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The Story on Urban Newsrooms Is Still Looking for Its Hero

Micro-scale online newsrooms are our new city watchdogs. Can we keep them alive?

Story by Greg Hanscom

Published on Jun 30, 2014

Last October, reporter Mark Reutter broke a story about a shady deal between Baltimore’s highest public officials and a politically connected contractor. In the process, he quite possibly saved residents of Charm City and surrounding Baltimore County upwards of $100 million.

Reutter, who cut his teeth on the investigative desk at the Baltimore Evening Sun in the 1970s, did it all old-school. “It was old-fashioned reporting,” he says. “The trick is, you go to meetings, you meet people, you talk to them.”

One day, Reutter got a call from a source who told him about a lucrative contract to replace 400,000 water meters in the city and county with wireless “smart meters.” According to the source, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the city’s Board of Estimates were about to hand the contract to a company, Dynis LLC, which had little experience with this sort of work. This, despite the fact that the city had a second bid from a qualified contractor, with a price tag that was less than half of Dynis’ $185 million proposal.

“Here was someone who had close knowledge of City Hall,” Reutter recalls. “They said, ‘Look, this is what is happening.’ I said, ‘I’ll see you in 20 minutes.’ I jumped in my car and drove right down to City Hall.”

Hours of rifling through public documents revealed that Dynis had ties to the man Reutter had previously identified as the Mayor’s top 2011 campaign donor — businessman James “J.P.” Grant, who ran the Baltimore Grand Prix car race in 2012 and 2013. Grant stood to make a handsome profit on the Dynis proposal, which Reutter estimated could ultimately cost ratepayers upwards of $250 million, more than a tenth of the city’s total annual budget. Meanwhile, a third, even lower bid had been thrown out on a technicality.

Reutter followed the story for a month, cranking out a dozen articles in all, revealing, among other things, that the selection process seemed to be rigged to allow the Board of Estimates to select whomever it wanted, regardless of the price. In the end, facing a rising wave of unflattering media attention and growing public outrage, the board awarded the contract to the lower bidder.

“Mark’s coverage was transformative,” says Arnold Jolivet, president of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association and a well-known figure in local politics. “If Mark had not done the excellent job that he did, Dynis’ contract would have been a foregone conclusion. [Dynis officials] had made assertions that they owned the contract. Mark’s investigation completely undercut that proposition.”

It’s a classic example of how a journalist, willing to put in hours of meticulous labor, can change the course of events for a city and its residents. It’s also an illustration of a growing trend in urban media: Reutter’s stories didn’t appear in the city’s flagship daily newspaper, the Baltimore Sun. In fact, the Sun at first refused to touch the story, despite entreaties from concerned residents. Instead, the stories appeared on a scrappy, shoe-leather website called Baltimore Brew.

In the past six years, since the Great Recession blew another hole in the hull of foundering urban news outlets, American journalists have patched together a ragtag fleet of lifeboats and makeshift rafts, platforms where they can do the work critical to upholding local democracy. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project found 438 small digital news organizations nationwide, fully 85 percent of which have popped up since 2005. (Pew did not count citizen bloggers.) A majority of these had three staffers or less, many of them refugees from legacy news outlets. More than half said they focus on local or hyperlocal news, while 45 specialize in investigative journalism. The implications for cities are profound.

“They’re clearly trying to fill some of the reporting gaps at the local level that have been left by legacy media,” says Mark Jurkowitz, the Journalism Project’s associate director, who authored the report. “It’s a new, interesting sector. If you’re focusing on City Hall, or the school system, or a neighborhood, that’s a mission that can be accomplished with just three or four staffers.”

But while organizations like Baltimore Brew have picked up crucial (if unsexy) beats such as schools and police policy, uncovered serious political scandals, and helped communities weather environmental catastrophe, their continued existence is far from certain. Many, but not all, of these outfits are non-profits, and almost without exception, they operate on a shoestring, based out of co-working spaces and staffers’ living rooms. While the creators of these sites are getting more and more business savvy, they continue to struggle to make ends meet.

