FILLING THE LOCAL NEWS VOIDS
You don’t have to explain what a “news desert” is to Stephanie Wright. The community activist lives in Colerain Township, the largest township in Hamilton County and perhaps the most parched area for local news coverage in Greater Cincinnati. She says the last reporter to show up at a township trustees meeting worked for Northwest Press, a free weekly distributed by The Cincinnati Enquirer. “And she hasn’t been here in seven years,” says Wright. The Enquirer discontinued its Community Press publications entirely in May 2022.
So where are the township’s nearly 60,000 residents getting their local news? “Probably my big mouth on Facebook,” Wright jokes, referring to the page “A Better Colerain…” that she and fellow activist Kathy Mohr run for 1,500 members. With no one in the local media performing watchdog duties, they sued township trustees for violations of the Open Meetings Act after a hand-picked comprehensive land use committee met privately and without minutes for six months before issuing its recommendations in 2019. An appeals court ruled in favor of Wright and Mohr in April 2022, invalidating the committee’s recommendations and ordering all further meetings to be public and recorded. The outcome of the lawsuit never made the local news.
A new nonprofit local news initiative, however, has ambitious plans to utilize hundreds of watchdog citizens like Wright and Mohr across Ohio to fill media coverage gaps in underserved communities. The Ohio Local News Initiative recently launched Signal Cleveland with a staff of full-time digital journalists who won’t be insulated in a cyber-walled ivory tower but will engage directly with audiences through a community advisory board, weekly Zoom “office hours” open to readers, and regular town hall-style meetings. Lila Mills, a former Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter who established Cleveland Documenters, a team of 500 residents covering local government and school board meetings, was named editor in chief of Signal Cleveland. Her documenter program is being absorbed into the newsroom.
Rita McNeil Danish, a former city solicitor for the City of Cincinnati and most recently diversity, equity, and inclusion strategic partner for Taft Stettinius & Hollister in Columbus, was named CEO of Signal Ohio in December.
These are just the first steps for the initiative, says Dale Anglin of the Cleveland Foundation, a major financial backer of the journalism project that’s raised $7.5 million so far. To be effective “this has to be statewide,” says Anglin, who has spent her 25-year career directing programs for children, youth,health, and community development. “Our goal from the very start was larger than Northeast Ohio. We’re really hoping we can convince Cincinnati and Columbus and some of our other friends to join us by raising money for their own local newsrooms as part of a statewide network. We know we’re all experiencing the same situation.”
According to research compiled by the American Journalism Project (AJP), the U.S. has lost 2,100 newspapers since 2004 as well as 60 percent of its journalism jobs since 2008, leaving 1,800 communities without local news coverage. Although every county in Ohio had at least one newspaper back in 2018, including a daily and four weeklies in Hamilton County, hundreds of smaller communities across the state have become news deserts.
Michael Ouimette, AJP’s senior vice president of strategy and startups, says the Ohio Local News Initiative is in talks with potential partners in Cincinnati, although he wouldn’t identify them. The initiative has made deeper inroads in Columbus, where Tom Katzenmeyer, chief executive of the Columbus Arts Council, has agreed to chair a board of directors.
Interest in the initiative has indeed been piqued at the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, which has nearly $1 billion in assets to distribute among nonprofit organizations in eight counties. Rasheda Cromwell, GCF’s senior director of community strategies, says the cause of local journalism is one the foundation could certainly support. “We’re exploring how we can leverage our position and provide a light, if you will, on what is happening here in our community,” she says. The foundation is looking into providing funds to LINK Media of Northern Kentucky, a hybrid for-profit/nonprofit local news outlet launched in late 2021 in Boone, Campbell, and Kenton counties.
It was a tough decision for the Cleveland Foundation to pledge $2.65 million to Signal Cleveland over the next two years, Anglin says. The foundation’s board of directors and programming staff had to be persuaded that the investment was worth it even though it would mean taking money away from more established social causes such as homelessness and education. “What I said to the board and the programming staff, and they got it, is that information is a tool for helping residents understand their lives and what’s happening in the world,” she says. “If residents don’t have the right information, your strategy on trying to end homelessness, turn around climate change, and improve education is for naught. They’re not going to have the information to make informed decisions about [political] candidates. And when you don’t have that information, what takes its place? Misinformation, mistrust, all that.”
Surveys have consistently shown that most Americans trust their local news over national outlets. “When local journalism dried up, what happened?” asks Richard Campbell, who retired in 2019 as head of the media, journalism, and film department at Miami University. “People started listening to Hannity on talk radio or watching CNN. Their whole way of thinking about community has just been obliterated.”
Campbell was part of a group of concerned residents in Oxford who banded together to create their own local news website after Cox Media, owner of The Dayton Daily News and The Journal-News of Butler County, stopped publishing a separate weekly edition of The Oxford News. Cox tucked a four-page Oxford News insert into the Sunday Journal-News, where it was lost among the coverage of Middletown and Hamilton. To even get the Sunday insert, Oxford readers had to subscribe to The Journal-News.
Campbell and other community members raised their own money and landed a grant from the Oxford Community Foundation to publish The Oxford Observer, a digital news site where Miami journalism students can get real-world experience writing local news stories under the guidance and editorship of Miami faculty.
