The Tampa Post. The Valley Independent. The Journal Tribune.
These are but a handful of the thousands of newspapers that have closed since 2005, many after generations of operating locally. The Journal Tribune of Biddeford, ME, ceased operations in 2019 after 135 years, citing falling subscriptions and decreased revenue. Six staff members were laid off and a community of about 40,000 people in two cities lost their source of local news.
The statistics are alarming. Around two newspapers close every week, according to the New York Times, a pattern that was occurring well before the pandemic. It’s not just daily newspapers that are in danger of closure, but weeklies as well. As reported by the New York Times, “The country is set up to lose one-third of its newspapers by 2025.”
In July 2023, the National Trust announced it had entered into a deal to acquire a majority of local newspapers in Maine, the state where only four years before, the Journal Tribune had ended its run of more than a century. The National Trust will take over, as reported by the Boston Globe, “the lion’s share of Maine’s media ecosystem,” including 17 weekly papers and five daily ones.
One of the newspapers included in the deal, the Portland Press Herald, was the first to report on the story. The Portland Press Herald described the move by the National Trust as “a landmark deal that could help preserve local news across the state.”
Using nonprofit ownership to support local journalism, as is now taking place in Maine, is an increasingly common preservation strategy. Once nonprofit newspaper ownership was rare. Today, the Institute for Nonprofit News, a trade association founded by 27 nonprofit publications in 2009, has an estimated 425 members (including NPQ, as an early member).
“News is too important to be left to absentee owners who care only about double-digit profits, not the journalists and the communities they serve.”
Local News, Non-Local Owners
The National Trust was established in 2021. Its first major action was to acquire 24 newspapers in Colorado. In collaboration with the Colorado Sun, the nonprofit formed a partnership called the Colorado News Conservancy, described as a “community-centered alternative to national consolidation of local and community media.”
The National Trust’s mission is for local news to stay in local hands. Along with the National Trust, the Colorado Sun became part-owner of the two dozen Colorado newspapers and will help operate and run them day to day. As the Sun’s editor and cofounderLarry Ryckman wrote upon news of the collaboration, “News is too important to be left to absentee owners who care only about double-digit profits, not the journalists and the communities they serve.”
Today, many local news outlets are operated by large conglomerates. As of 2020, Gannett (owner of USA Today) alone owned one of every five (262 of 1,260) local newspaper dailies nationally, and the 10 largest media chains owned more than one in two (664 of 1,260) daily papers. As the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wrote in a report from 2023, “Consolidation of the newspaper industry, which places the ownership of many media properties into the hands of a few large corporations, shifts editorial and business decisions to people without a strong stake in the local communities where their papers are located.”
Local news connects people to each other and to the area in which they live.
Non-local owners can mean more turnover. According to the Hussman report, about half of the country’s newspapers changed hands at least once in the past 15 years, some multiple times. Moreover, media companies have no obligation to justify their financial decisions or strategies to communities. They can shutter lower-performing newspapers, even if that means leaving some areas with little or even no access to local news. These areas are called news deserts, and “over one-fifth of Americans now live in such a place,” according to the New York Times, “or in a place that is at risk of becoming one.”
What do communities miss without local newspapers? It’s not all school board and committee meetings and local election results, though that information too is important. Local news connects people to each other and to the area in which they live. It keeps people informed about their schools and businesses, and it demands accountability from public officials.
People are more likely to trust news that comes from those in their own community.
“It uplifts voices that would otherwise go unheard,” as the American Journalism Project writes. “Local news lends us agency, empowering us with the knowledge we need to make informed decisions about issues critical to our daily lives.”
Local news also means local jobs. About 400 employees work at Masthead Maine, the network of independent news and media outlets purchased by the National Trust for Local News. Employee benefits will remain unchanged throughout the end of the year, the Portland Press Herald reported, and the trust will also recognize the four unions which represent employees and will honor their contracts.
One more benefit of local news in local hands? People are more likely to trust news that comes from reporters and editors in their own community. “Local newspapers are the best medium to provide the sort of public service journalism that shines a light on the major issues confronting communities,” according to the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and local news “gives residents the information they need to solve their problems.”
As the Colorado Sun editor Ryckman wrote, “The preservation of these newspapers is absolutely part of our mission of public service.”