ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE, the French aristocrat and political scientist who observed American culture in the early 1830s, saw local newspapers as the lifeblood of civic participation in the United States and called them “the power which impels the circulation of political life.” America’s founders considered journalism so vital to informed democracy that they not only guaranteed the press unprecedented freedom in the first amendment to their new constitution but also subsidized it with special low postal rates, since in those days most newspapers were distributed by mail. “Newspapers were traditionally the common bond in the community, with shared information being the basis for people thinking somehow they’re on the same ship,” says Professor Thomas Patterson of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press, says because local news organizations gave citizens the information necessary to make important decisions about their lives and their communities, they functioned for more than 200 years as de facto civic infrastructure. But now that infrastructure is crumbling in many places and nonexistent in others—devastated by transformations in the economic ecosystem of local news, by takeovers by cost-cutting corporate chains and so-called “vulture capital” firms that strip them of their assets, and by changing habits of information consumption. The Shorenstein Center’s director, Nancy Gibbs, who with Patterson has been raising the alarm this year about the decline of local news and its effects on democracy, including voting rates and other forms of civic participation, says the situation has reached a critical stage.
“We have seen a dramatic decline in the last 10 or 15 years, as we’ve seen the whole business model across media disrupted to where we are losing two newspapers every week,” Gibbs said on an episode of the HKS PolicyCast podcast. “Half of all counties now only have one local newspaper news source. Usually, it’s a weekly. Many of those newsrooms have been hollowed out.” According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, more than a quarter of local newspapers in America have shut down since the early 2000s. Half of all journalism jobs are now gone, as are half of all newspaper subscribers. More than 1,800 communities in the United States are now defined as “news deserts”—places where no professional source of local news exists. Patterson says the decline has been going on long enough that a robust body of social science research now exists about what happens when a community loses its local news source. “There’ve been a dozen really pretty good studies of this, and they all come to the same conclusion,” he says. “It harms the civic health of the community on virtually every dimension. Social trust goes down. Party polarization goes up. Voting locally declines. Accountability of local officials goes away.”
A growing number of people in academia, politics, and the news industry say an urgent response is needed, with new ideas about what local news organizations should look like and how they can be supported financially and in other important ways. That contingent includes HKS faculty members, staffers, and alumni who are working to tackle a problem that has no easy answers.
From her position as the recent past president of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, Jane Seagrave MC/MPA 1989 has had a bird’s-eye view of the problems faced by local news organizations. “It’s the same refrain I’ve been literally hearing for the past 20 years,” she says. “You’re being attacked from every angle. Your revenue streams are being undermined, there are ever-increasing numbers of alternatives, and people are not reading the way they used to.”
Yet as the publisher of the Vineyard Gazette, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Seagrave is one of the lucky ones. The Gazette still rolls a weekly print edition off its own presses in addition to offering news about the Vineyard’s six towns on its website. Recent headlines include “Chilmark Town Meeting Rejects High School Budget” and “Steamship Authority Grapples with Deck Officer Shortage.” Local stories on issues that affect people’s daily lives resonate with the island community, which tends to be pretty stable, according to Seagrave. “We have a market that’s extremely well-read,” she says. “People go out of their way to be informed. They read to the end of stories. They really engage with the news.”
Those dedicated readers form a solid subscription base, generating revenue that the Gazette has augmented with periodic specialty publications about weddings, real estate, and tourism. Plus, being on an island 7 miles off the coast helps keep down competition, Seagrave says. It also helps that the Gazette has stable owners: In 2010 it was purchased by billionaire businessman and Vineyard resident Jerome Kohlberg, Jr. (the first “K” of investment giant KK&R). It is now owned by a nonprofit corporation chaired by Kohlberg’s daughter Pamela. Kohlberg, who died in 2015, also bought the Gazette's building and donated it to the Martha’s Vineyard Historic Trust, preserving and protecting it from venture capital firms that might covet it as real estate. (The average home price on the Vineyard is now around $2 million.)
