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Ed Asner’s death prompted me to consider how dire the local news environment has grown since I chose journalism as a career. Asner starred in the CBS drama “Lou Grant” when I delivered morning routes for The Indianapolis Star in elementary and high school. The show’s plotlines seemed realistic. And the way “Lou Grant” portrayed covering news made journalism appear exhilarating to a teenager who enjoyed writing and asking tough questions.
A night owl, I watched Lloyd Dobbins and Linda Ellerbee’s smartly scripted “NBC News Overnight,” then peered into the sky from my silent backyard until bundles of papers smacked the drive. As I stuffed advertising inserts and carried my routes, I tuned to WXLW on my bike radio while Joe Pickett read sections of the paper between top- and bottom-of-the-hour newscasts. When the Star’s local columnist, Tom Keating, came to my high school for career day, students packed the classroom. Journalists were heroes who strengthened communities through storytelling and coverage of systemic problems.
Fast forward 40 years and such memories seem distant, quaint even. Local newsrooms are in decline as national chains disinvest to please shareholders. They are cutting staff, skimping on pay and benefits for reporters, and selling buildings. The cause of death is complicated. National advertising has dried up, and low-cost alternatives have disrupted classified advertising. Fewer subscribers pay to support dwindling newsroom staff. And this cycle will repeat until the hedge funds and other investors have drained every nickel of value.
As the model of wringing outsized profits from local news faces extinction, people are becoming less tethered to their communities, destabilizing our fragile and divided democracy. To ensure cities, towns, and metro and rural areas have informed voters, honest government, and just laws, we must treat what is happening as an emergency that demands our immediate attention.
In Indiana, with support from local funders, the American Journalism Project (AJP) conducted a statewide review that found shocking declines in original reporting — reporting that asks questions local readers want asked and that shares news in easy-to-grasp ways that fit changing demographics and lifestyles. The views of upper-income listeners, readers, and viewers looking for new dining experiences and expensive housing are well represented. AJP found similar results in Kansas, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia.
The disappearance of local news has consequences. One of my final investigative stories for The Indianapolis Star in the mid-2000s outlined how a library renovation project had gone awry, doubling the cost to taxpayers. I told the paper’s editor that if we had not stopped covering the local library board years earlier, we would have known that conflicts of interest were undermining the project before contractors broke ground. When I reviewed the video of library board meetings, the disagreements that led to a shoddy concrete foundation were in plain sight. Just as people speed on the interstate when state police are not in view, public officials engage in corrupt activities when local journalists disappear.
In my role as a national funder of journalism, I support nonprofit initiatives to improve local journalism. Since joining Lumina Foundation about 15 years ago, I have seen first-hand how the nonprofit sector is rising to counter the corrosive effects of disappearing local news.
Preserving free-and-independent local media isn’t just for big, national funders, and news networks don’t have solutions, either. Here’s what I’ve learned:
- Journalists are taking risks and testing new nonprofit business models. Nationally, ProPublica pioneered nonprofit investigative reporting and continues to lead. More often, local models are sprouting. News414, a partnership among Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, University of Wisconsin-based Wisconsin Watch, and Outlier Media in Detroit, uses texts to connect residents with food, health and safety, housing, job, and mental health services. MLK50, which journalist Wendi C. Thomas launched in Nashville, infuses news coverage with Black and other non-dominant perspectives, reflecting how people of color live in the community. Other statewide and local news organizations — City Bureau in Chicago, El Paso Matters, Mississippi Today, and Mountain State Spotlight — are playing essential newsgathering roles, too.
- Independent, nonpartisan journalism costs money. Subscribing to the local paper is commendable but no longer enough. Steeply discounted digital subscriptions don’t come close to covering newsgathering costs. Recently, Lumina awarded a grant to Report for America to support coverage that explores racial inequities in criminal justice, education, and other areas of life. After learning more, I signed up to make personal recurring yearly donations to this national service program and designated these funds to support IndyStar’s coverage of racial justice and equity topics. Report for America has placed more than 300 journalists in newsrooms, paying half of their salaries initially and helping news organizations learn how to raise local matching funds to absorb the expense of new positions over time.
- Private dollars are driving innovation. Philanthropies such as Knight Foundation have backed local journalism for many years, but new ideas and new voices are emerging. Indiana University alum Michael Arnolt started as a reporter in Elkhart, Ind., and became a successful businessman. Arnolt kept his enthusiasm for journalism, though, and donated $6 million for an investigative reporting center staffed by students at his alma mater. Last year, Rick Gevers and Karen Burns, concerned by George Floyd’s murder, made a significant gift to Investigative Reporters & Editors to support training for journalists of color. They had planned the donation in their will but decided endowing the fund should happen sooner. Bill and Ann Moreau co-founded The Indiana Citizen, a nonpartisan effort to educate Hoosiers about public service and persuade more people to register to vote. Bill Moreau got his start as a newspaper reporter and retired as a partner in one of Indiana’s prominent law firms. Ann Moreau is a former educator, association executive, and public servant.
Other individuals are making similar choices, testing ideas, and taking risks. Contact an organization such as the American Journalism Project, Report for America, or Journalism Funding Partners, which is run by innovator and former journalist Rusty Coats, and ask how you can help.
I am nostalgic for the people I worked alongside who were analogues to the characters of “Lou Grant." Newsroom misfits aside, the procedural never lost sight of Los Angeles’ need for solid local coverage, whether it was a series of arsons, the struggles of Vietnam veterans returning home, or the disappearance of a charter flight with high school athletes onboard. My favorite episode focused on a frenetic day in the newsroom amid a tunnel collapse.
Even then, the fictional paper’s owner, Mrs. Pynchon, went on cost-cutting binges, hired a consultant to “rethink” the paper, and looked into cashing out while dealing with gender pay equity, strikes, libel suits, and conflicts of interest. Although “Lou Grant” foreshadowed many of today’s challenging storylines for local news, there is cause for optimism, and you can be a part of the solution.