Steve Waldman recently stepped away from Report for America to found Rebuild Local News, a nonprofit focused on using public policy to support journalism. In this episode, we talk through the history of public policy as it relates to news, the perils of government involvement, the nuances of crafting policy that balances multiple goals and concerns, and the state of local news. Steve also reflects on his time at Report for America, shares reasons for optimism and offers advice for young journalists trying to balance careers and their mental health.
(02:36) – Why journalism needs public policy as a tool
(06:56) – The history of government support and involvement in news
(12:23) – Why the state of local news demands action now
(20:50) – Crafting policy to minimize interference but weed out bad actors
(25:52) – This about supporting public goods, not propping up a failing business model
(30:01) – For-profits and nonprofits, legacy institutions, serving rural and minority communities
(43:25) – Moving from a federal to a state focus
(50:58) – Reflecting on Report for America
(54:48) – Rapid-fire questions
Listen to the episode here:
- Steve Waldman: Twitter, LinkedIn
- Rebuild Local News: web, Twitter, LinkedIn
- Report for America: web, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram
- The Post Office Act of 1792
- Knight Media Forum
- Institute for Nonprofit News (INN)
- Local Journalism Sustainability Act (LJSA)
- Advertising Boost Initiative
- News Media Alliance
- Boston Globe
- Star Tribune
- Pulitzer Center newsletter
- Columbia Journalism Review newsletters
- The Bulwark
- A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs
Steven Waldman is the founder and president of Rebuild Local News. He is also the co-founder and former president of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in newsrooms across America, Before becoming an advocate for local journalism, Waldman was a journalist covering national politics for Newsweek, U.S. News and World Reports and Washington Monthly. Later, he wrote a report for the Federal Communications Commission, outlining the information needs of communities.
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Steve Waldman [00:00:00]:
What actually happens is, you know, it's a vacuum. You create an information vacuum when the local news goes away and something fills the vacuum. And in this case, what's filling the information vacuum is national cable news, social media, talk radio, Next Door websites, informal, you know, conspiracy theories. And there's no pushback from verifiable information.
Tim Regan-Porter [00:00:35]:
Welcome to the Local News Matters podcast, where we explore pathways to stronger journalism, better businesses, and healthier communities. I'm Tim Regan-Porter, CEO of the Colorado Press Association. Each episode, I sit down with guests from Newsrooms and others in the local news ecosystem to highlight the innovative work of local newsrooms and those that support them, as well as the crucial questions they face. You can support this work by doing something that will take you literally 5 seconds to do. In whatever podcast player you use, simply click Follow. If you have five more seconds, click five stars in Apple Podcast. It means a lot. And that is all that we ask in exchange for all of the work that goes into this podcast. You can find all episodes, full transcripts and relevant links and sign up for our email@example.com. And now, this episode, I'm excited to bring you Steve Waldman, CEO and founder of Rebuild Local News. Steve has a long history of innovative and game changing work in local and national news. Most recently, he was co-founder and president of Report for America, a national service program that has proved invaluable to newsrooms and communities across the country. He was also senior advisor to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, co founder, CEO and editor-in-chief of Beliefnet, national editor for U.S. News and World Report and editor of The Washington Monthly. As you'll hear, Steve cares deeply about fostering healthy local news in every community, and his new focus is on using public policy to do so. It's an effort that I and my organization believe is crucial, and we've joined Rebuild Local News as steering committee members. Journalists advocating for public policy is something that doesn't come naturally to most journalists, and it's fraught with perils. But I contend that there's too much at stake to leave this important tool unused just because it's messy and we're uneasy. In this conversation, Steve guides us through these perilous waters and delivers arguments that are both reasoned and impassioned, and you'll get a little history lesson to boot. And now I bring you Steve Waldman.
Thanks for joining me, Steve.
Great to be with you.
Why journalism needs public policy as a tool
I want to go into a little bit of your history and delve into what you're working on now, and there are a lot of nuances we'll go into, but why don't you give me the short version of what Rebuild Local News is and why you started it?
It's a public policy coalition of about 30 different national and state groups, all working to try to rebuild and revitalize local news. And we all kind of came together out of the belief that public policy and a government role needs to be a piece of the puzzle. As we try to figure out how to save local news. No one thinks it's the main piece, actually. We all think that we all have to just do better with our business models and our engagement with communities and that we need more nonprofit newsrooms and more philanthropy. That's all really important, but public policy has to be part of it, and it had been relatively neglected. And so we all got together to try to figure out what would be some kinds of policy ideas that could really help, but do so in a First Amendment friendly way that would preserve editorial independence but still really help.
And full disclosure, I should say that the Colorado Press Association is a member, part of the steering committee for Rebuild Local News. But of course, we joined it because we believe in the mission. Let's address the sort of the elephant in the room for a lot of journalists, and there's a lot of nuance to this, and we'll dig into that over time. But when I started [at] the Press Association, I was new to lobbying, and it's very uncomfortable for journalists to get involved in public policy. There's a church/state thing here that is black and white for many journalists, but I've heard a lot of evolution. I think journalists are rethinking that. But what do you say to those who say in no way, shape or form should journalists court government support for journalism?
Well, I think it's a totally legitimate concern, but it's not one that we should be paralyzed by, because first of all, throughout American history there have been efforts from the government to help the media that have been fine. They've been better than fine, they've worked really well and been important and haven't undermined editorial independence at all. And so we know that it's doable. It's absolutely right and appropriate to maintain a cautiousness about what the right way is. It is doable. You can come up with ideas for how to do this in a way that protects editorial independence. But beyond that, I would say in a way, it's no different from any other kind of revenue source. If you became overly dependent on one car dealer, you're really going to have a hard time writing accurate stories about that car dealer. And if you become overly dependent on one foundation, you're really going to have distortions in your coverage. But despite the potential distorting influence of advertising, newsrooms have figured out ways to do both to take ads and still have editorial integrity at the same time. And I think that's what would happen if we have government support of the right kind.
And I would even throw in their reader revenue, which I think the growth of reader revenue is healthy for the industry, but it's not without its downside. Do we start catering now to those who can afford to be members or pay for subscriptions?
