We can save local journalism. It will take a big idea and big vision to do it.
I’ve spent this academic year searching high and low for a solution to the mess local journalism finds itself in. I’ve talked to users. I’ve listened to tech execs. I’ve asked questions of thought leaders.
There aren’t a lot of great solutions.
Corporate media is threatened. Upstarts are trying mightily. Newspapers are folding. TV stations are chasing clicks.
Unless we do something big, local communities could end up without information to inform daily decisions. Without local journalism, who will keep the powerful accountable?
There is a solution. Really. An actionable, real-life, “this could work” solution.
Granted, it’s a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, but to keep local journalism going it is what we need.
What if an endowment were established to fund journalists across America? Thousands of them, placed in every market with a focus on issues that matter to local residents.
The idea may seem crazy, but a similar idea has already been serving the information needs of communities for nearly a century.
Big money, big impact
Andrew Carnegie was born in the 1830s. Over his lifetime, he amassed one of the largest fortunes ever — with investments in railroads, steel and oil. His fortune grew to the equivalent of $393 billion in 2018 dollars. That’s more than three times the wealth of current richest person Jeff Bezos (a paltry $110 billion).
In the last 18 years of his life, Carnegie gave away 90% of his money.
A major focus of this giving was a string of 2,500 libraries all over the world, including nearly 1,700 in the United States.
Carnegie and his foundation provided funds to build a structure — oftentimes magnificent community showplaces, many of which are still in operation today.
This could work for local news too
Libraries and local journalism have a lot in common. They both provide insight, bind a community together and, of course, serve information needs.
Libraries are seen as a public trust, funded with tax dollars, and are a focus for philanthropic giving in many communities.
In contrast, the vast amount of local news is provided by corporate interests. There isn’t anything offensive about making a profit from local news, but it has become quite a bit harder to do it.
From the day Craigslist started eating away at classified ads (one of the primary products newspapers used to sustain journalism), the cuts have kept coming. Now hedge funds are buying up ailing newspapers, slashing their staffs and wringing out profits for short-term gain.
Something else has to happen. Something big.
During a spring edition of JSK Speaks, Eric Newton, Innovation Chief at the Cronkite School at Arizona State University riffed on the idea for an endowment, which lit up my imagination and focused my research.
With an $8 billion endowment, big things are possible.
An endowment would invest that big chunk of cash and put most of the returns toward funding local news operations across America (See a formula for how an endowment works from the Delaware Community Foundation).
With proper management, that $8 billion fund could spin off 5.5%. That works out to $440 million… per year. Forever.
How would we ensure coverage across the nation? By doling out the dollars to each community based upon population.
To build a model, I used data from Nielsen to look at how many homes are located in 210 markets across the U.S. This classifies every American into a designated market area that is generally named for the biggest town or towns in their area.
Find your area below:
DMAs range in size from New York City with just more than 6.3% of Americans, down to Glendive, Montana, with .004%.
If you divvied up the $440 million based on the percentage of Americans living in an area, you get a decent amount of cash to spend. To keep the math simple, I’ve used a salary and benefits number of $80,000 per reporter in every market nationwide— but in practice this would adjust depending on cost of living.
An operation in New York City would get $27.7 million to spend each year.
Las Vegas would see $2.97 million.
Boise would pull in $1.038 million.
Even a small area like Casper-Riverton, Wyoming, would be granted $206,000.
If each operation spent 10% on overhead for things like offices, computers, promotion and the like — and spent the rest on reporting resources, you could hire an astounding 4,950 journalists.
By building a digital- and mobile-focused news operation with low overhead, no ads and minimal production cost, you can maximize the dollars going directly toward reporting.
Each local operation could have a charter tailored to the individual area, with support from a national organization. The national organization would not contribute editorial oversight, but instead help with things like a CMS, legal resources, FOIA help and the like. At the local level, a strong board of directors made up of non-political community leaders would be needed to help steer the operation.
Coverage resources would be allocated across all of an individual market area to ensure both the large towns and smaller rural areas are well served. The new grant-funded operation would live alongside existing media outlets who could run the content without a fee.
Any such effort would have to be designed to ensure accountability to communities and freedom from interference from a potential funding source. Funding shouldn’t come from a single individual in an ideal scenario. And of course, this is merely a starting point.
Are you crazy? Where will the money come from?
Is it crazy? Sure. Well-meaning folks who have other ideas scoff. I’ll admit this is a thought exercise, but the current game of trying to hit singles and doubles isn’t working. It’s time to go for the grand slam — before it is too late.
The first thing folks ask when I discuss this idea is “where would the money come from?” While $8 billion sounds like a lot to the average person, it’s not even big when it comes to endowment size. Here at Stanford, the university’s endowment stands at $24 billion. Big charitable trusts like the Gates Foundation ($40 billion), Ford Foundation ($10 billion) Knight Foundation ($2.5 billion), already do some work in the journalism space. There are many folks with large war chests at their disposal that could come together to make this happen. The question is, how do you convince them why they should devote their resources to local journalism?
Keeping a working democracy intact seems like a good why.
Don Day is a 2018 Stanford John S. Knight Fellow. He has twenty years experience in media — leading teams, producing award-winning journalism and innovating in the digital journalism space. He currently is the publisher of BoiseDev.com.