What I remember most about being a local news reporter was screaming.
In the local news, everyone is yelling at you all the time. The media employee you’re calling is yelling at you because you called him at 6:35pm but they stop at 6:30pm and how dare you interrupt their free time, so look, just take their word for it whatever you call is not news. The other media person you are calling is also yelling at you because you weren’t supposed to call him and you were supposed to call the other media person, dear God, does the newspaper employ stupid and stupid reporters nowadays? You might consider yelling, but it’s not worth it.
Get out on the street and people are yelling at you. They’re yelling at you because the newspaper stopped covering their community years ago in any meaningful way, because the newspaper only sends out reporters when bad things happen, because the newspaper provides less news than ever but also wants to charge more than ever. You cannot respond to anything, because all these complaints are the truth. So you take it, and absorb the pain of all those years of genuine neglect, which you won’t pass on to anyone because it’s been decades since your newspaper was owned by a company based in the city you cover.
You go back to the newsroom, and your boss yells at you because you needed to come back 15 minutes ago. You navigate the maze of daily posting – writing at length, hitting a ridiculous deadline, including all the online extras – likely with more yelling along the way if you forget anything. And then you’ll post something at the end. Most days, a large number of people in your community will read it. Every now and then, it might spread quickly – and then people online will read it and yell at you.
When I zoom in on my experience, I can see that all this screaming was almost never I, though she felt it at the moment; It’s hard to take a long view when another human being is yelling at you. All that screaming was, more accurately, a symptom of a broken system, which sits on top of another broken system, which in turn is on top of a massively dysfunctional system, all made worse by generations of neglect, abuse, and decadence and all accelerating with remarkable speed thanks. to a small invention called the Internet. Everything, as the saying goes, rolls down a slope, as nonsense does, upon me—but also on anyone and everyone else trying to do the job. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time working in the local news can tell you any of this; There is nothing special about my experience other than that I got out of the local news and ended up in a different kind of news where I can talk to you candidly about it.
That is why I would never dare to make my plan to fix local news, because anyone who has worked in local news knows that it is as complex as the Rube Goldberg machine, and every community is its own Rube Goldberg machine. What Miami needs is not what Detroit needs, even if, long ago, they were part of the same newspaper chain. This of course did not stop all kinds of people from saying, Hey, here is my plan to fix local news. You practically cannot claim to be a leader or an organization without one.
In the local news aid aggregator comes our latest edition of Substack. In April of 2021, the San Francisco-based company announced Substack Local, a program that it said would strengthen and develop the local news ecosystem by helping freelance writers build local news publications based on a subscription model. In plain English, Substack was spending $1 million in grants to 12 local publications that agreed to launch on Substack’s newsletter platform both in the United States and around the world. The company also agreed to provide editors and access to the LexisNexis database service. That was pretty much all the company had to offer, which proved to be a problem.
According to the report by The Fine Print, Substack has not provided her book with any commercial support. The writers were tasked on their own with figuring out who their readers would be, how they would reach those readers, what their primary areas of coverage would be, how much they should charge, and how they would sell their subscriptions and increase their subscriber base. This is not impossible, but it is not easy either. We’re all working on it collectively here at Defector; Except here we have 20 people doing this, we started our launch with already an idea of who our readers would be, and no one gave us a one year deadline for the grant, which was given to Substack Local projects. We also weren’t keeping full-time jobs and were told we had to leave them to participate, which was the case with anyone who got paid by Substack Local.
We know the press, and we don’t need help with that from them. What we need is how do you sell a silly subscription? How do you shop for yourself? How does this thing grow? “What are the things that are working here, and there has been very little of that,” Arizona’s Agenda’s Hank Stephenson told The Fine Print.
Due to Substack’s insistence that it was a tech company, even though it publishes articles — arguably this, by definition, makes it a publisher — it provided its writers with little commercial support. It was the kind that might sound best at a dinner party in San Francisco: Facebook ads. It’s about how you’d expect a round of Facebook ads for local news. “She created us a bunch of angry grandparents who didn’t know what they got involved in or why,” Stevenson told The Fine Print. “And they sent us angry emails about it.”
There are more problems, a lot of problems, carried over in The Fine Print reports. David Hunden had to make his investigative newsletter West Africa Weekly free, because the separate payment processing platform he was using had temporarily suspended his account due to his West African address. Substack helped Hundeyin go through the various steps to make it work, he said, but it took about three months; Hundeyin suspects that having to give up his work for free for so long made it difficult for him to convince people to pay for it once they could. Another writer, Hannah Raskin, who writes about food in the South, was initially paired with an editor in Oregon who tended to work with poets.
But nothing characterizes Substack Local’s arrogance better than this: Substack advised local publication founders to get profiles of themselves at New York times. In fact, Substack founder Hamish McKenzie will be doing a strategy workshop with the writers one-on-one on how they are mentioned in timesAccording to The Fine Print.
This is funny advice. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge about how local news works outside of New York and Washington, D.C. knows that local publications are a pool of story ideas. times, as well as all the national magazines, who search their articles for potential stories they can parachute into. You don’t give away your sources, let alone advertise them, or ask people to subscribe to them.
The problem with local news, as it always has been, is that there was a brief moment in time when printing local news could make you so rich. Take, for example, the Knight Foundation, which was set up by the Knight brothers, John and James, and was initially funded with money from two local newspapers, Akron Beacon Magazine and the Miami Herald In addition to “personal gifts” from John and James, who were rich in owning newspapers such as Bacon Journal and the Announces. The Bacon Journal It is currently owned by the country’s largest newspaper chain, Gannett, which has over 100 daily newspapers in most parts of the country, and is not exactly a local ownership. The Announces It is owned by hedge fund Chatham Asset Management. Meanwhile, the Knight Foundation has become one of the leading grantmakers in journalism, with assets of more than $3 billion. You don’t have any newspapers.
The old days of newspapers weren’t great, no matter what anyone tells you. Just look at the pictures of the newsrooms and you can see all the issues there, row after row, of older white men deciding what’s news and what’s important and what was considered objective for their community, which is almost certainly not all male, And maybe not all of them are white either, certainly not in South Florida where I grew up, and then I was a local reporter.
All this loss, all this chaos, all this death of newspapers should be an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past, to reset them. But instead of that rebuilding campaign, we get one-year Substack grants with no commercial support, Republican propaganda masquerading as news, computer-written youth sports summaries, and uh, look, patch still exists. There are successful local news startups: The Colorado Sun, Racket in Minnesota, and Block Club Chicago to name a few. Hell Gate was recently launched in New York City. What they all have in common is that they were started by real, authentic local journalists. These journalist founders probably won’t become millionaires, but I doubt they will tell you that the goal is to become a millionaire.
The value of an organization should not only lie in its ability to make you rich. You can definitely make money from local news. But it gets harder and harder like “Can this make you rich?” It becomes the only measure of value by which any service is measured. I had never met anyone working in local news outside of New York and DC who had any dream of getting them rich, famous, or even reaching the upper echelons of the middle class. This was the work they wanted to do, and they wanted to make a living by doing it. In a better world, that would suffice, and you could make a good living as a local news reporter while feeling good about the service you provide to your community, in the same way that you would make a living as a local bakery owner, local dentist, or local pool cleaner.
Stevenson, who co-founded Agenda Arizona, continues to publish with its co-founder, Rachel Lingang. He also cleans swimming pools. He told The Fine Print that he used to do it as a child and joked that he would do it again if he quit the press. Now, he does journalism, in part, by increasing his income by cleaning swimming pools. I like to think it gets a lot less screaming from pool patrons.