Local News Sites Need More Than Funding — They Need Vision

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Steven Waldman knows digital community news inside out. In 2011, he compiled the massive (468 pages), much-quoted FCC report on “The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age,” which red-flagged the not-always-apparent revenue problems of digital community news sites (that have worsened since then even as advertising and other message dollars in the total digital space continue to soar). and in In 2012, he founded the Brooklyn Game, which covers the on- and off-court doings of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets and the cultural impact of the former New Jersey team to Brooklyn (and Flatbush’s effect on the Nets). Earlier on, he also was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of Beliefnet, a multi-faith site about spirituality.

Now he’s produced “Report for America,” a brisk blueprint to save what he calls “civically important” news.

In the report, Waldman is talking specifically about news that takes long and penetrating looks at the community and what makes it work (or not work). But this kind of journalism is very costly to produce and, so far, hasn’t gotten major online readership or attracted much advertising. With too-few resources, most local media can’t generate nearly enough news that tries to see their communities beyond the daily headlines of convenience-store holdups, commuter tie-ups on the Interstate and missing pets. If a community is headed toward the fate of Ferguson, Mo., or West Baltimore or McKinney, Tex., its local news media more than likely won’t be ahead of the story.

The solution, says Waldman’s Ford Foundation-supported “Report for America,” is a combination of national and local philanthropic investment that would put investigative reporters on short-staffed publications for two-year periods. The total annual cost for a hundred reporters would be $5.6 million, which would be funded half-and-half by national philanthropies and community nonprofits and other organizations. The reporters would be tasked with producing work that, in Waldman’s words, “holds institutions  —  public and private  —  accountable.”

When Waldman talks about how to fix the big problems of community news, I listen. Bill Densmore, a consultant at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, who himself has been immersed for years in on-the-ground work to sustain community journalism, and even coined the phrase “Report for America” early on, says of Waldman: “Steve has added the knowledge of experience from working with service volunteer programs in teaching and urban living.  And he has the perspective of having taken a super deep dive into the challenges and future of civic journalism.”

Putting 100 investigative reporters on the streets across America would, no doubt, be beneficial to many communities. But I think local news, especially digital platforms, needs a bigger fix, and their communities deserve more.

It’s not just that there are too few reporters tasked to dig deep, but that, regardless of the number, the public doesn’t think journalists contribute “a lot” to society. Waldman quotes a 2013 Pew survey where just 28% of people thought journalists contributed a lot, compared to 73% who thought that of teachers and 66% who thought that of doctors.

Local digital platforms can’t buy community respect, much less sustainability, with 100 or 200 or 500 investigative reporters. They need to do much more.

I think the entire local news industry – both “legacy” newspapers and broadcasters and entrepreneurial and corporate “pure plays” – need to get out of their journalistic, Fourth Estate mindset and show their communities that they are all-in. They have to do this not only with residents they want as readers but also local merchants as advertisers. And with everybody else in the civic space. Otherwise, they’ll continue to be minor players in the otherwise thriving local digital space.

How do they do this?

By helping to prepare their communities for the massive demographic changes they’re already undergoing. By 2020, most children in America will be born into racial or ethnic minority groups, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2044, minorities will, collectively, comprise a majority of the entire population. In many cities and urbanizing metros, these changes will come faster, if they haven’t already arrived.

The trends have massive implications for just about every community in America. If the transformation goes well, minorities will help close gaps in already-stressed worker pools; invigorate all aspects of local society with new energy and expressiveness; and bring new thinking to every issue in the neighborhood, town, city, suburb and metro region. Along the way, change will bring friction — as it already has.

If local digital news platforms can get ahead of the curve on these trends, they will be able to do what companies like Yelp, Autotrader and other commercial platforms are achieving in their category space. They will attract the audiences — especially among action-oriented millennials — that they need to become sustainable.

To help them do this, “Report for America” should be retooled with an exciting name and auspicious mission — something like “One America, in Full Color.” Right now, philanthropies put only a tiny fraction of their media funding into “investigative reporting” — just 1.5%, as Waldman points out. Funders would, I believe, be far more responsive to a proposal that would tie journalism specifically to America’s minority-majority transformation.

There is no end to the number of stories that a “One America, in Full Color”-type mission would generate. Some of them would fit in the investigative category, but many could be produced by regular editorial staff, freelancers and – very important – the audience, including residents and local businesses. If local news media would show it was willing to put its collective shoulder to such a mission, national and community-based funders, would, I’m sure, write out the checks.

The recent “Engage Local 2015” conference in Newark, where Waldman unveiled his “Report for America” is, I think, a step toward the major conceptual changes that digital community news publishers will have to make to get on the path toward sustainability.

The one-day meeting, sponsored by Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media, focused on Newark’s redevelopment. How redevelopment affects minorities – for better and worse – is a hot topic not only in Newark but also in scores of other cities and their suburbs, and it will remain so for years to come.

One big issue — exemplified by Newark — is whether new development in city centers represents the “renaissance” of economically declining  neighborhoods or gentrification by more affluent white residents that forces mostly black residents to move into more deeply segregated areas.

A second big and related  issue is where to locate housing aimed primarily at helping poor African-Americans. Should it be in already deeply segregated neighborhoods, like those in Ferguson and West Baltimore, or be distributed more widely, including in predominantly white, middle-class neighborhoods, like the on the west side of McKinney, the North Dallas suburb that was the scene of the recent racially focused barbecue-pool-party blowup?

What both issues have in common is they are playing out in an America where minorities, especially blacks, are being concentrated in more deeply segregated communities even as the country, overall, becomes more integrated.

To stay on top of all this and tell the story to their communities of readers and businesses, local news sites will have to develop a sixth sense about America’s minority-majority transformation, especially as its plays out in all its implications down the block and around the corner. If they do, they’ll achieve not only respect but also their long-term future.

“Report for America” would be a help. But it’s not enough.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present and future of Charleston, S.C.