Borrowing from the startup accelerator model, these organizations train new journalism startups on how to grow and use digital tools. These include The Information Accelerator, the Lenfest Institute, Facebook Accelerator, Google News Initiative, and the Membership Puzzle at NYU.
Where possible, we interviewed, via email, the nonprofit and for-profit local startups to gather the following information: revenue paths, subscription base, mission or unique offering, size of their city or town, collaborations, and number of fulltime and freelance staff.
The Billionaire Owners Club – A Timeline
The rush to own a legacy title will be remembered as a turning point for the dying end of the fabled American publishing industry that defined much of the twentieth century. A recent timeline of wealthy owners of legacy local newspapers and fabled-national magazines across America shows the five-year flurry between 2013 and 2018:
2013 John and Linda Henry, billionaire owners of the Red Sox, financiers, and Boston residents buy The Boston Globe, its websites and affiliated news businesses, and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette for $70 million in cash, from The New York Times. Over the past seven years, the Henrys have transformed the Globe’s digital presence, sold the longtime headquarters in South Boston and moved the entire organization into downtown Boston’s financial district — all the while experimenting with delivery models. With a newly designed space that nods to the history of one of the most significant metro newspapers, The Boston Globe has focused on the future revenue model of local news. There is only one price for a digital subscription — $6.93 a week, billed every four weeks for a total of $27.72 per month.
2013 Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, buys The Washington Post for $250 million from the Graham family who had owned the paper for 80 years.
2013 Jessica Lessin founds The Information in Silicon Valley with her own family wealth. For a lofty $399 a year, or $39 a month, Lessin provides subscribers with two stories a day and an appealing array of networking events around the globe. She will not reveal the amount she invested to build her glossy and substantial tech-meets-local digital play, but she told the Columbia Journalism Review, “it was not in the tens of millions of dollars.”
Lessin was a seasoned Wall Street Journal reporter, once on the Harvard Crimson staff, who wanted to create a subscription-based digital media company. Her husband, Sam Lessin, had become a fixture on the New York tech startup scene before selling his startup to Facebook, and the couple is close friends with Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. The Information has emerged as a leading business online magazine for the tech industry, with tens of thousands of subscribers across 84 countries.
2014 Glen Taylor, chairman and CEO of the Taylor Corporation based in North Mankato, Minnesota, a majority owner of the Timberwolves and Lynx basketball teams, and a former Republican state senator, purchases the Minneapolis Star Tribune for about $100 million. Under the leadership of Michael Klingensmith, CEO and publisher of the Star Tribune, the nation’s 12th largest daily newspaper has been a model for many on how to transform to digital with a quality product and stay profitable.
2014 H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest, at 84, reluctantly buys The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com with his friend and entrepreneur Lewis Katz, for $88 million. Katz then dies in a plane crash and Lenfest becomes the sole owner after buying out the Katz family’s $16 million stake. He famously said afterward, “I just figured out how to become a millionaire in the newspaper business. It’s easy. You start out as a billionaire, and you buy a bunch of newspapers.”
2016 Gerry Lenfest donates his entire holdings of The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com to the nonprofit Institute for Journalism in New Media, part of The Philadelphia Foundation as a public-benefit corporation, under the non-profit ownership of the Institute. He then founded the Lenfest Institute for Journalism as a non-profit organization whose “sole mission is to develop and support sustainable business models for great local journalism,” with an initial endowment of $20 million. He believed a strong local press is fundamental to the health of civic life in the Philadelphia region and to our democracy. Lenfest saw a critical role for the Institute in helping fund and protect journalism in Philadelphia. In this spirit, he then added an additional $40 million match pledge as a prompt for other Philadelphia philanthropists to support their local news. Donations included $15 million from an anonymous donor, $3 million from David Haas, $2 million from the Wyncote Foundation (owned by Haas), and contributions from Facebook, the Knight Foundation and others. When The Washington Post reported on the story, it explained that contrary to the term “nonprofit,” these public-benefit corporations can indeed make profits, but to retain tax-exempt status, the money must go back into the organization rather than into someone’s pocket.
2017 Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist and the Craig Newmark Philanthropies (founded in 2016) starts making major donations to journalism. Over the past three years, he has donated more than $70 million to journalism efforts, many of them grassroots players. Grantees include Data and Society, cybersecurity and disinformation efforts, the Markup, and NYC journalism schools, including $20 million to the Craig Newmark School of Journalism CUNY and $10 million to the Columbia Journalism School to establish the Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security, which will advance journalism-ethics education in the digital age. He also help fund the Shorenstein Center’s research into disinformation in the news in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections.
2017 Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs, buys a majority stake in The Atlantic through the Emerson Collective — a social impact firm she runs — from David Bradley, who bought it for $10 million two decades ago.
