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The plight affecting local news is arguably at its worst. Gannett has pivoted to reporters focused on Beyoncé and Taylor Swift months after it cut 6 percent of its news division. An ever-growing list of communities have become news deserts. National outlets such as The New York Times and Axios have launched targeted projects meant to bolster it, but even they cannot save the business models on the road to failure.
“'We’ve got to experiment with a range of different models before we find one that is really sustainable,” Alberto Ibargüen, the president of the Knight Foundation, told The Daily Beast. “You need for a fourth estate to be independent. You need for them to be able to resist the kind of pressure from government, from advertisers or even from powerful individual citizens. You need for them to be independent in order for this check and balance thing to work. And if they’re not economically independent, then how the hell are they going to be editorially and politically independent?”
Ibargüen’s foundation became an anchor investor last month in Press Forward, a new initiative by a former Knight Foundation trustee designed to infuse local newsrooms with cash to cement their status as community pillars. The goal is to move away from business models that are advertiser- or subscription-driven. The $150 million investment is one of the final acts for the 79-year-old outgoing president, who announced he’d be stepping down earlier this year and remains committed to the foundation’s mission of an informed electorate.
A former publisher of the Miami Herald, Ibargüen said journalists are no longer given the time to entrench themselves in a community, with outlets today opting for speed and cost-efficiency instead of delivering information—leaving everyone worse off. What’s preventing those communities from staying informed is a lack of resources for reporters to do their jobs, he said.
“That is the way you have to do it, and that takes a hell of a lot of money,” Ibargüen said. “So does going to the board of education every week or every other week whenever they need, listening to the arguments, listening to the discussion, and having a reporter who doesn’t just walk in and report that board member X took a swipe at board member Y. It’s a reporter who knows something about the policy that they're talking about, something about the books that they want to ban. You know how you do that? You give them time, and time costs money. It's just not rocket science.”
But the for-profit companies built for producing local news seem to have strayed.
Gannett, the largest newspaper company in the U.S., announced its plan last month to hire two reporters dedicated to covering Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, respectively, even as some of its newsrooms have been shuttered or seen their staffs dwindle.
“The USA TODAY Network is committed to serving our communities across America with journalism that is essential to millions of readers, viewers and listeners,” Kristin Roberts, Gannett’s chief content officer, said in a statement at the time. “And that includes providing our audience with content they crave.”
Yet its local newspapers have suffered. Hundreds of Gannett journalists at papers nationwide walked off the job in June in protest over its newsroom cuts, with some of its unions demanding the company do more to support their local outlets. “Gannett claims it's going to ‘save journalism,’” the union at the Arizona Republic tweeted. “We’re not sure how overworking and underpaying journalists accomplishes that goal."
Sinclair, the second-largest operator of local TV stations in the U.S., has also prioritized national issues over local issues. A 2019 study in the American Political Science Review found that Sinclair stations “reduce coverage of local politics, increase national coverage and move the ideological tone of coverage in a conservative direction relative to other stations operating in the same market,” its authors wrote in a Washington Post story.
Such jobs—and the traffic and viewership they may bring to local news outfits—may help fund beats like local education or city government. But those positions and Sinclair’s blanketing of stories across its local television stations can’t be classified as local news, he said.
“Some of the business models that they’re trying and others are trying ... don’t have a model of deep local news,” Ibargüen said. Models like Sinclair’s are “local-like,” he said, where a local segment may resemble a local news broadcast without addressing that community’s specific issues.
“If we want a system that actually informed citizens in a meaningful way, it's got to be a system that has sufficient economic power to be able to hire the people to do the job in the right way,” Ibargüen said.