Q&A: Rebuild Local News

Envisioning ways to fund local newsrooms and support the people who keep them running.
Steven Waldman, a white man with graying brown hair, looks into the camera with a neutral expression.
Photo provided courtesy of Rebuild Local News.

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Over 1,400 counties in the U.S. have only one local print news title in operation and no digital alternative — that’s per the most recent National Trust for Local News survey, which released Feb. 24

Local news is a means for communities to learn about resources around them and hear about policies that might impact their day-to-day lives. But many local newsrooms are losing revenue and support across the country, meaning they’re less able to pay journalists a living wage. Hedge funds like Alden Global Capital are purchasing local newsrooms and offering buyouts to reporters in an effort to shrink costs and increase profits, leading to fewer people who can cover a community. 

All of this contributes to the growth of “news deserts,” and makes it harder for communities to get — and use — fact-checked information.

But there are efforts to both reimagine local news and think about new ways to fund it. The Rebuild Local News coalition, which began in 2020 and became an official nonprofit earlier this year is working to support local newsroom funding. It’s spearheaded by Report for America cofounder Steven Waldman; some of the groups that endorse the Rebuild Local News grand plan and the Local Journalism Sustainability Act include the Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues, Black Voice News, and the NewsGuild-CWA. 

While the wide-ranging coalition may have different beliefs about strategies for local reporting and coverage, all have a stake in the future of local news in the country. 

The coalition, along with advocating for and proposing policy ideas to support local news, also has a policy tracker that follows the progress of local news-related bills.

The Objective’s editorial director Janelle Salanga spoke with Waldman about the landscape of local news today, what models of local coverage he’s excited about and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

How has cofounding Report for America and seeing it grow shaped the way you think about local news?

On the downside, it made me just really vividly aware of how severe the crisis is. It’s really bad out there. And the decline in the number of reporters covering different communities is really very dramatic. It’s about a 59% drop in the number of newsroom employees in less than two decades. Thousands of communities have no coverage at all, or have what are called “ghost newspapers,” which are newspapers that — they’re printing pages, and there’s wire service copy and ads, but they’re barely covering the community at all. 

On the other hand, the other thing that the Report for American experience makes you realize is that first of all, there’s a tremendous appetite among young people to … do journalism in local communities, including small towns, or particular neighborhoods, or areas that haven’t been covered. It’s not just all like, “Oh, I want to go work at the New York Times, or the Boston Globe.” … That, frankly, wasn’t really there when I was getting into journalism. It was really very inspiring.

I might not have said this five years ago, but there’s really a bunch of models that are succeeding now. There are all sorts of great new outlets that have started up to take really very different approaches to local journalism. … So in that sense, it’s really encouraging. It feels like with a little bit of help, from both philanthropy and taxpayers, we could create a better system than we’ve had before. 

The goal is not to go back to what we had, because what we had was really problematic in a lot of ways. There were all sorts of communities that were either not covered or covered in damaging ways. But the good news is that there are a lot of efforts out there now to try to create a better local news system. If they’re supported, I think they can really grow.

What are some of the efforts you’re inspired by?

Some of the best new ones are ones like Flint Beat, which grew up as a digital-only site partly in response to the Flint water crisis, and the lack of coverage of things like that. Outlier in Detroit is really interesting because they’re just taking a different approach to how they learn from their own community and using text messages as both a reporting tool and a distribution tool. They really got a much better sense of what kinds of things actually matter to people in terms of their housing costs, or utilities, or things like that. 

A lot of the new publications are doing a really nice job of balancing accountability reporting with solutions reporting … not even celebrating solutions, just writing about solutions. It doesn’t have to be “rah rah,” necessarily. But if you change the lens to be not just about “What’s wrong with this community?” to reporting on the things that are trying to improve the community, or that are successful in the community, it makes a huge difference in how useful the local news is. And also how it’s perceived and trusted. To rebuild local news, I think it’s necessary to help rebuild trust.

You talk about not wanting to revert to past harms done through local coverage. What do you think a healthy local news ecosystem would look like now?

The thing that was good about the olden days is that there were more local reporters. On some level, you can’t get around the fact that if you don’t have enough local reporters, you’re not going to have good coverage. The problem with it was that, for reasons of economics and racism and inertia, a lot of the coverage was skewed in certain directions or left out important communities. 

The new wave of news organizations are really attentive to that, and they’re trying to engage with their communities in a much deeper way, I think, as well as trying to be more representative of their communities. 

That was a big priority for Report for America and about 45% of the people in Report for America are journalists of color. The good news is: There is real appetite among newsrooms to do better to better represent the communities. But we still have a long way to go on that. So I think that the better local news system will have better engagement with the community, they’ll view themselves more as a community institution, in a way, than just as a publisher. And that can mean a lot of things — that can mean hosting events. 

There’s certain things that I think traditional news might have viewed as “not newsworthy,” that it’s not sexy in some way. But we have to get more toward a service mentality that the purpose of local news is actually to serve the community. What does that mean? You know, sometimes it means doing things that are controversial and surprising in the traditional sense [like accountability journalism and investigations]. But sometimes it just means providing information that’s useful to people.

I confess to having fallen victim early on in Report for America to the bias of feeling like accountability reporting is the only reporting that mattered. When we first started, we really pushed that a lot. And I think we came to realize that healthy communities need to have their local media reflect them in terms of cultural events, obituaries, high school sports — the things that are really important in people’s lives, that don’t necessarily involve bringing down the mayor, but involve making people’s lives better in a concrete way. And in helping people to know their neighbors better. 

