Editor's note: This article was previously published on Medium. The author is the executive director of LION Publishers, a national network of independent news sites.
Margaret Sullivan is right to sound the alarm about what steep newspaper cuts are doing to local journalism across the country, but her April 16 Washington Post column misses the story of what is replacing, and has the potential to replace, the local journalism that has been lost.
She quotes Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy citing research that “85 percent of accountability journalism is produced by newspapers.”
That research is a decade old and is not accurate today, says Dylan Smith, publisher of the Tucson Sentinel and chairman of the board of LION Publishers, which has more than 150 members running local independent online news sites in 37 states.
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“‘Research’ does not show that 85 percent of accountability journalism comes from print newspapers, as opposed to online news organizations. That unsupported assertion was merely a seat-of-the-pants estimate, published nearly a decade ago,” Smith said. “Today, arguably, there is significantly more accountability journalism being done online than by the ever-more cookie-cutter newspapers churned out by national chain owners.”
It may have been true 10 years ago, but hundreds of local online news sites have been founded since then to fill the gaps left by declining print newsrooms. They are operating in communities that, in some cases, no longer have a local newspaper, or are left with a chain-owned paper that has cut back to literally one or two reporters covering press conferences. The figure also ignores the launch of significant national news sites. ProPublica, for example, was founded in 2007, and sites such as Buzzfeed, which was a Pulitzer finalist for the first time this year, have put significant resources into investigative journalism.
In communities ranging from Derby, Connecticut, to Mansfield, Ohio, to Charlottesville, Virginia, to Santa Barbara, California, more local accountability journalism is coming from local independent online news sites than what is left of print newspapers.
The “85 percent” figure aside, Kennedy knows better than most how local independent online news sites have displaced newspapers in providing local journalism of record in some communities. He wrote a (very good) book about it, in fact.
But the extent to which this is happening — check out the hundreds of local independent online news publishers who belong to LION and the Institute for Nonprofit News — and its rapid growth are mostly missed by national media industry observers.
“There’s no easy fix,” Sullivan goes on to write. “It’s a much knottier problem than finding digital-age solutions on the national level because work needs to be done in so many different communities around the country.”
She quotes Poynter Institute Vice President Kelly McBride saying, “It’s hard to make it scale.”
Indeed, local does not scale.
The solution will come — and already is coming — from individual communities supporting local independent journalism.
Take, for example, one of LION’s newest members — Jiquanda Johnson, a veteran legacy media reporter who has launched a local independent online news site covering Flint, Michigan, a community that could be a poster child for the need for strong local journalism.
In Flint, like so many other communities, the fix is not easy, but local publishers are scraping together business models that work where they live. Supporting them is the best way to act on Sullivan’s call for urgency around the problem of gaps in local journalism.
Author’s note: Poynter Institute serves as LION Publishers’ fiscal sponsor.