This article was originally published on Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative website and is republished here with permission.
Ellen Clegg and Dan Kennedy brought much hands-on experience and perspective to their quest to find, as their new book puts it, “What Works in Community News.”
Clegg was a three-decade Boston Globe veteran who, as editorial page editor, oversaw Pulitzer Prize-winning work for editorial writing and commentary. More recently she helped launch and is a top executive at Brookline.News, a nonprofit hyperlocal outlet based in her Boston suburb.
Kennedy is a Northeastern University journalism professor who writes the Media Nation blog after having written media/politics columns for the Guardian, GBH News and the Boston Phoenix. He also is the author of “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century” (2018) and “The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age” (2013).
The latter book focuses on the New Haven Independent, a local media outlet that Kennedy and Clegg revisit in “What Works in Community News: Media Startups, News Deserts, and the Future of the Fourth Estate,” published this month by Beacon Press. “What Works in Community News” travels to nine markets across the U.S. to illuminate possible paths forward amid continued losses in the local news world. Some of these outlets cover a lot of territory, such as NJ Spotlight News and The Texas Tribune, while others are rooted in small communities (Iowa’s Storm Lake Times Pilot), suburbs (The Bedford Citizen outside Boston) or do specialized work in larger cities (Sahan Journal, which reports on immigrant communities in Minneapolis-St. Paul; MLK50, which seeks “Justice Through Journalism” in Memphis).
Clegg and Kennedy reported most of “What Works in Community News” in 2021 and 2022, and they continue to track the volatile community news landscape in their “What Works: The Future of Local News” podcast and website.
In a conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length, the co-authors assess what is working — and changing — in community news.
Mark Caro: What have been the biggest changes in the outlets you covered since you wrote the book?
Dan Kennedy: When I was out there, the The Colorado Sun was a for-profit public benefit corporation. Like a lot of projects these days, they were working with a nonprofit so that people could make tax-deductible donations to support certain types of public interest reporting. The other part of the Sun that really intrigued us was that when the National Trust for Local News spearheaded an effort to purchase 24 suburban papers around Denver, because the owners wanted to retire, the Sun was actually brought in as a part owner, helping to manage those papers.
This past fall the Sun announced that they were going to go fully nonprofit. When I interviewed the editor, Larry Ryckman, as to why he made that decision, he simply said that the hybrid thing was just getting to be too difficult to explain to people. … Then of course, the unwinding of their ownership stake in the suburban papers was a big change. It was something that we had thought was a pretty interesting aspect to the Sun, and that’s no longer there.
Ellen Clegg: At The Texas Tribune, we knew Evan Smith had said he was going to retire as CEO or step away, and he did. Sonal Shah, who was in the Obama administration, took over as CEO, and she looked at the books and saw a shortfall. And so the Tribune, which is considered a pioneer in the nonprofit world, had its first-ever layoffs. They laid off 11 people, and that sent a shockwave through the nonprofit world.
But if you look at the numbers, the Tribune still has this total staff of more than 80 people. She had said that she wanted to beef up the fundraising and events sides, so this may just be a reset of sorts. And it’s a sign that philanthropic grants are certainly beneficial, but they can also go away.
Caro: Nonprofit outlets can’t do endorsements, and it’s 2024, and the caucuses and primaries have started. How much would be lost if everyone went nonprofit, and newspapers lost their voice in choosing elected officials?
Clegg: Some media outlets, i.e. Gannett, have eliminated unsigned editorials in favor of signed opinion pieces. I was editorial page editor for four years at The Boston Globe and saw the power of the institutional voice, and yes, I would be loath to give that up. I’m not worried that there will be such a sweeping nonprofit movement that’s going to eliminate the editorial voice of all newspapers, but it’s a risk.
It’s a downside of running a nonprofit. Our little Brookline.News site, which we launched in April and May of 2023, there are issues that one would wish to editorialize about, but we’re not going to do that, and we frankly don’t have the staffing to field an editorial page anyway.
Kennedy: I think the endorsements are at their most useful in the smallest races. I don’t think anybody needs any guidance on who to vote for president. Probably not governor or U.S. senator either. But anything below that, I think that many readers are looking for some guidance, and there are many ways we can give them that guidance. But if you’re a nonprofit, you can’t do it in the form of an endorsement.
