Investigating a sustainable future for public interest journalism


Interview: Rebuilding local news in the US

September 8, 2023

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PIJI recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Steven Waldman, President of Rebuild Local News, a US nonprofit dedicated to saving local journalism.

In our cross-border chat, we discuss potential solutions to the local news crisis gripping the United States and the importance of working together across borders to ensure public interest journalism is sustainable into the future.

You can listen to the discussion here:


Or, read the full transcript below:

Danielle: Do you want to start by telling me a little bit about where rebuild local news came from? You know, how it got started and all that sort of thing.

Steve: And during Covid, I was working at a program called Report for America, which is a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms supported by philanthropy. But when Covid hit, we started to think this could be just an extinction level event for hundreds of news organizations. And I was looking around and just seeing that there wasn’t all very much creative being done on the public policy front to try to help local news. And then really so that was a few years ago. And then. I started a kind of ad hoc, informal coalition of different. Associations and groups that were all interested in helping to save or strengthen community news in some way and started to get everyone together. So really kind of disparate groups, so labor unions and management and nonprofits and for profits and urban and rural, just folks that have been either not working together or in some cases at cross-purposes, but really had a lot in common. And we just started to try to figure out whether we could craft a common agenda out of. There was different groups and it kind of steamrolled. And meanwhile, as we got deeper and deeper into. The world of nonprofit news and commercial innovation. Just what was going on out there and the scale of the problem just kept getting worse. The crisis kept getting more and more severe. We just became convinced that public policy needed to be part of the solution. That in addition to improvements in the business models and a growth in in philanthropy and donations, we also were going to need some sort of public policy or taxpayer support to try to help save local owners.

Danielle: And I think it’s if I was looking I was looking at your website earlier today and it was two newspapers a week. I think it said are closing down. Is that right?

Steve: Yeah. On average, two newspapers a week are closing in the United States. Thousands of communities don’t have any local coverage at all right now. We’re now encountering a new phenomena, which is daily newspapers with no reporters. They’re sort of like on autopilot and. You know, the consequent consequences are really severe. They just this is really hurting communities around the country, both in terms of basic accountability of government institutions, but also just the health of a community. You know, people knowing each other and knowing about, you know, the high school sports and the restaurants and theater and things like that that tends to bind a community together. So it’s a really very consequential crisis. And needs some dramatic action.

Danielle: So people have been talking about the death of news and the death of newspapers, you know, for as long as I can remember. Did you ever see this coming? Did you ever think it was going to be quite this drastic? Because I think since Covid, it just feels like we’ve entered new territory.

Steve: Yeah, well, in the old days when people were talking about the death of news, they tended to be talking about like, wasn’t it a shame in a particular city when we went from two newspapers to one? And that was bad because we lost competition. But that almost seems quaint now, like they at least had a newspaper. And now we’re talking about what’s called news deserts, like areas that have no news at all. Or if they do, it’s just barely functional and barely covering things. So yeah, it does seem like it’s getting worse. The other thing that makes it worse, of course, is that we’re flooded with disinformation and misinformation from all over the place at the same time. And so the lack of a strong local press is even more noticeable or harmful. So it’s almost like, you know, we really need almost more reporters than we used to have just to kind of. Um, sort through the, the flood of information. And that’s part of part of what makes this a little hard to explain to people who aren’t in the thick of it is like if you talk to regular people who aren’t in the business and you say there’s this shortage of local news. They’ll say shortage. Like, what are you talking about? I’m like, I’m deluged with news and information. It’s everywhere. Everywhere I look, you know, on my on my phone or anywhere else, there’s news. And it’s not always obvious to people who are not, you know, thinking a lot about their community or in the thick of it that know what we’re talking about is local reporting that’s gone away. There’s still plenty of national information, national news doing actually pretty well, but local reporting is in a different category.

Danielle: Yeah. Yeah. And it is it’s the same the world over as well. Like we’re seeing this repeated all over the place. It’s a systemic issue, it seems to be. And I wanted to ask sort of to dovetail, I suppose, with what you were saying just then. There’s a lot of anger as well at the moment since particularly since Covid, it was exacerbated during the pandemic towards journalists and the media. You know, we’ve seen the rise of fake news. How do you counter that and help people realize just what it is that they’re missing?

