Can community journalism be saved?

A montage of newspapers eclipsed by a computer keyboard as community journalism moves online
The scoop on how to help local news businesses survive. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Amid a drought of local journalism and shrinking newspaper coverage that’s created a growing number of news deserts across the country, Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy is looking for any oasis he can find.

Kennedy has spent decades covering the media, giving him a front-row seat to the erosion of community news. First the internet gutted newspaper budget mainstays like classified advertising, then hedge fund takeovers slashed small town newspapers’ staff and salaries. But new community news enterprises are rising from the ashes, and Kennedy wants to focus on the business models that work with a book he’s writing with former Boston Globe journalist Ellen Clegg.

Dan Kennedy, a Northeastern journalism professor in the College of Arts, Media and Design, is working on a book about community journalism business models that have succeeded even as the industry continues to struggle. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“We want to show a series of case studies of independent local news projects around the country that are showing some degree of success,” says Kennedy. “We want to offer some explanation of how they worked and how they attained financial viability to really stand as examples to communities across the country.”

The steady shuttering of newspapers since the turn of the century has left more than 200 counties across the country with no newspaper coverage at all, and many more with coverage that’s been drastically stripped back. The loss of local reporting can have long-lasting impacts on cities and towns, says Clegg.

“Community news is the bedrock of democracy. So much plays out on the local level,” says Clegg. “A lot of public health decisions get made in your town and in your school district. We found out during the pandemic that those kinds of decisions are of the utmost importance” 

Coverage of city council meetings, school football games, infrastructure updates, and recycling fees can tie a community together, says Kennedy. He and Clegg have tentatively titled their book “What Works: The Future of Local News.” Beacon Press plans to publish it in the second half of 2023, says Kennedy.

“We’re in this moment of hyperpolarization across the nation. People can’t agree on basic facts, and it’s just really ugly. I think that when you can get down to the local level and talk about and cover the issues that really matter to a community and neighborhood, you have grounds for cooperation that you don’t necessarily have at the national level,” says Kennedy.

Several journalism enterprises have popped up in recent years in an effort to fill the local news vacuum, mainly small news-gathering websites such as the New Haven Independent or the MinnPost. Both operate as nonprofit websites created by journalists frustrated by a lack of local news, says Kennedy.

“Journalists, including people in my demographic who’ve been sort of displaced, have left, or have retired from the business see these projects as something that’s worthwhile that they can contribute to,” says Kennedy.

The number of new, sustainable businesses producing community journalism is on the rise despite the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic, says Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute.  

“Last year was actually a very good year for philanthropy embracing the cause of local news sites, and there are many examples of that,” says Edmonds.

ProPublica, a pioneer of nonprofit startups, and the American Journalism Project are two examples of organizations seeking to invest in local journalism.

Edmonds cautioned that while nonprofit news organizations have been able to stay afloat, they represent progress, not perfection, when it comes to restoring community coverage.

“Most of them are quite small, and that raises the question about whether there’s more to them than survival,” says Edmonds. “Particularly in a smaller community, the right people and the right focus can generate worthwhile news. But it probably can’t cover a community as comprehensively as a well-staffed newspaper can.”

For Kennedy, however, the hopeful examples he’s gathering for his book are an important part of the effort to save local journalism.

“I am ultimately optimistic about solving the local news crisis,” says Kennedy. “Maybe not everywhere, but in many places, people are going to figure this out.”

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