The Media Today

Broadening the funding conversation—and not just the spotlight—on local news

May 3, 2021

#FollowLocalJournalists. That’s the hashtag on a campaign that Twitter is launching today to encourage its users to do just that. According to Sara Fischer, of Axios, in addition to social-media activity, the campaign is running full-page ads in local papers owned by Gannett (including the Detroit Free Press and Columbus Dispatch) and McClatchy (including the Miami Herald and Kansas City Star); the ads will steer readers to Twitter Lists of local reporters that they can follow. “Local journalists are so incredibly important to the conversation on Twitter,” Niketa Patel, head of print and digital news partnerships at the platform, told Fischer. “We’re viewing this as a way of ensuring that Twitter is giving local journalists a national spotlight.”

The campaign enters into a landscape of debates, developments, and initiatives aimed, in myriad ways and with differing intent, at boosting local news—a landscape that has long been crowded, and where the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has raised the stakes. Social platforms—Twitter, but mainly Facebook and Google—have been at the center of the conversation, thanks to their philanthropic donations to newsrooms, or, in the case of the latter two companies, government efforts, in Australia and elsewhere, to force them to pay news outlets when featuring their content. Separately, Facebook said last week that it will spend five-million dollars to lure independent US-based journalists to cover local news on a publishing platform that the company is launching, with priority given to writers serving “Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian or other audiences of color” in news deserts. Facebook’s new platform will launch as a competitor to Substack, which itself recently pledged a million dollars to help up to thirty local journalists, based anywhere in the world, launch local outlets on the platform—building on what the company sees as the success of existing Substack-based local publications in the US, Canada, and the UK. “This is not a grants program, nor is it inspired by philanthropic intent,” Substack said. “Our goal is to foster an effective business model for independent local news that provides ample room for growth.” Other companies, too, see a future in local newsletters.

New from CJR: The Existential Issue 

These various moves have sparked intense discussions among journalists online (and not just because denizens of media Twitter are contractually obligated to row for days about Substack’s every utterance). Skeptics of Substack’s local initiative pointed out, among other things, that its announcement did not offer specific commitments on equity, that none of the judges who will vet applications works for a local outlet, and that only writers based in the US will qualify for legal support from the company; Recode’s Peter Kafka, meanwhile, reported that “some of the journalists Substack points to as encouraging examples of local journalism say they’re not paying all their bills with Substack revenue.” Facebook’s announcement, too, met with some criticismEmily Bell, of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, called the idea “an incentivized fragmentation of the structure of local news,” and Facebook and Google’s broader efforts to fund journalism a “Faustian pact”—as did Twitter’s #FollowLocalJournalists campaign; the journalist Garrett M. Graff said it’s “hard to think of something less meaningful.” Much criticism of such efforts comes back, ultimately, to the sheer scale of the local-news problem.

If platforms are dominant in the conversation about reviving local news, the role that government could play—beyond regulatory skirmishes with platforms—is often a relative sidenote. Advocates for a public solution to the crisis have worked to expand the debate, and have made a renewed push in recent weeks. Last week, Bell asked, in a piece for CJR, whether “we are creating an environment in which regulators are placated by a flashy increase in funding by Facebook and Google instead of addressing the need for actual regulatory reform to support journalism?” Elsewhere, Victor Pickard, a professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania, argued, in an op-ed for The Hill, that policymakers should consider subsidizing independent, non-commercial local journalism—be it through a federal jobs program similar to the New Deal-era Federal Writers’ Project (an idea that Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu’s office told me last year that they want to revive in some form), a voucher program for subscribers, or an expansion of existing public-media infrastructure including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Congress, Pickard says, should also incentivize the transfer of local outlets from hedge funds to local nonprofit ownership. (Another big local-news story of the moment, the uncertain future of Tribune Publishing, shows how hard this can be when left to market actors.)

Pickard situated his arguments within the context of President Biden’s recent infrastructure plan, which won’t directly fund local news as things stand, but does offer an opportunity to drive the argument into “mainstream policy discourse”; in a discussion last week on Galley, CJR’s discussion platform, Pickard told my colleague Mathew Ingram that he’s “heartened,” as a starting point, by Biden’s “expansive notion of what counts as infrastructure.” Writing in the New Republic, Osita Nwanevu made a similar case, and argued that Democrats should seize the opportunity to fund news now. “Dedicating $30 to $40 billion over the next 10 years, or just 1 percent of the estimated $3 to $4 trillion total cost of the bills, to a federal fund offering grants for state and local outlets and reporting projects in all mediums, digital and traditional, ⁠would amount to a historic and legacy-defining investment in America’s civic infrastructure,” he wrote. “While politicians from both parties take a perennial interest in repairing potholes, it may be quite some time before we see another opportunity this large to bolster the health of our press.”