I think the current ethic seems to be turning against endorsements anyway. Back when The Colorado Sun was for-profit, they said, “Well, we would never do endorsements anyway. We don’t think it’s part of our mission.”
Clegg: I’d love to see more research on this: No. 1, whether endorsements have any effect at all, and No. 2, whether they are a factor in the building mistrust of media.
Caro: Right now huge chunks of the population believe stuff that isn’t true. Is this an indictment of what has happened in the local journalism world?
Kennedy: One of the things that Ellen and I strongly believe is that if we could revitalize local news, people might learn to be able to talk with each other and cooperate again. One of the really unfortunate aspects of the decline of local news is that people are showing up at school board meetings, and instead of talking about how come math scores aren’t what they ought to be, or “Do you think maybe we could build a new high school for a little less money than what you budgeted?” they’re yelling about these idiotic national issues like critical race theory and transgender issues, which really have nothing to do with public education.
Caro: Since you finished the book, there have been many efforts to involve government in the support of journalism. Yesterday the FCC came out with a recommendation to prioritize license application review for broadcasters that provide locally originated programming. Also yesterday an Illinois task force for the General Assembly recommended a series of tax incentives and credits to subscribers and to businesses that advertise in local news. Do you foresee government doing more to help local journalism while not having a direct access to the content?
Kennedy: Because this has not happened nationally, we are starting to see some of the states take it on. I did not know about the Illinois effort, but we’ve seen it in a few other states as well. You know, the tax credits seem like they might be a modest help. In some ways, it’s a little bit disconcerting to see proposals that would help hedge-fund owners just as much as independent local news outlets. But one of the things that (Rebuild Local News founder) Steve Waldman likes to point out is that by providing tax credits in order to hire and retain journalists, even though the Aldens and the Gannetts of the world would benefit, they would benefit only by doing the right thing. So maybe that’s not such a bad idea.
Clegg: The California Legislature has set aside millions of dollars as a fund to help subsidize reporters who go to through the (University of California) system, get a journalism degree and report in underrepresented communities. It’s administered by the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, so that arguably is a neutral arbiter dispersing these funds, so I think that’s a good model. But it’s hard to replicate because some states don’t have that big state system in place and don’t have a UC Berkeley to handle this.
Kennedy: I’m not hugely enthusiastic about any of these proposals.
Clegg: I know. I’m not either, because we’ve all worked in newsrooms, and we’ve all seen the pressures that get brought to bear by advertisers and the powers that be in town.
Kennedy: There are hundreds of local news projects across the country that are — thriving might be too strong a word, but they’re finding ways to survive without government assistance. And if a little bit of assistance came along that enabled them to expand what they’re doing, that may not be a bad thing. But ultimately, they’ve really got to take care of business at the community level.
Caro: Did any of the organizations in the book get you especially excited, like one that seemed closer to the “answer” than others?
Kennedy: We both firmly believe that there is no one answer. Probably the project that I’ve been the most enthusiastic about for many years now is the New Haven Independent. They were the main subject of a book I wrote 10 years ago called “The Wired City,” and we went back to New Haven because they’ve really changed the project around in some very interesting ways. They now have a community radio station that’s really provided a voice to the community in a way that they hadn’t been doing before. They have about 30 hosts, and virtually all of them are people of color, which is really a great thing. The answer to replicating New Haven across the country would be to clone (former editor) Paul Bass.
This really continues to be dependent on the vision and leadership of people in communities. One of the things we like to say is that anything can work, and anything can fail, and it really comes down to that individual vision. We’ve got radio stations, we have a statewide-politics-and-policy site that merged with a public television station, we’ve got for-profits, nonprofits. There is no one solution, but anything can work if you’ve got the right leadership and support in the community.
Clegg: Yeah, that link to the community is very important. These projects have listened deeply to their communities, they are transparent with what they do, they’re hyperlocal in many cases, so reporters are out and about. That is very important, because, as Dan has said, this local news crisis is going to be solved one community at a time.
Caro: Ellen, did working on this book inspire you to get more involved in doing what you’re doing in Brookline and around New England?
Clegg: Absolutely. I was in the middle of the book when another fellow Globe semi-retired journalist in Brookline approached me and said, “Will you come to a meeting on my back deck to talk about what to do about the demise of the Gannett-owned Brookline Tab?” Dan and I had been talking to people for years at this point, and I found it very moving, very inspiring, and wanted to see how it might work in Brookline.
Kennedy: One of the problems that we’ve identified — and we don’t have any good solutions for this — is that affluent suburban communities don’t seem to have an awful lot of problems in solving this problem. Rural areas and more urban areas with diversity have a harder problem.
So Ellen lives in a wealthy suburb — sorry, Ellen, but it’s the truth — and I live in a medium-sized city, Medford. Medford is actually reasonably affluent, well-educated, but it’s not in the category of a Brookline, a Concord, a Marblehead or something like that. I’ve actually spent the last year plus trying to entice a for-profit publisher to come to Medford and get something going. And I struck out once, I struck out twice, and there’s a third pitch coming at us now. I’m very hopeful about that, but it’s just harder to do this in places like Medford than it is in places like Brookline.
Caro: Has collaboration become more important than competition in the local news industry?
Clegg: I don’t know. I wish there were more collaboration in some kind of semi-formal entity to help local startups share information and resources, particularly on the business side. One quickly discovers that you need to incorporate, you need to find a fiscal sponsor, you need to learn about membership drives and stewarding donors and keeping books, and all that is something that most journalists don’t come by naturally. So there’s room for more collaboration. There may be some content sharing that’s relevant, but we don’t want to reinvent Gannett.
Kennedy: I think collaboration is fine, as long as there’s also competition, because otherwise, you’d get to the third “c” word: “collusion” — basically where certain types of stories are either being covered in a certain way, or they’re not being covered, because several news organizations are all in agreement about what should be done instead of trying to knock each other’s heads together.
Caro: Then you get to the fourth ‘c” word, which is “complacency.”
Kennedy: Ellen and I believe that nonprofit news organizations ought to be free, and I’m a little less than thrilled that The Baltimore Banner has a high paywall. I think that’s breaking a little bit of the trust that you have with the public because you get significant benefits with nonprofit status, and then to have a fairly high paywall on top of it, I don’t think that’s a good way to go. I guess they provide some massive discounts to people who can’t afford it, which is fine, but I’m a little bit troubled by that.
Clegg: The Daily Memphian has a similar hard paywall, and that’s been controversial in the nonprofit world. They do provide discounts and free access to schools, but it’s still a cause for concern in some quarters.
Caro: The Chicago Sun-Times was bought by WBEZ, the local public radio station, and they took down their paywall. Now the question is where’s the money coming from?
Kennedy: Maybe WBEZ should have left the Sun-Times as a for-profit owned by a nonprofit, and then they would be able to continue with the subscription model. Ellen and I are all for paywalls but for for-profits, not for nonprofits.
Caro: Are you two more optimistic or pessimistic about local community news since you started working on the book?
Kennedy: I’ve been reporting on this space for 15 years now, and I have always remained optimistic. I was recalling just the other day that when I started doing this, you had the New Haven Independent, Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, a few small for-profits, like the Batavian out in Western New York, and that was about it. These days there are hundreds of these projects, and many of them are very tiny. I like to say that most of them are for-profit, but what they really are is no profit.
But you may have one or two people trying to cover their community, and if they get to the point where they’re able to start thinking about expansion and being more systematic about it, that’s when a lot of them start looking into becoming nonprofit. I remain optimistic.
That said, I think things may get worse over the next few years before they start to get better, because I think that the launching of these new startups really can’t keep up with what Gannett and Alden are doing across the country. But I do think we’re going to reach a tipping point where things will start to come back and start looking better again. That said, I do worry about the rural areas and some of the urban areas.
Clegg: I’m optimistic. I think that the cuts from Alden and Gannett had been so devastating that we’re never going to see replacement papers everywhere. But that may not be necessary, because people have so many other sources of information just coming in streams on their phones.
I think nonprofit newsrooms are going to pick their shots and focus on what they hear from the community that matters. We’re seeing interesting investigative work coming out of, say, MLK 50 in Memphis. We saw very important reporting out of Minneapolis by Sahan Journal after George Floyd was murdered, because they expanded from reporting on just the immigrant communities to communities of color in Minneapolis. So I’m optimistic. But I think it’s gonna look different.