Who Said Local Muckraking is Dead?

Pressland Editors
Aug 5, 2019 · 13 min read

A new generation of non-traditional reporters and start-ups dare to suggest the graveyard rumors are overstated.

Image for post
Image for post
“It’s very hard to raise money for this — investigative reporting is not the ballet”: Chris Faraone, founder of the Boston Institute for Non-Profit Journalism.

By Thomas Maier

In Boston, the wise-cracking Haley Hamilton serves up cocktails to support her reporting work for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, including a sobering six-month investigation into the politics of state liquor licenses. In New Mexico, after watching the collapse of her local daily, Julie Ann Grimm joined a Santa Fe website that depends on donations to conduct in-depth government reporting. And in New Orleans, journalists like Gordon Russell — disaffected after a series of layoffs and down-sizing at the longtime daily owned by the billionaire Newhouse family — join an upstart challenger called The Advocate which this year won a Pulitzer Prize.

The three present different faces of the same new breed of journalist — one battered by the sharp decline of traditional print newspapers during the past decade, but determined to find innovative ways to keep an eye on government and other important institutions vital to democracy. On their shoulders rests the uncertain fate local journalism.

Some are baby-boom veterans who found or created new jobs after being laid off. But many are millennials who are pursuing journalism without illusion, working at and often launching web start-ups, nonprofit foundations and alternative print publications. Each face their own career obstacles and financial difficulties. All endure a constant struggle to inform their fellow citizens about their schools, health care, environment and City Hall in an era of public distrust and diminished resources. For many, journalism has become more a vocation of high ideals and low wages, rather than the cushy upper-middle-class profession it was for those employed by media conglomerates a generation ago.

“People under 35 are getting shafted left and right, and it’s up to us to hold people accountable,” says Hamilton, 31, with the fervor typical of this generation of reporters. Last year, Hamilton earned half of her $45,000 total income by bartending.

Keeping local journalism alive often means making personal sacrifices such as long hours in day jobs or second careers. “I believe in journalism — we want to keep an eye on what the government is doing in our name and to contribute to the public discourse,” says Grimm, editor and publisher of the Santa Fe Reporter, an alt-weekly and website. Last year, it partnered with an investigative non-profit called New Mexico In Depth to publish a series of exposes about racial profiling in arrests by the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives.

“I have to be frugal with the resources I have,” says Grimm, 40, a University of Missouri graduate who previously worked at the Associated Press and a local daily newspaper ravaged by buyouts and cutbacks. “I write, I edit, I change the light bulbs. I vacuum the floors.”

In-depth reporting is hard to come by on a regular basis, she admits. With only two young full-time reporters — both of whom live with their family and earn $30,000 a year — Grimm says coverage like the ATF stories is difficult to repeat. “The amount of hours that went into that [ATF] report will never be compensated by the measly salary,” Grimm says. “But you You put up with that [low wages] because it matters.” His reporters usually stay only two or three years, then leave because of concerns about being unable to afford a family.

Grimm created a local nonprofit in 2017 to help finance reporting for a wide array of under-covered or neglected stories. The idealism behind her nonprofit, the New Mexico Fund for Public Interest Journalism, is stated clearly on its website mission statement: “An informed and active populace makes the community stronger, amplifies voices, makes change possible — makes life better.”

Image for post
Image for post
Julie Ann Grimm joined a Santa Fe website that depends on donations to conduct in-depth reporting on the local government.

This year, Grimm also depends on a temporary reporter whose wages are paid by grants from two other nonprofits, Report for America and Solutions Journalism Network, working to close coverage gaps nationwide. Created in 2017, Report for America is modeled on the Peace Corps and Teach for America, with donations from several well-known foundations. Solutions Journalism Network, meanwhile, gets its money from groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation.


Since 2004, one in five U.S. newspapers has died, many of them weeklies that only printed local news. As of 2018, nearly two-thirds of 3,143 counties in the United States did not have a daily newspaper. Of the 7,100 surviving newspapers, many are “ghost paper” that carry advertising but little or no news. Even big daily newspapers increasingly resemble leaky ships, losing thousands of readers each year, sinking into a sea of red ink. Outside of a few marquee dailies, in depth coverage or investigative exposes are rare.

