By Shereen Siewert, editor and publisher of Wausau Pilot and Review
It’s a conundrum of epic proportions: The public has better access to news than ever, but local news is suffering a dramatic decline.
That means there’s plenty to read and view, but it might not tell us very much.
Communities like Wausau once enjoyed robust news coverage, with dozens of reporters on the ground covering everything from local school board meetings to crime and corruption. But when the newspaper business became less profitable, news organizations shed staff, laid off reporters, reduced coverage and pulled back circulation. Their disappearance left the community without a vital source of local news and deprived communities of an institution essential for exposing wrongdoing and encouraging civic engagement.
But local, independent, online news publishers have found a new business model that works: Cover local communities as boldly and completely as possible without the high overhead cost of print or highly paid CEOs. And as a nonprofit news organization, our only “agenda” is to report the news.
We’re proud to be part of that paradigm shift, but we are relying on you to help sustain it and grow our operation, with every donation matched dollar for dollar, up to $1,000 per donor and up to $20,000 total, from now through Dec. 31. Simply put, we’re asking you — and calling on our generous local foundations and supporters — to rethink local journalism as a public good.
At a time when political polarization is growing and fraudulent news is spreading, a shared baseline of facts on the issues that most directly affect Americans is more essential than ever. Without reliable information on how tax dollars are spent, how federal policy affects local communities, and whether local elected officials are meeting constituent needs, how can citizens make informed choices about who should govern?
A new report from Pen America, Losing the News, echoes our call to action. The report concludes that reinvigorating local watchdog reporting will require concerted action and an investment of billions of dollars across the philanthropic, private, and public sector. Given the vital role that local news plays as a cornerstone of American democracy, its plight should be the subject of national conversation. Yet most Americans do not yet realize that their local news sources are on the brink of collapse and only a small minority pay for local news.
We’re one of 198 nonprofit newsrooms nationwide to participate in NewsMatch, the largest grassroots fundraising campaign to support nonprofit news organizations. NewsMatch is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Democracy Fund, Facebook Journalism Project, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, Natasha and Dirk Ziff, and Present Progressive Fund at Schwab Charitable, in partnership with The Miami Foundation, the Institute for Nonprofit News and the News Revenue Hub. REI Co-op recently announced new first-time support to NewsMatch.
Here’s what we plan to do with our funding this year:
- We’re a finalist for a Report for America grant, which would install a full-time reporter in our newsroom to cover communities surrounding Wausau. To participate in the program, we need to raise enough funding to pay for half or the reporter’s salary, plus benefits.
- Podcasting equipment will allow us to produce a weekly podcast for local nonprofit organizations to showcase their efforts and opportunities.
- Our newsroom is one of 34 newsrooms chosen from a pool of more than 500 applicants for a website redesign that would add significant functionality and fundraising tools, while eliminating the need for a standalone app. This year’s fundraising efforts will help defray that cost.
- We also pledge to continue our local high school sports coverage, which is funded in part, but not wholly, through sponsorships.
A study this year by the News Measures Research Project at Duke University found that fewer local news stories are produced than you might think. Analyzing more than 16,000 stories from 100 U.S. communities, researchers found that only about 17 percent of the stories are actually about the municipality or take place there. Just 43 percent of the stories provided by local news outlets were produced by them. And only 56 percent addressed a “critical information need”; nearly half were celebrity news and other material that many consider fluff.
Serious news requires serious news professionals – people who know how to search for records, who understand environmental regulations, who have the time and commitment to attend night meeting after night meeting to detect what’s sneaked into the budget. As news staffs shrink, reporters and editors tend to become generalists, with less deep knowledge in distinct areas and less time to do research. We’re working hard to buck that trend.
As we sit down to our Thanksgiving meal this year, we’ll be giving thanks to all of you who read us and support us. We wouldn’t be here without you.
Please consider supporting our effort by donating in any amount today.