A local look at new ways to fund journalism

  • Press Operators Brian Neal, left, and Brandy Lincoln, middle, proofread Thursday's Recorder newspaper with Manager William Holmes, right, Aug. 7, 2017. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

Published: 12/3/2021 5:15:15 PM

It’s no secret that many local news outlets, especially newspapers, are struggling to survive across the United States. Newsrooms have shrunk by an estimated 26% since 2008, particularly at newspapers, according to the PEW Research Center. The pandemic only exacerbated this issue. During the lockdown in 2020, several businesses and industries shut down, and advertising – the main source of income for many media organizations – dropped significantly. According to a recent Washington Post article, between 2005 and the start of the pandemic about 2,100 newspapers closed their doors. Since COVID struck, at least 80 more papers have gone out of business. Those in the news industry find the situation troubling, but there are solutions taking shape.

One organization, Report for America, helps fund new journalists in partner newsrooms. News organizations are also banding together to form collaboratives and share stories, as we have here in New Hampshire. Currently, the Granite State News Collaborative boasts more than 20 members ranging from local newspapers to New Hampshire PBS and NHPR. As another potential solution, news organizations have started exploring fundraising and philanthropy.

To discuss what’s happening in New Hampshire newsrooms we have Phil Kincade, the executive director of the New Hampshire Press Association, as well as Steve Leone, publisher for the Concord Monitor and vice president for news for the Monitor’s parent company, Newspapers of New England.

This content has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full interview on NH PBS’s The State We’re In.

Melanie Plenda: Phil, let’s start with you. You’ve worked for multiple media organizations in New Hampshire over your career. In your current role, you regularly interact with editors and publishers across the state. How would you describe what’s been happening in newsrooms over the last 15 years here in New Hampshire?

Phil Kincade: It’s no secret that it has been a struggle to broaden our revenue streams. Most newspapers realized twenty years ago that the advertising model for revenue wasn’t going to work anymore. It was a constant struggle to figure out how to build new revenue streams when that key advertising money went away. What we’ve also seen change in the last few years is more of a willingness on the part of our subscribers to contribute. When the internet started, the notion was that all content was going to be free, so it was a real tough sell to try and get readers to contribute to this if they want good local news. A lot of people took local news for granted, but now that they lost their local news coverage as they were accustomed to it, they realized it’s a valuable resource and they should contribute to it if they want good local news.

Melanie Plenda: Steve, how would you describe what drove these job losses in newsrooms across the country and locally?

Steve Leone: It was a by-product of these slow shifts of the changing advertising model and free local news. I think that’s really been a challenge for the news industry locally to keep up with that. What we’ve seen in the last few years is more of a willingness to try to look at things a different way, and I think that’s really connecting more deeply with your communities. We’ve seen a lot of change in the news industry, a lot of change in newsrooms, and some of the changes we’ve actually seen have been a good thing. Newsrooms are now more willing to listen to what their communities need, they’re more in front of the issues that they feel the community wants to hear more about, and they’re developing business plans around what the readers need, as opposed to the old model of just delivering the news we want to deliver. Part of the effort now is just to really start rebuilding, and I think that’s what we need to focus on as an industry in New Hampshire and elsewhere.

Phil Kincade: Another one of the difficult things about this is the landscape changes so quickly, the technology develops so quickly. Just as you think you’ve got a solution, the ground changes underneath you because there’s some new application that’s out there. You realize that you’re competing not just against other newspapers, but you’re competing against YouTube, you’re competing against Tik-Tok, you’re competing against all these other platforms that are out there. As soon as you think you’ve got it figured out, something changes and you’ve got to rethink it all over again.

Melanie Plenda: How do you build those new revenue streams? How do you become sustainable? I know the Concord Monitor has been using fundraising and philanthropy for various initiatives in the newsroom, so talk to us a little bit about what you’ve done and how that has worked.

Steve Leone: We’ve partnered with Report for America for a couple news positions, one covering health and the other covering education. Report for America contributes to half the salary of the reporter to start and it lowers as you get a couple of years under your belt. The goal isn’t to maintain that level of, so to speak, philanthropy of those dollars coming in. The goal is to relaunch initiatives that bring in new funders and new businesses to help support that reporting, and we’ve been trying to focus on saying, ‘these are critical beats within our community, what does our community need?’ Well, our community needs healthcare and educational reporting – even aside from a pandemic, those are two critical pieces. We go out into our community and say, ‘we would love support from our community to help keep these positions.’

For the most part, we’ve been pretty successful with those two beats, getting our community, businesses, and readers to step up and support that. We’ve also launched a project that is going to materialize in the middle of 2022, and that’s environmentally focused. 

Melanie Plenda: What have you seen other news org organizations do with fundraising and philanthropy? For 15 years or more, everyone’s been trying to find the right funding model. Philanthropy is not the be all, end all. It likely is not the solution in the future. What are some of those other ideas organizations are chasing? What have you heard of in addition to philanthropy? What needs to happen there?

Phil Kincade: One of the things that has been a consequence of the last few years is we’ve lost connection to our communities. We lost that connection because we didn’t have reporters in the field, meeting people, talking to people, and COVID has made that even harder to do. It’s all about how we reestablish that connection to our community. If you can do that, then I think it’s going to support your means of trying to broaden your revenue base, because you’re going to build on that relationship that has always been there but eroded over the last few years because of the technological revolution.

Steve Leone: We need more people engaging with their local news organizations. That was a given a generation or two ago but now, you have the world at your fingertips. In many ways, you have a direct connection to things happening all over the planet, yet you may not really know who’s in your town government, who is running your school board, who the principal of your schools are, so there’s a greater disconnect locally. The role of journalism is to bring people deeper in their community. If we can do that, I think we will increase our audience.

A big part of this is the advertiser. There’s limits to doing business with Facebook and Google. What are they going to look like in five years? What’s the business look like in five years if you’re only going through them? Local journalism for a long time was kind of like a three-legged stool - subscriptions, advertising, and classifieds. That’s all been eroded. We just need to build new legs for that stool, right? It can’t be one thing, because a local news business needs to be a combination of a lot of factors. I think funding and support need to come from a lot of different places and that’s what makes journalism strong locally, when everyone has a little bit of skin in the game that’s really what local journalism is. It’s a community asset, which means you have more people invested. To a degree, large amounts of investment from few sources is not healthy. We’re trying to build this from the ground up with connection to readership and, to a degree, low-level investment from a lot of different sources to really rebuild this thing.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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