Out of the ashes left by Alden Global Capital, a community saves its news
By Sue Cross, Executive Director & CEO, Institute for Nonprofit News
From Eden Prairie, Minnesota, here’s the happiest journalism news of the new year: Eden Prairie is saving its local news, one year after a hedge fund bought the local newspaper and promptly closed it.
Some 65,000 people live in this farm town turned suburb, on the rolling bluffs where the prairie begins, fifteen miles southwest of Minneapolis overlooking the Minnesota River. On February 5th last year, Alden Global Capital bought Eden Prairie’s local weekly paper, The Eden Prairie News. Two months later, Alden announced its closure. Eden Prairie was one more town hit by the news crisis that is playing out globally, as economic shifts decimate local news around the world.
If you’ve been following the media industry, you know what’s been happening. Advertising money that used to support newspapers has been captured and consolidated by digital platforms, and these platforms don’t invest in covering local news. As revenue continues to plummet, newspapers close, and some are bought by investors in distressed companies that then strip them of assets, leaving little local coverage. In the U.S. alone, a University of North Carolina project found more than 2,100 communities have lost their local newspapers and become “news deserts.” Thousands of other communities have been left with “ghost newspapers,” thin sheafs with just enough content to keep pulling a bit of ad money out of their town. The ghosts keep publishing, but without commitment to the kind of local reporting that keeps a town connected, supports local businesses, or maintains an eye on local government.
In Eden Prairie, they weren’t having it.
People gathered. Volunteers rallied. They set out to save their local news. And the happy story is they’re doing it. You can read about their journey on the website of the new local news source, the Eden Prairie Local News. The volunteer spirit behind local news is so strong in Eden Prairie that two dozen journalists are volunteering to produce the news site and dozens of others are working on its board or building community support on top of their day jobs. The site is up and running months before the team planned on an official launch.
This week, Eden Prairie Local News became a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, joining some 300 nonprofit newsrooms that are reimagining, restoring and reinventing news across the U.S.
The newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief Brad Canham told me, “We’re discovering new capabilities in our digital environment that enhance connections and trust between our readers, the businesses and schools which serve them, and the local institutions in Eden Prairie. We see our INN affiliation as an opportunity to learn from the trailblazers in digital community news and to share best practices.”
For all its darkness, 2020 saw the greatest growth of nonprofit newsrooms we’ve ever seen. We’re in a new age for local newsrooms: they’re not run by faraway businesses, they’re not organized to generate wealth, they are part and parcel of their communities. The community is the business model.
Here at INN, we’ve been helping nonprofit newsrooms grow since 2009. People often ask us if these independent startups will survive. The answer for Eden Prairie and anywhere is a confident “yes.” About 95 percent of the news nonprofits INN works with make it to at least their fifth birthday, an extraordinary success rate for any kind of startup. We hear from 60–100 news organizations that are starting and or converting to nonprofit each year.
These ventures are not without their challenges. As the president of Eden Prairie Local News, Jennifer Loon, put it, “There’s a unique energy and sense of partnership in Eden Prairie that has fueled our start-up so far. I see our biggest challenge as finding the donors and advertisers to support our hyperlocal coverage so we can move from an all-volunteer model to a hybrid led by paid professionals.”
Nearly 3,000 participants sought training and advice from INN in 2020 on how to build public service newsrooms that are inclusive, have a positive impact for their communities and, by design, exist to report for the common good. Major funding is building, through social venture funds, individual major gift donors, pooled funds like NewsMatch, foundation grants and potentially even government funding programs.
While the closure of commercial newspapers continues at a troubling pace, there is another side of the story. Capital is being gathered to restore independent news — financial capital and human capital. People like the citizens of Eden Prairie are showing commitment to their community, and journalists are proving their determination to keep looking out for their neighbors by reporting for them and with them.
This is a new kind of journalism, starting small but growing very fast. It survives and thrives. And from the pandemic through racial reckoning, through political polarization and economic rebuilding, these independent newsrooms are forming an information safety net for the communities they’re part of, for the people they serve.