Oxford isn’t the only community in the Cincinnati area to create its own oasis in the local news desert. LINK Media purchased River City News and Ft. Thomas Matters in 2021 and began a novel approach to covering Northern Kentucky with a hybrid for-profit/nonprofit model. Lacy Starling, chief executive of LINK, half-jokingly calls it a “for-break-even” model. “It’s the best of both worlds,” she says. “I can sell advertising and have sponsorships and not be subject to IRS 501(c)3 scrutiny. But then I have this other nonprofit piece that allows me to raise money [from donations and grants] for community interest journalism.”
To help LINK hit the ground running, Northern Kentucky’s Horizon Community Fund created a separate local journalism account for LINK’s operation with the stipulation that donor money be used only for the salaries of reporters and editors covering public interest news, including education, government, health care, and politics—but not opinion. The fund’s money “can’t be used for sports reporting or arts and entertainment coverage. We can’t even pay for coffee in the newsroom,” says Starling, bemoaning wryly that anyone in journalism knows that coffee fuels the profession’s endless deadlines. More than $400,000 has been raised so far for the Northern Kentucky Community Journalism Fund.
Starling says advertising revenue pays the full cost of mailing a LINK print newsletter to all 160,000 households in Northern Kentucky. Meanwhile, its fund-raising efforts have enabled the organization to add four more full-time employees. Starling realizes, of course, that there’s still a long way to go to match the resources of the pre-digital age. At its peak in the 1990s, she says, The Kentucky Post had a staff of 175 employees before closing shop 15 years ago.
Other notable nonprofit journalism projects include Report for America, launched in 2017 by the GroundTruth Project to fill the void in local coverage by training young reporters and providing them at bargain rates to for-profit newspapers. A joint pet project of traditional newspaper foundations and big-tech philanthropies like Google News Lab and the Facebook Journalism Project, Report for America pays half the salary of unseasoned journalists and places them at newspapers in underserved areas. They’ve sent 300 reporters to 200 newsrooms so far, including one to The Cincinnati Enquirer. And in Dayton, retired veteran journalists are training citizens as community watchdogs and freelance reporters through the non-profit Journalism Lab.
The Ohio Capital Journal is trying to guard the henhouse at the oft-corrupt state government level as for-profit newspapers slash and consolidate their state news bureaus. OJC is now one of 31 online state news operations across America under the umbrella of States Newsroom, a left-leaning nonprofit that grew out of a progressive think tank in North Carolina.
Founded in 2019 by Chris Fitzsimon, now its director and publisher, States Newsroom reported $10 million in donations from non-corporate donors in 2020. Rather than training unseasoned reporters and handing them over to corporate media, States Newsroom rehires veteran journalists who have been laid off by for-profit newspapers and sets them loose for the hunt. The result has been 405 journalism awards so far, according to its website.
While Anglin applauds the many community efforts to fill the gaps in local journalism, she points out that the Ohio Local News Initiative is the first attempt to bring together smaller nonprofits into a statewide network of coverage for the underserved—from minorities in urban areas to suburban and rural residents who don’t have the spending power to attract for-profit media’s attention.
Both for-profit and nonprofit local news outlets face the same daunting challenge of breaking through the noise and competitive clutter on social media sites to bring audience traffic to their websites, says Cincinnati Enquirer Executive Editor Beryl Love, who has the corporate title of market leader. Over the summer, Facebook steepened that challenge by changing its distribution algorithm to prioritize videos from TikTok and Instagram over news sources. Within weeks, Love says, The Enquirer’s traffic from Facebook and Twitter dropped from about 30 percent “to as low as 18 to 20 percent on some days of the week.”
The Enquirer is owned by Gannett, by far the nation’s largest publisher of for-profit newspapers following its merger in 2019 with Gatehouse. Its target audiences reside in the key ZIP codes where higher-income households with young families generate the most interest and revenue from advertisers. “We’re not looking for a traditional print reader but someone who is sort of at that age of acquisition,” says Love. “They might be buying their first home. They’ve got school-age children. So they’re starting to care about issues like education and anything to do with real estate and their home values and their taxes and public safety.”
To stave off the death spiral of reduced revenue followed by reduced news staffing and content that’s killed so many other local newspapers, Love says, The Enquirer has a dual approach: free breaking and trending news to attract readers to their website and in-depth coverage of key topics to lure new subscribers inside its paywall. But with a dwindling staff, he says, “local, local, local” coverage of public meetings is no longer possible, even in the paper’s key zones.
Love says he welcomes the expansion of the Ohio Local News Initiative into the Cincinnati area, especially if its goal is to cover underserved areas. “It never hurts to have more journalists in your community, that’s for sure,” he says. “There’s more than the corporate model to do journalism, and I am certainly excited about other people trying to find ways to do it.”
Supporters of local nonprofit journalism say the stakes are too high not to try. The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol to block counting electoral votes and other disturbing events demonstrate that the “democracy we thought was not fragile is, in fact, incredibly fragile,” says Anglin of the Cleveland Foundation. Underlying that fragility and its divisive wounds is a lack of relevant, trustworthy local news. “We have to rebuild our local journalism ecosystem, or else we are in serious trouble.”