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Photo: Suzanne and John’s Mom.
Remember Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lines, “By the rude bridge that arched the flood …”? A nonprofit news site named after this bridge will expand on a local-news trend led by the
Texas Tribune.

Hope is coming for one of the cornerstones of democracy, local journalism. Nowadays, it looks like the for-profit model ends in acquisitions, hedge fund ownership, and generalized stories that can be plugged into any town. Which is why we are seeing more nonprofit efforts for community news.

Margaret Sullivan writes at the Washington Post that if local journalism manages to survive, we need to “give Evan Smith some credit for it. The Texas Tribune founder has been a ‘true pioneer’ in finding ways to cover local communities as a nonprofit.

“When Evan Smith co-founded the Texas Tribune back in 2009, digital-first nonprofit newsrooms were something of a rarity. There was ProPublica, only two years old at the time, MinnPost in Minneapolis, the Voice of San Diego, and a few others.

“So his move from top editor of the award-winning Texas Monthly magazine, at the urging of venture capitalist John Thornton, was considered slightly bizarre.

“ ‘The tone of the coverage was almost mocking,’ Smith recalled last week, soon after he announced he would step down as the Tribune’s CEO at the end of this year. ‘It was, “What does this joker think he’s doing?” ‘

“As it turns out, Smith and company — he and Thornton recruited Texas Weekly editor Ross Ramsey to join the endeavor — had a good idea of what they were doing, or figured it out along the way.

“The Austin-based Tribune has grown from 17 employees to around 80 (more than 50 are journalists), raising $100 million through philanthropy, membership and events, including its annual Texas Tribune Festival that has attracted speakers including Nancy Pelosi and Willie Nelson.

Most important, it has done a huge amount of statewide news coverage with a focus on holding powerful people and institutions accountable.

“These days, such newsrooms are springing up everywhere; there are now hundreds of them. They are easily the most promising development in the troubled world of local journalism, where newspapers are going out of business or vastly shrinking their staffs as print revenue plummets and ownership increasingly falls to large chains, sometimes owned by hedge funds.

“In Baltimore, the Banner — funded by Maryland hotel magnate Stewart Bainum — is hiring staff and expects to start publishing soon. In Chicago, the Sun-Times is converting from a traditional newspaper to a nonprofit as it merges operations with public radio station WBEZ. And in Houston, three local philanthropies working with the American Journalism Project (also co-founded by Thornton) announced a $20 million venture that will create one of the largest nonprofit news organizations in the country.

“ ‘These newsrooms are popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm,’ Smith, 55, told me. …

“As a speaker at Trib Fest myself, I’ve seen Smith in action — a promotional force of nature, energetic organizer, prodigious fundraiser, and lively onstage interviewer.

“Emily Ramshaw, who started at the Trib as a reporter and was named its top editor in 2016, called him ‘an innovator, a ringleader and a fearlessly ambitious local news entrepreneur.’ What’s more, she told me, Smith has brought along ‘a whole series of news leaders who have grown up in his image.’

“Ramshaw counts herself among them; she left the Trib in 2020 to found a new nonprofit news organization, the 19th, which covers the intersection of gender, politics and society.

“The Trib’s new editor is Sewell Chan, most recently at the Los Angeles Times, where he was the top opinion-side editor, and previously at the New York Times and the Washington Post. Smith considers it a triumph for nonprofit newsrooms that it’s no longer unusual for them to attract the likes of Chan, or of Kimi Yoshino, who was managing editor of the L.A. Times before being named editor in chief of the Baltimore Banner. …

“The Trib’s journalism is influential well beyond its own free website. More than 400 Texas Tribune stories appeared on the front pages of newspapers throughout the state last year, provided free of charge. The site has done investigative projects on the effect of sex trafficking on young girls, the influence of religious belief on the lawmaking of Texas legislators, and an investigation, part of its voting rights coverage, into the state’s review of voting rolls. In 2019, it announced it was joining forces with ProPublica to form a new investigative unit based in Austin. …

“With local news outlets withering in many communities — statehouse coverage, in particular, has dwindled despite its importance — and democratic norms under attack in many states, the need for that kind of watchdog reporting is acute everywhere.” More at the Post, here.

Another nonprofit news site will launch locally in fall, The Concord Bridge. Hooray. A world for which the “embattled farmers” fought doesn’t have to be merely aspirational. Neither does good local journalism.

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Photo: Cardinal News.
Cardinal News calls itself “an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan news site serving Southwest and Southside Virginia.”

Local news is desperately needed as chains buy up papers for their advertising potential and show little interest in actual communities. The need is especially dire in rural areas.

