Nonprofit local news shows that it can scale

It’s been a milestone year for nonprofit local news. The number of nonprofit newsrooms in the United States has more than doubled in the last five years, and in 2022, we saw ambitious projects like Capital B, The Baltimore Banner and Signal Cleveland launch, filling holes in media markets with their in-depth local accountability journalism.

This progress should be encouraging, particularly as the traditional commercial model of producing news continues to face tough economic headwinds. Across the country, large cities and rural communities alike are increasingly lacking any source of trusted news about what’s happening around them — according to scholar Penny Abernathy in her 2022 report The State of Local News, more than one-fifth of U.S. citizens live in news deserts, with very limited access to local news, or in communities at risk of becoming news deserts. The American Journalism Project’s own research has found that even markets not commonly considered news deserts have seen crippling losses in local journalism resources in recent years. In fact, a Duke University study analyzing stories from 100 randomly selected local media outlets across the country found that only 17 percent of the news stories provided to a community were “truly local,” actually about or having taken place within the community. But more nonprofit newsrooms are opening up nationwide to fill these gaps in local reporting.

In 2023, we will not only continue to see more local news organizations open up shop, but also the sustainability and scalability of the nonprofit model to reach more communities that remain underserved by local news.

Abernathy and other observers of the field — like Nikki Usher in their book News for the Rich, White, and Blue — are concerned that nonprofit news won’t be able to address rural markets or low-population communities lacking adequate local news and information resources because philanthropic resources tend to be overwhelmingly concentrated in denser, more urban population centers.

At its core, the question of whether nonprofit news can successfully engage more and more underserved communities — particularly those that are traditionally harder to reach — is one of sustainability. We are beginning to see the maturation of and experimentation by a number of individual organizations showing how nonprofit news can scale to do just that.

Recently, we’ve seen several successful iterations of a network model of nonprofit local news.

The Beacon, for example, began as a public service-journalism nonprofit serving the Kansas City metro area, and was able to expand into a regional news network with a second hub in Wichita, thanks in part to a generous grant from the Wichita Community Foundation and a commitment to a shared infrastructure that benefits both newsrooms. Spotlight PA, which was founded in Harrisburg in 2019 to conduct rigorous, investigative reporting on the Pennsylvania state government, launched its first regional reporting bureau this year in State College, Pennsylvania. The new bureau brings the state capital-based parent organization’s brand of nonpartisan accountability reporting to State College, Centre County, north-central Pennsylvania, and the Northern Tier — all parts of the state that have sorely lacked such public service journalism. And this month, Signal Ohio, announced a new CEO to lead the organization and turn the launch of the organization’s first newsroom, Signal Cleveland, into a statewide network.

The network model relies on a shared business and operations infrastructure to allow individuals or small teams of journalists to report in underserved communities that would otherwise struggle to sustain a local news outlet. In addition, these networks also open up a wider, regional base of funders for news organizations to engage. The power of networks means greater operational sustainability and expanded reach to more and more communities.

Given the scale of the problem, there is an imperative for nonprofit local news organizations to grow. We will continue to see new models in how we finance and sustain local nonprofit news to reach new, underserved communities of all kinds.

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