That's a great point. I think we see this in other contexts where as you get more niche and more dependent on reader revenue, it can totally affect what your coverage is and make you less diverse, make you narrower in your articles. I think they all have their risks, and the best thing is if you could have a diversity of different revenue streams. And of course, the other thing I would say is the other reason I think we have to explore this is the risk of doing nothing is probably the biggest risk. We know what's happening, and we know it's going to continue to happen if we don't do anything. So we can't just study the government role as a philosophical matter as the entire local news system collapses around us.
The history of government support and involvement in news
And you mentioned government support in U.S. history. I think there's this fiction that we've maintained, this purity that has never been there.
Yeah. From literally day one of our country, one of the first big things they did was pass a massive taxpayer subsidy for newspapers. The Post Office Act of 1792, signed into law by President Washington, essentially created a very large subsidy for the newspaper industry. And it was in the form of basically they had to pay very little in postage for mailing. And it was interesting because the debate really was between people who said they should pay very little and people who said they should pay nothing. And in the camp of people who said they should pay nothing was James Madison, who literally wrote the First Amendment. So that gives some comfort to those of us who worry about the First Amendment, is the guy who wrote the First Amendment, then the next day advocated for a really significant taxpayer subsidy of newspapers now. And it worked, by the way. I mean, it was really incredibly effective at helping to stand up a new newspaper industry and de Tocqueville famously—when he came along a little while later, one of the things he commented on is just the enormous number of newspapers that seem to exist in America. Now, so we've actually looked a lot in addition to the fact that I'm a history buff, and I always find that interesting, why did it work? Like, what were the characteristics of that that made it not backfire? And I kind of think it's two things. One was that there wasn't a lot of subjective judgments going into it about which newspapers were good or accurate or misinformation or anything like that. It was a pretty blunt instrument, really. It was a newspaper that pretty much had words and covered stuff and was on paper and was being mailed, and the policy was tied to the distance of the newspaper was traveling, not to anything about the quality or content of the newspaper. It was a penny if it was under a certain distance, and a penny and a half if it was over a certain distance, and that was it. And the other thing is that it benefited all sides. The Federalists back then thought the Jeffersonian papers were just as scurrilous and filled with misinformation that as, you know, modern people would say about the media they don't like. And the Jeffersonians thought the Federalist papers were leading the way to a monarchy. So they all hated each other's press as much as we do today. But they kind of thought, well, but we're getting our support. It's fine for them to get their support. That's the way this is going to work. We will all have our voices out there and it will create this newspaper industry, which everyone agreed was really important for helping to launch and sustain a new country.
Right. And government involvement with the press didn't stop there. FCC licenses broadcast stations who produce news, and at times we had the Fairness Doctrine and things like that impacted news. My industry with print newspapers—which is not all we are, but that's predominantly what our association represents—we maintain public notices which have been around for decades and decades, and newspapers serve a valuable role in getting information out about the inner workings of government. And for some of those technical aspects, they pay us to disseminate that information.
Right. And the FCC example is an interesting one because it kind of reminds us that sometimes government policy can be really important and impactful without it actually involving a subsidy. So the postal thing is a subsidy. The public notice is sort of a quasi subsidy. I mean, it's not really a subsidy in that it's paying for a service, but it is writing a check to the newspaper. The Federal Communications Commission's licensing of broadcast TV stations and other things they do are examples of public policy that have really big impacts on how media evolves and certainly financial consequences, but without there being the government writing a check. One example that was they made a decision when they were starting to give out licenses to do it to local stations. We try to take that for granted now. But that was a policy decision that they made that was actually different from what other countries were doing, which had national broadcast networks in the beginning. And we decided, no, we're going to emphasize the local control of everything. And so the actual license, broadcast licenses are given out to local TV stations and local radio stations. And that really affected how our media developed in profound ways. And so I think that's the other thing we ought to be looking at now is, yes, there are subsidies that I think are appropriate because public service journalism on the local level is a public good that taxpayers ought to help subsidize. But there's other policy decisions that indirectly and directly may help determine whether our democracy is strong or not, what kinds of information we have.
Why the state of local news demands action now
Let's talk a little bit more about the state of the industry and why you think it's necessary to really turn your focus to public policy.
Yeah, because it is really true that part of why I feel like I’m turning my attention to public policy is just how bad it's gotten out there and how discouraging the kind of big trend lines are. So, as you know, the statistics for what's happened in the last 15 years or so are really alarming. The scale of the collapse is just kind of mind boggling, even to me. You've had almost a 60% drop in the number of reporters or newsroom employees in less than two decades. That's a really big, big drop really fast. You had an 81% drop in the amount of advertising revenue that newspapers got in about a two decade period. I mean, that's much faster than, like, the coal industry's collapse. And that plays out in really very specific ways. There's been thousands of newspapers that have been shut down. There's about 1800 communities at least, that have no local news source at all. And then there's this whole phenomenon of what we call ghost newspapers, a lovely newly invented term to describe this new phenomenon, which is newspapers that still exist, they still publish words on paper, and they tend to be filled with wire service copy and things like that. But they have very little, and in some cases, no actual local coverage. And there's a lot of those. One estimate is at least 1000 of those. All that adds up to is that you just have less or less coverage of communities. So even in areas where there's something going on where it doesn't seem like a total desert, things have gotten way worse. And we know that there's really serious consequences of this. We've seen intuitively. And now there are academic studies that back this up, that when in communities that don't have good local news, all sorts of social and civic indicators turn south. Lower voter turnout, less volunteering at the PTA, more corruption, higher taxes, lower bond ratings. It's over and over again all these different things that lead to just less healthy communities, sometimes literally less healthy, as we saw with COVID. And then the last one I would mention is that there is now evidence that the decline of local news also causes polarization and misinformation. That maybe takes a little explaining. Like, why would that be the case, that the decline of local news would lead to polarization? In some ways, it's a little counterintuitive because we're all troublemakers and like controversy, and you think, well, maybe if we went away, there'd be less polarization. But what actually happens is it's a vacuum. You create an information vacuum when the local news goes away and something fills the vacuum. And in this case, what's filling the information vacuum is national cable news, social media, talk radio, Next Door websites, informal conspiracy theories, and there's no pushback from verifiable information. So one of the ways that political scientists try to get at polarization is to look at the proclivity of people in any given community to occasionally do split ticket voting, vote for someone who's not their preferred party. And that's another thing that happens. So when you have less local news, you literally have less split ticket voting. It becomes more partisan, more based on what you heard on cable news that night. So the consequences are really profound and for democracy in the abstract, but just for people getting information they need for their families about their schools and their health care and just basic functions of life.