2018 Laurene Powell Jobs buys the newly created live magazine, San Francisco-based Pop-Up Magazine Productions and California Sunday Magazine. California Sunday is distributed every weekend in the Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee, and the San Francisco Chronicle. The company has also backed Axios and Ozy Media and is now funding the nonprofit startup the American Journalism Project, described later in this paper under “Mobilizers.” Powell Jobs has said that she finds the demise of local news particularly troubling and she donates to nonprofits like the Marshall Project, Mother Jones, the Texas Observer, ProPublica, and the American Journalism Project. In an interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher, Powell Jobs expressed that she sees local news as “under attack” and believes that “we should think about it as a civic good, a public good that should be supported by public and private entities.”
2018 Patrick Soon-Shoing, biotech billionaire and inventor of cancer drugs worth $7 billion, according to Forbes, buys the Los Angeles Times from Tronc (now Tribune Publishing), as well as the San Diego Union-Tribune, Spanish-language Hoy Los Angeles, and community newspapers, for $500 million. He has since invested another $150 million into the L.A. Times, and has ambitious plans to grow from his current 170,000 digital subscribers to 5 million. He told the Wall Street Journal last March that “he envisioned the L.A. Times as a kind of super-regional news source, with its primary focus on being the paper of record for California’s 40 million residents, rather than trying to compete directly for a national audience with The New York Times or The Washington Post. But he also wanted to expand the L.A. Times’ audience reach into Mexico, western Canada and across the Pacific Rim, as well as into surrounding states.”
2018 Marc and Lynne Benioff, the founder of Salesforce.com and his wife, buy Time Magazine for $190 million from the Meredith Corporation, an American broadcast and magazine conglomerate that had purchased Time Inc less than a year earlier. The New York Times reported that Meredith had turned away many interested parties, including a more than $325 million offer from David J. Pecker, a confidant of President Trump and chief executive of American Media Inc., publisher of The National Enquirer. Benioff tweeted, “The power of Time has always been in its unique storytelling of the people & issues that affect us all & connect us all. A treasure trove of our history & culture. We have deep respect for their organization & honored to be stewards of this iconic brand.”
2019 John and Dathel Georges, owners of The New Orleans Advocate, purchased their longtime rival The Times-Picayune and its digital property NOLA.com from Advance Local, which had owned it for half a century. Advance is a subsidiary of Advanced Publications, owned by media moguls Samuel “Si” and Donald Newhouse, who were born into one of the country’s most powerful publishing families. The Newhouse family also owns the privately-held-company Condé Nast Publications — publisher of Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair — the social news site Reddit, a substantial stake in Discovery Communications, and newspapers in over 25 U.S. cities. In 2015, the Newhouse brothers sold cable TV outfit Bright House Networks to John Malone’s Charter Communications for $11.4 billion in cash and stock. The battle between the Newhouse-owned Times-Picayune and Georges-owned Advocate had become heated over the past few years in New Orleans.
John Georges is founder and CEO of Georges Enterprises, a company based in Elmwood, La., specializing in acquiring and growing businesses. It invests in food vending, grocery distribution, video and arcade entertainment, restaurants, and media outlets. Dathel Georges’ family owns Oil Mop OMI. The New York Times reported that the purchase of the historic Times-Picayune by the locally-owned Advocate was announced over Baked Alaska. Every employee at The Advocate was served a slice of dessert adorned with the two papers’ logos as they learned that The Advocate had bought, for an undisclosed amount, the brand, the site, and the subscriber list of the historic paper and its digital upstart, but would not retain its employees.
It is worth noting that newspaper competition is a win for locals. When two local papers compete, even if the market can’t or won’t sustain them, the residents benefit. As The New York Times pointedly summarized, “Reporters for The Advocate dogged crooked officials, exposed racist police and, in 2018, wrote a series of articles on Louisiana’s acceptance of non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal trials, which led to a change in the law and a Pulitzer Prize.” Meanwhile, Nola reporters were breaking big news with detailed investigations into the state mental health care system, into sexual harassment in the restaurant world, and chronicled the steady and ominous disappearance of the Louisiana coastline.
While the digital transformation funded by private wealthy owners of local news or niche-industry-news pertinent to a city is beginning to show progress, there is still an enormous opportunity and challenge to convince local residents to buy a subscription and pay to sustain the local newsroom. To help begin to understand the scale that is needed to ensure local news survives — be it digital subscriptions or nonprofit membership — we created two data visualizations around digital subscribers based on the research in this landscape paper. The first shows how big the gap is between the early successes of the NYT and The Washington Post, while also recognizing both are more than local papers and reaching to a much broader audience of readers than their local zip codes.
This second data visualization, again focused on digital subscribers, compares the subscription base to the actual greater metro area that the outlet covers. This is a more hopeful graph as it shows the potential growth for these digital plays — if they can find a price point to entice residents to subscribe. (Note: this graph leaves out success stories such as the VTDigger and Berkeleyside which on average each have 300,000 page views a month but don’t measure by subscriber or member. In the case of VTDigger it counts $750,000 in donations last year, and Berkeleyside counts 300,000 page views per month but is ad based. It is difficult to compare the success of alternative models.)
