I have spent much of the time I’ve covered local news for Poynter worried that I’m a Pollyanna. Remember the Hayley Mills character who was an orphan in a grumpy town but kept finding the good in everything?
In the movie, Pollyanna loses her way of seeing the world when she suffers a fall that leaves her unable to use her legs.
I am a natural optimist like that character, but 2020 was the year that feeling fell out of the window for me. It was hard to find anything to feel glad about while keeping track of layoffs, closures and the deaths of journalists because of COVID-19. And then there was the rest of 2020.
We’re still updating those lists. But lately I’ve started being able to see the bright spots again, and to remember that local news is struggling AND it’s not all struggling. Partnerships, funding and support don’t change hedge fund ownership and a bum newspaper model. But they still exist and are worth paying attention to.
Here are five reasons to dust off your inner optimist.
(By the way, this is my second Hayley-Mills-movie-inspired newsletter. The other one was about “Parent Trap” and how much local and national news have to learn from each other. I will complete the trilogy someday with a “Saved by the Bell” edition in honor of Mills’ grown-up character, Ms. Bliss. Suggestions on how to pull that off are welcome.)
The Colorado Sun and the National Trust for Local News bought 24 Colorado newspapers
I’ve tracked the closure of more than 70 newsrooms during the pandemic. They’re often small weeklies with a long history in their communities. I’m so happy not to be adding the 24 weeklies from the Colorado Media Chain to that list. Michael Roberts reported this week for Denver’s Westword that they were bought by The Colorado Sun and the National Trust for Local News. Also significant — all 44 staffers kept their jobs.
“The Sun and the Colorado Community Media papers may seem very different, but Ryckman feels a kinship,” Roberts reported. “‘When we created the Colorado Sun, we did it because we were frustrated at the way things were going in our industry,’ he says. ‘It seemed inevitable that hedge funds would be the only ones buying newspapers, and they’d come in and lay off the staff and eventually close the papers. We felt there was a better way, and there is. We feel the community should hang on to these newspapers. These are valuable community voices, and we wanted to ensure that they would remain in local hands and keep doing the great work they’ve been doing.’”
NPR’s David Folkenflik reported “The Colorado Sun, which will drive the papers editorially, is a public benefit corporation, which means it is a for-profit outfit that promises to perform a civic good in a way that is responsible and sustainable. The papers will now be run under the banner of the Colorado News Conservancy, the joint venture of the trust and the Sun.”
Remember the oral history project we shared earlier this year? Small local papers offered crucial coverage for their communities during the pandemic.
American Journalism Project announced its second round of grants for local newsrooms
AJP, from Chalkbeat co-founder Elizabeth Green and Texas Tribune co-founder John Thornton, has already provided funding for newsrooms I hope you’ve heard of, including Documented, Mountain State Spotlight and MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.
“We see possibility in a thriving ecosystem of local, civic journalism that strengthens democracy in the U.S. and is made up of Civic News Organizations that are governed by, sustained by and look like the communities they serve,” AJP says on its site.
AJP told Poynter that the grants to all four organizations total $3,195,000, which will be dispersed over three years. According to a Medium post about the news, “these multiyear investments will add critical business capacity to outstanding local news organizations to ensure long-term sustainability and growth.”
Report for America placed 300 more journalists in newsrooms
Last week, Report for America announced the placement of 300 journalists in more than 200 newsrooms, with the goal of placing a total of 1,000 reporters by 2024. Last year it placed 225 journalists in newsrooms. Report for America journalists have covered stories like George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, domestic extremism in Appalachia and life in the West Side of Chicago.
And good for local news around the globe is this week’s launch of Report for the World. According to its site: “Inspired by Report for America, and responding to a global call for more sustainable, more impactful and more local reporting, we’re launching this year with two partner newsrooms in India and Nigeria.“
LION Publishers is supporting 10 local newsrooms
Last week, LION Publishers announced 10 newsrooms that are part of the Google News Initiative Startups Lab.
“These 10 news businesses were selected from nearly 150 applicants across the large — and growing — independent digital journalism landscape,” an announcement said. “They participated in an intensive selection process that included several rounds of evaluation and in-depth interviews with our Resident Experts, who assessed their progress and goals as part of LION’s pilot Sustainability Audit.”
I might be a Pollyanna but I’m also a child of the Show Me State. That means I try to write about things that are happening and have happened, and wait and see on things that might and will happen. (Looking at you, Civil.)
But these next two bright spots have some mileage.
Overstory Media Group announced this week that it will launch local news outlets in Canada and the United States.
“Overstory Media Group, which operates newsletter-based journalism outlets in British Columbia, including the Burnaby Beacon, Decomplicated and the Capital Daily, has announced plans to hire 250 new journalists and launch 50 new outlets by 2023,” Leyland Cecco reported for The Guardian. “‘I’ve always believed community media was always going to survive,’ said chief executive Farhan Mohamed, who co-founded the venture with Wilkinson. ‘But it just has to be done in the right way.’”
And Substack announced it will give $1 million total to 30 journalists covering local news via newsletters through Substack.
“Substack, to its credit, doesn’t argue that it can single-handedly save local news, just that it thinks there is an audience that will pay to read it and journalists who can make a living selling it,” Peter Kafka wrote for Recode. “But that’s very much an untested thesis. Some of the journalists Substack points to as encouraging examples of local journalism say they’re not paying all their bills with Substack revenue. That means they’re not spending all of their time covering local news for Substack, which means Substack is at best an extra source of local news and not a replacement for a gutted newspaper.”
I’ll be watching how all of these play out (because that’s my job,) but you’re welcome to join me in feeling a tiny bit of hope, even if it’s only for a second.
This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists