July 9, 2024

The National Trust for Local News, a nonprofit whose approach is to acquire and recapitalize financially precarious publications rather than give them grants, launched in the spring of 2021. Its first projects have been groups of 19 to 26 community news outlets in Colorado, Maine and central and south Georgia.

The Trust has raised and invested $38 million to date with financial support from the Knight Foundation, Google News Initiative, Open Society Foundation and several dozen more philanthropies and individuals. 

Co-founder and CEO Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro told me in an earlier article that the Trust was starting slowly by intent, following a learn-as-you-go philosophy to refine its unusual model. She decided two years in that a big and expensive pivot was indicated. 

The three beta news groups, though doing alright and with capable managers, needed both recapitalization and much stronger help with operations and product. So the Trust set out to create a hands-on four-person team that could go in, solve particular problems and promote growth.

The philanthropy-supported nonprofit sector “doesn’t need more coaches,” Hansen Shapiro said in an interview. “There are plenty of those.” Moving beyond encouragement and skill-building into breakthrough improvements with measurable goals is much more urgent.

“We have (shifted) to 25% making direct investments and 75% execution,” she said. Originally, the split between the two was the reverse.

Shapiro added, half joking, that on a much smaller scale “we are becoming like Gannett or McClatchy” in providing direction from the top. But, of course without the high profit expectations and burdensome debt of those commercial chains.

Hansen Shapiro emailed me:

“I think of it as clarity on our strategy. We founded the Trust to protect local news. We tried a few different strategies to achieve that mission and learned from all of them. By early 2023, I knew what it would take to sustain local news nationwide: a non-profit owner/operator, with a strong central management team, scaled by philanthropy but sustained by earned revenue. Now we have built that model and it is quickly producing results.”

The new way of doing things came into play with the launch of The Macon Melody in late June. The print/digital outlet is the first startup for the Trust, done with its Georgia affiliate, that focuses on a on a single city. (The Melody name is a tribute to the city’s musical heritage, which includes Otis Redding, Little Richard and the Allman Brothers.)

Like the Daily Memphian, The Baltimore Banner and others, the new outlet has an unstated agenda of picking up what has withered away in the city’s legacy newspaper. The editor, opinion editor and columnist and two more of the initial staff members are all alumni of McClatchy’s Macon Telegraph. 

A particularly vivid example of the new way of operating is that the Trust and the executives from its group of 26 titles in suburban Denver bought a printing press this spring. In an era when hundreds of pressrooms have been phased out and their printing outsourced, why?

Amalie Nash, head of transformation and formerly editorial overseer of Gannett’s 200-plus regional outlets, explained. At one time, the papers were printed by Adams Publishing in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Then outsourcing was transferred to Pueblo, a little closer and actually in Colorado. But then Gannett abruptly closed that facility, leaving the Colorado Community Media group and many other tiny publications in the lurch.

“With a well-structured media funding model,” Nash continued, “we can solve problems … larger and more complicated ones.” Print editions still matter to the group, so the upshot was to buy a small used press from Canada, tailored to the group’s specific needs and installed this spring.

The Colorado venture has also had some organizational issues. The Colorado Sun, the trust’s lead partner, left last year and as it was reincorporating as a nonprofit from a public benefit for-profit. The Sun gave its shares in the community group back to the Trust, but the move also shrunk the scale of the Trust’s Colorado holdings. And there has been major work to be done, like an overhaul of the content management system and an antiquated web design that varied paper by paper.

Besides Nash, the operations group includes:

  • Ross McDuffie, chief portfolio officer, functions as team captain. McDuffie described himself as a specialist in local news transformation projects with both a sense of how to orchestrate and expertise in relevant specialties like launching video at a smaller paper. After stints at Lee and McClatchy, McDuffie told me, he decided “the profit imperative (often) didn’t align with what’s best for the community.” The focus for the comparatively small outlets that the Trust helps is on staffing and structure that lets them “punch above their weight class. … It takes a mix of optimism and practicality to change the dynamic in core areas like audience, product and advertising.”
  • Orlando Comas, head of advertising. He had a long career in advertising at the Miami Herald and later at McClatchy corporate. He told me his approach, deployed first at Trust’s Maine group and now in Macon, relies partly on opportunistic use of video capacity and artificial intelligence to generate better proposals and boost sales. These and other changes in Maine — the largest of the state groups with 160 journalists — brought in $400,000 in incremental ad revenue in the first five months of 2024, which had been the goal for the whole year.
  • Rodney Gibbs, head of audience and product. I encountered Gibbs in 2020, shortly after he had joined the business side of The Texas Tribune, charged with overhauling a bug-filled original content management system and rebuilding a relationship between the tech department and the newsroom. He has widened his focus since to transformation projects and startups, including a recent two-year run as a senior executive involved in a major digital reboot at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This year, Gibbs has had heavy involvement in planning the Macon launch, a process completed in just over six months after a $5 million grant from the Knight Foundation and support from Mercer University. 

I found out from Will Nelligan, whose bailiwick is revenue and growth, that the Trust has now received affiliation inquiries from publications and citizens in 40 states. Obviously that is way more than the Trust can handle but also an index of how it is catching on despite a comparatively low profile. And, since the Trust can be counted on to bring its projects capital and practical assistance, why not?

In the still-growing philanthropic sector, the Trust brings a different approach. It is based on a decade of Hansen Shapiro’s academic work, but her intended goal was always to create and implement something practical.

With dozens of big funders and hundreds of outlets, one might argue the nonprofit local news sector of which the Trust is a part is beginning to look like the equivalent of urban sprawl. Maybe that’s a danger, but I think pluralism is a good thing for philanthropists and publications they support — many approaches, many ambitions. 

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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