And you are careful, I think intentionally careful, to continually refer to local news. Because one of the things I think sometimes gets lost in the national discussion of media is all the distinctions. I meant what Fox News and CNN and MSNBC [are] doing is very different than what the New York Times is doing and that's very different than what the Denver Post or a small weekly is doing. And the Knight/Gallup poll showed historic lows in trust in media news media, but local news was much higher. And sometimes I think we're just very sloppy in how we talk about news. I see people complaining about the news media not covering something, and they're linking to a story talking about that very thing. And what they mean is they're not talking about it on CNN or their friends are not talking about it on Facebook. But can you expound a little bit about sort of your interest in local news versus everything else that sometimes gets lumped in that discussion?
That's a really important point because—and it cuts both ways. I often see people say the media is too opinionated or the media is biased, and nine times out of ten they're linked to a cable TV, a national cable TV story. That seems to be the main thing that gets under people's skin. It gets under my skin too. It serves its function. But they have such a different approach and business model compared to local news that it really is night-and-day. And you see it in that same survey that as you said, that the local news is more trusted than national news. The bad news about that survey is that even though that gap persists, it's getting lower. Like that local news is starting to erode and that just could be tragic. And there's another thing that is contributing to that and I don't know if you have this problem in Colorado, but there's this new phenomenon that has gotten labeled, is called pink slime. And what that's referring to is another wave of websites mostly that are really concocted by bad faith actors to impersonate local news sites. And it's not full of made up information. It's usually stocked with wire service copy and syndicated material that is accurate and looks like a real thing. The trick is that amidst all that credible looking stuff, is mysteriously the articles about the local congressperson always are very negative or very positive depending on who's put it. And that's because it's actually being bankrolled by that candidate or by that candidate's opponent without telling anyone. There's another version of it that is like a kind of pay-for-play thing where a business will sponsor. There's an article mysteriously appearing in this strange new thing that looks like a local newspaper or news website about how great this hotel is without disclosing that it was paid for by the hotel. It's basically an advertisement without disclosing it. There's last count, there's more than like 1400 of these things around the country. And so I think the other reason I feel like this is a race against time and why we need to be assertive about this, including government, is that the other thing that's flooding into these vacuums is pink slime sites. And that's just going to further erode trust. Like the more that happens, the more people will appropriately not know what to trust. And now all of a sudden there's confusion on the local level. There's all these things that look like local newspapers but they're making stuff up. So that's only going to make things worse if we don't push back.
And I shudder to think about what's going to happen when those bad actors really start using AI. They can now really churn out articles.
No, you're right, it really does look legit, and it will be really asking a lot for people to be able to tell the difference. It's already hard for a regular person to try to distinguish verified information or reputable sources from non-reputable sources and that is going to make it much worse.
Crafting policy to minimize interference but weed out bad actors
So the pink slime sites leads me into getting at some of the nuances of the work you're actually doing. So while we talked about the justification for doing it, you and I have, and the steering committee and I’m sure many of your conversations, have delved into there are better ways to do it than others, ways that make you less open to retribution from the government. And on the flip side, you also want to make sure that you're targeting good actors or minimizing the number of bad actors that can benefit from the public policy initiatives. Can you talk about sort of both of those aspects?
Yeah. And those goals are sometimes at odds or tension with each other. So to give an example of one extreme would be, you have a government agency give out grants to local news organizations. Now the good news is there could be someone sitting there in the office who could tell whether it's a pink slime site, that they would be able to determine that and knock out the pink slime sites. But we really don't like that approach because it gives way too much authority to someone in the government, and it has too much discretion. And so it would be very easy to see how the state government could reward and punish local news organizations that they like or don't like. So we tend to prefer things like a tax credit for small businesses in Colorado that advertise with local news. That's an idea that I think you all have proposed, and it's been kicked around in other states. That's an interesting example. It's a sort of new approach. It's creative. And so the idea is that the tax credit, the government benefit would actually go to a small business, a dry cleaner or a restaurant or something like that, and they would decide where they would like to advertise, whichever entity makes most sense for them and then there'd be a real subsidy. So like if they were going to do $2,000 worth of advertising, they would essentially be able to get $4,000 worth of advertising with the government picking up the other half. And I kind of like that because first of all, there's no government official deciding who gets what. It's basically small businesses making the decision based on their needs. And I also like it because the newspaper still has to work for it. They have to deliver for the advertiser. They have to be good. They have to be good enough to have readers that trust them. That's part of the argument for why a business ought to advertise in a newspaper is that you have a trusting readership and that you have credibility. So it creates some nice incentives and really avoids the First Amendment problems. Another example that we were advocating for on the federal level was a refundable payroll tax credit for newsrooms that hire or retain local reporters. And in the model of the founding fathers' blunt instrument postal subsidies, it would be very widely available. The bad news is that will cover all sorts of organizations that any one of us might not love, but it's just all local news. The thing I like about that one is it has kind of a nice incentive structure of a different sort. It is supposed to be about hiring or retaining reporters. So if you are a hedge fund owned newspaper or any newspaper for that matter, if you cut staff, you're cutting your subsidy too. The subsidy goes down. And if you're increasing your hiring, your subsidy would go up. So now the downside is when you're doing something like that has just some broad standards, you got to get kind of clever in order to keep the pink slime out because you don't want a pink slime official being in charge of just knocking out. You want to try to create objective standards. That's not that easy. And we came up with to try to do that were certain objective standards like well, first of all, does the news organization have at least one full-time local reporter? Because some of these bad actors are actually based in California and they create these sites all over the country just using algorithms. So do you have a local reporter? Do you disclose who owns you? Do you have media liability insurance? That's not foolproof, but generally good operations do have it. So we put in things like that and that you couldn't be owned or financed by a political action committee. That was another standard. So you try to get at the risks through kind of objective, black-and-white standards that have as little subjectivity to them as you can.
