American local journalism is withering away. Between 2004 and 2019, reports Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, the country lost more than 2,000 newspapers, with the total number falling by about one-fourth, from 9,000 to 6,700.

The decline bodes ill for democracy. Americans rely on local governments to provide basic public services, on voters to hold local officials accountable, and on newspapers to help the public remain informed. Yet even many surviving newspapers are shells of what they were, as private-equity firms purchase such storied properties as the New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, Baltimore Sun, and Buffalo News, only to sell off their downtown offices and printing plants and lay off reporters in droves. Doing so doesn’t make these firms evil; the economics of the news industry changed dramatically with the advent of the Internet and, eventually, social media. But the decline is nonetheless stark. In 1972, when my career began at the Middletown (NY) Times-Herald Record, the paper had three regional bureaus and one in the state capital. Today, it has just three reporters.

The recent emergence of nonprofit local news holds promise for at least arresting the negative trend. Reliant on philanthropy and reader support, these digital enterprises avoid the legacy costs of printing and home delivery and the pension overhang from unionized workforces. Since 2018, according to the Medill School, 118 news enterprises have been set up, many of them nonprofits—from Cal Matters to the Texas Tribune to VTDigger (Vermont). The Institute for Nonprofit News, a trade organization, now boasts 425 members, all nonprofit “papers” that don’t erect paywalls.

Doubtless some of these sites can provide enterprising, traditional reporting on school board meetings, local politics, and crime. But is the rise of nonprofit local news a Trojan horse? Major national foundations have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into the new generation of local journalism, but the money comes with progressive strings attached. A better approach uses local philanthropy and know-how to offer trustworthy coverage not driven by fashionable political trends.

The national project is ambitious in scope and complex in design. Participants in the so-called NewsMatch program, including the MacArthur, Ford, Carnegie, Robert Wood Johnson, and Hewlett Foundations, join the New York Times to direct funds to the Institute for Nonprofit News. The INN, in turn, distributes the money (as featured in a full-page announcement in the Times last November) via a $500 million fund-raising vehicle called Press Forward.

The INN professes to support “coverage [that] serves no cause beyond informing the public and the communities it serves.” Its communications director, Sharene Azemi, offers a useful summary of what local reporting means: “It’s actually going out, going to city council meetings, going to school board meetings, talking to officials, going to the hospital, interviewing the leaders, telling people what’s going on.” Still, Press Forward’s introductory press release raises alarms. “The philanthropic sector recognizes the need to strengthen American democracy,” it reads, “and is beginning to see that progress on every other issue, from education and healthcare to criminal justice reform and climate change, is dependent on the public’s understanding of the facts.” It suggests that “individual grantmaking” will be insufficient to make progress on such matters. Needed instead is “a shared vision and coordinated action that ensures individuals are informed and engaged on issues that affect their everyday lives.”

Look deeper, and the alarms get louder. INN publishes a “diversity report” that stresses the need for “inclusive” and “equitable” media coverage. It asserts that “nonprofit newsrooms, founded as public trusts with a mission of public service, have the opportunity to reinvent news media as inclusive representatives of the communities they serve.” This “opportunity” extends to every aspect of the organizations that it supports—including “staff and board composition, operations, editorial collaborations and research.” The priorities are clear: “DEI is a central element or context for most INN programs, rather than a separate program on its own.”

Yes, reporting on the full range of communities in a publication’s geography is a vital goal, and contrary practices driven by bias would be indefensible. A former colleague told me a story from his stint as a police reporter decades ago for the Boston Record-American. When he would call in a murder from the police station in the Roxbury ghetto, the rewrite man would ask, “Is it dark out there?” If he answered yes, that meant that the victim was black; no story appeared. But sins of the past cannot justify efforts to politicize all aspects of a news operation. And by now, Americans should be under no illusions about what it means to make DEI a “central element” of any undertaking, including news coverage.

NewsMatch, in other words, seeks to influence what is covered and how—exemplifying how, as sociologist Herbert Gans once put it, journalists go about “deciding what’s news.” Cal Matters, for instance, provides thorough political coverage but can lapse easily into left-liberal framing. A story about the trade-off between jobs and new environmental restrictions in a low-income community is headlined “How Big Oil Wins in Green California.” Or consider VTDigger’s treatment of the post-Dobbs abortion issue through an interview with a University of Vermont women’s studies professor headlined “The Perilous State of Reproductive Rights.” Such framing can be described as the National Public Radio model of journalism. The MacArthur Foundation has long funded NPR as part of its crusade for a “just and verdant world.”

Enough momentum exists for nonprofit local news that a for-profit consulting group is spearheading it. Blue Engine Collaborative—founded by a former New York Times digital executive—has built a business on what one of its consultants terms “coaching” for digital news sites with budgets exceeding $1 million and that seek to grow beyond $5 million. Blue Engine’s head of growth, David Grant, notes that 90 percent of such sites run on less than $1 million.