Steve: It’s a great question because, you know, a lot of times. If if coverage just fades away. People don’t know what they’re not hearing about. You know, it’s a sort of a in some ways an invisible. Crisis. We do find that if we can if we can chip away and make some progress and get a little bit more good reporting, especially that’s really attentive to the community needs that reminds people of of its value. You’re starting to see folks like in the business community realize that it’s bad for local economies to not have local news. It’s just a kind of sicker, um. You know, sicker community. Um, so. It’s, you know, it’s not. Easy or obvious how to explain this to regular people.

Danielle: Do you think that people are noticing that? There was a story that I read a couple of weeks ago out of America about a local newspaper that disappeared, and the community had noticed in that instance, they had realized that there was you know, the local paper had shut down, the office was closed. Do you think with the amount of information people get through social media that they even notice when their local paper goes?

Steve: It does seem like there’s a little more when it gets as extreme as the newspapers shutting down. People seem to notice that, especially when it’s the last source of information. I think where it’s a little harder to explain is if you know a newspaper that used to have. 75 reporters and now has five. Um, and so their coverage is much worse. People notice it, they stop reading the paper or they think it’s gotten worse, but they don’t think of it as like a crisis or something that has a solution. It’s just kind of the way it is.

Danielle: Yeah. So let’s talk about some of those solutions then. So I, I know you’ve got, you know, a whole plan set out on the website of different things to help. I wanted to ask how the Local Journalism Sustainability Act is going. From what I could see, it looks like it sort of just got forgotten.

Steve: Well, it didn’t pass. One of the core provisions of it passed the House of Representatives, which was a big milestone, but it didn’t quite pass the Senate. And then the Congress changed over a new version of the bill was introduced a few weeks ago and is interesting because the of of who introduced it, it was a very conservative Republican and a progressive Democrat teamed up to introduce the new version. So we thought that was a good sign that, you know there is a like a bipartisan interest in this. And then what we’re also seeing is interest on the state and local level. And trying to. Do policy improvements. So that just opens up many more possibilities and we are getting a lot of interest. Uh, from people all over the country in in that approach or other ideas that can help save local news. So I’m generally optimistic and encouraged by, you know, the reaction to that bill and and other bills that are kicking around on the local level. It’s really well, it’s especially hard to pass anything in the Congress these days. So, you know, that was always kind of a long shot. But we got. Quite far, and it’s stimulated a lot of activity on the local level.

Danielle: Is it difficult when you’ve got, you know, essentially a hamstrung Congress and you’ve also got the local governments and the state governments to deal with as well? I know we have similar layers of government here in Australia, but it just seems a bit more complex in America.

Steve: It is. It is really complex. But it also creates opportunities like, you know, there’s 50 states. And so we can start by trying to find a handful that are willing to work on this and build from there. Like there’s there’s very there’s all sorts of opportunities out there. Congress is yeah, it’s really frustrating. And it’s obviously not just related to this issue. Doing something like this, you know, is a pretty tall order. But, you know, working it through the states is it’s a lot of work and it’s complicated. And each state is different and has different politics and different leadership. And you kind of having this, you know, sort of. Start over or have a new a different plan of action in each state. So it is definitely more complicated than just having a national bill, which would be the preferred way of doing it, honestly. But. But it’s what we have to do and as you said, creates opportunities. You know, there’s a lot of if it’s not working in one state, you can try another state.

Danielle: They must create a lot of work for you guys, you know, on the advocacy front.

Steve: It does. It’s like we have to have a sort of how are we going to operate in 50 different states instead of one legislative body? Um. And this is still very early stages, you know. Our organization, though, it started in an informal way a couple of years ago. We became we spun out as a new a new organization just in January. And so we’re and even just these some of these policy ideas are new. And even just the whole concept that public policy should be part of a solution to this is is new to a lot of people. Like this is a perfectly healthy commercial sector until very recently. So most people the concept of there being government help. His sort of alien to a lot of people. So it’s definitely going to take some time to. You know, make the case and chip away at that argument. And, you know, our hope that the problem is we don’t have a lot of time. It’s like the house is on fire. The crisis is really severe and getting worse. Um, and there’s a danger in that these gaps that these vacuums and communities that don’t have local news are going to get filled by kind of what we call pink slime. That’s just the local term for these sort of websites that are popping up that are claiming to be local news sites. I don’t know if you have them in Australia, but they sound like local news sites. They have local names on them, but they’re actually run by politicians or political money and. There’s hundreds if not thousands of those now. And we are worried that if we don’t rapidly fill these gaps with real journalism, the gaps are going to get filled with by bad faith actors like that. Yeah.

