Although this is the largest single philanthropic commitment to journalism, it does not go far enough. The Boston Consulting Group estimated this year that it would take about US$1.75 billion to bail out local news.
However, it’s not all gloom. Even after selling and shuttering more than 100 newspapers over the past few years, Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, still owns 494 papers in 42 states.
National newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal are able to sustain themselves through subscriptions and cash infusions from billionaire investors.
But other big-city brands have enjoyed mixed success at best. Mr Patrick Soon-Shiong, the owner of the Los Angeles Times, for instance, said in 2019 that the newspaper would grow from 150,000 digital subscriptions to five million in five years.
Four years on, the paper only has 550,000 paying digital subscribers. But southern California’s largest newspaper continues to expand its footprint with more diverse audiences, targeting the growing Latin-American community in the city.
There are other positive signs. Apart from the availability of funds, newspapers across the country are expected to benefit from the steadily improving economy.
And then newspapers are getting better at understanding their audiences and at deploying technology to increase their appeal.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for instance, sees an opportunity in expanding beyond Atlanta to other cities in Georgia and the rest of the south-eastern US, while staying devoted to covering local or regional news.
For the Gannett, the raison d’etre came from Mr Ralph Nader, 88, the four-time presidential candidate and consumer activist. He said the news hole in his hometown needed to be fixed; the last local daily there folded in 2017. Besides, he said, he is convinced his neighbours there are sick of electronics and miss feeling the newsprint in their hands.
A number of initiatives are underway to help the industry transition. The American Journalism Project is helping news outlets refine their business strategies; the National Trust for News helps non-profits acquire struggling news organisations to sustain them. Report for America, described by its founders as a “call to service for a new generation of journalists”, runs a public service journalism programme that places reporters into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.
More controversially, half of all daily newspapers in the US are now owned by hedge funds or private equity firms, fundamentally altering the game. This new money is more focused on generating returns on investment than in expanding local news coverage.
But the problem is not merely the profit motive. The opposite, in fact. The original puzzle of how to keep newspapers thriving in the Information Age has not yet been solved.
As a former editor of the Washington Post Marty Baron pointed out recently, the newspaper has to find ways to be commercially viable.
“We need to figure out how to solve our own commercial problems. We can’t just be the damsel in distress all the time, saying, ‘Please help us help us. We’re beautiful’,” Mr Baron, who has also been editor of the Boston Globe, said in an interview with the Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative website.
Commercial success is only one part of the story. What no one disagrees with is that poor news availability is associated with fall in civic participation and rise in corruption in both government and the private sector.
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