More than a decade after traditional news outlets began their collapse, and five years into a national experiment in small-scale community journalism, the question remains: Can we find a way to support the media organizations that sustain our cities?

A Changing City Desk

The story in Baltimore offers a glimpse of how the media is evolving in many American cities.

Baltimore’s old media fell on hard times long before the Great Recession. The Baltimore News American, for years the city’s largest paper, with roots tracing back to the 1700s, shut its doors in 1986. The Evening Sun, where Mark Reutter got his start, published its last edition in 1995, a victim of what a Sun obituary called “evening paper syndrome” — the loss of readers to morning papers as jobs shifted from blue- to white-collar and people moved en masse from the city to its suburbs. The Sun itself went through a series of ownership changes, reorganizations and downsizings. The 2007 financial collapse, which sent the paper’s owner, the Chicago-based Tribune Company, into bankruptcy, nearly destroyed it.

“These days, the vast Sun newsroom looks grossly underpopulated,” said a 2009 Baltimore magazine article. “Like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, you can see whole sections that were clearly once vital but now have been left to wither.” The story could have just as easily described parts of Baltimore, gutted by white flight, the drug trade and neglect.

But Baltimore is a writer’s town. Journalism runs in the veins of the city, which has given rise to such greats as H. L. Mencken, Alice Steinbach and David Simon, the creator of the HBO series The Wire and a former Sun reporter. As the old media giants waned, some local reporters moved on to other cities or landed jobs at national publications a train ride away in Washington, D.C. But others stayed put, creating new outlets for their work. Many of these upstart news organizations vanished as quickly as they’d appeared, but a few, including Baltimore Brew, Mark Reutter’s outfit, have survived.

The Brew was started in 2009 by another Evening Sun veteran, Fern Shen, who spent 17 years as a staff writer on the Washington Post metro desk, where she covered schools, crime, and local and state government. She started the Brew as a modestly customized WordPress blog, funding it largely out-of-pocket, in response to what she saw as a need for more local reporting as the Sun faded.

“I respect all the folks doing all the hard work over at the Sun, but there are fewer of them,” Shen says. “It used to be, there was a whole local section in the Sun. But they don’t have the bandwidth to do community news anymore.”

Fern Shen built an indy news operation that’s scooping traditional media in Baltimore.

Working from her kitchen table, Shen started making calls and telling stories. The site attracted “a rotating cast of freelancers, contributors and college interns,” she says. Most, including Shen, were unpaid, but the site began to generate a trickle of revenue from advertising sales, small donations from readers and a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 that raised just over $24,000. Eventually, Shen was able to bring on Reutter as full-time senior reporter and editor, paying him a modest salary (he says it amounts roughly to minimum wage).

Shen and Reutter have made waves. In one case, a neighborhood’s campaign to replace a defunct supermarket was being hampered by Rite Aid, which had a historic deed to the property. City officials knew about the problem, but were doing nothing to fix it, despite the community’s protests. The Brew brought the story to light, and it was finally resolved. In another case, a series of articles on the deplorable conditions in a public senior housing complex sparked community meetings and a campaign to reform housing and security practices.

“They have an outsize influence,” Ron Cassie, a senior editor at Baltimore magazine, says of the Brew’s staffers. “Reporters and people who work in media in Baltimore know Fern and Mark and read the Brew. [Mayor] Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — if something is in the Brew, her staff is going to tell her about it. It gets to people that matter.”

“I tell my staff to read it,” says Delegate Mary Washington, who represents a swath of northern Baltimore in the state legislature. “[The Brew staff is] not afraid to talk about the haves and have-nots, the class dynamics in the city. The Sun is not comfortable talking about racial dynamics. These folks, whatever the story is, they’ll tell it.”

And the Brew has had some recent financial successes, too. In May, the Abell Foundation (named for the man who founded the Baltimore Sun, Arunah S. Abell) announced that it will give the Brew an $80,000 grant to hire a community reporter “to give us more boots on the ground in city neighborhoods,” Shen says, and a “chief revenue officer,” who will help boost advertising sales, search for more grant money and launch a membership program.