Emerging Nonprofit Models
One of the most significant responses to the decimation of the industry’s revenue models has been the proliferation of nonprofit news organizations. Some versions are adaptations of the longtime membership models of local NPR and PBS stations where you buy a membership to support your local newsroom, and many are what are being called “single subject nonprofits,” focused on specific topics as varied as veterans, guns control, education, and appealing (for readership and support) to niche audiences.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a leader in journalism funding, announced a $300 million commitment to local news this year. While nonprofits are on the rise, even for-profit newspapers are now seeking donations from the community and foundations like Solutions Journalism looking to support local news for investigative reporting. Both the Burlington Free Press and The Seattle Times are applying for grants to pursue deeper reporting for beats such as education, the environment, and local government.
In 2017, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center began an 18-month study of a cohort of single-subject nonprofit emerging models., lead by research fellow Dr. Elizabeth Hansen. The Knight Foundation-funded Single Subject News Project provided news outlets with training and best practices on how to find, build, and engage audiences. The cohort of nine newsrooms included The War Horse, The Marshall Project, The Trace, Chalkbeat, and The Hechinger Report, which cover veterans’ issues, criminal justice, gun violence, local education news, and innovation and inequality in education, respectively. Also studied were ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, and The Center for Public Integrity, as investigative and nonprofit models with broader coverage areas. Hansen’s findings will be published this summer.
The Knight Foundation, often in collaboration with the Lenfest Institute, has heavily funded the nonprofit space, helping to launch organizations like the Institute for Nonprofit News.
In the past few years, a number of nonprofit newsrooms have become sustainable. Bloomberg reported that ProPublica, an investigative news site with about 120 employees, launched in 2008, and “generated $30.2 million in revenue in 2018, up from $28.3 million the year before.” Its goal from the beginning, according to president Richard Tofel, has been to secure enough funding to lock down $25.5 million in reserves, which would cover a full year of expenses.
However, there have also been some nonprofit newsrooms that could not make it on their own. The Raleigh Public Record, Oakland Local, and the Chicago News Cooperative have closed or suspended operations, as examples. For the most part, leaders like Mother Jones, ProPublica, and The Texas Tribune are advocating for a press that sustains itself as a nonprofit, funded by members who care about good journalism.
Emerging For-Profit Models in Local News
In the past decade we have seen a number of for-profit media transformations at a local level. They range from upstarts to a number of legacy local newspapers like The Boston Globe, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Charleston Post Courier, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, where wealthy owners have been able to fund growth and transformation into digital models. These legacy turnarounds are indeed the most promising examples of for-profit digital plays and each is finally reporting to be in the black.
Many Americans who believe in a free and independent press increased their media subscriptions and donations as President Trump repeatedly attacked the free press, calling it the enemy of the people. The New York Times and The Washington Post gained most from the “Trump Bump” and from their roles as national papers. The New York Times now reports over 3.5 million digital subscribers, aiming for 10 million by 2025. At the end of 2018, the Times reported a holding of 3.4 million digital subscribers, with 2.7 million paying for the news product and the rest subscribing to the lower-cost cooking and crossword apps. The Washington Post confirmed in an email that it last reported 1.5 million digital subscribers, and the LA Times reported to us by email that they have reached 170,000 digital subscribers, almost double what it had when biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong took over with an ambitious plan to reach 5 million. In the same article, The Wall Street Journal reported a digital subscriber base at the end of 2018 of 1.71 million digital subscribers, more than double what it had at the end of 2015. The Boston Globe has also grown its digital base substantially with 120,000 subscribers (as reported to us by email in July). The internet’s promise of exponential growth by reaching neighboring cities, counties, and countries is moving the goal posts for many of these legacy papers that had the deep financial support to innovate and weather print media’s decimation while they transformed into digital leaders capable of reaching a base beyond the old physical barriers that hampered distribution.
While the aforementioned publications hint at some kind of promise for a future in local news, many are still predicting its demise. Warren Buffett, the Berkshire Hathaway billionaire CEO and owner of the print-media empire that includes the Buffalo News and Omaha World-Herald, and not one for mincing words, declared most newspapers “toast.” He sees an industry that is headed for extinction. Berkshire struck a deal last year for Lee Enterprises Inc., which owns papers including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, to manage its newspapers and digital operations in 30 markets. In a recent interview with Yahoo Finance, Buffet points to the decline of advertising gradually turning the newspaper industry “from monopoly to franchise to competitive,” noting that ad revenue was nearly a third of what it was a decade before, falling to $18 billion from $49 billion, according to Pew Research Center.
A Medill study from Northwestern University found that many local news organizations are shifting their strategy to focus on reader-based revenue models, especially digital subscriptions, as a path to financial sustainability. As advertising cedes its position as the most relevant path to revenue, the viral clicks are less alluring. Today online news outlets are focused on establishing sustained relevance and value with subscribers and local outlets have an advantage in that space. Subscribers want to be connected with where they live.