Margaret Sullivan reports at the Washington Post on one hopeful development in western Virginia, where “veterans of a once-great newspaper are starting something small with big ambitions for serving Appalachian readers.”

She writes, “Two photographs tell the story of Cardinal News, a start-up news site in a mostly rural section of Virginia.

“One shows a lawn chair and small table set up just outside the Fincastle branch of the Botetourt County public library. It’s where editor Dwayne Yancey sometimes goes to use the broadband Internet access that he lacks at his nearby home. When he needs to upload big digital files — particularly photographs he wants to publish on the news site — his mobile hotspot can’t get the job done.

“The other photo is of the ravaged interior of Patty Coleman’s home in Hurley, a community close to the Kentucky and West Virginia state lines, where a flood and mudslide destroyed dozens of homes and caused one death last summer. After Yancey sent Megan Schnabel, one of Cardinal’s two reporters, to Hurley for several days, along with a photographer, their in-depth reporting about the devastation brought much-needed attention to Hurley’s suffering residents — and may help them get $11 million of state aid.

“ ‘Without that story, we wouldn’t have had the awareness we needed,’ said Will Morefield, a state legislator who has proposed a funding bill that is moving forward; the money is sorely needed after the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied the state’s request for financial help to individual homeowners. …

“Like many similar start-ups around the nation, Cardinal — named for Virginia’s state bird — is helping to fill the gap left by the shrinking of traditional local news organizations, particularly newspapers. Most of the staff came from the Roanoke Times.

“Yancey made the move after watching the Times scale back its staff in recent years, especially after its sale by longtime owner Landmark Communications in 2013.

Now the Times, like many other Virginia newspapers, is in the hands of Lee Enterprises, which has been fighting off a takeover bid by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that is perhaps the worst newspaper owner in the country. …

“More than 1,800 local papers have closed since 2004 as print advertising revenue plummeted and reader habits shifted to online sources. The shuttering of those papers, along with the shrinking of other local news sources, is having profound negative effects on society. …

“ ‘It was basically like getting the band back together,’ Yancey told me last week. They have also been joined by Markus Schmidt, the Cardinal’s second reporter, who is a veteran of the state politics beat at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He remains based in Richmond, focused on reporting government news of particular interest to Cardinal’s part of the state.

“[Chief development officer, Luanne Rife, a former Times health reporter] told me she took a buyout from the Roanoke paper after she was told she would no longer be able to do many in-depth stories on the health beat, even in the midst of a pandemic.

“ ‘I had always enjoyed my work, but I was burned out,’ she told me. ‘I would go to my keyboard in the morning and start to feel tears rolling down my face.’ When a foundation approached her about a reporting project it wanted to fund, it lit a spark of inspiration for her — and she started exploring whether she could start her own project, one that would be more ambitious and permanent.

“Cardinal’s territory extends far beyond the Roanoke metro area; its mission is to … what Yancey calls ‘Cumberland County to the Cumberland Gap.’

“Much of it is considered part of Appalachia — ‘an easy part of the state to stereotype,’ Yancey noted. Cardinal’s mission includes providing a more nuanced picture of the region to the rest of the state.

“With no paywall, the site’s funding comes from foundations, businesses and individual donors; it has applied for nonprofit status.

“Rife says she’s heartened by the way those contributions have grown from a handful when the site launched last September to more than 700. A new grant will allow Cardinal to add a reporter soon in Danville, along the North Carolina border; Rife also would like to hire an education reporter and one dedicated to health coverage.

“ ‘We’ve been amazed, overwhelmed and humbled by the support,’ Rife told me. The other day, she picked up the mail to find five checks — one for $25, another for $10,000. Cardinal lists its donors on the site and discloses in stories if a person or organization it writes about is a significant contributor.

“In Cardinal’s first big story about the devastation in Hurley, Schnabel describes Coleman’s house: ‘A blue tarp partially draped the door frame where the mud had rushed in. The floor had caved in, and mold and mildew covered the walls.’

“The house was beyond repair. Coleman didn’t have flood insurance; she did have a homeowner’s policy, but the insurer, according to the story, had given her the crushing news that nothing would be covered.

“Now there may be help on the way after all. And a tiny news start-up with big ambitions will have made a difference.”

More at the Post, here.

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merlin_162547917_954e6b18-5736-43ae-9543-23e4a4360113-jumboPhoto: Chloe Aftel for the New York Times
“If we weren’t covering it, no one would know what’s going on,” said Katherina Sourine, one of
four city and government reporters at the college newspaper, the Michigan Daily.