This isn’t to suggest that the national-scale effort on behalf of nonprofit local news is only a tool to advance DEI. Not all the national organizations providing support—and business advice—have an obvious political agenda. Lion Publishers, a trade group, emphasizes business-plan guidance more than DEI, for instance. “We focus primarily on the business side of news entrepreneurship,” says executive director Chris Krewson, “as many other support organizations exist to help publishers level up their journalism skills.” And even the more left-leaning sites provide some valuable news coverage. The national vehicles appear committed to journalism. Grant urges his clients to accept advertising, often a vector for journalistic moderation. (See Andrey Mir, “How the Media Polarized Us,” Summer 2022.)

Still, Grant also sees part of his mission as “empowering people who were disempowered in the past . . . whose communities were only covered as crime scenes.” Do the funders with whom he works lean left? “If DEI is coded as progressive, then that is where that resides,” he says.

An empty newsroom at Auburn, New York’s The Citizen, which moved into a smaller space: between 2004 and 2019, the U.S. lost more than 2,000 newspapers, with the total number falling by about one-fourth, from 9,000 to 6,700. (Photo: Kevin Rivoli/The Citizen/AP Photo)

A better approach to saving local journalism is available, with local civil society and business leaders teaming up with regional, not national, foundations. Consider the Cardinal News, a site focused on southern and western Virginia.

The publication rose from the ashes of the Roanoke Times, which was acquired first by Warren Buffett and later by Lee Enterprises. Like so many other papers, Roanoke had seen its pre-Internet business model collapse and its reporting staff cut dramatically. Both Cardinal cofounders, Dwayne Yancey and Luanne Rife, once worked there. Yancey, one of Virginia’s top political analysts and the newspaper’s former editorial page editor, recalls the moment he realized that his once-storied employer wasn’t ever returning to its halcyon days. The day before Memorial Day of 2020, the publisher told Yancey that the paper, for the first time, would not publish at all on the holiday. “He told me it had just $27 in advertising,” Yancey recalls.

As is so often the case with local nonprofit-funded coverage, the regional newspaper’s decline created a digital opening. When the Roanoke Times offered Rife, a longtime health and business journalist, a buyout, she took it. Neither Yancey nor Rife expected that they were about to start anew as journalism entrepreneurs. But since then, they’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from local readers, foundations, and businesses, and presided over the development of a staff covering some five counties stretching 200 miles from Blacksburg to Danville.

Cardinal estimates that 80 percent of its circulation area leans Republican. Because it relies on local donors and has no paywall, it must work to gain and maintain their trust. “Cardinal may reach more Republicans than all the other sites there combined,” says Blue Engine’s Grant, referring to an event at which Cardinal and other sites won industry awards. The site’s nonprofit model is enabled by local philanthropy from foundations and businesses, a board of volunteer advisors, and donations from readers who care about where they live and want local news.

Cardinal reporters understand and sympathize with the impulse to write about the traditionally “underserved,” a Press Forward focus. But the enterprise’s mission statement resists easy identification with modern political fashions. Cardinal styles itself as “an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan news site that serves Southwest and Southside Virginia” and that seeks to “strengthen the voices of the people in our communities who have been sidelined in the commonwealth’s political, economic and cultural conversations simply because of where they live.” Filling that reporting vacuum—with stories ranging from the onetime railroad hub’s transformation into a biomedical research center to its ongoing battle against opioid addiction and “deaths of despair”—motivated Cardinal’s initial funders.

This local donor model contrasts with the nationally driven philosophy behind most prominent local news nonprofits. A local foundation called the Secular Society—its name self-consciously chosen because of the founders’ dislike of conservative religious thought—pledged Cardinal’s first $300,000 over three years, based on its high opinion of Rife’s previous reporting. One staunchly liberal contributor, who prefers to remain anonymous, recoils at the idea of pushing Cardinal to do specific types of stories. “This is our home,” he says. “We just needed better and more reporting in our neck of the woods. You shouldn’t tell a journalist what to do. Our money is unrestricted.”

Meantime, the same impulse for “more and better reporting” motivated a group of local business leaders in and around Roanoke to make their own pledge of $300,000. They were led by Chris Turnbull, a onetime World Bank official who had settled in Roanoke as director of corporate communications for Carilion Clinic, the area’s largest employer west of Richmond. “We were frustrated by the fact that there were so many great stories that were not being told,” Turnbull says. More broadly, he notes, the lack of sophisticated news coverage—beyond crime and reprinted national stories in the shell of the local paper—impeded the community’s capacity to “make connections.” Journalism, in other words, can bolster a community’s social capital, enabling one reader to find out what another is doing and to act on that knowledge. The group included leaders of a bank, a fuel-delivery firm, and a group of nursing and retirement homes.

As the Roanoke Times shrank, the donors were rebuffed in their effort to persuade the Times’s owner, Lee Enterprises, to expand reporting. (Lee had bought the paper from BH Media, an entity associated with Warren Buffett, which had bought it from a longtime local family owner—a familiar story.) Turnbull would join two former area newspaper publishers on the Cardinal board.