“I hear it all the time — the newspaper is not what it used to be,” says Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina. Her academic reports coined the term “news desert” and “ghost papers” in tracking these dramatic changes in the media.

Abernathy’s 2018 report on America’s “news deserts” found that total newspaper readership had declined from 122 million to 73 million within 15 years. Only a dozen U.S. cities still had two competing dailies. Most citizens left without a local newspaper lived in areas where incomes were lower than the national average. “The residents of America’s emerging news deserts are often its most vulnerable citizens,” the report noted. “They are generally poorer, older and less educated than the average American.”

When President Trump took office in 2017, attacks on the media’s credibility became more frequent, further aggravating the public’s dilemma. “In an age of fake news and divisive politics, the fate of communities across the country — and of grassroots democracy itself — is linked to the vitality of local journalism,” the report warned.

Rather than curse the darkness, Abernathy said the loss of local newspapers has been answered, at least somewhat, by the rise of more than 500 digital news outlets around the country. They are often found in places like Rutland, Vermont and Flint, Michigan, where the local dailies have failed or been diminished. These “new kids on the block,” she said, generally have lean staffs and are operated through a mix of nonprofit and for-profit business models.

But these onlines oases in America’s “news deserts” are not yet a long-term solution. Only 20 percent of these new sites make enough money to be self-sufficient, a Knight Foundation study found.

Fighting for survival can be a lonely task. “All around us you see the demise of the newspaper”, says Bill Horner III, who bought a small paper in central North Carolina, the Chatham News + Record, with two partners in November 2018. As editor and publisher, Horner immediately created a new website for the century-old publication, but is struggling to make ends meet. While trying to grow its ads and subscribers, he’s considered seeking help from nonprofit groups supporting journalism and from other donors.

“We don’t provide benefits — we can’t afford them — and we pay low wages,” Horner explains. “It’s hard to get good young people, the talent pool of applicants is much smaller. They are going into public relations or advertising because they know the money [in journalism] is not there.”

Despite the economic difficulties, there are other rewards for Horner, like working with his son who is a prolific reporter on his small staff. Recently, the paper published a five-part series by Zachary Horner about the opioid crisis in Chatham County. The impressive package tackled a subject ignored in the expanding “news desert” surrounding them, and prompted the county government to sue the drug manufacturers of this abused pain-killer.

“We’re someone who is looking out for the community, a watchdog on government,” Horner underlines. “We’re doing essential work.”

Given this state of journalism in 2019, experts say, young people entering the field have tailored their expectations accordingly. Much like a teacher or a social worker, those willing to accept $30,000 a year to be a reporter prize the emotional rewards and civic value of their work.

It’s often the most heartening part of today’s generally dismal diagnosis for American news media. Commenting on the students she encounters at UNC, Abernathy says, “This group tends to be much more altruistic. They see journalism as what democracy is all about.”

Image for post
Image for post
Chris Faraone has kept the spirit of the Boston Phoenix alive in The Dig.

For decades, the Boston Phoenix, founded in 1965, was nationally known as the free-wheeling alternative weekly that stood in contrast to the Hub’s staid daily newspaper, The Boston Globe. But when the Phoenix collapsed in 2013, due to the loss of print ads and the lingering recession’s effects, staff writer Chris Faraone wasn’t sure what to do next.

“I was writing for national outlets, like Esquire, as a freelancer, but I’m a local guy,” says Faraone, a bearded and gregarious writer whose voice hints of his native New York. In 2014, Faraone attended a media conference where he came upon an answer: nonprofit journalism. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘If all these other places have not-for-profits, why don’t we?” recalled Faraone.

Faraone returned to Boston and founded the Boston Institute for Non-Profit Journalism, or BINJ (pronounced “binge”). Since then, it has provided in depth, investigative stories for The Dig, Boston’s alternative weekly whose website Faraone edits, as well as for other local publications, websites and podcasts.

