The Rise and Fall and Rise of the News

Police and firefighters. Health care providers. Food producers. News reporters?

When the federal government included news publishers and journalists in its list of “essential workers” critical to public safety in the coronavirus crisis, it reflected what people looking for trustworthy news know now more than ever: Reporting the news is a public service.

On May 5, the folks behind GivingTuesday launched #GivingTuesdayNow — a special day of giving to support nonprofits during the pandemic — and for the first time they suggested that people give to nonprofit newsrooms across the United States.

Some may talk of media-bashing, but millions of Americans are now backing news outlets through charitable donations. They are doing this because supporting nonprofit news is a way to ensure that their communities continue to get the fact-based, nonpartisan news they need. Essential news. For example, a reporter at the nonprofit El Paso Matters followed through on a hunch to determine that initial cases of COVID-19 in El Paso could be traced to individuals returning from a Conference USA college basketball tournament across the state, in Dallas — and that people from other colleges who attended the event might be exposed. At North Carolina Health News, just after President Trump began touting the purported benefits of hydroxychloroquine in treating Covid-19, a reporter got a tip that an in-state hospital was treating a patient with an unnamed anti-malarial drug. The resulting story was one of the first to explain the lack of evidence that chloroquines would be effective in killing the coronavirus (they aren’t). And in Detroit, where Outlier Media provides text-based news about housing and public utilities to low-income residents, a deadly outbreak of COVID-19 prompted them to expand coverage to include information about healthcare, safety, and childcare.

It’s great that there are more than 250 of these mission-driven news organizations in the U.S., but how did we get to the point where we need them so badly?

News used to flow around us nearly free, like air or water, always there. We might pay a few bucks to subscribe to a favorite publication or get news in a cable TV package, but mostly it came to consumers for pennies on the dollar — paid for by advertising. Then that advertising shifted to the internet, a limitless, endless supply. Advertising values plummeted and were consolidated by search and social media companies that carry news but don’t pay for its reporting. The news industry crashed, just about the time the last recession hit.

Thousands of newspapers have closed and those that remain have shed half their journalism jobs. The New York Times estimated in April that more than 28,000 media jobs have been cut just since the coronavirus was declared a national emergency.

But during that last recession, a new kind of news caught fire. Reporters and editors who had been laid off started creating their own lean news organizations, either serving their communities or going in-depth on state and national issues that weren’t getting enough attention from mainstream outlets. In 2009, 27 investigative news organizations gathered to talk about how they could save investigative journalism. These fierce competitors did something remarkable — they set aside competition and formed a consortium of nonprofit newsrooms that would commit to high standards of editorial independence, original reporting and transparency about their funding, so the public could always know who was paying for their reporting. With their pact, they created what became INN, the Institute for Nonprofit News, memorialized in the Pocantico Declaration: “Representatives of nonprofit news organizations, gather at a time when investigative reporting, so crucial to a functioning democracy, is under threat. There is an urgent need to nourish and sustain the emerging investigative journalism ecosystem to better serve the public.”

Today, more than 3,000 people work in INN member organizations, informing the public through some 150,000 original reports a year. By approaching journalism as a mission, they find stories that otherwise would go untold.

Foundations have helped many of these newsrooms get their start and today companies from small businesses to the very technology giants that disrupted the media economy help fund them. But it is individuals’ donations that increasingly support this reporting and are expanding this new media world of nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. These are newsrooms that report the news as a public trust and share a deep bond with the communities they serve and that support their journalism.

Today journalists cannot report with depth and expertise, with time invested in knowing their communities, without this kind of public support. Where do we go from here? The good news is that communities can preserve and launch the kind of newsrooms they need, newsrooms that investigate and hold the powerful accountable but also surface solutions, invite the public to suggest stories, amplify all kinds of voices and connect us to each other. These kinds of news organizations are on the rise.

For-profit newspapers are converting to nonprofits, a new wave of entrepreneurial journalists are launching startups even in this challenging time, and community foundations and civic leaders are funding community news sources that can keep everyone informed. Whatever the path, Covid-19 has shown us that reporting is an essential public service, and the need for accurate information is more critical than ever.