This about supporting public goods, not propping up a failing business model
One of the challenges I see at the state level, and maybe you see it at the national level too, is really educating politicians, policymakers about the industry and the state we're in. Positive and negative. You know, a lot of my peers don't like it when they hear all of the doom and gloom, because it's not all doom and gloom. I think we can't stick our head in the sand either. But one of the frustrating things for our industry, I've heard politicians use the language like, why should we bail out a failing industry? It is a challenged industry, but I think it's way too harsh to call it a failing industry. Our readership is through the roof, and the pandemic illustrated the crucial role we play and how many people turn to us. And we've got readership study after readership study that show the vast majority of people, 80, 90% of people, look to their local news outlets every month. And you go look at Comscore data, in almost every city in the country that has a local news outlet—it's either the newspaper or the TV station—they're one and two for most trafficked websites in the city. That's not failing. That's an industry that's challenged in terms of monetizing it. But this is not a buggy whip or something that's just going out of style. This is not coal that is being transitioned to clean energy.
This is something we're just trying to figure out the right business model. And we've made lots of failures and have lost the trust of our audience sometimes by things we've done. But by and large, this is an industry that I think needs support because of the systemic factors that are going on with advertising and everything else.
Yeah, it's a great point. I think you're absolutely right. And I'm always careful when we talk about the origins of this and the internet disruption to say the business model was disrupted not because the internet drew away readers, but because the internet drew away advertisers that—as you said, the actual audience for local news is as big as ever. It's just that it's through a mechanism that is much harder to monetize. And that's the reality. And of course, there's two responses there. One is we're all working hard to try to figure out how to come up with better ways of monetizing. But we also know that in life and in America, there are certain functions that are performed for a community that we don't expect them to be businesses, right? Schools and colleges are nonprofit organizations and we don't say, well, that's a failed model. We shouldn't have schools because they're not paying for themselves. And most hospitals at this point are nonprofits. We don't say, well, that's a failed business model. We shouldn't have hospitals. And to even be a little more precise about it, most communities have both libraries and bookstores. We don't say, oh, we should only have bookstores. And if we can't support a bookstore, we shouldn't have a library because that just means there's not enough demand for it. We understand in the case of education and libraries and healthcare that there are some things that are a public good that are just really valuable to the community and that in those cases, that is when you have both taxpayers and philanthropy being big donors and small donors that help support it, that's like not a radical idea. It happens in many different parts of our life and economy. And I think that's one of the hard parts of this discussion is we are kind of implicitly making the case that local news is a little more in that category. It's partly a commercial business, but partly a public good. And there are benefits that are coming from local news that should really be thought of more in that second category, like the library and like the schools and like the museums as in the first category. And that's a real different way of thinking about it. It's not a way we've had to think about it for 150 years, but it's not a radical concept in the sense we do it in other sectors. It is more the norm in other countries and to a degree we really don't even want to acknowledge those kinds of subsidies have been there all along. They've just tended to be a little invisible and not discussed.
For-profits and nonprofits, legacy institutions, serving rural and minority communities
Yeah, and it'll be interesting to see how the industry evolves in terms of nonprofit and for profit. Nonprofit news is certainly growing, but for-profit still is the dominant form. But to some extent it was encouraging—you and I were both at the Knight Media Forum—and it was encouraging to hear even Sue Cross at INN saying, look, this is not an either/or. It's going to need to be a both/and. And to some extent, I don't know how much difference it should make. A nonprofit still has to be sustainable. A nonprofit is not a business model, and a for-profit, I think increasingly, we think, we're all understanding you need to have that sort of community-minded nonprofit mindset that you are a civic institution and that's your whole purpose in being there.
Yeah, I agree in a way you could summarize that what needs to happen is nonprofits have to act more like businesses and businesses have to act more like nonprofits in exactly the way you're saying. Local news is a public service profession. And that's true whether you're a nonprofit or a for profit. And the for-profits too often have lost the plot there and have stopped thinking of themselves as community institutions that are primarily there to serve the public. And they have to get back to that. And there's an open question of whether or not an enormous chain that is owned by a hedge fund can do that. Again, they used to, I mean, the chains. But there's a real question about that. And I agree about it needing to be a mix of nonprofit and for profit. In fact, I kind of had almost gotten so frustrated with the over-reliance on nonprofit startups as the solution to everything that I wrote an article which came out yesterday in the Nieman Reports that basically said, look, I'm as big a nonprofit booster as anyone. I've spent the last ten years trying to advocate for more philanthropy for nonprofit. I literally started and ran a nonprofit news organization. But we are not going to solve this just with nonprofit news organizations. We have to come up with ways of helping the commercial sector that wants to serve its communities really well. Okay, that's a big caveat because not all of them do, and we really should get them out of the way. But many, many do want to. Many, many are already, in fact, under incredibly difficult circumstances. With Report for America, which I co-founded and was running until a few weeks ago, we kind of evenly split the newsrooms. We've worked with 300 newsrooms over five years, and it's almost exactly split between for-profit and nonprofit newsrooms. And there were just as many cases of for-profit newsrooms that were doing incredible work and really serve in public interest as there were nonprofits. Now, it's a little bit of a self selecting group, I will admit, with Report for America because we were picking what we thought the best newsrooms were and it tended to be a little bit disproportionately family-owned newspapers on the commercial side as opposed to group big chains. But even among the chains, you really have to take your hat off to the editors there because they're doing it under tremendous pressure and almost in spite of a lot of bad incentives that are swirling around them. So I think it's a little more of a complicated question, but it is definitely worth having the discussion of like, okay, we get the sort of plan for how to encourage nonprofits, right? There's tremendous progress been made on that. There are way more nonprofits that actually do have sustainable business models now. It's a real thing. These things can grow, these things can survive. It's really exciting, but a little less conversation has been had about, okay, what about the commercial entities? What about the family-owned papers and the weeklies that are struggling but are, in a lot of communities, the only news source, and they're really trying. Is there anything we can do to make it more likely that they succeed? And that's why the public policies that we advocate actually are for both are for nonprofits and at least certain types of for-profit entities. We have tended to not push proposals that only help the nonprofit sector or only help the for profit sector. We, we've tried to come up with ones that create the right incentives for all of them.