“We’re somewhat up from ‘kitchen table,’” Shen says, describing the operation, which still has no office outside staffers’ homes. “We’ve moved to the dining room. Maybe we’ll occupy the whole first floor in the coming year.”

Still, Shen says that even with the grant money, she will likely pay herself very little, if anything at all. And Brew staffers have been irritated lately by old media’s recycling of their work without attribution — a practice that makes it difficult for the public to see where those stories originated, and could make fundraising more difficult.

“There’s a lot of recycling going on in the world of new media, we get that,” Shen wrote in an email. “But it’s good to remember, when people diss ‘blogs’ as linkage and opinion and lionize old media as bastions of original reporting, that sometimes what’s going on is the exact opposite.”

Local News, Local Impact

Similar stories are playing out in cities across the country.

The news site Oakland Local launched in 2009 in response to what its three founders felt was shallow, imbalanced reporting of the New Year’s Day police shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant. The idea was to create a community-driven vehicle for watchdog reporting on the police and other issues important to Oakland residents yet often overlooked by Bay Area media.

A data-driven reporting project published this April on the Local’s Oakland Police Beat revealed that the department’s most decorated officers were involved in more shootings, and were the subject of more lawsuits over accusations of brutality and other misconduct, than their peers. Shortly after the story appeared, one of the most notorious officers resigned, says editor-publisher Susan Mernit.

“What the Oakland Police Department thought made a good officer, and what the community thought made a good officer, were obviously quite different,” Mernit says. “There has been some very good reporting on the Oakland police, but nobody had looked this deep.”

Oakland Local has received a number of grants from national foundations. And in May, the site’s non-profit parent, the Center for Media Change, won Google’s Bay Area Impact Challenge. The center will receive $500,000 to fund Hack the Hood, a project that prepares local high school students for jobs in the tech economy by teaching them to build websites for local businesses.

Yet Mernit, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur and business leader, says the organization struggles to fund the basic operations. She and Oakland Local’s one other staffer are paid, although “badly,” she says. Ad sales have been stagnant. And a fundraising campaign to support coverage of schools last year was a dismal failure: The group didn’t even recoup the cost of a promotional video it produced for the campaign.

“Most people think that media is like water: You turn on the tap and it comes out,” Mernit says. “But quality journalism requires support and investment.”

Sheepshead Bites had held steady for a community that had been blown right off its moorings, but the storm left it compromised, too.

In New Orleans, Karen Gadbois, founder of the website The Lens, broke a major story about government corruption surrounding programs designed to rehab or demolish houses damaged in Hurricane Katrina. The story, which became a multi-part investigative series, won Gadbois and local TV reporter Lee Zurik the Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Award, a Peabody and a gold medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors.

The Lens (co-founded by Next City Executive Editor Ariella Cohen who remains on the board of The Lens) has grown since its early days to cover schools, the environment and politics, as well as government transparency issues. It now has 10 employees and partnerships with the city’s daily newspapers and the local NPR affiliate WNO. But Gadbois, too, says funding has been hard to come by.

“The people we serve are not people who donate — they’re lower-income, and even middle-income people who are stressed in a hard economy,” she says. “We’re not Austin. We don’t have a lot of tech startups.” Foundation funding has been spotty as well. “When you start stepping on toes, which is what we’re supposed to do, power does not appreciate it, and power controls purse strings, even in the philanthropic community.”

As an example, she cites the Lens’ Charter School Reporting Corps. After Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the city in 2005, New Orleans swept away what was left of its underperforming public school system, replacing it with a network of charter schools. Traditional media struggled to cover the newly decentralized system, but the Lens, with startup funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, set up a network of freelance writers who covered 46 charter school boards that oversee more than 75 public schools in the city. The reporting won acclaim nationally, but it was also criticized by charter school proponents and opponents alike. Its grant funding spent and local financial support difficult to come by, the program was put on hiatus at the end of the 2014 school year.