“Our data analysis shows that in this new era for local news, metrics like page views and time spent on articles – two commonly cited benchmarks – are not nearly as important as the number of readers who are frequent users. With that knowledge, the question then becomes: What are the tools and types of news and information that local outlets can generate to grow a daily reader habit?” said Tim Franklin, former president of the Poynter Institute and a former top editor at the Indianapolis Star, Orlando Sentinel and Baltimore Sun and the new head of the Medill Local News Initiative, a two-million dollar research project to help local journalism overcome the industry’s current crisis. Medill partnered with three news organizations — the Chicago Tribune, Indianapolis Star and San Francisco Chronicle — that provided 13 terabytes of anonymous reader and subscriber data.
The big find? Skimming counts. Ed Malthouse, research director of Medill’s Spiegel Research Center, was puzzled by what they found: “Subscribers who read many stories per visit and read them thoroughly were no more likely to keep their subscriptions than those who skimmed. In some cases, high rates of story reading and time spent per story were associated with greater churn – people dropping their subscriptions. The reasons for this possible paradox are not clear, and more research is required.” Malthouse pointed to a daily habit as one of the most paramount predictors in the three markets they have been studying. He also noted in their very useful findings that, “Local content—differentiated content is the term that I used—is another really important factor that we see across the markets. The exact meaning of local can vary between the markets, but what’s important is, you own that and others don’t. You do it better than anyone else.”
Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine how local news outlets can scale up unless they consolidate with other towns and cities or have a deep-pocketed local owner with the ability to fund long-term growth. It is the legacy newspaper which has transformed to a digital model that will likely profit most as it takes on more cities and states in the surrounding area.
For those who believe a truly free press must have its own revenue model and be commercially independent, and for those looking to innovate in for-profit local journalism and who believe nonprofit news is a tax structure, not a revenue model, there are emerging questions and hypotheses to wrangle. I sat down with Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business at Harvard Business School, who asked that we think about the actual media form for local news. She asked: Does it need to be in the form of TV, newspaper, radio or other? Does location matter? If so, why? What is the value proposition? Does the form of ownership matter and how does ownership or affiliation with others affect independence? The Shorenstein Center is also working with HBS professor Joe Bower to conduct a research case study on the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which has made great strides in turning around its losses. As noted in the paper’s earlier section, billionaire owners like John and Linda Henry at The Boston Globe, Patrick Soon-Shiong at the LA Times, and Jeff Bezos at The Washington Post have personally subsidized the transformation of these leading local newspapers into emerging digital success stories for dailies but there is still much more to do to return to an era of significant profitability. Without that personal mission to invest until they succeed, these dailies would have continued to struggle.
The most successful turnaround has been the publicly-traded New York Times run by Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. who has served as chairman since 1997, with Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim as the largest shareholder of New York Times Co (NYT.N) at 16.8 percent. Both The Boston Globe and The LA Times are expanding into neighboring cities and states given they can cover those regions without having to deliver a paper product. The Globe has already begun to cover Providence, R.I., and the LA Times owner has expressed in recent interviews that his goal is to cover parts of Mexico, southern California, and the American and Canadian Pacific Northwest. Even though Warren Buffet predicts smaller papers will likely die, we are seeing emerging local for-profit models across the country. While they have less revenue and reach than The Boston Globe or LA Times, who are leading the local news turnaround, these other digital transformations and experiments are worth exploring as we try to solve the local news problem.
Mobilizers: National Initiatives to Bolster Local Newsrooms
The leader in research on news deserts has been Penny Abernathy, the Knight chair in journalism and digital media economics professor at UNC School of Media and Journalism. Abernathy’s 2018 study of the closure of local newspapers showed how non-media corporations that acquire struggling locals have turned them into ghost papers, which provide little original hard news about the communities they purport to serve. There are, as we noted above, emerging local digital-first startups, but with limited revenue models. However, cable TV and talk radio dominate the landscape for communities outside the major metropolises. Abernathy does note in her study that the average circulation of the country’s surviving 5,829 weeklies is 8,000, roughly the same as it was in 2004. These dailies still have reach, albeit the quality is not there.
Nieman Labs reported on the 2018 study noting that close to “1,300 U.S. communities have completely lost news coverage and the 7,100 surviving newspapers have faded into ‘ghost papers’ and act essentially as advertising supplements. Half of the 3,143 counties in the U.S. now only have one remaining newspaper — and it’s usually a small weekly.”