And I think, too, there's, there's been discussion. I recently had a, was talking with someone at a foundation about the National Trust for Local News and what they're doing. He put point-blank the question to me—of course I'm in a biased position—but like, should we be saving legacy organizations? And I think it's again, it's going to be one of those both/and. So the Wall Street Journal a few years ago did a really in-depth story on the plight of local news. And one of the things they charted was where a lot of the new startups, mostly digital, but where they were popping up. They're great new startups, but unfortunately, they tend to happen in urban areas. They're filling a gap, but they're not an oasis in a desert. Right? So these new startups are tending not to really backfill all of those newspapers that we've completely lost. And so I think particularly in these smaller communities where you're not talking about huge dollars, but you're also not talking about huge audiences, we need to help those legacy institutions, which I think is a lot of the policy work you're doing benefits those people in particular, those institutions in particular.
Yeah, you're right. And there's a tendency in the nonprofit world, especially if you're talking about kind of big philanthropy, it tends to gravitate in metropolitan areas. And we are seeing that now. I would say that the new breed of nonprofit websites have been way more conscious than, I would say, the, you know, maybe public TV was in trying to reach broad audiences and not, you know, finding themselves just appealing to wealthy, well-educated audience because they're the donors. But there's still a gravitational pull in that direction, and there's still an emphasis, you know, and a kind of centering in those communities. And unfortunately, what we've seen is that usually when a weekly paper, like in a rural area goes out of business, it does not get replaced by anything. It does not get replaced by a new nonprofit. Most of them just become news deserts. And this is a bit of a blunt instrument, but if you look at the counties in America that have no news source at all, this is a few hundred of those. 93% of them are population 50,000 and below. I'd have to run the numbers on even smaller population, but I think it would hold up even if it was at 20,000. So in other words, the news desert phenomenon probably disproportionately hurts smaller towns and rural areas. And this actually kind of comes back to political point, which is it's really, really important to us that any effort to help save local news be nonpartisan and bipartisan. It would be a very bad development if this just became like a Democratic Party thing, Democrats helping the media and Republicans opposing that. And you could totally see how that might happen. But A, that would further erode trust, but B it just misses something which is that the victims of this problem are just as often, if not more often, conservatives, people who live in rural areas and small towns. They are really being harmed by what's happening in local news, so they ought to care about it. It is in their own interest to strengthen local news. And we all know that. Unfortunately, antagonism to the media has become a bit of a platform plank in some parts in the Republican Party. So that's the counter thrust. But really, if you're being objective about it, concern about local news ought to be something that Republican or conservative voters care as much about as more progressive voters and should really be a nonpartisan issue.
Yeah, there has been a lot of talk in journalism circles about underserved audiences, but I think we're still not doing a good job at addressing the rural issue. But we also cannot leave this discussion, I think, without talking about ethnic media. Joaquin Alvarado was at our convention last year, and one of the things he was talking about in one of our groups was there were some big initiatives and some major markets with big foundations coming in to help serve minority audiences. And they come in there and don't talk to the ethnic media that's been around for 100 years and is already serving a big portion of that audience. And they need to evolve and they need support, just like the mainstream media does. And I know one of the things you and I have talked about, and I think you're starting to work with them, is what's happened in New York with the Ad Boost initiative out of the Center for Community Media and CUNY. And that had a major ethnic component to that. So can you talk a little bit about just the whole topic and then specifically Ad Boost?
Yeah, I definitely agree with the point that Joaquin made, and it comes back to the previous conversation about nonprofits and for-profits. Most ethnic publications are for-profits. So if you're someone who says, no, we need to move to an entirely nonprofit system, whether you admit it or not, you are saying we're going to get rid of black newspapers and Hispanic newspapers because that's what they are. And in some cases they were quite literally created by formerly enslaved people as for-profits because they thought that was the only way they would be able to truly maintain independence. So it's not a minor point that they have, that they are for-profit businesses for a reason. And they are just as committed to their serving their public as a nonprofit version is. So what they did in New York City is really interesting. They basically said, we're not asking for new money, we're just saying the government of New York City already spends a bunch of money on advertising, public service ads, things like that. Anyway, it's got a lot of money, and they did a study and discovered most of it was going to a handful of big papers, New York Times and Daily News, and that was just among the advertising that was being spent on print. If you step back even further, some of it's going to Google and Facebook and billboards and cable TV and things like that. So they just said, hey, half of that ought to go to community newspapers. And in this case that mostly meant ethnic newspapers as that's in New York City often what it is. And so they work, the journalism school at CUNY, worked with the city to basically develop a policy where 50% of this ad spending would go to community newspapers and the mayor, de Blasio at the time, put it through as an executive order and then a kind of variant of it was then passed as a law. And they've gone through two cycles now and it's really been very effective. It's for little newspapers that suddenly had no advertising from the city and now get $50,000 or $60,000, in some cases more than that. It was really very meaningful. And it's just a really provocative thought because every government does ad spending, and the federal government does that. On the federal level, the federal government spends about a billion dollars a year on advertising. So you could play the mental game of like, well, imagine if half of that went to local news, $500 million a year. That's bigger than the entire budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, just to give you a sense of scale. So there's real interest in this model of let's look at the state advertising budgets, or in some cases city advertising budgets across the country and try to get it funneled a little more so it has like a double benefit. The government still has to achieve its results. Like we're not telling them to waste their money. It's going to be incumbent on the newspapers or the websites to prove that this is an effective place to put your advertising dollars. You can't expect the taxpayers to just agree to waste money on something like that. But I think there's very strong cases that they are effective advertising and so it could be a really interesting public policy kind of approach. Now there's a risk to it too, which I think we should be very clear-headed and clear-eyed about, which is this gets a little close to the scary scenario that I mentioned early on, in that it is the city of New York that is basically making the final decisions about where these ads could go. And it's not hard to imagine that in the hands of a mischievous mayor, that they could figure out ways of turning up or down the ad budget for a particular newspaper based on whether they had favorable coverage or not. Now, I think there are solutions to that. There are other countries have wrestled with this. CUNY has done an amazing job of sort of watchdogging the whole thing, which is probably part of the solution. You probably need like a university or a nonprofit group as part of the package to kind of help guide this and watchdog it. But if you can do it, it's a really neat idea, because as I said, it doesn't involve any new money. It's money the government's going to be spending anyway. These are really good, often effective ways of getting the message out, because they do tend to be more trusted by readers. So it's a really creative idea.