“We got people paying attention to education in a way that is a service to the schools — the same schools that probably don’t want us in the building,” Gadbois says. “But it’s a very polarizing issue. It put us in a place journalistically where we are kind of hated by everyone.”

Ned Berke, who created local news website Sheepshead Bites in South Brooklyn in 2008, has seen his ups and downs, too. As Superstorm Sandy whirled toward his hometown, Berke created a resource page where locals could find information on how to prepare, notices from the city, a storm-related Twitter feed and a live video of the nearby bay. When the storm hit, Berke was one of the only people still reporting from the front lines, dictating stories to a colleague over his cell phone when the floodwaters knocked out his power and Internet service.

“Entire neighborhoods had been taken out, but nobody knew that,” Berke says. “I was on my phone using what was left of my battery getting out every piece of information I could.”

After the waters receded, the website became a clearinghouse for people trying to find missing loved ones and piece their lives back together. Berke organized an information fair where local businesses could learn about grants and other recovery assistance.

Sheepshead Bites had held steady for a community that had been blown right off its moorings, but the storm left it compromised, too. While a corporate newspaper could turn to a parent company in such an emergency situation, Berke was on his own facing down a dwindling operating budget as desperate local businesses stopped paying for ads. Pre-Sandy, Sheepshead Bites had six staffers, most of them part-time. These days, it’s just Berke, a few freelancers and a couple of interns.

Information is a Right

Some of the trouble with local online news can be pinned to the people who start these sites. Many of them started these projects as short-term fixes, or labors of love, with little notion of how they would pay the bills. “I didn’t start this as a business,” Berke says. “I set about it very haphazardly. I never even made a business plan until much later.”

Berke did eventually write a plan, and says he saw great progress in 2013, thanks in part to the work he did surrounding Sandy. But it has been a bumpy ride

Most of Berke’s peers come from old-school publications where there was a strict, church-and-state separation between newsrooms and advertising sales. They got into journalism because they wanted to tell stories, to uphold the promise of the Fourth Estate, not because they wanted to start a business.

As news startups began to proliferate following the financial crash, a handful of national foundations, including the Patterson and Knight foundations, realized that these organizations were filling a critical role in their communities, and began funding them. Just like food or education, information was a vital public resource in cities, the foundations saw. With that in mind, Knight sponsored a competition intended to match-make local philanthropists with these nascent non-profits. The Community Information Challenge poured $19 million into matching grants at 33 community foundations, resulting in a total of $69 million invested in local news and information projects over the competition’s five-year run, which ended last year. Though limited, the experiment laid the groundwork for new relationships between journalists and local foundations that in many cities served to give legitimacy to this new species of local media.

At the same time, foundations and business insiders started national initiatives to help micronews sites develop business acumen. Patterson funded the annual Block by Block conference, a gathering of people trying to create sustainable business models for local news startups. In 2011, that conference spawned the group Local Independent Online Publishers, or LION, which serves as a networking hub and an information clearinghouse. The group now has 125 members and an annual conference.

“People are getting away from the idea that if you’re running an online news site that you’re in your mom’s basement,” says LION president Dylan Smith, who publishes the Tucson Sentinel. “We’re out where the news is happening. We’re going places that other news organizations have never gone, or have stopped going. Readers are taking online news as seriously as traditional news organizations — advertisers and underwriters, too.”

Indeed, there are signs of progress. In a report released in October, Knight found that non-profit media outlets were broadening their revenue bases. “More of these entrepreneurial publishers are looking at themselves as running businesses,” says John Bracken, Knight’s director of journalism and media innovation. “They’re still fragile, but collectively, they’re in a better place than they were a couple of years ago.”

Among them are larger sites that are downright thriving. Texas Tribune makes money by hosting corporate-sponsored events, and each year, the site seems to grow more robust. The Voice of San Diego and the Minneapolis news site MinnPost have become poster children of the membership-based “public radio” model, attracting support from a broad network of readers and supporters. Michele McLellan, founder of the Block by Block conference and a “circuit rider” for the Knight Community Information Challenge, has created a catalog called Michele’s List that now includes more than 200 news startups nationwide that are making a serious attempt at creating a sustainable business model. In a recent survey, she found that 60 percent of local news sites reported an increase in revenue in 2013 over 2012.

