The urgency for solutions to the continuing erosion of local, legacy journalism grows greater by the day. And yet the challenge to create new newsrooms with a fighting chance at sustainability is as great as ever, too.
The problem stems from the inherent business inefficiency and costs involved in launching and replicating the structures needed to support new entities in every city or town, and then the expertise needed to guide those organizations to stability and long-term success.
There have been several efforts — such as work by the Institute for Nonprofit News, News Revenue Hub, LION Publishers, and the Tiny News Collective, among others — to share resources and learnings to reduce barriers to entry and increase the likelihood of success.
But with the size of the local news crisis and with resources at a premium, independent, nonprofit, collaborative and statewide newsrooms across the country could be an important part of the answer.
I am not an uninterested party in this discussion, since this is our approach at Spotlight PA, an independent, collaborative newsroom reporting on the Pennsylvania state government and urgent statewide issues. Our centralized reporting hub — funded by grants and individual membership — was the answer to decades of decline among the state Capitol press corps. We focus on deeper, contextual stories that fill the gaps in statewide coverage in a news ecosystem that is extremely regionalized. We share our work via our own platforms and through 65 community newsroom partners, and we are now working to extend our reach with regional and local bureaus.
This “hub-and-spoke” model using statewide entities like Spotlight PA, VTDigger, Mississippi Today, Mountain State Spotlight, and many others provides a ready pathway to scale coverage to local cities and towns without building new organizations in every location. The hub provides the organizational support and wide distribution platform, maintaining a focus on Capitol and statewide stories, while the spokes focus on local stories, always with an eye toward what might be of interest to a statewide audience. This approach is gaining significant attention within nonprofit news right now, most notably by the American Journalism Project, which is seeking to build a roadmap for this type of expansion.
In a way, this is reverse engineering the cost-cutting hub-and-spoke models used by big newspaper chains in the past few decades. Instead, this expansion is focused on stimulating local resources, driven by community need and community stakeholders, as opposed to profits and consolidation. To be clear, this approach won’t replace the heyday of local journalism, when every town council meeting, zoning meeting, and school board meeting was covered. But the extension of statewide newsrooms locally could be the fastest way to infuse significant resources and get results.
The success of local expansion rests on five key pillars, in no particular order, that drive Spotlight PA’s approach. While these may vary depending on the community and the state of existing news operations there, they are generally widely applicable.
- Operational alignment and opportunity The journalism of the local bureau must align with and benefit the statewide organization, to a significant degree, while serving the local community. The strategic relationship between the two entities and how they enhance one another is key.
- A clear and evident need In many communities where legacy media have suffered deep cutbacks, the desire for something to fill the gap is palpable. Community foundations, community leaders, former journalists, institutions of higher education, and more might already be considering how to replace what’s been lost. A local bureau must consider the state of the media ecosystem in the locality/region, what journalism remains, what coverage has been lost or was never there in the first place, and how much attention/support a new entity could attract.
- Information assessment of community needs. There have been some stellar examples of community-led journalism efforts across the country, making clear that a successful local bureau must be rooted in what the community wants from its news coverage. We must de-center ourselves and our assumptions as journalists and instead center listening and community members to understand what topics resonate, what topics/communities are under-served or ignored, and how a new brand of news should be tailored to maximize a positive reception and long-term support.
- Capacity for individual/institutional financial support A local bureau is predicated on the idea that it does not diminish the core resources sustaining the statewide newsroom and instead attracts enough new support to sustain itself. It’s critical to determine the potential for support in the market through information assessment and stakeholder convenings, as well as other networks or pathways in the community that might be leveraged for support, such as institutions of higher education, prominent residents or former residents, and foundations.
- Distribution pathways/opportunity for partnership Collaborative extensions of newsrooms benefit because they are not viewed as competitive moves by existing players. Instead, they offer something of high value to those outlets — unique, high-quality journalism — and in turn benefit from existing distribution pathways. This symbiosis gives the local bureau far more rapid brand exposure and potential for impact, without sacrificing any business priorities or directly investing resources into legacy newsrooms.
Establishing a playbook to address these pillars and scale successful statewide independent and nonprofit newsrooms is an industry imperative of the next year or two. For funders, these newsrooms are a more focused target for support, with an established operational backbone to ramp up high-quality journalism in localities.
We need more solutions quickly to the decline in local news, and we should be looking at how to extend what’s working right now as an important part of that equation.
Christopher Baxter is editor in chief of Spotlight PA.