When she attended the Kennedy School, Seagrave wasn’t planning to work in the business side of publishing. A reporter and editor for the Associated Press, she thought a degree from HKS would make her a better political journalist. “But at the Kennedy School, you know, they tell you to play to your weaknesses,” she says. “And my weaknesses really were the numbers. So I took a bunch of financial management classes.” She eventually returned to the AP in 2003 as a vice president of product development and chief revenue officer, just in time to see internet giants like Google and Facebook beginning to bleed news organizations of both their customers and their advertisers.
“It was the dawn of the technology companies really eating our lunch,” she says. “A lot of my career at the AP was trying to get licensing dollars out of companies that were effectively, in my opinion, stealing our content. And for a while it worked: We got Google to give up $30 million one year. Then they got their lawyers together and said, ‘No, we have fair-use rights to this content.’ That’s one of the reasons I finally left—it was so frustrating, and we could not get our point across.”
That trend continued. According to Gibbs, newspapers were once a $100 billion business in America, but that figure has shrunk to just $17 billion today. “You don’t think of Amazon as an advertiser, but Amazon alone makes more money in advertising than every newspaper in the world put together,” she says. “Google’s advertising business is now north of $200 billion.”
The Nonprofit Model
Because of the collapse in revenue that supports news gathering, Gibbs says, restoring local media to its role in civic life will be extremely difficult. “I don’t think there’s a way that we can really think about the ideal role that the press should be playing without thinking about the ways in which, some 15 years ago now, the entire industry was blown up—and no one has figured out a strategy.”
Yet if a viable strategy does emerge, many media analysts say it will most likely involve an evolution with local news changing from a mostly for-profit ecosystem to a largely nonprofit one. Successful nonprofit news organizations include start-ups in small and underserved markets, ownership groups that are now running regional news organizations in Philadelphia and other markets, and long-standing public media organizations such as National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). In fact, in a recent research study, Patterson proposed building out a more robust local news ecosystem using the existing infrastructure of NPR, which disseminates news both on broadcast radio and online. Surveying 215 NPR senior editors and managers across the United States, Patterson found that half said they could become the leading news outlet in their community—if they had more funding. “Public radio has the capacity to fill much of the gap in local news created by the decline of the newspaper,” he says. “Strengthening local public radio stations is a democratic imperative.”
Myrna Johnson MC/MPA 2007, the executive director of Iowa Public Radio, believes that Patterson’s idea has merit. “I think there’s real potential there,” she says. “If you look across the country, there are lots of smaller stations, many of which have really tiny newsrooms, but they have real connections in their communities. The question is how do you support it and how do you grow it?”
Johnson says Iowa Public Radio is already working to fill gaps created by the shrinking for-profit news industry. Two years ago, the Gannett newspaper chain announced that it would lay off 700 people nationwide, including 14 reporters and editors at the Des Moines Register. Another shrinking regional chain, the Davenport-based Lee Newspapers, last year barely staved off a takeover bid by Alden Global Capital.
Meanwhile, Iowa Public Radio has been experimenting with newsletters and other new distribution channels and is collaborating with local philanthropists and foundations to fund additional reporting positions. It is also working on a funding model that is independent of state support and even includes its own endowment. The idea, she says, is modeled on other successful nonprofit community institutions—museums, hospitals, colleges—that use endowments as a stable base for their yearly budgets and to help ride out cyclical economic downturns. An endowment is a way to persuade local people to make a long-term investment in their community, she says, and Iowa Public Radio has launched a $6.5 million “Resounding Future Campaign” to get things started. “We’re asking them to invest in the next-generation talent and technology that we require to create great radio and great journalism, to help us develop an endowment that will help us be a really strong nonprofit institution here in the state—one that can weather the ups and downs,” she says.
Johnson enrolled at HKS because of her background in government relations; at the time, she was advocating for public lands through the Outdoor Industry Association. But earlier in her career she had worked in NPR’s government affairs department and had thought seriously of getting back into public radio. “I went to a lot of Shorenstein Center talks,” she says. “I just cared a ton about it. Good journalism is the backbone of democracy, and I was thinking, ‘What role do I want to play in that?’”