Local papers are vital to democracy not only for the local people to manage their lives well but because big stories start locally. Moreover, if Twitter gets the news first, misinformation or incomplete information may get a firm grip on the collective consciousness.

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, where local papers have followed the national trend of going out of business, the college newspaper is having to pick up the slack. And it is not the only student newspaper to do so nationwide.

Dan Levin reports at the New York Times, “Municipal committee meetings — the tedious minutiae of Ann Arbor’s local governance — do not tend to draw a crowd. On a recent afternoon, Katherina Sourine was among only a few in attendance.

“But Ms. Sourine, a University of Michigan senior, was there because she had to be. As one of four city and government reporters for Ann Arbor’s sole daily newspaper, she had biked through a steady rain between classes to take notes on the city’s plans for developing a new park. …

“Said Ms. Sourine, 21, who also plays rugby and is taking a full schedule of classes this semester, ‘It’s really hard to take time out of my day, especially when breaking news hits. But a lot of people rely on us to stay informed, not only students, but the people of Ann Arbor.’

“For more than a decade, the Michigan Daily, the university’s student newspaper, has been the only daily paper in town. After the Ann Arbor News shuttered its daily print edition in 2009 — and eventually its website, too — a staff of about 300 student journalists has worked hard to provide incisive coverage about the city’s police, power brokers and policymakers, all while keeping up with school.

“Student journalists across the country have stepped in to help fill a void after more than 2,000 newspapers have closed or merged, leaving more than 1,300 communities without any local news coverage. And several young reporters have broken consequential stories that have prodded powerful institutions into changing policies.

“A high school newspaper in Pittsburg, Kan., forced the resignation of the principal after discovering discrepancies in her résumé. After writing an article about a school employee’s unprofessional conduct charges, high school editors in Burlington, Vt., won a censorship battle against their principal.

“And when the State Department’s special envoy for Ukraine resigned abruptly last month, a 20-year-old junior at Arizona State University broke the news in the school’s student newspaper, a scoop that gained international attention. …

“ ‘We’re the largest Arizona-based news-gathering operation in Washington because we’re the only Arizona-based news-gathering operation in Washington,’ said Steve Crane, director of Washington operations at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“Despite little training and no university journalism program, the staff of the Michigan Daily has embraced its vital role. Last year, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it published a lengthy investigation that detailed sexual misconduct allegations against a professor, leading to his early retirement. In 2014, the paper published a major scoop about a sexual assault that the university concealed to protect a football player. …

“The Daily also covers issues that matter to Ann Arbor’s 121,000 residents, such as the inner workings of the municipal government, cuts to the county’s mental health budget, and a police oversight commission that was created last year in response to the shooting death of a black woman and the violent arrest of a black teenager.

‘We’ve been given this mantle of holding the powerful accountable, five nights a week, with no department backing us up,’ said Finntan Storer, 21, the managing editor of the Daily. ‘It’s a huge responsibility.’ …

“Today, the Daily’s closest competitor is MLive.com, a news website owned by Advance Publications that covers the state of Michigan. The company regularly publishes articles about Ann Arbor, including in a twice-weekly print digest branded as the Ann Arbor News, and it employs a staff of local journalists who cover the city’s government, real estate, police and other beats. But some residents said the student paper has often more effectively covered the community.

“Unlike many college newspapers, the Daily has the financial support — in the form of a $4.5 million endowment — to sustain its breadth of reporting, said Neil Chase, the chairman of the university’s student publications board. …

” ‘In a city of 100,000 people, you have to decide if you’re going to cover a City Council meeting, a car crash, or some other local news because you only have a few people to go around,’ he said. But the Daily ‘has so many people, they don’t have to make those tough decisions.’ ” More here.

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Rhode Island has an outstanding independent, environmental news publication called ecoRI News. Who says local news is dead?

Well, actually, it is very much endangered and requires heroic efforts by those who understand its importance. Reporting at ecoRI News, for example, played a pivotal role in the rejection of an unnecessary new fossil-fuel plant in Burrillville, after a fight that lasted years (producing hostile stickers on utility poles throughout the state). The story may have been partly about quality of life in a small Rhode Island community, but as we now know, every bit of fossil fuel threatens the whole planet.

Local news addresses other issues that have international implications. As Tim Faulkner reported at ecoRI News in April, “Plastic pollution is everywhere, showing up in the air, water, food, and consequently in our bodies.

“To draw attention to this ubiquitous waste problem, plastic-catching traps, called trash skimmers, have been installed around Narragansett Bay to collect plastic debris and other trash in the marine environment.

