When E.W. Scripps closed the Rocky Mountain News in February of 2009, Kimberly Humphreys wasn’t going to take it lying down. Then an editor at the daily paper, which still had 200,000 paying subscribers, Humphreys launched a public awareness campaign called IWantMyRocky.com.
“One thing I have realized,” Humphreys told me that year, “is that you can’t be objective about your right to exist.” Speaking that summer at a conference of journalists and educators, she talked about media ownership, business models and the policy decisions that led up to the closing of the Rocky. Journalists, she said, weren’t supposed to worry about those things, but “right now, part of the job of a journalist is advocating for the job of journalist.”
I thought of Humphreys this month when I read the Denver Post’s bold editorial calling on its hedge fund owners to cease ongoing cuts and sell the paper. The piece has garnered widespread attention and The New York Times reported afterward that a Colorado group is forming to try and buy the paper.
Local ownership, especially non-traditional ownership approaches, could make a big difference for the paper, but it is only a piece of the puzzle. Owners, journalists and communities need to understand that we are all in this together. At Democracy Fund we are working to connect new business models to community engagement and lifting up the voices of people who have too often been left out of these discussions.
Journalists Can’t Do it Alone
In the wake of the Denver Post editorial, Neil Chase, the executive editor of the Mercury News (whose Bay Area News Group is also owned by Alden Global and has also suffered drastic layoffs) wrote his own editorial arguing: “Owners of a free press must be committed to its vital role,” and calling on local people to support their local newsrooms. But he also went a step further and owned up to the fact that newsrooms need to do more to rebuild trust and listen to their communities. Announcing a series of town halls around the Bay Area, Chase wrote “we need to do a better job of listening.”
Around the country there is a growing infrastructure and organizations with expertise in helping newsrooms listen to their communities. Just this week 34 newsrooms received grants from the Community Listening and Engagement Fund to expand their community engagement efforts through projects like Hearken and Groundsource. In New Jersey and North Carolina the News Voices project from Free Press is using community organizing techniques to bring local residents and newsrooms together around a shared vision for stronger communities. The Jefferson Center’s Your Voice Ohio project has 42 newsroom partners working together on collaborative journalism and community events across the state. Similar efforts are underway in Oregon, New Mexico, Alabama and beyond. Democracy Fund support these and other efforts because they focus on tackling the wicked and intertwined challenges of trust, inclusion and sustainability in news.
Critically, these projects are not just about saving journalism as it has been, but rather they are about creating venues and processes by which communities and newsrooms can co-create the future of journalism together.
People understand the critical role local media play: they want it to do well, but they want it to do better, too.
The projects above show that people are willing to show up to support journalism that stands up for them. This point is reinforced by a recent study of public attitudes about the press in Chicago found that the communities who felt most poorly served by local news were the most willing to volunteer their time to help cover public meetings and other civic events. In Chicago, City Bureau is answering the call with an open public newsroom and a civic documenters project. Nonprofit newsrooms like City Bureau are on the vanguard of this movement. As daily papers change hands, owners and newsrooms should look to them for models of how to rebuild journalism with the community.
Of, By and For the People
This work is profoundly important right now. In 2009, E.W. Scripps couldn’t find a local owner to buy the Rocky Mountain News. When it closed, Denver went from a town with two daily newspapers to just one, and a study at the time by Portland State University professor Lee Shaker found a significant decline in civic engagement. Denver still boasts an important weekly, great public media, a new digital newsroom, and strong nonprofit watchdogs, but what will happen to the civic fabric of the city if the Denver Post closes? “Hey, that means we can do whatever we want,” one Colorado lawmaker has already joked.
In the Washington Post this weekend Steve Waldman and Charlie Sennott write about the Denver situation, arguing “The crisis in journalism has turned into a crisis of democracy.” I agree, healthy democracy depends on vibrant journalism and communities need local newsrooms. But we must remember that newsrooms also need local communities.
If we want to defend and fulfill the democratic promise of the press, newsrooms need to be more democratic themselves.
Fiona Morgan, of the News Voices project argues that newsrooms should treat communities less like consumers and more like constituents. “If only journalists care about the future of journalism, we’re in big trouble,” she says. When journalists side with their communities over bad owners it is a powerful alliance. But it is not enough to call on communities to subscribe or “pay up” to save local news if news organizations aren’t also willing to listen to and stand with communities. This was the idea behind Kimberly Humphrey’s IWantMyRocky.com effort, but it came too late. Let’s start earlier this time. Let’s start now.
Josh Stearns is the Director of the Public Square Program at Democracy Fund. Follow him on Twitter at @jcstearns.