There’s a general way in which local news can help create a sense of community, which I think most journalists 20 years ago wouldn’t have said. We [sometimes] view ourselves as just kicking and holding power to account and that’s all really, really important … but it can’t be the only thing we do.

Having local reporters who come from their communities can be a crucial part of building trust between newsrooms and community members. Where does fair compensation for journalists come into rebuilding local news?

At the end of the day, you’re not going to have good local news without reporters, especially local reporters. 

We sometimes get cute about it and think we’re going to solve something, solve the problem with new technology or only engaging citizens in reporting — I think it’s a great idea, but I [also] think there’s no way around the idea that you need a sufficient number of full-time reporters and paid well enough to have a living wage…

One of the policies that we have advocated for as a coalition is a refundable payroll tax credit, for the hiring and retaining of journalists. And it would basically have government money go to news organizations, pegged to the number of local reporters that they have. It’s not stipulated that you have to use it to raise pay, but it is about the hiring and retention of reporters. Our hope would be that the money would go either to hire reporters or to retain them or to help pay them better.

Where have you been pulling ideas for legislation and government support from?

The idea of using public policy to help save local news hasn’t really been on the table very much in recent years. So there’s a lot of creative ideas kicking around — some of them came from these groups that we’ve [as a coalition] pulled together, some of them are [from] just people out in the field coming up with ideas. 

I’ll tick through a few of them, just to give you a little sense of the range. I mentioned the payroll tax credit for hiring journalists, and there’s another proposal that is a tax credit for consumers who subscribe to local news, or donate to local news organizations. The resident can make the decision of where it goes. As a kind of variant on that, there’s a proposal to give a tax credit to small businesses that advertise in local news. That was one that the National Newspaper Publishers Association, which is the association of Black newspapers, was really advocating strongly.

In New York City, there was a really interesting program that is in effect called Advertising Boost Initative, which basically got the city government to funnel some of the money that they were spending on advertising … more toward community newspapers in the city. In this case, that mostly meant ethnic newspapers, as opposed to most of it going to the New York Times and the Daily News. In other places, a lot of it’s getting spent on social media, or billboards, or things like that. The idea is to just make state governments or city governments pause and say, “If you’re going to be spending this money anyway, try to get it into local news in the communities.” There’s an idea for trying to help get some of the newspapers currently owned by hedge funds to be acquired by community institutions. There’s an idea around giving loan forgiveness for reporters who do public service local journalism. 

There’s a really, really wide range. I think that’s appropriate because this is kind of a new area. And it’s fine to experiment with different approaches in different areas. We did sort of lay out a set of principles that we thought policies ought to abide by because there is a possibility for abuse with government involvement, we have to be realistic about that … So you have to create policies that have firewalls to protect against political manipulation of the programs … but we have seen enough cases at this point of it being done well, and in a First Amendment-friendly way, that we think it can be done.

Where does representation and supporting diverse reporters factor into local news? Do you have specific policies for encouraging that and setting up structures for support?

There’s some things that government policy either can’t, or is not very good at, getting at. Some of the answer to your question has to do with the news organizations themselves. And the philanthropic support that they get, which can be a bit more targeted than government support, which tends to be a little more of a blunt instrument. What government can work to do is make sure that it’s not just rewarding legacy news organizations.

There is a tendency, in public policymaking in general, outside of even this area, that policy tends to get set by the people who are the big players, because they’re the ones who have more influence and have lobbyists and stuff like that. You want to make policy that is “platform neutral,” meaning it doesn’t favor print over digital, or vice versa. You want it to be future-friendly — you wouldn’t want to have a policy that basically only went to existing players, you want it to be flexible enough so that if new players come in to cover new communities, they can benefit from it, too. 

You want to try to develop standards that are relatively neutral in their application, so that you don’t end up with programs where there’s some government official making subjective judgments about who gets what. 

Now, sometimes that works out well, for particular organizations. But in the long run, I think, you know, and I would argue that for underserved communities, it’s a bad road to go down. Because historically, if you’re relying on the favor of people in power, it’s not going to turn out well, in the long run. Sometimes it does, but what I liked about these tax policies is that they’re an entitlement: You qualify, or you don’t. And if you qualify, you get it, you know, whether you know someone in City Hall or not. And that seems to me to be an approach that’s more likely to reward innovation and new efforts to better serve communities. 

Lastly, what do you wish more people knew about local news now compared to how it was about 20, 30 years ago? 

There’s so many innovative, interesting things going on. You have Documenters, which is important — training people, regular citizens, to help cover government meetings in collaboration with full-time journalists, and you have Outlier using text messaging as a technique to better understand their community. And you have Documented, a different place, which is covering immigrant communities in New York. 

Not having to have the cost of print has enabled a wider variety of different types of approaches to spring up. There’s a lot of innovation going on. But the bottom line is still that the advertising model for all these things is weaker than it used to be. It’s not gone away, but it is definitely weaker. There’s no way around the idea that community journalism can only survive if the community supports it in some way. Whether it’s through donations or philanthropy or subscriptions, there has to be community support. 

It’s really important because it’s really hard to have a healthy community without good local information. We find in areas that don’t have good local news, that vacuum is [often] filled by conspiracy theories and national news, which is more polarizing. And the best way to counter that is to, you know, fill the void with accurate local reporting.

This conversation was edited by Curtis Yee.

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The Objective is a nonprofit newsroom holding journalism accountable for past and current systemic biases in reporting and newsroom practices. We are written by and for those underrepresented in journalism.

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