An 1869 illustration depicting New York’s Printing House Square, also known as Newspaper or Park Row, showing the buildings of the New York Sun, the Tribune, and the New York Times. (Photo: PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

Two years later, Cardinal boasts a $1.3 million annual budget, fueled by both other major businesses (including the state’s largest utility) and more than 100,000 unique site visitors monthly. Many live in Richmond, as state politicos look to Cardinal to find out what’s happening in the Blue Ridge foothills, where Cardinal’s eight reporters have established a presence. The reporting itself is top-notch—examining, for example, whether area community colleges can effectively train a rural workforce for new job opportunities, digging into such subtle trends as Covid-driven migration patterns, and shaping local business attitudes about the region’s prospects.

Prominent statewide and local officials alike assert an appreciation for Cardinal’s presence. Lee Vogler, a city council member in Danville, laments the decline of the Danville Bee, which, he recalls, once covered and editorialized regularly about council matters. “It’s frustrating in the sense that you can’t assume that everyone knows about the issues when, in reality, they have no clue.” Cardinal, he says, “is helping to fill the void,” covering not just politics but also more local-specific matters like zoning decisions.

On my trip to Roanoke, I was most struck by the journey of a young reporter, Lisa Rowan, who had moved to Cardinal from a better-paying job with Forbes in Florida because she “wanted to do serious journalism.” When we met, Rowan was working on a story about events at five local school boards, focused on how national culture-war issues had filtered down to this level. When one school displayed a gay rights rainbow flag, a local board voted a ban, for instance. She took with the greatest seriousness Cardinal’s stated goal to be nonpartisan. “I’m really nervous about it,” said Rowan, before publishing a story about how “school board races are becoming battlegrounds for national debates.” Her goal of nonpartisanship was evident in her writing about boards adopting policies requiring parents to be notified about students choosing to declare themselves transgender.

Would national funders of local journalism be equally sympathetic to Rowan’s goal of being resolutely fair to all voices, including cultural conservatives? That’s no small task in a predominantly Republican region, especially if Cardinal hopes to gain the readers’ trust that so much of the mainstream press has forfeited.

Like other startup sites, Cardinal benefits from remote work. It has no traditional newsroom; nor does it labor under the burden of legacy union contracts and pensions, as many newspapers still do. Its approach includes regular newsletters on specific topics, supported by financial sponsors, as well as regular online appeals for financial help, which have netted hundreds of small donors. Its six major supporters—foundations and companies providing $100,000 or more—are complemented by hundreds donating less than $250. Large grants from major businesses are joined by smaller gifts from local pest-control and waste-management firms.

John Hull, head of the Roanoke Regional Partnership, a business-supported economic development group, sees Cardinal as an asset in recruiting new businesses and especially new talent to the region, thanks to the “sophistication” of its coverage. He notes particularly Cardinal’s analysis of migration trends; his members find its upbeat conclusions about the area’s attractiveness encouraging. Such reporting has brought the site such sponsors as Virginia’s largest public utility, Dominion Energy.

Rife and Yancey, Cardinal’s leaders, want to widen and deepen their coverage. Though optimistic about Cardinal’s prospects, they understand that the sense of urgency about their cause could wear off. Not maintaining a paywall is a calculated risk, but “open access for everyone is key for us,” says Rife. Whether it makes business sense remains to be seen.

Still, Cardinal remains an operation to be taken seriously. Recently, it attracted major party candidates to a Virginia House of Delegates debate that it sponsored. It has added obituaries to its coverage, and high school sports may be coming soon, too. If upstart news sites are truly going to replace legacy newspapers, they will need to cover these and other areas that readers care about.

To those involved, the two approaches to revitalizing local news might not seem in conflict. Indeed, Cardinal won an award from INN as 2023 startup of the year, suggesting some affinity. But its focus is on local journalism as an end in itself—for all those in its geographic range, not for specific identity groups.

Cardinal is right to say that “we do not accept anonymous gifts or any that appear to have the slightest of strings attached.” That, along with its commitment to nonpartisan reporting, contrasts with the professed political missions of national funders. What Cardinal has done—raise funds almost exclusively from local enterprises and individuals—provides the best model for how local journalism could save itself.

Another possible boost for those local news sites that accept outright advertising could come from federal legislation. A Republican member of Congress, Claudia Tenney of New York, has sponsored a bill to provide a tax credit to local businesses that advertise on local journalism sites. Rebuild Local News, a national advocacy group, backs such a proposal. It’s a tempting approach, though it raises questions about which publications will qualify—and whether federal tax authorities will be the arbiters.

Cardinal News has raised the funds that it needs for the next three years, and Lion Publishers recently gave Cardinal a national award for meeting its five-year financial goals in just 18 months. One hopes that the new generation of local journalism would not have to rely either on the kindness of government or the intrusion of progressive funders. If Cardinal and enterprises like it are to avoid doing so, they will have to rely on the rest of us: local philanthropists, businesses, and, yes, readers. There is much to be gained—or lost.

Top Photo: SimpleImages/Moment via Getty Images

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