SUSTAINING RURAL JOURNALISM

The rural journalism business model hasn’t failed, but needs updating

Published January 2024

Al Cross
By Al Cross

It’s become conventional wisdom that the advertising-based business model of newspapers has failed. But that is not true in many small communities, which could become the nuclei of a national enterprise of nonprofit newsrooms that will provide better journalism with sound business practices, including economies of scale.

So says Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, CEO and co-founder of the National Trust For Local News, who as this was written in mid-December was preparing to announce creation of two more state-based nonprofit journalism companies, adding to those it has in Colorado (24 newspapers) and Maine (22), and says “wild success” would be a total of 15 such companies in the next five years.

Shapiro was interviewed on the Nov. 1 edition of the “Local News Matters” podcast of Tim Regan-Porter, executive director of the Colorado Press Association. When he asked her a question that many journalism funders and advocates ask, “Why save a failing business model?” she said the question is based on “high-profile failings of metro newspapers,” which aren’t reflected in the smaller papers the Trust owns or is considering buying.

“We have profitable papers in our portfolio and we come across profitable papers every day!” she exclaimed. “This idea that the business model is forever and always broken just reflects a real lack of curiosity, and I would say empirics, on the part of its adherents.”

That sort of language reflects Shapiro’s background as an academic researcher of journalism, with a Harvard Ph.D. in business studies, but she has developed a deep appreciation of small community newspapers, and she has become one of their most knowledgeable and articulate advocates.

“Because I was not trained as a journalist and didn’t come through that system, I didn’t come to this work with, you know, sort of hierarchy in my mind of metro news above all,” she said. “Plenty of funders also share that orientation, of like, metro news is sort of the highest level of news and the rest of it is sort of service journalism or amateur hour, basically. . . .

“I see it as actually the highest form of local news, because I think it actually reflects what truly local means, and the way that I think everyday people experience what ‘local’ means . . . local as in, ‘I live in this neighborhood’ or ‘I live in this town.’”

Shapiro is trying to make a distinction that badly needs making, at a time when local news is in trouble and a lot of people who want to help it don’t fully understand that “local” depends on how the audience of a news outlet defines its community.

She told Regan-Porter that the fracturing and diversification of business models “based on place and economic inequalities between geographies” – primarily rural and urban – means that “there really is no one-size-fits all,” and “There’s gonna have to be different solution sets for different scales.”

There are many differences among localities, she said, and many rural communities still have many independent retailers who advertise in local papers; but overall, the rural-paper business model must also include subscriptions, events, donations and “anything you can get.”

On a company scale, the Trust’s state-based approach is not fundamentally different from newspaper chains that use economies of scale and shared services, but Shapiro said it wants to preserve newspapers’ local identities, which she said is essential for long-term success.

“These are deeply local institutions, and their value and their long-term success depends on that: the quality of local participation and local engagement,” she said.

That requires a quality product, and the Trust’s chief portfolio officer, Ross McDuffie, said recently that it has “quality local news as the North Star of decision-making,” not “profits or shareholder value.”

Of course, the Trust’s companies must stay in the black, but they have “longer time horizons,” Shapiro said, with the top goal being community impact, not profit.

“The path to impact has to be through disciplined management of the business, because without money you have no mission,” she told Regan-Porter, who then cited the maxim that nonprofit is not a business model, it’s a tax status.

For-profit chains do short-term things that reduce the quality of reader experience, Shapiro said: “We are long-term investors in the quality of the product, and a quality product and an engaged audience are the drivers of long-term success.”

One cornerstone of quality is accountability journalism, but that’s not the main reason people like their local paper, Shapiro said: “Our model focuses on strong communities and social cohesion.”

The Trust says its mission is to conserve, transform and sustain community news organizations, and ultimately build stronger communities by keeping small, traditional sources of local news in local hands.

Shapiro said the Trust is willing to buy papers that would have difficulty surviving on their own but “wouldn’t be replaceable by something else” and can thrive in a nonprofit group. She said the Trust’s goal is “sustainability across a network so that we can serve larger communities and smaller communities.”

Shapiro said the Trust is still figuring out how to integrate the operations of its Maine papers, which it bought in August, and in other states wants to find publishers who can make strong anchors in a scaling-up strategy. “The good news is, we hear from those kind of folks every day,” she said.

The bad news, she said, is that time is short.

“Rural news publishers, in particular independent rural news publishers, are at risk of extinction, either getting bought by political forces or just closing because of really difficult economics in small places,” she said. “I think we are really in a race against time.”

Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is director emeritus of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism.