A project of Democracy Fund

May 10, 2019

Local Fix: Hybrid Biz Models, Ethics and Local News AI

Welcome to the Local Fix. Each week we look at key debates in journalism sustainability and community engagement through the lens of local news. But first, we always begin with one good idea…

One Good Idea: Rethinking the Ethics of Extractive Reporting
In the last month, there have been three important explorations of ethics in journalism and storytelling that we think bear attention, and are worth considering together. In a new guide on how to avoid “extractive reporting,” published by the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, Natalie Yahr provides advice designed to “help journalists navigate the ethical dilemmas they encounter as they interview people who have experienced harm.” A few weeks before the guide was published, Anita Varma of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University won an award for her work on journalism that seeks to foster solidarity instead of cultivating empathy. Finally, on the Tiny Spark podcast, Amy Costello interviews Sophie Otiende on the ethics of nonprofit storytelling, and the dangers of extractive approaches that “parade trauma” to achieve an emotional (and financial) response. 

Documenting the Decline in Local News

There seems to be an almost constant drumbeat of coverage on the demise of local news. But over the last month there has been a unique emphasis on this story in the financial and political press. Outlets like Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times have all posted huge pieces, rich with data and graphics about the economics of media today. Meanwhile, publications focused on politics and governing are highlighting what the erosion of local news means for democracy. While many of these pieces cover familiar ground, it is actually important to continue to tell this story. According to the Pew Research Center more than 70% of Americans believe “local media are doing well financially.” We’ve been keeping a running list of evidence about journalism’s role in democracy so we can help people understand what is at risk as journalism struggles. However, we think there are a lot more creative ways we could be fostering this conversation. How could you use the data and stories below to talk to your community about the state of local news at home and around the country?

The Rise of the Hybrid News Organization

At newsrooms around the country publishers are trying to chart a new path forward, pushing the boundaries between nonprofit and for-profit, and at times creating a hybrid of the two. The Salt Lake Tribune announced this week that it was seeking to transition from a nearly 150-year-old for profit paper to a nonprofit organization. This is a slightly different approach than the Lenfest Institute in Philly, though that model could be another direction forward for the paper. A week earlier the Seattle Times announced it was working with a local community foundation to launch an “Investigative Journalism Fund” that can accept charitable donations to support public interest reporting. Nieman Lab has covered both of these developments with good deep dives on the details behind the deals. But this dual for and nonprofit model isn’t entirely new, a number of alt-weekly newspapers have also pursued this approach in the past. There are other newsrooms pursuing co-ops and B-corps too. It is becoming increasingly clear that the future of journalism can’t be narrowly defined by the U.S. tax code. I look forward to learning how we can bring the same level of creativity to discussions about business models and organizational structures as we do to storytelling and community engagement.  

Local News Automation and AI

We tried really hard not to write about AI. We debated about whether our readers cared, or if local newsrooms should be spending limited time and resources on these new technologies. Then along came Richland Source, the fiercely inventive local newsroom our of Ohio, which we’ve written about before. This week Nieman Lab wrote about how Richland Source built a system for automating high school sports articles. They have piloted their system with 7 newsrooms and produced 20,000 articles over the last year “with zero inaccuracies.” Now they hope other newsrooms can build on their system. The Richland Source experience made us decide to go digging for other examples of AI and newsrooms automation that feel practical, grounded, and truly useful for local newsrooms. Here is what we found – what would you add?

Have a good weekend,

Josh and Teresa
@jcstearns, @gteresa

The Local Fix is a project of the Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program, which invests in innovations and institutions that are reinventing local media and expanding the public square. Disclosure: Some projects mentioned in this newsletter may be funded by Democracy Fund, you can find a full list of the organizations we support on our website.