Looks like we hit a nerve.

Reactions to Saturday's post.

Looks like we hit a nerve.
Meeting of the East Lansing (Michigan) City Council on Jan. 24, 2023. Without local news producers, local governments often go unwatched and unreported. (Dylan Lees for East Lansing Info)

By Alice Dreger

I’ve now received at least thirty messages in response to my last Local News Blues post, “Big Philanthropy Is Infuriating Local News Publishers.” Today, I’m sharing a sampling of responses with you: two from nonprofit local news publishers, one from a for-profit, and one from the president of the MacArthur Foundation.

Of all responses received, the most came from local nonprofit news producers, who basically sent thumbs up. Not too surprisingly, as I wrote in my first post for Local News Blues, many are afraid to say anything publicly lest they bite the hands that might feed them. Here’s one who was willing to have me share if I kept it anonymous: 

“Thank you for the refreshingly blunt article on local news and big philanthropy. I am a LION member who feels the same frustration with these membership organizations. It’s as if these LION-type orgs are desperate to remain relevant. They are simply middlemen, and that’s fine if they would stick to raising money mostly for direct grants to members. Taking their grant money can make us publishers gun-shy in voicing our criticism of the funding bureaucracy. I certainly am not alone in my quiet criticism. Also, it is laughable to think that a press release is a funder’s idea of news. INN, LION, et al. should be objecting sharply to such nonsense.”

Nonprofit news producers like this one have made many requests to INN and LION for transparency about how much grant funding in a given program is going to them and hired consultants versus actual news producers. So far, that's not happening.

For a more analytic take, let’s turn to Bill Smith. Smith founded and publishes Evanston Now, a for-profit news outlet that has been bringing the news to that Illinois city since 2006.

“I definitely share some of the frustration,” Smith wrote. “However, let me run a few numbers by you. Pew says that the newsroom workforce in the U.S. declined from 114,000 in 2008 to 85,000 in 2020. (It has presumably declined further since then.)

“Let us imagine that we wanted to bring back half of the jobs that were lost during that time period, or 14,500 jobs. And let's imagine that you could hire those reporters on average for $50K each in pay and another $15K in benefits and overhead cost, or an all-in cost per reporter of $65K/year.

“If big philanthropy was going to cover that cost, it would amount to $942,500,000 for one year – or nearly twice the amount of money that the Press Forward funders have pledged to spend over five years.”

And, Smith notes, it’s not just about this money to fund reporters, “because it's going to take a different set of talents to bring in the reader or advertiser revenue needed to be sustainable.

“Of course there are other ways of trying to scope the task. Maybe it's adding one new reporter focused on local community news for each 100,000 people in the U.S. That would require 3,412 reporters, given the country's current population, and would cost maybe $221 million a year. So then the $500 million would last a little over two years.

Smith suggests “it might help to actually try to scope what could be done if the money were directed to local news publishers. It also would be good to consider who would likely benefit -- given the different scale of various operations and their differing ability to look ‘established’ and ‘trustworthy’ to funders.”

Philanthropies, he adds, have typically been more willing to assist non-profit than for-profit community news sites. To the extent that providing assistance through an intermediary like Newspack or BlueLena puts the two groups of publishers on a more even footing, Smith sees that as beneficial.

Nancy West of InDepthNH.com signal-boosted Saturday’s post and ended up connecting me by phone with John Palfrey, President of the MacArthur Foundation, which is leading Press Forward

Palfrey told me he definitely wants to see the folks in the local news trenches have a meaningful “seat at the table” in discussions of what should happen with raised funds, and he looks forward to that as new leadership comes onboard Press Forward.

Like Smith, Palfrey noted the numbers are challenging. There are so many locales in need of journalism support and a finite amount of funds available, even as Press Forward seeks to expand with local chapters. Palfrey says the system needs to be well “structured” because it’s simply not possible to fund all they would like to.

“We’re not trying to be infuriating,” he said, referring to the headline of my column. He said he feels the urgency and the frustration and is working to bring long-term support for local news. It’s critical, he said, to expand the network of givers in order to also expand the network of receivers.

I took the opportunity of the call to share what I think a lot of major philanthropists don’t get about working in the trenches – that much of what we struggle with is not the need for AI to turn press releases into articles but things like (preferably free) HR and bookkeeping, basic (not fancy) tech, and having enough general operating funds to hire help in editing and reporting.

I told Palfrey that a worrisome number of leaders in local news are working for free or very little pay, and that in virtually all of those cases, they tell me that if they had more money, it wouldn’t go into their pockets; they’d use it to hire help and pay their present employees better.

I explained that when we say “you’re spending money on things we don’t need,” we’re not being petulant or Luddites. We’re people with a ton of real-life experience about how to get the news out in very difficult circumstances, including in situations where we rarely get to take a break from the strain of being watchdogs and investigators of people who are essentially our neighbors. 

Palfrey reiterated that he understands it’s important to have “at the table” more of the people with the real-life experience of bringing local news today.

In a posted comment on Saturday’s column, Ken Martin of the nonprofit Austin Bulldog agreed that’s important: “Speaking truth to power generally involves delivering a reality check to public officials. In this case, the powers that be are philanthropic. Those who intend to write checks to support journalism need to understand what local journalists actually need to deliver the news.”

Thanks to everyone who wrote in. Let’s keep this conversation going. If you’re a recent or current producer of Local News Blues, you’re welcome to pitch a column for publication to our audience. And, as a reminder, if you subscribe for free to Local News Blues, you can post comments at the site.

Alice Dreger is a journalist, historian, and the publisher of Local News Blues. She founded East Lansing Info, a nonprofit digital investigative news service, and ran the operation for about ten years. Read more at the Local News Blues contributors page.