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The idea that corporate behemoths, rather than the state, should shoulder the burden here gets privileged in American media-industry debates for a number of reasons: chief among them the culpability of Facebook and Google in hoovering up ad revenue and the attendant, narrow moral conception of rectifying harm, and broader cultural aversions to government intervention in the economy and meddling in the free press—a “legitimate concern,” as Pickard told Ingram, that “too often becomes a conversation-stopper.” But the debate about private and public support needn’t be a rigid either/or—there is a lot of slack to be picked up to make local news healthy again. And cultural bedrocks can soften. Pickard and Nwanevu are smart to reference the broader present discussion on the definition of infrastructure; in fact, Biden’s early approach to the presidency, crystallized in his address to Congress last week, has sparked an even wider dialogue about the size and role of government, as a whole, framed explicitly around the survival of democracy. So far, some of the coverage of Biden’s push has been unimaginative. But the contours of this debate have noticeably started to widen. Journalists should make room within those contours for the plight of their own industry. The how of fixing local news—as with the private initiatives outlined above—is up for debate. For that debate to begin, we need to reimagine the who. We have an opening, for once, for a genuine conversation-starter.

The democratic value of local news has always been clear—and not just in covering communities and issues that otherwise wouldn’t get covered. Yesterday, Margaret Sullivan, of the Washington Post, illustrated the value that local outlets can contribute, too, to urgent national stories—highlighting the work of WITF, a public-radio station in Pennsylvania that, unlike many more prominent and better-funded national outlets, has continued to hold lawmakers accountable for their 2020 election denialism by referencing it in every story that features them. Twitter, for one, is right to observe that local reporters merit a national spotlight. They need an awful lot more than new followers, though. #FundLocalJournalists.

Below, more on local news:

  • A national trend: A survey conducted by the Radio and Television Digital News Association found that one in five directors at local TV news stations reported attacks on their staff last year, with about half occurring “during coverage of civil unrest, protests, marches/rallies, or riots.” The survey found that “most of the attacks were made by protesters, but some involved the police”; that network affiliation “made no difference”; and that while attacks happened in markets of all sizes, “the bigger the market, the more likely that there have been attacks.” Poynter’s Al Tompkins has a roundup.
  • New York, I: Ben Smith, media columnist at the Times, explores how reporters in New York City are grappling with the mayoral candidacy of Andrew Yang, the current frontrunner. Yang is “not in the same ideological universe as Donald Trump,” Jere Hester, editor in chief of The City, told Smith—and yet, given the national lessons of 2016, “there’s a residual wariness among the media about being careful not to uncritically help elevate someone who’s more celebrity than proven public servant.”
  • New York, II: On Friday, WNYC laid off fourteen staffers including John Del Signore and Christopher Robbins, respectively the editor in chief and city editor of Gothamist, a local publication that WNYC helped revive after the site was shuttered by its previous owner, the billionaire businessman Joe Ricketts. Richard Yeh, supervising senior producer of WNYC News, and Allie Pinel, an assistant production manager, also lost their jobs. According to Keith J. Kelly, of the New York Post, WNYC also froze pay rises for higher earners, cut some retirement contributions, and capped vacation carryover days.
  • Florida: Last week, lawmakers in Florida passed a compromise measure reforming state laws around public notices—or paid ads that local governments are required to pay newspapers to run, making them an important revenue source. An original bill, which was opposed by the Florida Press Association, would effectively have scrapped the requirement; the new version, which the association supports, would preserve the requirement, while allowing smaller newspapers and online publications to enter the legal-notice market. Kirby Wilson has more for the Tampa Bay Times.
  • Wyoming: Charlie von Maur-Newcomb, an eleven-year-old in the town of Kelly, Wyoming, has launched a newspaper called Kelly Out Loud! Timothy J. Woods reports, for the nearby Jackson Hole News & Guide, that the paper “is produced entirely by Charlie, with only light editing offered by his parents,” one of whom is a county commissioner. “We get to tell people important information about the world,” von Maur-Newcomb said. “I thought that was really cool, and I wanted to do that.”

