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People now see most journalists as part of a faceless entity, but they want them to be part of their community. This means being present to understand and cover issues that matter — an exceedingly difficult task when resources are already stretched thin, leaving state legislatures, city councils and local courts often uncovered. But it also means investing in your community of journalists. Journalists already doing this community-based work tend to be most overlooked and under resourced. When a reporter recently tweeted kudos to a major digital outlet for launching a local newsletter to rectify a dearth of “quality local news” in Washington, D.C, the community responded with a firestorm of other options that eventually topped twenty local and hyper-local publications.

At the time of the sale to GateHouse, The Hawk Eye wasn’t struggling financially. Far from it. In the years leading up to the sale, the paper was seeing profit margins ranging from the mid-teens to the high 20s. Gannett has dedicated much of its revenue to servicing and paying off loans associated with the merger, rather than reinvesting in local journalism.

In many places, it started with a cut in print days. Furloughs. Layoffs. Just to get through the crisis, newsroom leaders told readers. In some places, none of it was enough. Now, small newsrooms around the country, often more than 100 years old, often the only news source in those places, are closing under the weight of the coronavirus. Some report they’re merging with nearby publications. But that “merger” means the end of news dedicated to those communities, the evaporation of institutional knowledge and the loss of local jobs.
In the crowded field of nonprofits supporting local news ventures, Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro’s National Trust for Local News stands out as something distinct. Rather than grants, the trust makes investments. Advice and some control come with the help. But the point is for recipients to gather other investors and develop models for serving small-town news deserts that are losing all local coverage. I refer to the project as Hansen Shapiro’s because she developed the idea, first as a Ph.D. thesis, then as a research fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, and now as a research fellow at Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
Alden Global Capital isn’t just an owner of newspapers. It famously acquired and shepherded to bankruptcy big brands like Fred’s Pharmacy and Payless Shoe Source. But the company has in recent years honed in on newspapers expressly, purposely targeting them for acquisition. "It's straightforward," said Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at The Washington Post. “Newspapers are mostly still profitable. They still have assets, and this is a late-stage effort to harvest those assets and the profit that still exists, without regard to long-term sustainability.” “They are called ‘vulture capitalists’ for a reason.”
The largest federation of unions in the United States wrote to Leader Chuck Schumer, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal on Friday, commending Senator Maria Cantwell and Representative Ann Kirkpatrick for introducing the legislation. The bill is a “lifeline for these essential community institutions as they struggle to provide the information their readers rely on during the current national emergency, and to set local news outlets up for a successful recovery,” Government Affairs Director William Samuel wrote.
Bipartisan support in Congress has gathered for the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, and its supporters believe there’s a decent chance it will be a part of the huge spending bill that Congress is now focusing on. The proposal, which provides a series of tax credits rather than direct grants, is intended to give local newspapers, digital-only publications and other local news organizations a chance to be financially viable as they figure out how to make their way in the new digital world.
The Local Journalism Sustainability Act and the benefits it provides can seem like an abstraction, but if passed it could help The AFRO further engage the Black community in Baltimore, D.C. and beyond double its editorial staff, securing its future for another 130 years. This is not just the work of a good newspaper, it’s the work of democracy.