With the aid of donations and foundation grants, BINJ goes after “the stories that take more than 1,000 hours,” says Faraone. Recent topics include questionable drug treatment methods, environmental concerns, tracking to gun laws, and fair wages for lowly-paid recycling workers sorting through trash. Though vital to the community, investigative reporting is often expensive and time-consuming, he says. “That’s the problem — how do you pay for that?”

Faraone said most full-time reporters can’t afford to live in Boston. “My generation is gone, most are in other jobs that pay more than $60,000,” he explained. “I lived like a pauper until I was 34, until I had a three-year-old. A lot of my freelance writers will have all sorts of jobs. They work in restaurants, offices and less glamorous writing jobs.”

By serving drinks at a Cambridge restaurant and at a baseball bar near Fenway Park, Haley Hamilton earns enough to continue writing for BINJ. She points with pride to her 2016–17 multi-part investigation “The Thirsty Games’, which exposed how the antiquated state liquor license system in Massachusetts was both racially discriminatory and costly to consumers.

“It has fostered political corruption, bred an incestuous cuddle puddle of greed and hand greasing, and stymied Boston’s growth potential in the long run — all while posing a staggering disservice to communities of color,” Hamilton wrote in a tour de force of local history and savvy detective work.

Hamilton showed how the price tag for a much sought-after state liquor license can reach up to $350,000, so prohibitive that many owners of establishments in minority communities can’t afford it. Her series garnered a lot of attention in a city where the most famous political dynasty began in a tavern run by P.J. Kennedy, grandfather of the future U.S. president.

“That was a lot of time reporting,” she says of the series. “I got $800 for it. It took me six months.”

During her work on that story, Hamilton, 31, made sure her journalistic sleuthing didn’t conflict with her full-time 3p.m.-to-3 a.m. shifts as a bartender. This wasn’t the journalism career she planned. She had earned an English degree at Reed College in Oregon and a 2014 masters from Northeastern University in Boston, but quickly realized she couldn’t land a reporting position at the Globe or any other daily. They were shedding jobs rather than offering them to newbies like her.

Haley Hamilton serves up cocktails to support her reporting work for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, including a sobering six-month investigation into the politics of state liquor licenses.

Image for post
Image for post
Haley Hamilton investigated the politics of state liquor licenses in Massachusetts for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

“I knew newspaper jobs were few and far between,” she recalled. “Things were collapsing and nobody I knew was getting that gig.”

Along with paying her bills, she found that bartending — especially schmoozing with customers, making them feel at ease as they recounted their personal stories — was very much like the necessary listening skills of a journalist. “They don’t sound like they go together but it is very complementary,” she said with a laugh. “On a Wednesday night around 11, you can talk to people and have extended conversations about politics, their jobs, how bad app-based dating is.”

Hamilton, who aspires to write a book someday, said many millennial journalists like herself are attracted to places like BINJ and the Dig for journalistic reasons as much as the paycheck. “They do a lot of stories about under-reported communities,” Hamilton said. “The Globe is writing for the Boomer generation, but a lot of issues my generation is dealing with are deemed not newsworthy. We don’t do the national news or breaking news. But we give more of the how and the why, rather than just what was said.”

Faraone said BINJ, like other small nonprofit news groups, exists in a constant state of struggle to find more funding to support its local journalism. Nearly half of all philanthropy money goes to larger national award-winning groups such as ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, according to Bill Birnbauer, author of The Rise of Nonprofit Investigative Journalism in the United States.

While the idea of nonprofit news has grown over the past decade, Birnbauer says “many city and state-based news organizations that are filling gaps in local reporting have not yet persuaded enough foundations without a tradition of funding media, wealthy philanthropists, and smaller donors to back them. Unless that happens, in my view, nonprofit journalism will not reach its potential, no matter how valuable its coverage, nor will it abate the spread of ‘news deserts’ across the United States.”

Taking money from special interest donors who want to promote a certain cause can create ethical dilemmas for nonprofit newsrooms. Faraone says funding from any source supporting their work is fully disclosed to readers. Historically, corporate newspaper editors have been known to kill or coverage that might offend a powerful advertiser. Abernathy says nonprofits have to be careful to develop “guidelines that help clarify these squishy issues.”