A programming note:
Today CJR debuts a new issue of the magazine, which asks the question “What is journalism?” In an entirely digital project, composed of five chapters, we’re confronting the assumptions we make about our work—so much so that we’ve referred to this as “the Existential Issue.” We encourage you to check out the introduction by Kyle Pope, the editor and publisher of CJR, and start with Chapter 1: Who. And as a bonus, we’ll be hosting online discussions on Galley over the course of this week. Today at noon, come by for a panel on how social media has redefined journalistic authority, featuring Mathew Ingram, Alexandria Neason, and other CJR contributors.

Other notable stories:

  • In Friday’s newsletter, I mentioned a Washington Post story reporting that, in 2019, the FBI warned Rudy Giuliani, lawmakers, and the pro-Trump One America News Network that that they risked being used as conduits for Russian disinformation. On Saturday, the Post retracted its claims that the FBI warned Giuliani and OAN. The paper is now reporting only that officials “planned to warn” Giuliani; Charles Herring, OAN’s president, says that the FBI never contacted the network “regarding Ukraine or people associated with Ukraine.” The Times and NBC also corrected reports that the FBI warned Giuliani; NBC said its story had been “based on a source familiar with the matter, but a second source now says the briefing was only prepared for Giuliani and not delivered to him.”
  • In December, Eric Coomer, a senior staffer at the election-tech company Dominion Voting Systems, sued Newsmax, a pro-Trump network, for airing false claims that he manipulated voting machines to help Biden win. On Friday, Newsmax formally apologized “for any harm that our reporting of the allegations against Dr. Coomer may have caused to Dr. Coomer and his family,” and acknowledged that it has found “no evidence” that he corrupted the election. Dominion has separately sued Fox News and Trumpworld figures including Giuliani. Michael Levenson has more for the Times.
  • CJR’s Ian W. Karbal spoke with Matt Gertz, of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, about his coverage of Fox News and repeatedly getting mistaken for the similarly-named Matt Gaetz, a scandal-plagued Republican Congressman from Florida. “I’m used to a certain level of dystopia around media coverage of stuff that I do,” Gertz said. “My biggest focus of the last several years was just being the guy who deciphers Donald Trump’s tweets and figures out which Fox News segment he is responding to.”
  • The Pew Research Center broke down coverage of Biden’s first hundred days in office; it found that “modestly more” stories have been negative than positive, though that figure varied widely based on the ideological leanings of an outlet’s audience. There was less such divergence when it came to framing: sixty-five percent of Biden stories so far have focused on policy and ideology, compared to just a quarter of early Trump stories.
  • According to Kelly, of the New York Post, WWD let go Kali Hays, a media and retail reporter, “amid pressure to delete an online document she had created originally for staffers to talk about newsroom issues” that became “a forum for relentless complaints about the company’s management, including allegations of anti-Semitism, sexism and a general lack of diversity.” Since Hays left WWD, the document has been deleted.
  • Joshua Wolf Shenk resigned as editor of The Believer magazine and artistic and executive director of its publisher, the Black Mountain Institute, in Nevada, after exposing himself on a staff Zoom call. According to Dorany Pineda, of the LA Times, Shenk “was soaking in a bathtub with Epsom salts during the meeting to alleviate nerve pain caused by fibromyalgia,” then got up to plug in his laptop while his camera was still filming him.
  • For CJR, Danielle Kilgo, a professor at the University of Minnesota, explains her research on the “protest paradigm”—the finding that “protest movements that might convey their concerns through news coverage instead see their efforts delegitimized.” Coverage of Black Lives Matter protests “routinely focuses on violence,” Kilgo writes. “Protesters’ platforms and grievances take a back seat—if they show up at all.”
  • Also for CJR, Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, tells the story of Baynana, a magazine run by journalists who fled Syria for Spain with assistance from CPJ. One of the journalists, Muhammad Shubat, “wants to tell positive stories,” Simon writes. “But he can never forget the terrible price that he has paid, or turn away from the suffering of his country, as journalists have left and the world forgets.”
  • And for the New Yorker, Mike Sacks scored a first major interview with John Swartzwelder, “the reclusive, mysterious, almost mythical comedy writer” who worked on The Simpsons. Swartzwelder told Sacks that he typically doesn’t do interviews, but agreed in this case because the New Yorker has always held “a certain magic.”

New from CJR: Philip DeFranco and the power of news-influencers

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.