A new strategy has emerged in the absence of a robust revenue model for local news. There are four mobilizers of note that have risen to the forefront over the past year and are well funded at this time:
- ProPublica Local Reporting Network
- The American Journalism Project
- The Facebook Journalism Project
- Report For America
ProPublica Local Reporting Network Two of the finalists in for this year’s Goldsmith Awards for Investigative Journalism at the Shorenstein Center were local newspapers. One finalist from the Alabama Media Group had broken a story on the local sheriff who was using an archaic Alabama law regarding prison food management to pay for his local beach house and line his own pockets. The other, from the South Bend Tribune, revealed deep flaws and abuses of power in the criminal justice system in Elkhart, Indiana. Both showcased how local reporters have the ability to force critical changes in communities. One reason why? The South Bend Tribune had added support from the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. In Elkhart, Indiana, local reporter Christian Sheckler for the South Bend Tribune had been working with a veteran investigative reporter named Ken Armstrong as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. Sheets has now gone on to be a Pro Publica Local Reporting Network fellow, as well. In 2018, ProPublica launched the network to support local reporters who “work in and report to their home newsrooms while receiving extensive support and guidance from ProPublica,” according to its site. Once a story breaks, both the local newsroom and ProPublica publish in an effort to support investigative journalism in communities where newsrooms are without the time and know-how to dig deep into investigative work.
Once selected as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, the full-time reporters receive a salary plus an allowance for benefits. ProPublica reported that this year, fourteen local newsrooms are participating and seven projects are specifically focused on state government. Local reporters working from their home outlets receive extensive support, collaborate with a ProPublica senior editor, and have access to the nonprofit newsroom’s expertise in data, research, engagement, video, and design. ProPublica’s local journalism strategy includes not only the Local Reporting Network but also ProPublica Illinois, a fully staffed office of reporters and editors covering important issues in that state.
ProPublica, headquartered in New York City and founded in 2007-2008, is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. With over 75 investigative journalists, it has proven in the past decade to break deeply researched stories into important issues, “shining a light on abuses of power and betrayals of public trust — and we stick with those issues as long as it takes to hold power to account.” Funders behind ProPublica include top shelf foundations such as the Abrams Foundation, Barr Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, craigslist Foundation, Democracy Fund, Dyson Foundation, Emerson Collective, Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The American Journalism Project
“The mission of the American Journalism Project is grounded in our understanding of the severity, urgency, and scope of the crisis at hand. At the center of this storm is the economic crisis faced by newspapers, which have lost roughly half their revenue since the Great Recession. There is no American industry of such combined size and civic importance that has endured such an economically devastating decade.” So opens the newly minted homepage of the American Journalism Project, a venture journalism fund conceived last year by John Thornton, the founder of The Texas Tribune, and Elizabeth Green, the co-founder of Chalkbeat. As mentioned earlier in the paper, the American Journalism Project has secured $42 million in commitments from some of the leading funders of journalism, much like ProPublica. These include the Knight Foundation, Emerson Collective, Arnold Ventures, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, and industry giant Facebook through its Journalism Project. These funders are supporting this new nonprofit venture in finding solutions to reinvigorate local news that are scalable, (and perhaps profitable, given the word “venture”) and building an ecosystem of social enterprises for news. The premise is built upon the belief that local journalism is a public good and therefore a nonprofit enterprise that should be focused on civic news.
This summer, 25 fortunate and deserving nonprofit newsrooms will benefit from the funding collective. Poynter reports that this group of “civic news organizations” will include a few startups but most recipients will have already launched in their local communities as nascent yet sustainable ventures. “The objective is to create much more high-impact ‘mission-driven’ reporting on state and local governance, the grants will be for ‘revenue raising and tech capacity,’” Thornton told Poynter’s Rick Edmonds.
The hope is that philanthropic capital will bolster a movement of civic newsrooms. The Knight Foundation has long donated to news startups in cities and towns around the country that have set themselves up as 501(3)(c) nonprofits. The American Journalism Project will give this scale. The Knight Foundation is the lead funder behind the effort, committing almost half of the funds, announcing a $20 million, five-year commitment. The target is to fund 35 newsrooms over the five years.
The Institute for Nonprofit News and News Revenue Hub, also Knight Foundation-funded efforts, are providing additional strategic and operational guidance to the American Journalism Project, along with Emerson Collective and Facebook. In a press release, Anne Kornblut, Director of New Initiatives, News Partnerships at Facebook, said she was proud to support this new approach of AJP for local news. She added, “Local news is so critical to building strong communities, and to a thriving democracy. We look forward to partnering with [AJP] on this effort to bring more local news and information to places that really need them.”
The Facebook Journalism Project Community
In January 2017, Facebook launched The Facebook Journalism Project to drive ties between Facebook and the news industry. The platform writes, “FJP is dedicated to ensuring high quality journalism thrives by delivering value through new products, partnerships with the news industry and programs. FJP works in three ways: collaborative development of new products; providing tools and trainings for journalists; and providing tools and trainings for people.” Facebook has remained adamant that it is not a news or media organization given it doesn’t create news content. It is a connector of people.
A year ago, Facebook announced that it would push news from local news deserts higher in its algorithm with a local-news aggregator called Today In, currently available in 400 U.S. cities through Facebook’s mobile app. The platform set out with the goal to create a special section for local news and events to gain reader attention, only to discover, as later announced in late March 2019, that it couldn’t find enough local news outlets to feature.
