The other first responders: local journalists

Why We Wrote This

It’s one of the paradoxes of the coronavirus crisis: Local papers are going under even as both readership and public need for solid information soar. With advertisers pulling out, can other financial models offer hope?

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When Chico News & Review editor Melissa Daugherty came into the paper's shuttered offices on Monday, March 23, she found this $100 check slipped under the door along with a handwritten note, "Please try to stay online!"

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For the Salt Lake Tribune staff, the last couple of weeks have been earth-shattering.

Shortly after they started working at home due to the coronavirus, an earthquake hit, rendering their offices uninhabitable. “That’s when our work is so important – to make sure that people have good reliable sources of information so that they can make important decisions on questions of safety,” says editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce.

At a time that has exposed the dangers of misinformation, local journalism is getting an infusion of goodwill. But amid a sudden dearth of advertising and event revenue, many outlets have been forced to lay off employees, cut pay, reduce publishing schedules, or shut down. If there is an upside, the same crisis that is sorely testing their capacity and resources is also underscoring the value of the services they provide. And it could help restore public faith in media.

“I have long believed that the No. 1 job of the press in this country is to regain the trust of the American people,” says Les Zaitz, an award-winning journalist. “If we make it through this, this makes us even more solidly a part of the community than we’ve ever been before.”

In the heady days of anti-Vietnam War protests, the burgeoning women’s movement, and Richard Nixon’s sweep of 49 states in his 1972 reelection, Jeff vonKaenel went home to sell Fuller brushes. His future wife, Deborah Redmond, lived in her car.

The idea was to save up enough so they could afford to work for the new alternative weekly in Santa Barbara. Soon the ragtag publication got the local district attorney indicted, and brought a new raft of people to City Council through their endorsements. In 46 years of publishing alt weeklies, Mr. vonKaenel and his wife have never missed a single issue.

Until this month.

When the coronavirus shut down local businesses, advertising suddenly dried up for their News & Review papers in Reno, Nevada; Sacramento; and Chico, California. They had already mortgaged their house earlier this year to keep things going, so their reserves were basically gone.

And thus, after achieving circulation rates as much as sixfold that of traditional papers in the same cities and readership far beyond that, they had to shut down – at least temporarily.

[Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.]

“We started the paper with no money, so we’re good at figuring out how to do things with little resources,” says Mr. vonKaenel, who is reaching out to various organizations in hopes of pivoting to a new economic model that would include nonprofit or reader support, such as the $100 check that a reader slipped under the Chico News & Review’s door with a handwritten note begging them to stay online. Still, the publisher says, “I don’t think it’s going to be easy to have a phoenix moment when there’s massive unemployment.”

At a time of crisis that has exposed deep deficits of trust in American democracy and the dangers of misinformation, local journalism is getting an infusion of goodwill – including through subscriptions and donations. But it’s often not enough to make up for the sudden dearth of advertising and event revenue. Many outlets have been forced to lay off employees, cut pay, reduce publishing schedules, or shut down altogether.

If there’s an upside for local journalism, however, it’s that the same crisis that is sorely testing their capacity and resources is also underscoring the value of the services they provide, both inside and outside the newsroom. So even as the crisis exacerbates existing financial woes, it could also accelerate new models for sustainable journalism that have shown promising results in recent years. (See sidebar, below.)

“I am worried that [the crisis] could wipe out all of that progress. But I think there is also a hopeful sign, which is that the philanthropic sector is seeing that trustworthy local news is essential to a healthy community” – quite literally, says Steven Waldman, co-founder of Report for America, which deploys young journalists to local outlets around the country. “If that leads to a sea change in how philanthropy sees local media, then that would be a long-term positive development.”

The current crisis could also help restore public faith in media, which has suffered amid deepening political polarization.

“I have long believed that the No. 1 job of the press in this country is to regain the trust of the American people,” says Les Zaitz, an award-winning investigative journalist whose turnaround of the Malheur Enterprise in rural Oregon has been so successful that local delivery has gone from a grocery-cart tour of town to a 100-mile sweep of the county. “If we make it through this, this makes us even more solidly a part of the community than we’ve ever been before.”

Pandemic, followed by earthquake

For Salt Lake Tribune editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce, the last couple of weeks have been earth-shattering.

Shortly after her staff started working at home, an earthquake hit Salt Lake City, rendering their offices uninhabitable. Rumors began circulating on social media that another, larger quake would strike within the hour.

“Our role is ... to get authorities on the phone and on the record and shoot down those rumors,” says Ms. Napier-Pearce. “That’s when our work is so important – to make sure that people have good reliable sources of information so that they can make important decisions on questions of safety.”

“If you hear my dog, sorry about that,” she adds, as Slack messages ding in the background.

Even as senior editors juggle pets and kids, often on little sleep, they say their mission keeps them going. Misinformation at a time like this, they say, can be a matter of life or death.

The Salt Lake Tribune has made its coronavirus coverage free as a public service, yet it’s seen a significant uptick in readership and annual subscriptions. Other outlets across the country are seeing a similar phenomenon, with traffic increasing as much as 10-fold, new subscribers signing up at a record rate, and readers sending in unsolicited donations. A donor has offered the Nevada Independent up to $100,000 in a matching grant. Yet for most, it’s not nearly enough to offset the advertising losses.

