For this reason, it has been heartening to have seen not one, but three news organizations emerge in Marblehead in the past year.
As documented in a recent Globe article, the trio came after Gannett, America’s largest newspaper chain, decided to pivot Marblehead Reporter from local news to more regional coverage.
One, Beacon, was started by three family friends who were concerned about the lack of coverage of “things happening in our town that don’t seem right.” The second, Current, was started by journalists who left Reporter and wanted to take advantage of local resources. The third is Marblehead Weekly News, a print publication that also publishes PDFs of its pages online, where readers hear the satisfying rustle of newsprint every time they flip a virtual page.
Each has a different business model—for example, Current is a nonprofit funded by a combination of advertising, donations, and grants, while Beacon is a for-profit that relies on advertising revenue. Whether anyone survives it will be a challenge in the coming year, when some experts predict a recession that could dent subscription and ad revenue.
But the fact that Marblehead, a town of 20,000, has spawned three news startups in less than a year should give hope to anyone concerned with local news coverage across the country.
To be sure, Marblehead, a wealthy town with a thriving business district and highly educated residents, is the kind of place that has a strong news market and the money to support it. But Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University who is writing a book on local journalism, points out that less affluent neighborhoods are also well served by community news organizations. He has documented more than 250 hyperlocal news sites in Massachusetts, a list that doesn’t include regional outlets like Globe or WBUR.
For example, New Bedford Light, a nonprofit digital news organization founded by experienced journalists, has about a dozen reporters and editors. Its coverage of local news is gratuitous and often in-depth: Last year, one of its reporters teamed up with ProPublica to investigate active private equity investment in New England’s fishing industry.
A similar dynamic may be playing out elsewhere across the country.
In Chicago, the Chicago Tribune, a major newspaper for decades, has undergone multiple layoffs and created several innovative news ventures in recent years. Most notably, Chicago Public Media, a nonprofit that runs NPR affiliate WBEZ, bought the city’s tabloid daily, the Chicago Sun-Times, last year and turned it into a nonprofit. Since then, the two newsrooms have added dozens of reporters, said Tim Franklin, director of the Medill Local Journalism Initiative at Northwestern University.
Franklin said similarly novel approaches to creating local news businesses have sprung up in affluent suburban and low-income rural communities across the country. But the birth of hyperlocal news organizations can’t keep up with the shrinking industry: Newspapers continue to close at a rate of about two a week, according to a study by Medill.
For that reason, Franklin said he joins a string of news publishers who say some form of government intervention may be needed to foster news startups, especially in low-income urban communities or rural areas with low population densities. Tax credits for local publishers who hire or keep journalists are one approach proposed by some states; California and New Jersey have also created funds to fund journalism projects or pay young journalists to work in underserved areas.
In Massachusetts, lawmakers hope to soon form a commission to study news coverage in underserved communities; its work could lead to policies aimed at strengthening or creating hyperlocal news organizations.
Any talk of government interference in local journalism must be carefully considered: Wherever state support extends, government interference may follow.
But local journalism is facing a spreading crisis that, if allowed to continue, will only weaken our civic bonds and democratic traditions. For those who care – which should be all of us – what happened in Marblehead provides an encouraging example of what is possible.
Editorials represent the views of The Boston Globe Editorial Board.Follow us on Twitter @GlobeOpinion.