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How To Fix The Local News Crisis

A stack of newspapers in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A stack of newspapers in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Local newspapers have steadily gone out of business throughout the digital age. We’ll dig into the fate of local journalism and what can be done to save it.


John Thornton, co-founder of the American Journalism Project, a venture philanthropy organization dedicated to local news. Founder of the Texas Tribune. (@thorntonaustin)

Mary Ellen Klas, capital bureau chief for the Miami Herald. (@MaryEllenKlas)

Mi-Ai Parrish, former president and publisher of The Arizona Republic and The Kansas City Star. (@publishorperish)

Interview Highlights

On what drew John Thornton to local news

John Thornton: “I got into this situation in a typical way that a venture person gets into it, which is I was trying to make a buck in my day job. And so as the managing partner of a venture firm, I was leading a, sort of, strategy analysis. Which was focused on the fact that we had done less media investing than most of what we considered our peer firms. And we thought it was a good idea to figure out whether that was purposely contrarian or whether we were just missing something. And so it didn’t take us very long. And the young team that worked for me in a very short period of time concluded that neither the sort of startup, newsy things that we were looking at, nor some of the first distressed newspaper assets that were coming on the market — this was 2007, 2008 — none of these looked like terrific ways to make money. And so off they went to their new thing. But I was left, sort of, with this sinking feeling that we were looking at what felt like a market failure for coverage of issues below the federal level. This was before Facebook and Google were prominent in the picture. It was before Twitter.”

And this was before the global financial crisis, also?

John Thornton: “I filed incorporation papers for the predecessor entity of the Tribune on September 15, 2008 which was the day that Lehman filed for bankruptcy. And so we were smart-ish, unfortunately. In that I think we saw early that gravity was going to have its way with newspaper economics. We didn’t see the crash coming. We certainly didn’t see the platforms. We didn’t see the domination of Google and Facebook. Our analysis was assuming none of those things would have ever happened, so obviously it got worse faster than we anticipated.”

On the American Journalism Project

John Thornton: “I think the biggest principle that is driving us is that we said we base the Tribune on three interlocking principles. One, is our belief that democracy and journalism are interdependent. And that’s particularly true at the local-level. The second is that the market has failed at the local-level. And I’m sure we’ll talk a lot more about that. And market failure just is a fancy way of saying that the market won’t produce as much as we need as a society.”

” … The world is going to create enough news … there is not enough money to do what we call newsgathering. And there are two scarce resources, we believe. One [is] reporting resources. And that’s what’s really going missing, is reporting, when we talk about journalism. The second is institutions that we trust and that are economically sustainable. And so what we’re trying to do is reinvigorate reporting resources within institutions, new institutions that people will trust. And will be here for a long time.”

On what is being done to help local news institutions

John Thornton: “The trickiest part is we’re raising money. And if you think about a venture capital firm that every two or three years goes out and raises a new fund to invest in promising new startups, it’s not unlike what we’re attempting to do here. We have raised $46 million in commitments from foundations and a couple very generous and wealthy individuals. And the idea is that will take that $46 million and invest it in 20 or so, what we call ‘civic news organizations,’ which are nonprofit, exclusively mission-driven organizations. Not unlike the Texas Tribune and Chalkbeat, which was the CNO that my co-founder founded. And the idea is to do two things. One is to bring that news, begin to bring that newsgathering spin back in the ecosystem. And the other is to multiply the number of examples that we feel like we can say are — and you’ve got to use air-quotes – but, air-quote ‘sustainable’ so that we have models to point to going forward in multiplying, yet again, the number of those that are serving their communities.”

From The Reading List

Nieman Reports: “Less Local News Means Less Democracy” — “The office building four blocks from Florida’s state Capitol carries the same name in bold letters that it boasted when it opened in 1988: Florida Press Center.

“For the last 30 years, the modest three-story structure with its bland façade has been home to Florida’s statehouse press corps. The building was constructed by a consortium of local newspapers for the single purpose of housing the working media.

“As a cub reporter, I can remember when the Press Center was a must-attend stop for any politician hoping to win in Florida. Reporters competed to break stories about agency graft, political favoritism, and cutthroat corruption. The rivalry within the building was so fierce that reporters would hesitate to invite a source to their offices, because they were wary about a competitor getting wind of a scoop.”

Vox: “Here’s an idea to save local news: Stop trying to make a profit from local news” — “America has a local news crisis: The small- and mid-sized papers that told their readers what was happening in their communities — and held powerful people and institutions in those communities to account — are shrinking or disappearing entirely.

“Today, for instance, McClatchy — the newspaper chain whose 30 properties include the Miami Herald, the paper that broke open the Jeffrey Epstein case, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection (the company promises that it will continue to ‘pursue our strategy of digital transformation’).

“The good news is that various people are trying to solve the local news problem, using a variety of techniques: asking readers to pay, or pay more, for news; creating new digital publications that focus on low-cost, high-demand subjects, like real estate listings; hoping that a very rich, benevolent person will come and save the local paper; or maybe hoping that Google or Facebook will do the same.”

NBC News: “Already saturated with politics? News stations are about to step it up.” — “Sinclair Broadcast Group is launching a streaming news channel, named 2020 Live, to carry unfiltered presidential campaign events with no commentators or anchors, the company announced Tuesday. The tagline for the new channel: ‘No analysis. No Spin. Just Live.’

“The move underscores the new commitment by the network — once known for its conservative political voice — to limit political commentary: Two of its opinion hosts, conservative commentator Boris Epshteyn and left-leaning Ameshia Cross, were dropped from their role in December. Epshteyn has since been named an adviser to Trump 2020, according to a tweet by Tim Murtaugh, director of communications for the re-election effort.”

“The new channel will appear on Sinclair’s streaming platform STIRR, which offers 100 channels and carries local news programming from station partners, as well as content such as the impeachment hearings, from a national news desk.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.