WHEN IT COMES to the state of the news industry, the news has not been good.
Over a span of less than two decades, a quarter of the country’s newspapers have folded. That translates to tens of thousands of reporters laid off – and it means far less coverage of communities across the country. Less scrutiny of what local government is up to, what police departments are doing, how schools are performing.
Driven primarily by the internet’s disruption of the longstanding business model supporting newspapers, the alarming disappearance of papers – and the hollowing out of many of those that have survived – has been dubbed the “crisis in local journalism.”
But the news about the news is not entirely grim. In the face of these trends, a new model of nonprofit news is sprouting across the country. Foundations, corporate donors, and individuals are stepping forward to fund and launch nonprofit news organizations. In doing so, they’ve declared that rigorous, independent journalism is vital to a healthy functioning democracy.
The latest such declaration has come from Worcester, where the local chamber of commerce announced this month that it is launching a new nonprofit news website, The Worcester Guardian, to provide more coverage of the state’s second largest city.
It’s welcome news to those hungry for more coverage of Worcester, but it’s also raised questions about the independence of a news operation that’s being launched by a city’s leading business group. Will it be more cheerleading lapdog than watchdog?
Tim Murray, president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, insists the Guardian will be an independent news operation, overseen by journalists, not business leaders. He said the chamber is seeding its launch with a $50,000 contribution, but the aim is for the business group to be just one of many funders, following the model of other nonprofit journalism start-ups.
Does that mean the Guardian will publish stories that might make the chamber or other business interests in Worcester uncomfortable or upset?
“I hope that’s the case,” Murray said on The Codcast. “Accountability journalism is needed.”
The city once claimed four daily newspapers, but has long been home to just one, the Telegram & Gazette. After years of the sort of punishing downsizing that has hit lots of US papers, the T&G is a shell of its former self.
A white paper on the state of journalism released by the Worcester chamber of commerce makes clear the local discontent with the cuts – and with having the local paper controlled by a distant corporate entity that seems more concerned with extracting profits than delivering news. The Telegram, the report says, is now “owned by Gannett, a Virginia-headquartered mass media holding company with significant debt obligations and a proven track record of eliminating jobs and, by extension, coverage.”
“It’s a threat to the civic and economic health of our community when that information collapse takes place,” Murray said.
A former two-term mayor of Worcester who went on to serve as lieutenant governor under Deval Patrick, Murray said the chamber has been concerned about the winnowing of local coverage for several years. That led the group to approach Clark University, where a group of students did the initial legwork for the white paper the chamber released this month in conjunction with the announcement of the Guardian’s launch.
Dave Nordman, a former executive editor of the Telegram, is serving as a consultant to the project. His role has included spearheading the search for an editor, a process culminated last week in the announcement that Charlene Arsenault, a veteran journalist whose background includes 15 years as arts and entertainment editor at Worcester Magazine, has been hired as the Guardian’s founding editor.
The Guardian will have a nine-member board of directors, with Murray likely holding one of the seats, as well as a community advisory board. But the board’s role will be to support the news start-up and help it grow, not to give editorial direction.
In a piece posted last week on the Guardian’s website, Nordman said it’s right for people to keep a close eye on that division of responsibilities, but suggested it’s no different than concern over the ownership or management of any news organization, nonprofit or for-profit. “[T]here will be skeptics,” Nordman wrote. “And there should be – for the same reasons why skeptics believe John Henry tells Boston Globe sports reporters what to write and Alex Cora how to fill out the lineup card.”
The Guardian will rely initially on freelance writers working under Arsenault, with plans to hire full-time staff reporters as the operation grows, Nordman said in an email. He said the Guardian plans to begin publishing sometime in October, with a focus on a broad range of areas, including, among others, city government, arts and entertainment, business, and education.
“A good exchange of ideas and information about what’s happening at City Hall and in other parts of the community – when you have that good civic engagement that also directly relates to the economic health and well-being of a community,” said Murray. “A business community can’t be successful if we’re not working together to address a whole host of issues and challenges that we face – issues of housing, transportation challenges, environmental issues. So those are all interconnected on so many different levels. Whether you’re a mayor, a business leader, an institutional leader, somebody in the arts and cultural community, educational community – that storytelling and good quality journalism is really important. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”