In April, a group of civic-minded citizens in Concord, Massachusetts, held a forum in the basement of a church to gather feedback from residents about their vision for local news. A common sentiment echoed across the room, packed with nearly 100 attendees: The town was hungry for a local news source, both print and digital, with stories on key issues in Concord, as well as police logs and obituaries.
The void in local coverage in Concord, an affluent and politically-engaged suburb of Boston, had been palpable for some time. The Concord Journal, owned by Gannett, no longer had a reporter dedicated to Concord, with regional content and ads increasingly crowding out local stories. Multiple rounds of Gannett layoffs accompanied changes at the Journal. In August, Gannett laid off 400 employees companywide and eliminated open positions. The company then cut more at the beginning of this month.
Responding to what they saw as an overwhelming need, the group embarked on a project to launch a hyperlocal newspaper and website that would follow a nonprofit model. Since October, The Concord Bridge has been delivered weekly to every household — 8,700 of them — and businesses in town, free of charge.
“The bottom line was that there was no accountability from the government, from the school committee and even from the individuals who were trying to do something for this community,” said Kate Stout, a board member and one of the founders of The Concord Bridge. “Nobody knew what was happening until it had happened.”
For instance, the premature departure of a recently hired town manager went unreported, leaving citizens uninformed about what went on behind the scenes. In addition to ensuring transparency, the paper set out to be a connective tissue for the town—the paper’s tagline is “Keep Concord Connected.”
“We are the civic glue of the community, where so many different age groups and demographics are not connected in town,” said Virginia “Dinny” McIntyre, a Bridge board member and a former Concord Select Board member.
Amid local newspaper shutdowns and newsroom layoffs, The Concord Bridge is among communities across the country that have been turning to nonprofit models to bring local news coverage back to their residents. The Concord Bridge is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), an organization that supports nonprofit newsrooms across the country. In four years, the INN grew from 180 to 400 members, with the local newsrooms comprising over a third of the total membership.
“Local nonprofit startups are growing so much faster than any other segment of the nonprofit news sector,” said Jonathan Kealing, INN’s chief network officer. Kealing projects that by 2025 the number of nonprofit news organizations will increase to 600.
Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) offers support to local independent publications, like the Bay State Banner, Dig Boston, and Patch. The nonprofit outlet The New Bedford Light, launched last year, has done some groundbreaking reporting on the city’s fishing industry, health, and environmental issues.
“To say that (local journalism) is dying out is really a misnomer because it’s stampeding back town by town,” said Stout, who founded a paper in Nantucket, where she was the editor and publisher. “We are, I believe, part of the national movement of local news.”
Initially, Concord Bridge founders sought to merge with Carlisle Mosquito, a longstanding nonprofit newsroom in the neighboring town of Carlisle, which has been delivering papers to all households for 50 years. But ultimately, the group decided to venture out on their own. “In any jurisdiction that requires a lot of local energy,” said McIntyre. “And we have that energy here. We have had a very hungry citizen rate for local news.”
And the paper’s fundraising success reflects that enthusiasm and thirst for local coverage. In six months, the group raised $900,000, an amount sufficient to sustain the newspaper for two years, McIntyre said. The group received a few major donations: a $200,000 donation and two $100,000 gifts, including a $15,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. Nearly 100 donations, ranging from $5 to $2000, have come in through the website’s “donate button,” and more revenue has been raised through advertising. “We’ve got a good nest egg,” McIntyre said.
With a newsroom in West Concord, the board assembled an all-star team: Jennifer Lord Paluzzi, a veteran local news editor, is editor-in-chief; Betsy Levinson, formerly of The Concord Journal, is editor; and Jessalyn Frank, is production manager. The three are currently the only paid, full-time employees, making in the ballpark of $40,000 to $50,000, according to board members. The seven-person board includes a FinTech industry entrepreneur with two decades of experience, a physicist, and three former Concord Select Board members.
With a mix of news, features and human interest stories, The Concord Bridge takes a broad look at its town.
“We want to draw the readers in with something that’s fun to read and hoping that whatever drove them to that week’s paper, that’s something they enjoy and will discover things that they didn’t expect,” Paluzzi said.
For instance, resident Janet Rothrock learned from a story in the paper about an effort by a local group to ban books in schools “deemed threatening.”
“I got a lot more detail. Otherwise, I would have heard about it through the grapevine,” she said. “This is a national movement and we need to respond.” Rothrock says having a local paper is “like coming home again.” “If we don’t have a local paper, we can’t really have public discourse, we can’t make decisions.”
Working around the clock, the Bridge board is now focused on building up its newsroom—adding another staff writer and an office manager. “Once we have that infrastructure for this paper, it will guarantee that the success we’re enjoying now will continue,” Stout said.
Two of the three current staff members commute into town, giving the outside perspective that the founders say brings a fresh eye to the coverage.
“We have an insider view, but you need outside forces to keep us accountable and to make sure that the work of the government is transparent,” said Alice Kaufman, a board member with 30 years of experience in government public affairs. “That’s the pinnacle of democracy, right?”
Delivering to every household in town has been an effective strategy in cultivating a loyal pool of advertisers. The Concord Bridge in each household and business means a guarantee of community saturation, said McIntyre. “If you’re trying to get advertisers to advertise by telling them that they’ve reached everybody in town, that’s a big deal,” said McIntyre. “We’re being besieged by people who have seen other peoples’ advertising and they want to get in on the act,” said McIntyre. But the space is limited: the 16-page paper has a commitment to not exceed 40% of advertising in each issue.
The nonprofit news model has proven sustainable and successful for many communities, said INN’s Kealing. “Our members have an over 90% survival rate out to five years after they were founded,” Kealing said. But the model presents its own particular challenges. “It takes time and effort and skill to build up the individual, institutional donor and supporter base that allows organizations to survive and thrive.”
But how can less affluent communities achieve sustainability in their nonprofit newsrooms? Launching similar nonprofit newsrooms in historically marginalized communities with low wealth is possible, but it may require a different strategy, said Kealing, like focusing on institutional funders and underscoring the value of serving a particular community as opposed to soliciting money from that community.
Nearly 50% of INN members make their primary mission of serving a historically excluded or marginalized community. For instance, award-winning journalist Wendi Thomas launched MLK50, a nonprofit outlet in Memphis, to specifically examine “the intersection of poverty, power and policy.” Outlier Media serves primary low-income Detroit residents. To support its members, who often don’t have entrepreneurial backgrounds, INN offers a number of resources including startup and earned revenue guides, major gift fundraising and one-on-one coaching.
Nonprofit newsrooms also face the challenge of building their audience, Kealing said. “There is so much competition for people’s time and attention in the world we live in,” Kealing said. “So these nonprofit news organizations have to prove their value every day.” And that’s exactly what the Concord Bridge team aspires to do. “The worry about whether the people have given once and will never give again could be a worry,” said Stout. “But what we’ve gotta do is give them a product that they can’t say no to.”