Read All About It! Local News Is Back
Retired reporters get back to work in “news deserts” across the country
When the giant publishing chain Gannett shut down its money-losing weekly print newspaper the Brookline Tab last year, I joined many others around the country living within an area with minimal or no local news coverage.
Gannett still has an online version here, but it has pivoted to a regional model and what I read about Brookline is far from substantive. I suppose it's something. There are millions of Americans who live in a county with no news outlet — what is known as a news desert.
So, more and more journalists and others in their 60s and 70s have stepped up to help fill that void.
I'm volunteering on Brookline.News, a digital, nonprofit newspaper that launched in April in my home town, Brookline, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. (So far, I've interviewed older residents and senior service leaders to find out what issues concern them and what they'd like to see covered.)
Experienced reporters from outlets like the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NBC News, public radio and smaller newsrooms are also gravitating to nonprofit, local news outlets, where they work alongside younger journalists. Some volunteer, while others are paid. They may come from journalism jobs elsewhere, a layoff or retirement.
Give Back to the Community
Ellen Clegg, 72, a former Boston Globe journalist and a Brookline.News co-founder, says she thinks journalism is a calling. "So many of us have devoted our lives to it, to attempting to root out truth and hold powerful officials to account," she says. "We also want to give back to the profession."
A robust community newsroom helps to mitigate misinformation and disinformation.
Clegg is co-author of the forthcoming book "What Works in Community News: Media Startups, News Deserts, and the Future of the Fourth Estate" with Dan Kennedy, a Northeastern University journalism professor, national media commentator and public radio columnist.
It couldn't come soon enough. Every week, two more newspapers disappear, according to "State of Local News," a 2022 report from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
Much of the decline in local news outlets can be traced to chains like Gannett or other new owners who have slashed staff or closed newspapers as revenue from advertising and subscriptions dried up. Many reduced or closed papers are in underserved communities.
According to the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, Gannett had 563 newspapers in 2019; today there are fewer than 400.
What's more, the Medill report says that more than 25% of U.S. newspapers went out of business in the last 18 years; by 2025, that figure is projected to rise to 33%. The data also show that 200 counties, home to 70 million people, have no newspaper at all.
Local News Matters
Without a hometown paper, citizens are in the dark about community issues and events. How can they stay informed or get involved if they don't know what's going on?
A news blackout or outlets with meager content mean local officials and businesses don't have to answer to anyone. Reductions in news coverage have been found to decrease voter participation.
On the other hand, a robust community newsroom helps to mitigate misinformation and disinformation. It also strengthens a community.
In 2020, Sally Kestin, 58, a retired investigative reporter from the Sentinel Sun, moved from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband Bob Gremillion, a former executive vice president of the Tribune Publishing Company.
They realized there were many local issues that would make great stories, "but we weren't seeing them," says Kestin. At a cocktail party, the newcomers met other retired journalists from the Miami Herald, the New York Times, and NPR, among others.
"We were all bemoaning the lack of depth and high quality in the news coverage here," she recalls. On the spot, they came up with the idea to build a better "mouse trap:" the Asheville Watchdog, a nonprofit digital news source with no constraints from corporate owners or advertisers. It would offer its stories free to all.
Kestin and Gremillion are co-founders. She is the Editor as well as a prolific writer. Gremillion, 68, is Publisher and CEO. Three other veteran reporters also write stories gratis. "I'm the only volunteer not on Medicare," Kestin jokes.
With so many Pulitzer Prizes and other awards among the volunteers there, it's easy to lose count. Kestin and two colleagues were finalists for a Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting in 2006 for a Sun Sentinel investigation into speeding off-duty police officers. Last year, she received a Best Investigative Journalism award from the Institute for Nonprofit News for her reporting at the Asheville Watchdog. The series, on how a corrupt local real estate investor, his associates and his attorney cheated local homeowners and their families out of equity in their homes, has led to multiple felony arrests.
The Asheville Watchdog is evolving. Today it has two paid full-time reporters, one a "youngster" at age 34. On June 1, the first managing editor will start. The hires are bankrolled solely through community donations.
"Journalists should be paid for their work."
The moral of the story, say startups and more established news outlets, is that an all-volunteer model is not sustainable. While Clegg of Brookline.News draws no salary overseeing the project, "we are not launching a volunteer model," she says. "Journalists should be paid for their work." There's one full-time editor/writer and a freelance pool.
So far, Brookline.News has raised $250,000 in gifts and pledges from residents, businesses and journalists working on these projects (including me). "We're seeing a groundswell of support," says Clegg. Besides fundraising, she expects other revenue to come from grants, foundations and corporate sponsors. They're also exploring a print publication.
Of course, many nonprofit newsrooms are not in affluent areas, nor do they have the ability to donate significant sums. But even if they do, there are challenges.
When it began, Asheville Watchdog reporters knew how to find good stories, "but we naively overlooked the business side," says Kestin.
Back-office challenges can consume startups like hers. There's infrastructure to support a website, an understanding of software systems (the Asheville Watchdog has three different ones) and the know-how to fix glitches. Add to that having to manage donations and tend to email lists and voicemail.
Getting a Read on the Future
As any startup founder will tell you, the hours can be grueling. "This would have been a perfect part-time gig," says Kestin, but it has turned into a 24/7 venture. She has taken off one week only (except for a three month medical absence) since 2020. Kestin expects this to change when the managing editor comes on board.
The "movement" to increase delivery of impactful stories is going strong — and is expected to continue. "The number of nonprofits will continue to surge as most traditional newsrooms shrink and fail," says Brant Houston, author of "Changing Models for Journalism: Reinventing the Newsroom" and Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
This will be a boon to veteran current and former journalists. "More older editors and journalists will be eager to jump back into newsrooms that care about their communities and delivery quality journalism," adds Houston, who sits on eight nonprofit news boards. "For them, it will be exhilarating to return to the kind of passionate and meaningful journalism that got them into the profession in the first place."
While some may think that no news is good news, this group isn't buying it.