Moving from a federal to a state focus
So I think you got started really in policy work, working on the LJSA, is that right? The local journalism sustainability act?
We actually started at the beginning of COVID and the very, very first thing we advocated, for which I don't know that we really had any success, but it was just getting our toes in the water was the idea that as we're spending gazillions of dollars on public service ads around COVID, we should make sure that a whole bunch of that goes through local news. Because local news is about to face an apocalypse from COVID. Now, as it happened, I got to say, PPP turns out to have been like an incredibly effective bit of public policy. It doesn't get nearly enough credit. But I saw with the newspaper industry, as, you know, if that hadn't happened, we would have had just an absolute wipeout of thousands of newspapers dying, and that didn't actually happen. We've seen this slow decline, but it could have just been an apocalypse, and it didn't have a weight. So we were looking at trying to get COVID ad money, kind of getting to local news. But then after that, as a coalition, it's kind of a, it's a very broad coalition. The Rebuild Local News coalition includes, you know, conservative rural weeklies, and radical urban nonprofits, and digital-only and print weeklies, as well as foundations, things like that. So the process of figuring out what we could all agree on was interesting, but it led to certain policies. We ended up really liking this bill called the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, and it had a couple of provisions that you've already mentioned, but one was the payroll tax credit for hiring and retaining reporters. One was the tax credit for small businesses that advertise with local news. And the third was a tax credit for consumers to buy subscriptions or donate to local news organizations. So you can see a pattern there, is that it often is amplifying the buying power of a consumer or a business. It's not a kind of grant-making process. And we got just painfully close on one of those. The payroll tax credit actually passed the House of Representatives and came within two votes in the Senate as part of the reconciliation bill. And it would have been really a very big deal. It would have been $1.7 billion over five years, which I think would have made it the largest federal government infusion of support since the Postal Act that President Washington signed. But it didn't quite get through. And now the House of Representatives having turned Republican, we're thinking that it's probably not a high odds bet on the national level. So we are really focused on state and local policy making right now.
And that was where I was hoping you would go with that. So what are the opportunities you see at the state level, and how do you see your work being different with a more state-focused effort?
So it mostly is a kind of similar menu of policy options. When the federal bill went down, we started getting calls or emails from people around the states like you and folks at other states saying, if the federal government is not going to do it, maybe we could do it here in Colorado or Wisconsin or Massachusetts. So in Wisconsin, there's a bill currently before the legislature that would do the tax credit for small businesses that advertise in local news. You all in Colorado kicked that around a little bit last session, and different places are trying different things. In California, they gave a big allotment of $25 million to the journalism school at Berkeley to create a fellowship program for journalists into local newsrooms. Massachusetts bill, they're looking at doing a credit for subscriptions. And then, as you said, New York City and other places are looking at taking the government ad spending. And what's going to fit any given state will depend on the politics. It'll depend on the structure of their government. Like one state said, yeah, we'd love to do the tax credit. And I think our role, the Rebuild Local News Coalition will be to come in and support local efforts. It still needs to have, I think, to succeed, it needs to have strong local leadership, whether that's a press association or a community foundation or just a group of publications that are really grabbing the issue. And then we will come in and work with them. We have the kind of policy expertise and background, and we see what other states are doing. We see what's tripped up these laws over here, or what the questions from the financial analysts were over there. And here's a possible solution. And in some cases, we'll provide staff help. And then the other thing we'll do is that we have this national coalition, so the local members in a particular state from the weekly newspaper association or from LION, which is the digital hyper-locals, we will help mobilize them to work with the local press association or whoever's taking the lead to try to get something through.
So I want to end with rapid fire questions, but I want to do two things before we do that. First, which you just referenced, there's an alphabet soup of organizations that support newsrooms national level. Some focus quite a bit on legislative policy. So what do you see the distinction between what you're doing and what a News Media Alliance, an LMA, America's Newspapers, some of those organizations focus on? And how do you work together?
Well, one answer is that our coalition, the center of gravity is medium- and small-sized players. So we work often with the News Media Alliance, which tends to represent the big newspaper chains. There definitely is a lot of things we agree on, but we wanted to have an organization where the emphasis and the focus was on helping medium-sized players, small players, innovators, startups, and also that was platform agnostic. We really want to be very future friendly. So I think that's the big difference. And honestly, there are some policies that we advocate that some of their members don't like. And specifically, we prefer policies that counter the consolidation of newspapers owned by private equity firms. We just don't think that's a good trend and we would rather stop it from happening more. And if anything, if there are ways of kind of deconsolidating and replanting some of those papers back into the communities, we like that. So that's an area where we actually have a little bit of a philosophical difference. But I will say on a lot of stuff we end up working together because there's all sorts of things we agree on. Like the News Media Alliance supported the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. It wasn't their main priority they were focused on. There was a bill to try to force Google and Facebook to pay money to local newsrooms. That was their priority. But we all agree on things like shield laws and efforts to make it easier to file Freedom of Information requests. There's a lot that we all agree on, but I think on these business model questions, there's a little bit of a different emphasis.
Reflecting on Report for America
And then last question before the rapid fire questions. As you said, you've been working in the policy arena since COVID and you now have formed Rebuild Local News Coalition as its own nonprofit and you stepped back from Report for America and are on the advisory board there. As you look back at your time there—five years, I think you said—what are you most proud of and what do you think the lasting impact will be and where do you hope it goes?
