January 10, 2018; The Ringer

Local reporting matters and plays an essential role in creating the conditions for a functioning democratic civil society. Kate Knibbs, writing in The Ringer, tells the story of Katia Kelly, who last February in her Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn news blog, Pardon Me for Asking, asked why former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had bought a rundown brownstone in her neighborhood. Ultimately, her post prompted further research that ultimately found its way into a federal indictment, as prosecutors cited the house Kelly wrote about as evidence that Manafort was laundering money that he made as a pro-Russia operative.

“Stories sometimes have very strange ways of making their way to our mainstream media,” Kelly observes. “And everything kind of starts out with neighbors talking to each other.” Kelly’s scoop, notes Knibbs, “was a triumph of hyperlocal, on-the-ground reporting, and a thrilling reminder of how neighborhood reporting can provide the building blocks for uncovering truths with great consequences.”

Of course, as NPQ has covered, local media faces considerable market churn. Last fall’s demise of DNAInfo and Gothamist in New York City and the Baltimore City Paper provide two recent examples. Still, we have also seen nonprofit journalism in Vermont, California, and elsewhere rise to fill the gaps and sometimes out-perform the local media that they have replaced.

“We’re still in the middle of a revolution, and it’s going to take a while for this to sort out,” notes Politifact founder and journalism professor Bill Adair. “We know there’s demand for the product. People want to know what their school board is doing. People want to know what their city council is doing. They want to know if the local high school team won last Friday.”

While both successes and missteps are to be expected in what remains a transitional period, Knibbs uncovers many emerging models. For example, in Flint, Michigan, veteran reporter Jiquanda Johnson founded Flint Beat, which launched last March. Johnson notes that her site “was established after talking to residents and hearing that they wanted something focused only on Flint” and has since expanded her mission to promote news literacy for young people.

In San Francisco, Knibbs highlights the case of Tim Redmond, who when fired in 2013 from his longtime editor position at the San Francisco Bay Guardian after refusing to make further cuts to its staff, founded 48 Hills, which “has allowed him to bootstrap a lean site funded by foundation grants and donations” with most donations in the $100–200 range.

“It may not be the model for the future of local journalism, but it certainly is a model,” Redmond says. “We’ve lasted four years, we’ve broken stories. We’re still out here every day, doing investigative journalism.”

Knibbs also highlights a range of other nonprofit innovators, including the Voice of San Diego, Honolulu Civil Beat, and Denverite.

Scott Lewis, editor-in-chief at the Voice, observes that “[News organizations] are starting to make the case directly that this is a valuable enterprise, that if you care about your community or our shared reality that we all experience, you should invest in this. It just so happens that nonprofit news organizations are perfectly optimized for that. They don’t have a shareholder or profit responsibility — they have a responsibility to a mission.”

Prompting these changes “is what economists call a ‘market failure,” notes Christopher Ali, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia and author of Media Localism: The Policies of Place. “There’s not enough money in the market,” Ali adds.

Still, as Ali and coauthor Damian Radcliffe conclude in a 2017 report, “The future of small-town newspapers, or what we call ‘small market’ newspapers, is actually brighter than what most people think.”

“People associate the bad news about the big dailies with smaller, community publication, “Ali adds. “They are different business models, and the community model is more sustainable. But the public is not aware of that.”

Kristen Hare, who reports for the nonprofit Poynter Institute, concurs. “I am optimistic about the future of local news,” Hare said. “It’s easy, I think, in all of the shouting, to miss the whispers of things that are happening at the local level.”—Steve Dubb