Editorial: Optimism on local news funding, with a caveat

Far be it from us to suggest that recent headlines that portend an infusion of investment in local journalism is anything but a good thing for America.

However, in terms of what it means for the Current, forgive us if our optimism is a bit more guarded.

The big news was the launch on Sept. 7 of a nationwide initiative known as Press Forward, which plans to award more than $500 million to revitalize local news, beginning in 2024. Press Forward is a coalition of 22 donors, including the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which announced that it would be kicking into the pot $150 million over five years.

Given the nationwide need, that is awesome news — full stop. According to Press Forward, approximately 2,200 local newspapers have closed since 2005, which has resulted in 20% of Americans living in “news deserts.” As Press Forward notes, there is almost certainly a connection between the dramatic decline in local news and our country’s deepening divisions and weakening trust in institutions.

Press Forward’s new well of resources should only accelerate a trend recently documented in a study conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, which “found strong growth in support for nonprofit news over the past five years.”

That study also highlighted a widespread need to develop public guidelines on what type of money news organizations will accept, and how that is disclosed to readers.

As a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, the Current has adopted INN’s standards of editorial independence, which reads in part, “We accept gifts, grants and sponsorships from individuals and organizations for the general support of our activities, but our news judgments are made independently and not on the basis of donor support.”

As philanthropic support rises, some hope is percolating in Congress and on Beacon Hill, though it is less concrete.

In July, Rep. Claudia Tenney, a conservative Republican from New York, and Suzan DelBene, a Democrat from Washington, introduced the Community News and Small Business Support Act, which would seek to strengthen local news by providing tax breaks to small businesses that advertise with local news outlets and payroll tax credits to local news organizations to hire and retain journalists.

The nonpartisan, nonprofit organization Rebuild Local News believes the new bill improves upon its predecessor, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act.

Tax breaks for local news advertisers and employers are also key components of a bill pending before the Massachusetts legislature, H.2940, sponsored by Rep. Lindsay N. Sabadosa of Northampton and Sen. Paul W. Mark of Pittsfield, both Democrats.

Sabadosa and Mark’s bill would also provide individual taxpayers a credit of up to $250 for subscriptions to one or more local newspapers. (We would hope that language could be broadened to clarify that donations to nonprofit newspapers qualify for the credit, too.)

All of this is to say that help may be on the way — at least for local journalism, writ large.

However, in the short term — and even in the long term — efforts like the Current will likely only go so far as local support will take it. We are ever grateful to all those who had donated to and advertised in the Current thus far.

But to continue doing the type of journalism we have been doing, the need to raise revenue will be an ever-present challenge. As just one example, the Current recently paid $575 to get the email and text messages among school officials as part of our ongoing effort to get answers to a question to which we believed the community (still) deserves a better answer: why the School Committee decided to part ways with Superintendent John Buckey.

While that may be an unusual expense, the salaries of journalists who will chase down leads, ask tough questions and hold public officials accountable is not, nor is the cost of printing and distributing this newspaper throughout town.

Meanwhile, while we will certainly try to claim our fair share of philanthropy, the reality is that many of those funders will be seeking, in the words of Press Forward, to “close longstanding inequalities in journalism coverage and practice,” focusing on “historically underserved communities and economically challenged news deserts” — as well they should.

(As an aside, if you have been reading all of this thinking, “I have fundraising expertise that could help the Current navigate this landscape and ensure that it is making the most of its opportunities,” we would love to hear from you. Drop us a line to info@marbleheadnews.org.)

But while we are excited about what Press Forward or a new law might mean for our industry as a whole, we have a nagging fear that news of such developments will create the funding equivalent of the “bystander effect” in Marblehead, fostering the assumption that the Current will be fine, its needs attended to by someone else, someone from “away.”

That would be a most unfortunate miscalculation, so we will say it as straightforwardly as we can: We thank you for your past support… and please, keep it coming. 

The Current Editorial Board
info@marbleheadnews.org | + posts

The members of the Current’s editorial board are Ed Bell, who serves as chairman, and Virginia Buckingham, both members of the Current’s board of directors; Kris Olson and Will Dowd, members of the Current’s editorial staff; and Robert Peck and Joseph P. Kahn. Peck is an attorney, former chairman of Marblehead’s Finance Committee and a former Select Board member. Kahn is a retired Boston Globe journalist.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: