New News

Last night, I sought succor and inspiration from Ellen Clegg, former deputy managing editor of the Boston Globe for whom I worked, and Dan Kennedy, media columnist for the Boston Phoenix whom I have interviewed multiple times. The pair have co-authored What Works in Community News: Media Startups, News Deserts, and the Future of the Fourth Estate, a compelling account of the new and growing trend of local nonprofit newsrooms that are cropping up like crocuses in spring. And just as welcomed.

There is the bud of one sprouting in my own hometown. I know this because I’m one of three people who have formed a steering committee to nurture a local, independent, nonprofit news outlet into existence.  

Why?

Because newsroom employment at US newspapers alarmingly dropped by half in the 11 years between 2008 and 2019 – from 71,000 to 35,000 jobs in just over a decade. Local newspapers have been hit particularly hard, leaving many communities across the country in so-called “news deserts” with no coverage at all, or at best, covered by “ghost newsrooms” with only bots serving as reporters. Coverage of the many issues facing local communities has all but disappeared. It is difficult to imagine how a healthy, functioning democracy is possible without healthy, functioning journalism.

But not all the news is bad.

In 2009, the Institute for Nonprofit News was launched as an umbrella nonprofit to help incubate a new nonprofit model of delivering the news. After years of profit-mongering hedge funds and venture capitalists buying up community newspapers and sucking them dry, the INN is like a dose of spring light after a dark winter.

This model seems to be hitting the mark: INN has grown from 27 in 2009 to 450 members across the country today. So many of my former colleagues who have retired have sprouted a new professional life with newly-launched nonprofit news outlets in Brookline, New Bedford, Plymouth, Maine, and Martha’s Vineyard. And a growing body of research shows that the need for local news coverage has never been more urgent. Empirical evidence suggests that communities that lack local news coverage are more likely to have higher taxes and be subject to corruption.

There is no doubt much is at stake.  

This trend of switching profit-driven models of newsgathering to nonprofit newsrooms is as much of a paradigm shift as the change from analog to digital. But it also seems that it is our best hope for the true democratization of information and the best sign of life for journalism’s future.