Many newspapers, and particularly local outlets, were already operating on the thinnest of margins after years of budget cuts and staff reductions. From 2008 to 2018, the number of newsroom employees dropped by nearly half. The current crisis is exacerbating those financial strains.

“We’re dealing with the same problems, on steroids,” says Mary Lou Nemanic, author of the just-released “Metro Dailies in the Age of Multimedia Journalism,” which tracked five newsrooms over six years. “Over the years that I studied them, it was really tragic to see how the staffs of three of the five papers were reduced to bare bones,” she says, blaming “corporate profiteers.”

Wide swaths of rural America have become “news deserts,” while suburban areas have seen a reduction in coverage from metro papers. Take Falls Church, Virginia, which is less than seven miles from Washington, D.C., but rarely gets coverage in The Washington Post. So the Falls Church News-Press is essentially the only game in town, says managing editor Jody Fellows, who is one of three full-time editorial staffers turning out as many main stories a day as they usually publish in a week – as well as an updated list of restaurants open for take-out and delivery.

“We are so fortunate to have The Fourth Estate on duty in our City!” wrote City Council member and retired journalist Phil Duncan, a 35-year resident of the city, in a Facebook note.

“This is such a huge story”

In 2018, as the massive Camp Fire raged through Paradise, California, Melissa Daugherty headed into the hills where she had gotten her start as a beat reporter years before. The scenes were devastating. Two staffers at the Chico News & Review, where she now served as editor, had lost their homes. Others were banned from returning home for a time. Yet they threw heart and soul into the story.

After The New York Times and big TV stations had packed up and gone home, they discovered contamination in the water as a result of the unusually swift, hot fire – yet some local water authorities were telling residents the water was safe to drink. They requested public records, and found the state water board had withheld for months information about significantly increased risks of cancer from drinking the local water, which now included elevated levels of benzene. 

“Nobody had done this and we were like, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done this?’” recalls Ms. Daugherty. “And then after we did it, we were like, ‘This is such a huge story, why isn’t anyone else picking up on this?’”

On a recent afternoon, Ms. Daugherty – one of the staffers Mr. vonKaenel had to lay off – went into the Chico News & Review’s shuttered offices, and found the $100 check from a reader begging them to at least stay online. 

The paper has been promised a reporter from Mr. Waldman’s Report for America corps, and she had secured the matching funds needed from a local community foundation. Now she’s trying to find a way to restart operations before losing that reporter.

“I have to make things move really fast here – on my own time, as a volunteer, essentially,” she says, noting that her health insurance runs out at the end of the month.

“I’m super invested, and people from the community are really looking to me for an answer,” adds Ms. Daugherty. “I just think about the consequences of not having a newspaper that does what we do. It would be devastating to the community.”

[Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.]

Editor’s note: The sidebar has been updated March 30 to include Facebook’s announcement of $100 million to support local news outlets.

New financial models

Here are some alternative models for funding local journalism: 

  • Philanthropy: Facebook, citing the rapid decline in ad revenues and their impact on news outlets, has pledged $100 million – $25 million in grants for local news and $75 million “in additional marketing spend to move money over to news organizations around the world.” Facebook separately gave $1 million to the Poynter Institute to counter false information, while WhatsApp gave $1 million to support fact-checking of coronavirus information.
  • Student journalism: “There’s a certain clarity that comes with having no money,” says Erica Beshears Perel, general manager at The Daily Tar Heel, an independent student newspaper in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Revenue has dropped by more than half over the past decade, but through cost-cutting and the development of new revenue streams, the paper made money last year. And they had an impact. As the only print newspaper in town, their reporting helped undo the University of North Carolina’s secret deal to take down a controversial statue on campus and give it – along with $2.5 million – to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “I have become really convinced that student media is going to have to be a big part of community journalism,” says Betsy O’Donovan, Ms. Perel’s predecessor who now teaches at Western Washington University and advises the student newspaper. “I can dispatch 45 reporters at one time; the local newsroom has six staffers total. In order to cover the community properly, you need both.”
  • Donations: Another possible solution is increasing donations. STAT, a for-profit news source focused on health and medicine, had toyed with the idea but it never felt like the right time – until now. When a reader asked to donate, they opened the door – and have since gotten contributions from more than 300 people ranging from $5 to $1,000. The overwhelmingly positive response surprised co-founder and executive editor Rick Berke. “The thing I hadn’t thought about is the act of people giving a contribution I think gives people a feeling of investment in STAT and gives them a sense of community,” he says.
  • Membership: That sense of community is at the heart of another model: membership. The Evergrey, a daily newsletter in Seattle backed by digital media innovation company WhereBy.Us, allows people to subscribe for free but offers an enhanced experience for members, who pay $8 a month or $80 a year. When director Caitlin Moran put out an appeal for new memberships earlier in March, she got nearly as many in a single day as she sees in an average month. “At the Evergrey, our members are more than just paying readers,” she says. “They’re people who are really buying into our community and saying that they want to be a part of it.”
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