Citizens want local journalism

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — March is high school winter sports championship time. Champions become heroes. Communities love heroes.

I would go a step further: Communities need heroes.

Heroes light our way.

A firefighter who saves a family from a burning building; a nurse who works courageously to serve those suffering from COVID;  a teacher who dedicates a life of passion to connecting and inspiring students.

One of the great tragedies of the collapse of local journalism across America is that we are losing the stories of our local heroes, the stories that bind us all together in a shared civic pride.

We learned that the hard way here in Youngstown where The Vindicator, an award-winning newspaper with 150 years of family ownership and where I had the great honor to serve as Editor, had to shut down in 2019.

I want to tell you a story about an unlikely local hero, who understood the need for local journalism to cover students when they have big achievements, whether that is winning a spelling bee or a science competition or an athletic match. This hero understood how journalism can pull us together,  and he was willing to step up to find community funding to support local journalism.

And, I am learning every day, he is not alone in doing that.

It was two years ago this month — in March 2019 — five months before that sad day when we all stood in the printing plant with the family owners and watched the last Vindicator run.

And it was just before I would take on my next job: helping communities pay for local journalism through philanthropy at Report for America.

That March, I regretfully told our prolific sports reporter, Brian, that I could not afford to send him to the state wrestling finals — 3 days away, 3 hotel nights, 500 miles of driving and 6 meals. A freelancer was more affordable, I had to painfully tell Brian.

The final edition of The Youngstown Vindicator. (Photo by Charles Sennott/GroundTruth)

We were struggling and cash-strapped. Our mall had just lost another retailer, and that cost us $100,000 in revenue. That was in addition to a closed Kmart and a closed Sears among the hundreds of other retail carcasses strewn amid our landscape.

Word of this got to the wrestling coach. He was grateful for the freelancer. “But Brian knows the kids; Brian knows the sport; Brian knows us.”

He knew, too, the impact of having the quality of Brian’s work shine on the front page of his local newspaper — where heroes reign. A state champion was at least the front page of the Sports section. But with the right photo, the right hug, the right kid, wrestling is the front page of the paper — and that’s a whole other level of local hero.

On the spot, he made an offer: “Our association will cover Brian’s costs.”

I was stunned. That was a first for me. The coach was a great leader in our community, and now I saw him as a real hero who understood why local reporting on his team mattered to our community.

As best I knew how at the time, we covered some basics protecting journalistic integrity, making sure there was no donor influence and many other details that matter in a relationship between community funding and the journalism it supports. In the end, Brian, the best wrestling journalist in our region, reported on some of the best high school wrestlers in Ohio. Our wrestlers.

We had no idea it would be our last state tournament.

We announced that June that The Vindicator, at least the paper as we knew it, would be shutting down. Our competitor 20 miles up the road bought the title and the subscriber list. So “The Vindicator” still exists. But it’s a whisper of what it was.

And our stories of our heroes are less. Way less.

Advance to now and the start of 2021. I just completed my first full year as Report for America’s director of local sustainability and development — the money team.

Our job is to work with local newsrooms and local philanthropy on the need for local news to be supported by donors. We find a path to connect both groups. In some cities, it’s easy. They get it. In some cities, it’s less so. They haven’t yet experienced the loss we have in Youngstown.

Sure, philanthropy has been involved in local media for decades through public radio and television. But the dominant local media in every American city has always been for-profit TV and print news. For about 300 years, local news has been funded by the advertising decisions of local realtors, car dealers, grocers, banks, hospitals, retailers and more.

It’s over.

The local news industry has lost to the ether of digital advertising about $35 billion annually in the last decade or so — about three-quarters of its base.

Philanthropy won’t replace all of that. But it can prop it up. It is starting to do so.

Coaches love statistics, and the wrestling coach would be proud of our 2020 Report for America fundraising stats:

  • 61% growth in per-reporter fundraising across 2020 newsrooms.
  • 104% growth in 2020 community foundation participation.
  • Citizen donors — with donations as basic as $25 to $50 at a time — made up nearly half% of 2020’s $4.6 million fundraised across America.
  • Local foundations and newsrooms forming critical junctions to preserve local news for the long-term needs.
  • And the third-graders from Ouray, Colorado. They actually started my 2020.

Editor Erin McIntyre sent me a group picture of 20 students — all holding up the copy of her Ouray County Plaindealer. They had just donated funds from their read-a-thon to help pay for a Report for America reporting position at Erin’s paper. She would go on to raise $15,000 in 2020.

The kids — like the wrestling coach — heard the story of lost local news, recognized the impact, and responded.

Third graders from Ouray, Colorado donated their class fund to help pay for a Report for America reporting position at the Ouray County Plaindealer. (Photo by Erin McIntyre)

That is what the 2020 Report for America Local Sustainability report highlights.

And 2021 is positioned to be even better.

More foundation-newsroom partnerships are emerging around the U.S. Civic leaders and citizens in small nooks like Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Virginia and Delaware are championing local news startups just as they would start a new school, library or park.

In Baltimore and in Guam, longstanding newspapers owned by national hedge funds have been purchased outright by local leaders.

That is what I saw in 2020 in my first full year directing local news philanthropy for Report for America. Pardon my grin, please, that my first taste of this was with a local high school wrestling coach who believed as much as anyone in the appeal of local journalism.

Local success is a community’s glue. It helps us live another day: A great ACT score, people rescued from a fire, safe neighborhoods, less poverty, saved tax dollars, better jobs …

And wrestling champions.

When you are on the front page as a champion wrestler or a champion community, people come out of their silos. Champions just roll.

I spent my last four years at The Vindicator trying to rally community energy to save the demise that I saw coming. In speeches to various civic groups, I advised that saving The Vindicator is not a jobs program for me and my co-workers. It’s about telling this community’s story — the good and the challenging.

The Vindicator team will find jobs, I would say, as I rattled off examples of where we’ll work. But where, I asked, will our community find its heroes?

True to my forecast: Brian found a job. Sadly — it’s not telling wrestling stories. And further truth of my forecast: Local media has struggled to tell the wrestling story — one example of many lost hero stories in Youngstown.

America, as the world’s greatest democracy, enjoyed a 300-year gift that the most important pillar of its freedom — a free press — was paid for by the marketing needs of private business.

Gifts go away in time, and new realities reveal themselves. That is what is happening in local news: a new reality is emerging: Citizens of all fiscal abilities — whether $50 or $50,000 or $5 million — want to ensure they have a consistent, timely and factual local news ecosystem.

And that they have heroes.