Danielle: Which is bad for a democracy. That’s unhealthy for democracy.

Steve: And that will make people trust journalism even less. Like, as you said earlier, there’s already a problem with trust. And that will just make it even worse if people aren’t sure what’s real and what’s not real.

Danielle: So is there a role there for the education system to play? And again, I know it’s a little bit more complicated over there, but is there a role for providing like a basic level of media education to students of how to differentiate between what’s real news and what’s misinformation and disinformation, that sort of thing?

Steve: I think so. There are a bunch of programs that have begun recently here around media literacy and news literacy. Um, I think that I think that would help because it’s hard, like it’s and it’s not an insult to young people to say, you know, you need news literacy. It’s like it’s difficult even for those of us who pay a lot of attention to distinguish what’s real and what’s not real. One of the problems is that the studies have shown that when you look at who like reposts or shares misinformation, it actually tends to be older people, not younger people. So getting it in the high schools won’t necessarily solve the problem that way. But maybe the high school students can teach their grandparents and parents how to be more responsible news consumers.

Danielle: I wanted to ask as well, what are some of the best initiatives that you’ve seen, particularly at a local government level, to sort of address this crisis?

Steve: Well, there’s a lot of creative approaches, I have to say. You know, a year or two ago, if you were talking about government help, if the only model people kind of were familiar with was like public broadcasting, you know, just have money from the from the Treasury, go through the public broadcasting system, which is still a really important piece of the puzzle. But there’s all sorts of interesting new ideas out there now. Um, one place is looking at a tax credit for small businesses like restaurants that advertise in local news. So that, so the incentive is actually not going directly to the news organization. It’s going to our restaurant or a grocery store if they advertise in local news. So it has this double benefit of helping the small businesses and the local news. And it’s also kind of interesting because it’s not there’s no government official making a decision about who gets what, you know, what news organizations should be supported, kind of like that. Another approach is a. A tax credit for news organizations pegged to the number of reporters so they get a kind of a subsidy per reporter. And that’s interesting. And I like it because it’s it’s got the incentives in the right place. You know, it’s really focused on reporting. And if you lay off half your staff, you will lay off half your subsidy. And if you grow the number of reporters, then you be eligible for more subsidies. So it has a good incentive. Another thing people are looking at is government advertising. So governments are themselves advertisers for, you know, public health things and local services. And yet a lot of times for kind of. You know, just convenience. They will spend their ad dollars, not locally, they’ll spend it in national media or Google and Facebook or things like that. So there’s a move to try to push governments to be more conscious of that and to set aside, you know, 50% of their government advertising spending to actually be in community media organizations. And that’s that has some appeal also because it’s it’s it doesn’t require increased spending. It’s just saying the money you’re already spending as a government, you’re going to buy these ads anyway. So why not push them more towards, you know, the community, media, and then you’ll have this double benefit of helping the community.

Danielle: Just redirecting the spending they would already do.

Steve: Yeah. And it has real benefit for society if they do it that way.

Danielle: So how do you I guess how do you monitor that? Like if you can encourage governments to do that, how do you then monitor what’s being spent and where it goes and whether it’s having the intended impact?

Steve: Well, this has to happen on the local level. There have to be institutions in every area that monitor these things. So in New York City, where they did this, a version of this idea of the government advertising going to local news, it was one of the universities that monitored it. City University of New York’s Journalism School helped create the program but is watchdogging it. And I think that’s a great model and needs to happen. And it’s a potential new role for universities because universities are not since they’re not publishers, they’re not getting the money. They don’t have like a financial stake in it, but they have a stake in the healthy system. So, um, but if it’s not the university, it needs to be some local institution that is monitoring it.

Danielle: What about nonprofit news? So it seems to me, you know, as an observer on the other side of the world that the US has a really strong nonprofit news sector that’s starting to really grow. And I know the US also has a really high concentration of philanthropists over there, and particularly of, you know, ultra rich and mega rich people. How do you go with attracting philanthropy at that level into local news? Is there much interest?

Steve: It’s growing. I would say a few years ago there wasn’t much interest and it’s really growing rapidly and it’s a very important and hopeful trend. There’s been something like 3 or 400 new nonprofit local news organizations that have been created in the last five years. So it’s a real booming sector. But the philanthropy, the dollars has to keep up with that. And it’s growing a little bit, but it needs to grow more rapidly. And so far, honestly, a lot of the effort, a lot of the support has come from foundations like institutional philanthropy, and we’re not getting quite enough from the billionaire class. We need them to step up and put more money in as well. And if that happens, it really could be a very meaningful contribution to solving the crisis.