As reported in Vox, “About one in three users in the U.S. live in places where we cannot find enough local news on Facebook to launch Today In, Facebook wrote in a blog post Monday in which it’s promoting a new journalism initiative. Specifically, that means Facebook hasn’t been able to find five or more recent news articles directly related to these towns in any of the past 28 days. That qualifies those areas as a ‘news desert,’ according to Facebook.” Facebook then announced that it would pledge $300 million to help local journalism over the next three years in America, and some of that will go to the simultaneous launch of the Facebook Journalism Project Community, a path for local media organizations to apply for grants and support for new projects. In an effort to showcase the challenges that those of us in the industry know far too well, Facebook compiled a map based on algorithms that identified links to news sites posted on the platform, mapped where they were shared geographically, and filtered out news organization posts that did not have a local angle. The result was that much of the country is in a local news desert.
Facebook noted that 35 percent of Midwestern, Northeastern, and Southern Facebook users couldn’t have seen more than five local news stories on Facebook about their town on any single day over the past four weeks. Towns out West fared better with only 26 percent living in a news desert. The Vox story broke it down, “New Jersey was labeled as the worst state for local news on Facebook, with 58 percent of users unable to do so on any day in the last month. Arizona had the most local news, with just 13 percent of users living in areas without adequate local coverage. Ohio was consistent with the national average of 31 percent.”
Report For America
Teach for America was founded in 1989 by Wendy Kopp, who won the Presidential Citizens Medal for her work mobilizing as many as possible of our nation’s most promising future leaders to strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence by teaching in American public schools for two years after college. Borrowing from the incredibly successful and nationally-recognized model of Teach of America, Report for America aims to do the same for local journalism.
Now in its second year, Report for America is placing 61 journalists in 50 newsrooms spanning 30 states and Puerto Rico. Over a thousand college students applied for the 61 spots and those selected will join newsrooms inside Pulitzer- and Goldsmith-winning newspapers, public radio stations, digital-first nonprofits, the AP, weeklies, and local TV stations, all in an effort to bolster local news. Reporters are paid between $28,000 and $45,000 for the one year stint. Report for America explains that it costs the organization roughly $20,000 to place a reporter and another $20,000 is pulled from contributions by the news outlets and local donors.
As noted on its website, the annual program is one of three ways Report for America is mobilizing young new journalists in the field. It has two other program ideas still pending support that it describes online as more driven by the philanthropists and foundations: A Regional or Local Corps to put 20 reporters into a particular state and hold a competition among the news organization in the state for subsidized reporters; and an Issue Based Corps to field local reporters to cover health care, education, veterans affairs, the environment, religion, and criminal justice.
Report for America co-founders Charles Sennott and Steven Waldman are veteran journalists and social entrepreneurs. Waldman inked the landmark Federal Communications Commission report “Information Needs of Communities,” which NPR described as “one of the most comprehensive overviews of the US media ever produced,” while Sennott co-founded the Ground Truth Project at WGBH, a Boston-based public radio station.
Many of the same round of funders for journalism have stepped up to ensure the project is successful. The Knight Foundation, Facebook Journalism Project, Google News Initiative, Galloway Family Foundation, Natasha and Dirk Ziff, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, The Tow Foundation, Ford Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Heising-Simons Foundation, Select Equity Group Foundation, and Ethics and Excellence in Journalism. Listed on its website along with the handy map reproduced below, RFA announced that placement for this year’s 2019 Report For America corps includes the following newsrooms: the Chico Enterprise-Record, the Modesto Bee, the San Jose Mercury, CALmatters, Sun-Gazette, Fresno Bee, the Desert Sun, the Sacramento Bee, AP-CT, Connecticut Mirror, El Nuevo Herald, Honolulu Civil Beat, Idaho Times-News, Boise State Public Radio, Chicago Sun-Times, Block Club Chicago, Lexington Herald-Leader, the Advocate in Louisiana, Maine Center for Investigative Reporting, WCAI in MA, Detroit Free Press, the Mississippi Public Broadcasting, Mississippi Today, St Louis Public Radio, Yellowstone Public Radio, Chalkbeat in NJ, Santa Fe Reporter, Albuquerque Journal, Spectrum News Buffalo, THE CITY in NYC, AP NY, North Carolina News & Observer, the Charlotte Observer, Q City Metro, the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Malheur Enterprise in Oregon, the Centro de Periodismo in Puerto Rico and WPLN Tennessee, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Victoria Advocate in Texas, the Texas News Hub, the Dallas Morning News, The Salt Lake Tribune, NPR Utah, the Spokesman Review, the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West VA, the West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Reporting, Casper Star-Tribune, the Buffalo Bulletin, and Wyoming Public Media.
Along with Mobilizers, a number of successful players in the media space are trying to support local news startups with accelerators. The effort is coming mainly out of Silicon Valley.