“The latest skimmer was recently unveiled inside the hurricane barrier on the Providence River. It’s heralded as the first trash skimmer to be installed in a state capital.

“Using a pump to draw in debris, the partially submerged plastic box catches surface trash such as floating bottles and tiny debris called microparticles. Each skimmer costs about $12,000.

“Since 2017, three trash skimmers in Newport and one in Portsmouth have collected 27,000 pounds of trash. Cigarette butts, plastic food wrappers, and foam debris are the most common items collected. The skimmers are emptied daily throughout most of the year by interns and student groups. Each contains between 20 and 200 pounds of daily trash. The skimmers have collected unusual items such as floating plastic disks from a wastewater treatment plant in East Providence.

“The project is run by Clean Ocean Access, the Middletown-based pollution advocacy group directed by David McLaughlin.

“ ‘The skimmer is the last line of defense for our oceans, and each installation allows for open, positive, and forward-thinking conversation of how to solve the local and global problem of litter and marine debris,’ McLaughlin said. …

“Plastic bags are one of the top items collected in the trash skimmers. So far, 10 Rhode Island municipalities — Barrington, Bristol, Jamestown, Middletown, New Shoreham, Newport, North Kingstown, Portsmouth, South Kingstown, and Warren — have enacted bans on plastic retail bags. East Providence, Providence, and Westerly are poised to pass bans. …

“The trash skimmer project is funded by 11th Hour Racing, a Newport-based funder of ocean stewardship initiatives. … Two skimmers are operating in Newport Harbor and a third is in the water off Fort Adams. Another is at New England Boat Works in Portsmouth. A trash skimmer is operating in Gloucester, Mass., and a new trash skimmer is scheduled to be unveiled in New Bedford Harbor during the week of Earth Day. Other skimmers are planned for Stamford, Conn., and possibly Fall River, Mass.”

More here.

Photo: Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News
The Providence trash skimmer, which helps to clear plastic waste from Rhode Island waters, is fixed to a floating dock below the riverfront deck at the Hot Club
img_20190419_134501

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2cf4ba3e-6649-45c3-bb13-dbaa91e43fe7Photo: Kayana Szymczak/New York Times
Charles Sennott (left) and Steven Walden, cofounders of Report for America. The nonprofit organization modeled after AmeriCorps aims to install 1,000 journalists in understaffed local newsrooms by 2022.

In spite of the fact that local news is under threat from overwhelming economic forces, it’s really important. After all, some of the biggest national stories break thanks to local-news reporting. That’s why some news veterans have started a kind of AmeriCorps for journalists who want to give back to the communities that launched them.

Nellie Bowles wrote at the New York Times, “A group of journalists have decided to do something about the diminution of newsrooms at the local level. They’re making reporting part of a national service program.

“Report for America, a nonprofit organization modeled after AmeriCorps, aims to install 1,000 journalists in understaffed newsrooms by 2022. Now in its pilot stage, the initiative has placed three reporters in Appalachia. It has chosen nine more, from 740 applicants, to be deployed across the country in June.

“Molly Born, 29, was one of the first three selected for the program. She grew up in West Virginia and has the state motto tattooed on her back: ‘Montani Semper Liberi’ (‘Mountaineers Are Always Free’). A reporter at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for the last six years, Born applied to Report for America with the hope of covering her home state.

” ‘I felt like I needed to give something back to a place that has given a lot to me,’ she said. ‘And journalism is the way for me to do that.’

“Born now lives in Williamson, a town of roughly 3,000 along the Tug Fork River, and covers the state’s southern coal fields for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

” ‘It’s important to have reporters based in parts of America where some people feel misunderstood,’ she said. …

“Report for America fellowships last one to two years, and the pay is about $40,000, with half covered by the program and the rest split between participating news organizations and donations. Two media veterans, Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott, started the project with funding from sponsors.

“ ‘People are applying for the same reason people want to go into the Peace Corps: There’s an idealistic desire to help communities, and there’s a sense of adventure,’ Waldman, 55, said. ‘They want to try and save democracy. People keep saying that.’ …

“In 1990, daily and weekly newspapers employed about 455,000 people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By January 2016, that number had fallen to 173,000. …

“Because [the founders] had seen how Facebook and Google contributed to the destruction of the advertising-based business model that had long kept local newspapers afloat, they asked them to kick in to their project. While Google has committed money and training, Facebook has yet to sign on. …

“For the nine reporter slots, 85 newsrooms applied asking for corps members, describing a crucial beat that needed filling. Reporters who make the cut start with eight days of training before joining their host newsrooms. They must also fulfill a service requirement, such as working as mentors to student journalists, during their stints.”

More here.

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