Danielle: And what about the little guys? Because obviously, philanthropy doesn’t have to be just rich people, but we’re in a cost of living crisis. So how do you get people to see that there is value in giving some money to a news organization?

Steve: Yeah, it’s a great question because you really do need and want to have small donors and readers support in some way. At the end of the day, it’s really going to be hard for community journalism to survive without the support of the community. And, you know, in a way we kind of got away without thinking about it that way because the advertisers supported it. So we didn’t really think we had to do very much. We were, you know, we might have subscribed to the newspaper, but the reality is that the subscription price was not really paying for the newspaper. It was mostly advertisers work. So now we’re sort of all faced with the reality that like to really actually support the news organization. The subscription costs a lot more than we thought. Or you need to donate. And. You know, if people don’t if people have less money or they’re they’re pinched on it, then they can’t. But they should try to do what they can because it it affects everything else, like everything else about your community, from your health care to your education to your, um, you know, environment gets affected by not having a strong press. Um. You know, there’s another idea out there that is very intriguing, but we haven’t really like totally aced the practical implementation parts of the idea, which is some sort of subsidy to consumers to buy subscriptions. It’s a cool idea because it’s like. The consumer still is making their decisions about what they want, but the government would sort of be amplifying their buying power a little bit. And that’s a really interesting idea, too, because that would help with the problem that you are identifying as. Like what about people who would like to help but they just don’t have the money. And that, you know, that might be an approach to consider.

Danielle: Do you think people would go for that or would people? I can imagine there would be some cynical voices going, Well, if the government can give me money for news, they can give me money for groceries or they can give me money to cover my fuel or something like that.

Steve: Well, it’s true. At any time you make a public policy argument, you do get people saying, well, why should we have our tax dollars to go to this instead of some other important thing? And there are lots of other important things. So our we have to make the case, you know, that this affects everything else. It’s about the health of the democracy. It’s about the. All these other parts of your life. Are going to get worse if you don’t have a healthy local news. And I believe that and I think there’s, you know, plenty of evidence for that, but it’s not necessarily obvious to people at first blush. And so we do need to be making that case. And and by the way, it has to also be true, like you have to actually have news that does serve the public. You know, part of people’s cynicism is that a lot of local news doesn’t serve the public. You know, we’re being realistic about it. So this all this financial stuff that we’re talking about really has to be accompanied by really dramatic improvements in the ways that local news actually serves the community. We have to think of it as a public service occupation. You know, we have to think of it as being, um, serving the public. Otherwise, we’re not worthy of taxpayer support or philanthropic support. So we’ve got to kind of do both things at the same time.

Danielle: And something else that I noticed, which is very similar to something that PIJI has proposed over here, is making it easier to create a nonprofit newsroom. Are you able to sort of provide an update on how progress is going in that area?

Steve: It’s a, it’s a kind of a mysterious thing because the the Internal Revenue Service, which is our tax, uh, you know, levy and, and collecting organization and also sets a lot of the rules for this for a while was really giving people a hard time when they were trying to create a nonprofit news organization. And so we were all looking at legislative changes. And then suddenly they just got better and started approving the nonprofits. And they approved a newspaper converting to a nonprofit which in earlier years they hadn’t approved. And it’s a bit mysterious because there was no new law. It was just a change in in perception and function. This was in the Obama administration and it seems to be continuing. So I’m not sure there actually needs to be a new law here. And that’ll be, you know, different in different countries. But one way or another, whether it’s just through policy or law, it’s a really important part of this, is to make it easy enough for institutions that want to go the nonprofit route to do so, because it really is an important part of the solution.

Danielle: What do you think the future landscape is going to look like for local news? Do you think it will be mostly nonprofit organizations or are we going to be able to, you know, replant and recreate local news kind of the way it used to be?