The Columbia Journalism Review’s Matt Ingram wrote an important piece this May, chronicling the massive investment that Facebook and Google have made into journalism over the past three years. With more than half a billion dollars announced between the two platforms, together they have become journalism’s biggest funder, even though this amount is small compared to their profits. As reported by Forbes, last year alone the 14-year old Facebook had revenue of $55.8 billion and a net income of $22.1 billion while the 20-year-old Google had revenue of $136.8 billion and a net income of $30.7 billion.
Ingram tallies up the give back. Facebook’s $14 million News Integrity Initiative to support the development of storytelling tools that promote news literacy, coupled with Google’s $300 million investment into Google News Initiative (GNI) “to build a strong journalism,” as the company describes, with the additional $170 million Google set up in Europe in 2015 as an innovation fund to rebuild the European media landscape, are a start. “Taken together, Facebook and Google have now committed more than half a billion dollars to various journalistic programs and media partnerships over the past three years, not including the money spent internally on developing media-focused products like Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s competing AMP mobile project. The result: these mega-platforms are now two of the largest funders of journalism in the world. The irony is hard to miss,” writes Ingram. However, many in the industry agree that there must be collaboration to fix this. Whether it be self-regulation by the platforms or government intervention, the moment is now to solve this local news crisis.
We outline four accelerators below:
The Information Accelerator
The Information is committed to building the next generation of news publications and its accelerator is an initiative to fund, foster, and support this mission by offering selected participants expertise to scale, distribution help to find their first subscribers, and $25,000 in capital. The Information launched its first Accelerator in 2017. It holds a high standard that you must produce the highest caliber of news that can’t be found anywhere else, and accelerates participants from across the globe. It announces the new class each fall at the San Francisco Subscriber Summit with a kickoff boot camp in January in San Francisco. Given its access to investors, mentors, and media and finance experts in Silicon Valley, this is a very coveted accelerator, and the participants have been impressive. The Information lists them as, David Skok, founder of The Logic, creating a similar product to The Information but in Toronto, Canada. Sherrell Dorsey, founder of ThePLUG, “the first technology newsletter dedicated to highlighting the significant voices of black founders and business leaders in the field.” Last year, Ashley Catherine Woods, founder of Detour, was a participant with a new local information startup in Detroit based on a free daily email for residents based on membership covering quality community news, events and engagement much like the ones we chronicled in the newsletter models earlier in the paper under for-profits. Richard Rushfield founded The Ankler, a newsletter covering the entertainment industry, offering daily scoops, commentary, and insight into the American-but-global entertainment scene. This is exactly how The Information built its stellar brand. and its focus on for-profit news is celebrated by those who believe a free press is most independent with its own revenue model.
Facebook Accelerators in the U.S. (collaboration with the Lenfest Institute)
Facebook’s Digital Subscriptions Accelerator was a $3.5 million three-month pilot program in 2018, with a grantmaking program organized by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, and regular reports authored by The Lenfest Institute and The Facebook Journalism Project. Facebook extended the program through the year to help accelerate digital subscriptions for a number of local newsrooms including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Denver Post, The Miami Herald, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Omaha World-Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Tennessean, and Newsday. It also announced that it would reconvene the group in 2019.
Facebook then announced a $3.5 million, three-month, Facebook Membership Accelerator to help nonprofit news organizations with membership models. The Facebook accelerator website details different three-month accelerators around the globe. How much of a dent can Facebook make in the current local news crisis with small group accelerators across the world with a three-month and $3.5 million investment and effort? Is it a token effort or a scalable solution to rebuild digital local news?
Google News Initiative
As I wrote in my last landscape study on The Fight Against Disinformation in the U.S., Google is one part funder and one part vendor to these same local newsrooms. As a vendor to digital newsrooms, Google’s financial incentives align with the creation of a thriving digital journalism ecosystem.
After four years of funding European news projects (much to the envy of those of stateside who were trying to build local digital plays), Google announced in late May that it will be using $300 million in funding under the Google News Initiative (GNI) for local news innovation. With an open submission deadline of July 15, 2019, the grants are open to local news outlets and startups focused on revenue generation. There must be a monetization component, and it must be digital newsroom. If chosen, recipients will receive up to $300,000 in funding per project, or 70 percent of operations. This is a significant amount for a local news upstart, many of whom are seeking funding as for-profits and nonprofits outlined in this paper. Google announced they will roll out similar news challenges in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa.
Neither Facebook or Google is willing to assume the mantle as news organizations, even with content moderators at Facebook and YouTube, and while competing for attention with the entire ecosystem of news. It is a fine line to walk. Google has indeed come up with some very useful tools for journalists, from its landmark search to reverse image search. Google’s News Consumer Insights and Realtime Content Insights have been designed for small or large newsrooms to track engagement and see what content is attracting three categories of readers: casual, loyal or brand lovers. Both of these tools are free and aimed at helping convert readers to subscriptions and almost as sophisticated at premium products like Chartbeat used by leading major commercial newsrooms. They also recently announced financial support for a new content management system (CMS) product built by WordPress with support from the Knight Foundation, the Lenfest Institute, and GNI, as reported by the Nieman Lab.