Oh, God. I'm incredibly proud of Report For America. I was the co-founder of Report for America, but I proposed the idea back in 2014 and took a while to get off the ground, find a home for it and support. And in the five years that it's been running now, 547 reporters have been placed in more than 300 local newsrooms around the country. About 43% of these are journalists of color, which is a bit of a breakthrough, I think, given how much newsrooms have struggled trying to be representative of their communities. We're incredibly proud of that. We're very proud of the role that we've helped some of the nonprofit newsrooms to succeed. There's a wonderful website in Minnesota called Sahan Journal, which is now sort of much celebrated and has like 15 employees and just got a big grant from American Journalism Project. They cover the immigrant community in Minnesota and do an incredible job there. Well, the entire editorial staff of the Sahan Journal for the first two years was Report for America. Corps members were great, so that they wouldn't even exist, I don't think, without Report for America. And we're also proud of the work that the reporters have done in the commercial newspapers because they injected in those newsrooms a kind of public-service spirit and commitment to certain beats. I mean, they've won scores of awards for public service journalism or people, and they're really living out the idea that is certainly not limited to them—many other reporters who aren't in our program have this faith and this belief—but that local journalism, local reporting is a public service profession. They take it really seriously. They also do service projects in high schools and middle schools to work with students there to help stand up a high school newspaper or a podcast or things like that, to try to get younger people interested in either journalism or just truth and verification and being able to discern the difference between real news and news that's made up. So I'm very proud of that. And then the last thing I would say is we're proud that while we think the journalism is the main thing we focus on, we really put a big emphasis on working with the newsrooms to help them with their business models too, because we wanted these reporters to, we didn't want it where the reporter went away after two years and it just kind of went back to the way it was. Even though the community would have gotten two years of great reporting. So we work with the newsrooms to try to help them develop what we call the third revenue stream, which is really donations and philanthropy and support from the community. At the end of the day, community journalism is not going to survive unless the community supports it.
It's a great program. We've had members who had fellows and they all sing its praises and a newsroom I was over had a fellow. I feel like I let her down, but I saw firsthand the support that the program gives to the fellow and how it does—this is not an extended internship program. This is really great professional development. And even the community match, I think is an important piece of it. So kudos for all of that.
Rapid-fire questions And so now the rapid-fire questions. And your answers don't have to be rapid fire, but I'll just throw a handful at you. Compared to a year ago, are you more or less optimistic about the future of local news?
Definitely more optimistic. I think you have more cases of nonprofit news organizations that seem to have found actual business models and seem to be sustainable. You have more instances of commercial entities. The one I was just thinking about the other day was the Boston Globe and the Minneapolis Star Tribune that have really found their footing in digital subscriptions, which I think everyone agrees is kind of the key to making it in the long run as a for-profit entity. And there's been some really serious progress on that front, I think, in the commercial area. And I think we're also seeing, we'll see in a few months, but it sounds like there may be a little bit of rumblings of increased interest from the philanthropic sector to support local news. That's really important, and I hope that happens. So all those things like compared to a couple of years ago, where it was pretty much, as you said, doom and gloom, really some nasty trend lines. Those trend lines are still pretty nasty. But there's a real counter story now of innovation and creativity and not only innovation, but innovation that seems to be working and giving a real prospect of permanence that these are real models that can stick around. And so there's not enough of them yet, but at least it's not just a theory anymore. There's real models you can point to, of saying, like, see, this can be done.
Absolutely. And as I mentioned, you and I just came back from the Knight Media Forum, that is the most optimistic gathering of journalists I think I've been to maybe ever. And it wasn't just wishful thinking. There were concrete examples and sort of a sense that the disruption might be leading to something new that is positive in many aspects. Since you've worked a lot with young journalists through Report for America, is there a piece of advice, a single piece of advice you would give young journalists and a piece of advice you would tell them to ignore?
Let's see. Well, I think the main advice is kind of follows on the last question, which is that this actually may end up being a pretty good time to be a local journalist. That may sound like a weird thing to say because it is really hard to find good jobs, but there's never been more creativity in our field, or not in many decades. There's so many opportunities to do really good work that I certainly try to be encouraging that it's worth taking a shot. I think that young people need to be part of figuring this out and not just the journalism part, but the business part, too. So that's also advice is like, don't put blinders on and think that you shouldn't be thinking about the business side. We need all-hands-on-deck figuring out the business model problem. And I guess the other advice would be, having said all that, there's a lot of instability, and I think you kind of have to go into any job sort of thinking that, and the instability can strike anywhere. I remember in the first few years, we had reporters who decided not to do Report for America because they were going to be placed in a nonprofit newsroom, and they thought that was unstable. So they went to a commercial newsroom, and then they were laid off a year later and vice versa. So that's just like the reality of it. And you're just going to have to be resilient in a way I really didn't have to be when I was coming in because there was just more stability to it. Oh, advice that they shouldn't take, I guess, boy, I'm going to get in trouble for this. But I guess the advice that there's no such thing as objectivity is advice I would not take. Not that I think objectivity is like an attainable goal, but the notion of intellectual honesty as a guide star for journalism and journalists, I definitely still believe in. And there's a little bit of a fad toward, I guess, advocacy journalism, which definitely has its place. I, in fact, have worked at advocacy journalism organizations. There's a real role. But I think in the local news space, what we really need to do right now is reestablish trust with the readers. And that's going to require us being really scrupulously fair-minded in how we approach stories.
And just to build on your business point, because I feel like my description of the Knight Media Forum would be incomplete without pointing out it wasn't really just a gathering of journalists. It was business leaders. It was community leaders, community foundations, libraries, things like that. And one of the things that I think was very notable was a lot of the success stories we were hearing was because they were getting support and coaching on the business side. And some of that was innovation and new business models. Some of it was just best practices and what's a reserve fund and how much should you have and how do you manage growth, those sorts of things. Do you have a favorite failure of yours, something that might have been painful at the time but led you down a path that took you somewhere you needed to be or something you particularly learned from?