Steve: I think it’s going to have to be a mix of both of those things. I mean, I’m a big advocate for nonprofit news and more more of it, But I’m I’m skeptical that it’s going to be everything. And I actually think that commercial news. Can play a really important role if it reorients itself. Now, some of it has to do with the term you used replanting, which is some commercial news organizations could do better if they had different owners. You know, a lot of a lot of papers here are now owned by financial firms, by hedge funds and private equity firms that don’t have any concern for the community. And if they were owned instead by local owners, like a lot of them used to be, um, a lot of them could make it. And so think public policy, in addition to helping the nonprofit sector, really has to help the commercial sector. Reframe and replant back into communities and that that has to be part of the solution. So I would anticipate that it’s going to be a mix. It’ll have more nonprofit than it used to. That non-profit will absolutely be a bigger part than than it has been in the past. Um, and hopefully more different approaches to storytelling and to and to serving readers and communicating with readers. Like we’ve mostly spoken about the revenue side of this, but there’s also incredibly exciting things going on out there now about new types of journalism. And, you know, some of it’s enlisting residents to help with the journalism is an amazing program in Detroit where that’s serving a lower income community, where the whole publication is done by text message. Um, both the distribution of the information and also their reporting, they’re getting great information from their own readers via text message. So it’s not I know we always focus on AI and virtual reality and, you know, whatever the newest technology is, But there’s some really interesting things going on with, you know, some of the older technologies. But in any event, like that’s got to keep innovating and changing and we need to keep getting better at serving our communities. At the same time, we’re doing these new things around the business models and the revenue models. And you know, I’ve been wanting to do, I just haven’t gotten around to it. But, you know, one of the side effects I don’t know if this is true in Australia, one of the side effects of the collapse of local news has been the disappearance of obituaries. When people die. Like you have these little paid death notices in the newspaper, but you have to pay for them and they’re getting really expensive. There could be like $1,000 to to have 300 words in the newspaper. And so people are increasingly just not doing those at all. So there’s no, you know, kind of telling of the story of that person. Now, people will do it on Facebook. Um, but it’s not quite the same on Facebook. They’re mostly doing it for their friends. And there’s a really important civic function to learning about the people who live in your town or your city and what they did and what they were like. And I just thought like, maybe the next generation of like, obituaries is an Instagram feed. Not a newspaper, you know, that that tells the story of people’s lives. And so that that kind of new approach to storytelling is really exciting and it doesn’t necessarily solve the business problems like some you got to have a business model to. But that that definitely needs to happen along with these revenue improvements.

Danielle: Oh, definitely. Yeah. But you’ve got to be where your audience is, so you’ve sort of got to do both. And I guess lastly, you know, are you are you hopeful or confident that the US is on the right track? You know, can can the US lead the world in rebuilding local news?

Steve: You know, honestly, I think the US is doing really creative things on the nonprofit news side. Like that’s just a growing world. There’s so much creativity going on, there is more philanthropy. I think that is something that the US is is kind of leading on and showing the world. I think that public policy, the US is lagging the rest of the world, or at least some countries will say Canada has had for almost two years now a subsidy to news organizations to hire reporters of the sort that we’re trying to get just started here. So so I think to some degree the US is is going to borrow from other countries when it comes to public policy. As you know, there’s a whole other side of the public policy debate that we haven’t talked about, which is which Australia led the way in, which is the idea of forcing Google and Facebook to compensate news organizations. And it’s controversial here, you know, but it’s it’s being, you know, tried in other places. We’re all watching Australia very carefully to see how it’s going. And, you know, is it really helping the local players and the smaller players as well as the bigger players? I’m curious what you think about that. But so that’s an area where, you know, other countries have been. Paying attention to the policy part of this before before us. We’ll keep watching how you’re doing. I think each each country that’s taking it on has sort of learned from the previous country. The one thing that the American bills, I think, have learned from watching Australia and Canada is to put in more transparency, so some more open disclosure about who’s getting the money and how much. Now, none of these have passed yet here, but at least that. There’s one bit of progress, I think, that has kind of come based on the recommendation of people from Australia and Canada. Like every time I talk to someone who was involved in. The Australian or Canadian experience and always ask, you know, what would you do differently? That’s probably the number one thing they say is more, more or better transparency on who’s who’s getting the money and how much.

Danielle: There’s so many things I could ask you, but I’m conscious that I’ve got to let you get on with your day. Is there anything else you wanted to add?

Steve: You know, just think just that we all should stay in touch with each other in different countries because we’re all kind of, you know, wrestling with these issues at the same time. They’re often new. It’s not like there’s necessarily a playbook for how to do any of this. So sharing information about what’s working and what’s not working is really important for all rapidly kind of learning how to do this at the same time. So it’s really good that that you’re doing this and that you’re, you know, we should just keep sharing information across the continents as well as within our countries.

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