Local news is in demand. Through the pandemic, local publications around the world reported record website traffic, driving a critical reconnect with audiences, as coverage gaps were recognized. Amid furloughs and layoffs, these digital start-ups, nonprofits and legacy papers are all stepping up their efforts to remake this pillar of democracy with a solidity that can stand the test of time.
Here’s some examples from the International Press Institute (IPI)’s World Congress:
Report for America
“The impact of even a single watchdog reporter in a community can be massive”, Report for America VP Kevin Grant said. “It can be to the tune of millions of dollars in investment, expose corruption of judges or mayors or governors, and also give residents a voice they felt had been lost.”
Launched in 2017 by The GroundTruth Project, Report for America embeds journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues or communities, and assists newsrooms by paying half the journalist’s salary.
But achieving sustainability requires policy support. Co-founder Steve Waldman collaborated with a coalition of news industry leaders to bring the Local Journalism Sustainability Act before the U.S. Congress earlier this year. The bill aims to offer tax incentives for Americans to buy news subscriptions as a means of supporting the local news industry.
“There has been a 60% decline in reporting jobs in the US since 2000″, Grant said. “It’s a dire situation, and Report for America was founded to turn that tide.”
While Report for America continues to increase reporting jobs in the U.S, “our long-term goal is to bring this public-service model to international partners. So far we’ve spoken with journalists in India, Nigeria and Brazil.”
The Daily Dispatch
South Africa’s Eastern Cape province has earned a reputation as the corruption capital of the country, which is largely due to the strong investigative journalism tradition of the Daily Dispatch. According to former Editor-in-Chief Sbu Ngalwa, South Africa’s nine provinces are led by the same party, notoriously haunted by corruption. “So how could it be that one is more corrupt than the other?” he asked. “My theory is that it is because of the good credible investigative journalism which the Daily Dispatch has continued to churn out over the years.”
The Daily Dispatch cemented itself as an authoritative newspaper in the region, putting the Eastern Cape in the national spotlight by exposing local corruption. But the paper’s investigative team shrunk dramatically over the years.
“The number of working journalists in South Africa halved between 2008-2018 – and within three months since COVID, we lost 800 jobs”, Ngalwa, who also chairs the South Africa National Editors Forum (SANEF), said. To maintain readers while resources are declining requires a focus on local news as much as maintaining trust, credibility, and finding innovative ways of keeping audiences engaged.
“We have allocated a newsroom specifically for WhatsApp updates for breaking news and driving readers to the website.”
Ngalwa believes that overcoming the challenges imposed on local South African media requires an open discussion between media outlets as to what business models work – and which don’t. “Another important point for us to consider would be petitioning the government around tax breaks for subscribers.”
The News Minute
Covering five states in southern India, the digital news platform The News Minute (TNM) filled a coverage gap for a wide audience. “India is a large country where people speak different languages in every state”, founder Dhanya Rajendran told IPI. “But the national media is mainly in Hindi and English, and is based out of New Delhi or Mumbai.” During the eight years in which she worked as a TV reporter in mainstream media, Rajendran saw first hand how under-represented many regions were in the national dialogue, leading her to launch a news website focusing on those states in 2014.
While The News Minute found its loyal audience, the news platform faces similar issues to that of its counterparts across the globe. “There is a lot of manufactured mistrust”, she said, referring to political attempts to discredit the media. According to Rajendran, to gain the trust of local communities “we need to ensure that the news story goes as a news story and there is no opinion of the journalist in it.” Like other local media, building a relationship with their audience is essential. “We have around 1 million people who are subscribed to our notifications, and we offer a variety of newsletters which offer benefits according to the type of membership – that includes a help desk where anything we as a community do to help you, we will.”
Rajendran encouraged philanthropists to invest more in Indian media, noting that the limited donor funding to Indian media was not enough. While it had some funding in the first years, TNM relies on advertisements and sponsored content, and is aiming for 25 percent of its revenue to come from its recently launched membership program.
Block Club Chicago
Founded in 2017, Block Club Chicago covers the city’s diverse neighborhoods and was created by former DNAinfo editors after it shut down due to a vote to unionize. “We heard from people all over the city about how much they missed our truly local coverage, we knew we had to get back to work”, the site’s director of evelopment and community engagement, Maple Walker Lloyd, said.
Block Club Chicago launched with the help of 3,000 backers on Kickstarter and began serving its community. “Our reporters are embedded in the communities they cover”, Lloyd said, “leading to a more accurate portrayal of the neighborhoods.” The vast majority of the stories reported on the digital news site “come directly from our readers,” she said, “readers know that they can come to us when they want real answers to real questions that impact their daily lives. So if you want to understand and serve a need, just listen to your readers and what they need from you.”
Seventy percent reader funded, Block Club Chicago is still looking for new ways to engage with its communities and diversify revenue streams. “We recently launched a breaking news texts alert, and will be launching a COVID-19 hotline.”
* This panel discussion was organized in partnership with Craig Newmark Philanthropies and Report for America.