The place to begin solving the crisis engulfing American journalism is from the bottom of the pit that we’re in. Look up, and there’s light. But first, we have to look down and around. At our feet are the lifeless remains of more than 2,500 news outlets that existed 20 years ago, and the ghosts of tens of thousands of jobs. The void left behind in so many communities has been filled by misinformation and polarized discourse, and our social fabric is torn.
The free press — our central organ of civic awareness — has sustained severe injury, but most Americans think that their local outlets are doing well; news still lights up our smartphones. Only experts seem to comprehend the seriousness of this quiet crisis.
One of them is Penny Abernathy, who has studied the growing problem and offers a grim diagnosis in the report she wrote for Northwestern’s Medill School of journalism called The State of Local News 2022. She tells us that newspapers are continuing to vanish rapidly — 800 more will likely fail in the next three years. Digital alternatives remain scarce. Seventy million Americans now live in counties that don’t have their own newspaper — 20 million are in news deserts. Newspaper revenue — $50 billion in 2005 — is down to $10 billion. Employment has contracted 70 percent. Surviving newspapers are mostly owned by hedge funds or indebted to them, are publicly traded or in privately held chains.
I launched Inside Climate News in 2007, the same year ProPublica began, just as this crisis was starting to erupt. Craigslist (1995) and Google (1998) had already destabilized the media landscape by the time a trio of tech innovators launched in quick succession: Facebook (2006), Twitter (2006) and Apple’s iPhone (2007). By 2009, The New York Times was on bended knee, shoring up its finances by borrowing $250 million at 14 percent interest from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. How naïve we were about what was hitting us so fast — and that’s nothing compared with what AI is about to do.
At Inside Climate News’ launch, we were two people with a $150,000 pilot grant conducting an experiment for a year. Could we model fair and accurate climate journalism? Avoid the “false balance” that characterized climate coverage of the time? Have an impact? The day we launched we had 102 visitors. The second day we had 53. The next year we witnessed the first wallop of the journalism industry’s market failure — mass firings and big closings. Our mission was to cover climate change — the looming market failure of the global energy economy — and we found ourselves inadvertently in the thick of another. We were swimming upstream against two cascading crises, one of them industrial, the other planetary.
Within a few years, we managed to double in size to four. We grew to six in 2012 and produced work that won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting — the break of all breaks for a startup. Within three years we doubled in size again, to 12, and earned another Pulitzer nod as finalists in Public Service for breaking #ExxonKnew. After making the decision in 2018 to open local bureaus, we are now more than twice as big again, with a staff of 28 reporting from around the country. We have scores of local media partners who co-publish and collaborate with us and more than 300,000 subscribers whose numbers are growing at a fast clip.
Fundamental to our survival and growth — perhaps decisive — has been our status as a nonprofit. We hail from an early vintage among our nonprofit peers, whose numbers are now exploding. It’s hard to overestimate how important this development has been for journalism. Our sector now contains about 500 outlets. We stand a chance to blaze a trail up and out of the pit if, together, we build a robust nonprofit ecosystem.
Last month, a consortium of 22 funders led by the MacArthur Foundation announced an initiative called Press Forward. For more than a year, the organizers had been aiming to secure a billion dollars to help revitalize local journalism. They raised $500 million, a tidy sum, and are aiming to continue to reach their goal. Dollars will start to flow slowly next year. Two funders out of 22, the MacArthur and Knight foundations, are responsible for 60 percent of the pledge. It’s a chunk of money that could do a lot of good — if spent wisely.
As exciting and welcome as it is, the financial reality of Press Forward is that it is a first step. Analysts have estimated that local journalism will need as much as $1.75 billion a year for the foreseeable future to recover. Resources, in other words, are still nevertheless scarce, and we will need to make available dollars go as far as possible.
Nonprofit newsrooms can play an important, underappreciated role. What if, instead of pursuing narrow self-interest, journalism nonprofits and small local outlets embarked on a deliberate program of mutual assistance? We just might breathe fresh life into the idea of sustainability. It’s already happening.