Both Google and Facebook are testing products that will support the digital subscription model. Google offers Subscribe with Google, while Facebook experiments with using meters for Instant Articles and a subscribe button that publishers can use to direct people to their sites. Google makes it clear with this new call for funding that it wants to help journalists build technical infrastructure.
The Membership Puzzle Project
In early 2019 the Membership Puzzle Project at NYU launched the Membership in News Fund, supported by Luminate and the Democracy Fund (both Pierre Omidyar-owned foundations). This is a global initiative to fund promising membership experiments in local journalism and surface best practices from across the globe.
It is often historians who are best able to help us grasp the future. To return to Jill Lepore’s overview of the American newspaper industry: we have seen this decimation of news before, when radio emerged and the Great Depression hit with the number of dailies falling from 2,042 in 1920, to 1,745 in 1944. Yet, nothing has prepared us for the current decline of local newsrooms. Lepore reminds us of why they are important. “The daily newspaper is the taproot of modern journalism. Dailies mainly date to the eighteen-thirties, the decade in which the word ‘journalism’ was coined, meaning daily reporting, the ‘jour’ in journalism.” The newspaper has long been part of our cultural identity.
In summary, transforming local news into nonprofits is seen as a promise by foundations and philanthropists. With enough funding, their hope is to bolster the digital transformation in local newsrooms across America, increase digital readership and instill in locals a responsibility to protect and fund their local news. These foundations and nonprofit believers are making headway with success stories such as the Texas Tribune, CALmatters, and VTDigger and Democracy Fund’s NewsMatch campaign that helps donors find and fund local news outlets. Analysis of the Salt Lake City Tribune and CITY New York will offer more insights into the appetite for nonprofit newsrooms. The concern is whether there is a floor for philanthropy. Will donor fatigue set in? Mobilizers like Report for America, ProPublica, and the American Journalism Project should also offer substantial momentum. This is an important space to watch. Wealthy owners of for profit titles appear to be trimming the legacy weight and creating more nimble and digital newsrooms and expanding their geographical reach, as we see with The Boston Globe moving into Rhode Island and WhereBy.US rolling up local newsletters for millennials under one umbrella. They are also interested in these mobilizing forces, and it will be interesting if billionaire-owned titles and for-profit upstarts are able to capitalize on the mobilizers mentioned above and the accelerator funding and training being offered by Google and Facebook. With regulations undoubtedly on their way for the big platforms, the landscape will be fascinating to watch this year.
This study is intended to offer a map to those who like to solve big problems. For America is an entrepreneurial country that has been fueled on reinvention and free markets. Free markets fill the pockets of the philanthropists and they also allow for innovation in the commercial world of news. The irony is not lost that free markets are possible because of democracy – a democracy protected and fostered by a free press.
Acknowledgements and References
There are a number of must-read newsletters in the U.S. today covering innovation in local news:
- Christine Schmidt and Laura Hazard Owens at Nieman Lab
- Kristen Hare at Poynter
- API’s Need to Know morning newsletter
- Josh Stearns and Teresa Gorman’s The Local Fix
I would like to thank a number of people who helped make this paper possible. Thank you to the news outlets and legacy news players, many of whom are incredibly stretched for time and resources, who generously responded to a series of questions that allowed me to gather material on their growth and willingly shared subscription numbers and revenue paths. Lucy Chase, my colleague at the Shorenstein Center and Grace Greason, a Harvard Junior, provided rigorous edits of the paper and were both incredibly generous with their time and attention to help shape the paper. Shorenstein Fellow Markus Somm who shares this quest to sustain local news, transform digitally, and grow subscribers, wrote a very useful paper, Small is Beautiful, on emerging for-profit business models this Spring, and was great company in this process. Shorenstein Fellows Ed O’Keefe inspired me to create a podcast version of the paper after listening to his exceptional paper Streaming War Won, a must read for those who want to understand the future of news. Thanks to Kevin Carlson who edited the podcast version of this paper, swiftly. Shorenstein fellows Koa Beck, Nancy Farese and Miguel Head, and colleagues Liz Schwartz and Carmen Nobel offered an essential esprit-de-corps in what was a busy time at the Center enabling me to produce this landscape on a subject for which I have a deep interest and inspired me along the way. I have long romanticized the editor/writer relationship of another era and I would like to thank Tom Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press here at the Kennedy School who ensured it is alive and well when he returned the draft covered in blue ink having eliminated superfluous material, ensuring this did not turn into a novella and leaving the most pertinent knowledge on the page. Thank you to Nicco Mele who encouraged me to write this last winter and Setti Warren and Nancy Gibbs for giving me the time to research and write this overview that I hope inspires more funders and Americans to focus on local news and its survival.
Articles referenced in this paper:
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