Upsetting Boston’s power brokers may not help BINJ’s attempts at fund-raising attempts. But Faraone says it’s an essential part of their mission. “It’s very hard to raise money for this — investigative reporting is not the ballet,” Faraone explains. “Rich people do not want to support us. A lot of stuff we do is uncomfortable for them.”


At a low moment in his career, in 2012, Gordon Russell thought of creating his own not-for-profit newsroom. Journalism was no longer what he thought it should be. He wanted to do something about it.

Russell, now 50, had spent many years at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, sharing in two Pulitzer Prizes for their remarkable coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. But calamitous changes as the Times Picayune, ordered up by the Newhouse family-owned company Advance Publications, resulted in big cutbacks at the paper and forced layoffs. As a key editor, Russell found himself issuing pink slips to friends and long-time colleagues. He was sick about it.

“I loved the paper very much and it was a central part of my like, but I was very discouraged by the direction of things,” Russell recalled.

Along with another top manager, Russell considered what it would take to start his own non-profit devoted to covering the city. One possibility was a joint venture with a public radio station.

“We concluded we didn’t have good sources for funding and that it wasn’t our strength in raising money,” said Russell. “I thought it might crap out after a year and I would be looking for a new job. But I figured it was worth the shot.”

The main source of unhappiness at the Times-Picayune, published since 1837, stemmed from a surprise 2012 decision by the absentee owners, the Newhouse family, to focus on its digital version, sharply reduce staff, and reduce its print schedule to Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Many employees, who once believed the claims of ‘a lifetime job’ at the paper, learned the bad news from The New York Times.

For decades, the Newhouses, in classic Upstairs/Downstair style, had used the high profit margins from their out-of-town daily newspapers to fund their ritzy media properties in New York, such as Condé Nast magazines Vogue, Vanity and The New Yorker. While his younger brother Donald Newhouse oversaw the newspapers, chairman S.I. Newhouse Jr. became known as Manhattan’s king of culture, accumulating an art collection worth well over $100 million.

Journalists at the Newhouse newspapers seemed like an afterthought, says Rebecca Theim, author of Hell and High Water, a 2013 book about the Times-Picayune. “Donald makes the money so Si could spend it,” Theim said, summing up the employee sentiment at the time. “The newspapers were the cash cows that paid for the New Yorkerand [Vogue editor] Anna Wintour’s wardrobe.”

Many who departed found jobs outside of journalism. For Russell and a group of former Times Picstaffers, however, their solution became The Advocate, a Baton Rouge daily run by multi-millionaire owners, John and Dethel Georges. The Advocate decided to compete in New Orleans head-to-head against the Times Pic in an old-fashioned newspaper war.

By 2019, the white flag went up. As editor for investigation, Russell and a team of reporters won the Advocate’s first-ever Pulitzer Prize in April for a series about Louisiana’s criminal justice system. And in May, the Newhouses sold the Times-Picayune to the Advocate, laying off its entire staff. What’s left of the Times-Picayune’s assets will be folded into the Advocate.

Russell says the events in New Orleans over the past decade serve as an important reminder of journalism’s value to a community and that such a public service costs money. Looking ahead, he sees millennial journalists facing an uncertain future, with newsrooms unsure how they will pay for the stories they produce. “Certainly they are coming into this with their eyes wide open,” he says.

One of those future journalists may be Russell’s daughter, who has expressed interest in becoming a reporter, just like her Pulitzer Prize-winning father, when she finishes school.

“She’d be great at it, but I don’t know how I’d feel if my daughter became a journalist,” he admits. “I’m not sure how this is all going to work.”

Thomas Maier is the author of All That Glitters, an award-winning book about the Newhouse media empire. A revised edition will be published this September by Skyhorse.

Production DetailsV. 1.0.2
Last edited: August 5, 2019
Author: Thomas Maier
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Photos courtesy of the Boston Institute of Non-Profit Journalism (BINJ) and the Santa Fe Reporter

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store