In our case, we work hard to share our work at no cost with scores of other media organizations that can’t afford environmental journalism — in Texas, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, Maryland, Florida, Alabama and elsewhere — with new collaborative bureaus in development. Sometimes partner newsrooms will have resources to supply reporting or photography for the collaboration; or the reach of a radio program syndicated in hundreds of markets; or a TV appearance on the evening news watched by a small local audience; or their own stories that we distribute to our audiences. A lot of the work of our bureaus finds republication in more than one partner outlet — exclusives are a thing of the past. The synergies are enormous.
What is happening in the bigger picture is that outlets across the country are filling their pages and broadcasts with each other’s relevant work and building robust, high-quality offerings for their readers without the need for dollars to change hands. When American journalism was at its peak, collaboration of this sort was unthinkable and unnecessary. Self-sufficiency and competitiveness made for great journalism in an ecosystem of abundance. Now, with so few resources, collaboration may be the only approach that pencils out.
Consider a world where everything is shared. The benefit of every dollar I spend is evenly distributed across the 500 entities of nonprofit journalism; and it is similar for every dollar anyone else in the ecosystem spends. In this world, if you multiply the value of Press Forward’s infusion of $500 million across 500 entities, it yields $250 billion of social good. Inside Climate News and many other nonprofit outlets are already creating a serviceable version of this vision. It might not yield 500x of value, but perhaps 5x is reasonably within reach. That would make Press Forward a $2.5 billion opportunity already; and our newsroom effectively 140 strong.
There are easy ways to support collaboration from the bottom up, at enormous rates of financial and social return. One way is to fund the hiring of partnership editors. Every outlet interested in hiring one would define the role according to its own priorities, but it must be someone’s full-time job. Harvesting a shared bounty of nonprofit journalism requires time, effort and relationship building. Imagine the rich tapestry that these partnership editors could weave, crisscrossing the warp of funding with the weft of newsroom-to-newsroom collaboration.
Another way to support collaboration is to invest in more expert, focused newsrooms that cover beats of universal importance. Climate change is one of them. So are criminal justice, gun violence, healthcare, education, gender and potentially many more. They touch every community, every part of life, every vertical of news. We are equipped to keep up with the blistering pace of change, combat misinformation with sobriety and nuance, and help local newsrooms serve their readers with high-quality coverage they cannot easily provide on their own.
Many actors are participating in what seems like a moment of synchronicity for the idea of collaboration in journalism. Perhaps it’s time to invest in it deliberately and to name it as The Great Collaboration. You can already see it working to magnify every dollar spent, creating enormous social value.
Look at what Jelani Cobb, the new dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism (I’m an alum), announced earlier this year: a loan forgiveness program for graduates — as much as $50,000 — if they go to work for a nonprofit newsroom. “It helps their salary dollars go further, so it helps both the industry and the individuals in it,” Cobb told Vanity Fair. He’s aiming to cover the full cost of the $75,000 tuition for low-income students and, bigger picture, build a pipeline to help diversify the field. He’s working on a different corner of the tapestry, making it possible for newsrooms like ours to hire the emerging talent we need.
John Palfrey, president of the $8 billion MacArthur Foundation, is leading the fundraising for Press Forward. “Right now, I’m looking for people who have money and want to give it to this cause,” he said on a webinar attended by scores of expectant nonprofits. “Press Forward is not some sort of top-down, centralized program,” Kathy Im, head of the journalism program at MacArthur, offered on the same webinar.
Press Forward is making hires to staff the grantmaking operation. It is establishing its processes and systems and already managing 12 working groups of donors with varying theories of change. Getting their money out the door is going to take some time. While nonprofits wait for these wheels to turn, we can continue building collaborations with the resources we already have and multiply the social good of journalism at no cost. We need to hurry. The world is on fire, the pit is filling up.
David Sassoon is the founder and publisher of Inside Climate News. He has been a writer, editor and publisher for 30 years, involved with public interest issues: human rights, cultural preservation, healthcare, education and the environment. In 2003 he began researching the business case for climate action for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. BusinessWeek used that research to help it rank the Top Ten Companies of the Decade for emissions reductions and to produce a multi-part project that examined how leading U.S. corporations were responding to climate change. As an outgrowth of his research, Sassoon founded a blog in 2007 which has grown and evolved into Inside Climate News. He earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He can be reached at Sassoon.email@example.com.
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