What a good question. There's so many to choose from. I guess when I turned over the reins at Report for America recently, and I had my kind of farewell party and I was thinking about this question, at least in the context of Report for America, of like, what did we get right in our initial assumptions and what did we learn? And there was a decent number of things that we had right, but there were quite a number of though where our initial assumptions were wrong and we adapted. I think one of them is that we were almost entirely focused on accountability reporting initially. We just viewed that as the highest and best use of our people and of journalism. And if you weren't having that kind of—there's sort of a little bit of pressure from funders in that direction. They want to show dramatic impact, and so we did really good work on that. But I think it was a little misguided in the sense that the kind of bread-and-butter community journalism that's less sexy and doesn't win you awards, of covering high school sports and obituaries and the theater production and the opening of the new playground or things like that are really important and for different reasons. But they're important for binding together a community, making people not hate each other, giving a community identity. And we learned from that and became more open to other types of beasts. This year, for the first time in Report for America, we have sports reporters which we never did before because initially we thought, oh, that's not civically important to accountability reporting and we've kind of evolved on that. I'm glad we did. The other mistake we made initially is we were always very conscious of being in every state, being in red states and blue states, but we finally figured out that a lot of our red state programs were actually in blue dots within red states. And I just said that's not the same thing, that's not what we're after. So we set a goal of having 30% of our programs be in rural areas, which I think we've hit now.
What is your favorite place to think big?
My favorite place walking my dog in Prospect Park, I would say, is where the highest percentage of big ideas arrive. There is something about walking, could be almost anywhere, honestly. But that's the place where I think over the years I've had the most free-ranging thoughts.
I think this industry is tough, and it's hard on people's mental health. And you dealt with a lot of young journalists who were discovering that. What recommendations do you have for just maintaining your sanity in the daily grind?
That's a great question and it is a real focus of Report for America. I mean, our staff has done an amazing job on that. They have workshops and resources all the time on mental health issues. It is really hard to be a local reporter out there now. Much harder I think, than when I was doing it and then COVID hit and it's really tough. And what the folks that have done these workshops for us have said, some of it's obvious take-care-of-yourself stuff, get help if you're struggling, be connected. I would add a few other things, like trying to be connected to the community in ways other than your job, whatever that is, through a church or a gym or a civic organization, something like that. That seems to really help a lot in our case, take advantage of the peer network. I think actually one of the best things about Report for America is something that we've barely had anything to do with, which is just these reporters connect with each other. We occasionally would try to organize it, and that never really worked. They would just go find each other. And I think if you talk to graduates of Report for America, they will often say that some of the best things about the program is just the other Report For America Corps members that they've met in their state or on their beat. And I think that's really helped. But the other thing I would say is—this I guess is specific to Report for America—is try to really understand yourself and what you need. Like, there were reporters who thought that they really wanted the adventure of going out to some place that they'd never been to before, but it turned out they'd never been in a small town before, and they got really lonely and then COVID hit, and it became a really hard thing. So there's a balance between pushing yourself to do things that you have never done before, which is great, but also be aware of what your own needs are. And if there's no shame in saying, I want to stay near family, that's where I'd rather do it, that's fine. Sometimes we as journalists, there's such an ethos of toughness and grittiness that maybe we're embarrassed to admit things like that. But the job itself is hard enough without making it any harder by putting unrealistic expectations on yourself.
Yeah. And then the penultimate question—the last one will be media recommendations, so if your unconscious mind wants to spin on that—if you project five years down the road, Rebuild Local has been wildly successful. What does that look like to you?
I have an exact answer for this because I was putting together a fundraising deck the other day, and I said, you know, I need a slide in here for what things would look like if five years from now. So I said 10,000 or more local reporters throughout the country, made possible through various public policies, and that would make a huge dent. We've lost something like 40,000 or 50,000 reporters. But I think if wisely targeted getting 10,000 reporters back in the field, and I think ultimately we should shoot for something more like 25,000. But from the policy part, if we could get 10,000 more reporters in the field, that would make it a big difference.
From that and back to the optimism point, I think one good thing that could come out of this is those 10,000 reporters, you have an opportunity to shape what that looks like, as an industry we do. The mistakes we've made in the past in terms of representation and inclusiveness, including the community in the journalism, and all of that, I think this gives us an opportunity to have a new start at that.
I totally agree. I think there's a real shot that we could create a local new system that's really much better than what we've had before. Because in addition to the main reason being what you said, like, even in the golden years, there was horrible cases of either communities not being represented at all or even worse, being badly represented or maligned, especially Black communities. But there's a second part, too, which is that we now, because of technology, have incredible storytelling tools that bring our journalism to life in amazing multimedia ways and can use technology around data searches and things like that. I think any given reporter has the ability to do more and do better than a given reporter 30 years ago. So that's exciting.
And then that last question riffing on Ezra Klein but broadening it to any form of media movies, books, magazines, podcasts, three to five pieces of media that you would recommend.
Yeah, one just, I was trying to think of things that aren't like nerdy journalism things. Like I do read the Pulitzer Institute newsletter and CJR and the trade press, and there's a lot of good stuff in there, but that's not so interesting. So of the political journals out there, the one I actually enjoy is called The Bulwark, which is a kind of I guess it's Never Trump Republicans. I just find them to be more unpredictable in a lot of ways than publications that are more solidly in one camp or not. But my dirty pleasure podcast is a podcast called The History of Rock through 500 Songs. It's amazing. It's this guy who just—I don't know, he's read every book ever written about the history of rock and he's come up with these just incredible podcasts about each song or each period of history. That's like my diversion from local journalism. When I don't want to listen to something about politics or local journalism, that's where I go.
Thank you for listening to the Local News Matters podcast. And thanks to Steve for your time and all the passion, innovation and collaboration you've brought to the industry. Check back next episode for my conversation with Dave Perry and Joaquin Alvarado, who will discuss their effort to apply the Green Bay Packers model of community ownership to the Aurora Sentinel. A final thanks to our production partners at Pirate Audio. Pirate Audio believes every community deserves great things to listen to, and they are on a mission to help their local newsrooms reach their communities via audio. If you're interested in starting a podcast or need production support, let me know and I'd be happy to connect you. If you like this episode and what we're doing more generally, please follow on your favorite podcast app. Leave us a five star review on Apple Podcast and tell your friends about us. I appreciate the support. You can find past episodes, full transcripts and relevant links, and sign up for our newsletter at localnewsmatterspodcast.com or for lazy typists like me at lnmpod.com. You can also follow us on most social media at lnmpod. If you have recommendations of others doing interesting and innovative work in local news, let me know through the contact form at the website, lnmpod.com.