One thing Jane Seagrave says she found encouraging in her role as head of the Massachusetts Newspaper Association was the energy being poured into local-news start-ups. One of her favorites is the New Bedford Light, one of a growing number of nonprofit news organizations working to fill the local-news gaps in their communities. Several hours north, in Vermont, fellow HKS alum Randy Holhut MC/MPA 1997 is the news editor for a similar project, The Commons, a Brattleboro-based news source that publishes both an online and a weekly print edition for a highly engaged local readership. “We put more than 8,000 papers on the street every week, and people snap them up and they love it,” he says. “I’ve never worked at any other journalism organization where people come up to me and say, ‘I love that paper.’”
Yet Holhut says running a nonprofit news organization these days isn’t for the faint of heart. Funding for The Commons comes mostly from advertising, donations, and foundation grants. “We’ve had several near-death financial experiences,” he says. “Brattleboro has only about 12,000 people in it. Throw in the rest of Windham County, and it’s about 40,000 people. But it’s a very opinionated 40,000 people, who like to read about themselves in the newspaper.” Founded in 2006, The Commons was helped by a literal trial by fire 12 years ago, Holhut says. “Our big year was 2011: We had a major fire that destroyed a commercial block, a shooting at the local food coop, and Hurricane Irene,” he says. “People really appreciated the depth of our reporting and our support of the community. It made people say, ‘Hey, this is not a bunch of crazy hippies; this is a real newspaper.’”
One strategy nonprofit journalists use to create quality journalism with minimal money is to take advantage of a growing number of outside groups that offer free help to local-journalism start-ups. Some, like the American Journalism Project, provide seed capital to get new nonprofit newsrooms off the ground, while others, such as the GroundTruth Project’s Report for America, pay the salaries of reporters who are placed in local newsrooms across the country to report on undercovered issues. The Journalist’s Resource, based at the Shorenstein Center, helps newsrooms produce fact-based journalism by integrating academic research into their reporting.
“I think there’s never been more of a need for what we do because of the state of local journalism,” says Carmen Nobel, the director and editor in chief of The Journalist’s Resource. “If a newsroom even exists in a community, it’s often two or three reporters, and somebody who’s the education reporter one day is the health reporter the next day. In the meantime, academic researchers can help provide context if the journalists know how to find them. So we see our core mission as informing the news by bridging the gap between academia and journalism.”
In addition to creating tip sheets and conducting webinars that teach journalists how research works, The Journalist’s Resource regularly publishes “research roundups,” which curate and summarize topical studies in plain language to make them more easily accessible to reporters and editors. Recent featured content has included disparities in HIV prevalence, prevention, and treatment; rules for prescribing drugs via telemedicine; and how indoor air quality in schools affects students’ learning and health. Nobel says The Journalist’s Resource is also working proactively with newsroom groups such as the Mental Health Parity Collaborative, a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Carter Center in Georgia that is examining equity in mental health issues in America. The collaborative includes several newspapers, public radio stations, and television stations from across the country.
The Journalist’s Resource currently has a full-time staff of four but is hoping for growth if it can find money to support it. “Funding permitting, we would like to expand our staff to bolster our coverage of climate studies,” Nobel says.
Funding and resources are what saving local news and its role in democracy will ultimately be all about, Patterson says. The local news industry once pulled in $50 billion in annual revenue. Now that figure is about $10 billion. Ideas for recovering the missing $40 billion have ranged from increased philanthropy to tax breaks to charging platforms like Google and Facebook for content, but the financial conundrum has been the one thing no one has been able to figure out, he says.
“If we’re going to put local news back in such a way that it’s really robust across the country and in local communities, we’re talking about a lot of money,” Patterson says. “This is just not an enterprise you can do on the cheap.”
Jane Seagrave MC/MPA 1989 (banner and inline) photographed by Jeanna Shepherd.
Myrna Johnson MC/MPA 2007 photographed by Madeleine King.
Randy Holhut MC/MPA 1997 photographed by Zachary Stephens.
Faculty portraits by Martha Stewart.