Organizations like Baltimore Brew have picked up crucial (if unsexy) beats such as schools and police policy, uncovered serious political scandals, and helped communities weather environmental catastrophe.

But there’s still a long way to go. Tucson Sentinel lists fewer than 100 current donors and sponsors and most are individuals who have given $100 or less. There are only a handful of ads on the site. The Sentinel’s experience is closer to the norm than the experience of hyper-successful Texas Tribune or Voice of San Diego, which both started out with generous million-dollar-plus gifts from deep-pocketed local benefactors. According to a 2013 Pew survey, about half of non-profit news outlets generate at least 75 percent of their income from a single revenue stream, “almost always foundation grants.” And foundations, as a rule, don’t like long-term relationships.

That became apparent to Philadelphians in the spring when the non-profit news-site AxisPhilly folded after two years online. Launched out of the School of Media and Communication at Temple University with a $2.4 million grant from the William Penn Foundation, the site was birthed at a moment when many in the nation were looking to universities and philanthropists as stopgaps in the unraveling of local media. But despite the high hopes and a good deal of fantastic reporting (the site won the Online News Association’s 2013 Award for General Excellence), Axis never quite managed to build the kind of local following of more grassroots sites like Baltimore Brew or attract the big-time donors of sites like the Tribune or Voice of San Diego. By May when its homepage froze, Axis’ obituary had been all but published by its peers in the city’s bare-knuckled news media.

Almost all of the editors and publishers I spoke with for this story said that they struggle to make ends meet. Online ad sales rarely produce enough revenue to support much of a news operation — witness Patch, AOL’s failed attempt at creating a network of local news sites. Business sponsorships can be hard to come by in cities such as New Orleans and Baltimore. Building substantial membership rolls can take many years, and there are few examples of it succeeding outside of the public-media realm. (This fact has led several news startups to merge with public-media outlets. The St. Louis Beacon joined forces with St. Louis Public Radio in December, for example.)

That leaves foundations. Bracken with Knight says “philanthropy can be part of the mix” in sustaining local news, but he cautions that foundations cannot come close to closing the gap left by the collapse of old media’s advertising base. “When compared to the cuts in journalism in the last decade, the entire portfolio of the Gates Foundation would not cover that,” Bracken says. Knight’s $30-million-odd a year in grants, he adds, “is not enough to run a newspaper in one city.”

And so Knight will continue to promote projects that offer some promise of creating more self-sustaining business models. In January, the foundation announced $1 million in “micro-grants” that will fund innovations in business, technology or operations at news non-profits and in February another $2 million went to support a statewide network of newsrooms in New Jersey. There are plans to roll another $3.5 million into local news outlets that have “demonstrated potential for growth, operating for at least three years.”

People in the foundation world talk about a day when local news sites can “take off the training wheels” and roll on without philanthropic help, but those with experience with public and non-profit media most often say otherwise. “Is it time to take the training wheels off? No,” says Gadbois at The Lens. “It’s time to look at honest cost of creating this news product, and figure out what this community is going to do to support it.”

“A Working Boat Out of Several Sinking Ships”

When Fern Shen created Baltimore Brew, she says she had no idea where it would go. The site’s “about” page bills it as “your post-apocalyptic source of information and insight on the city” — the apocalypse being the decline of the old media. “Until the business model gets sorted out,” it continues, “we figured we’d make a place for Baltimore’s journalists, techies, and news-starved readers to get together and do some good things.”

And it’s true that the Brew may flame out like so many other startups before it. But Baltimore needs publications like the Brew. At the Sun, a few old warhorses and a small cadre of hard-driving young reporters continue to produce fits of fine journalism. The same is true of the city’s array of magazines and websites. But overall the city’s media landscape looks as bleak as it ever has.

The Sun’s parent company, the Tribune Company, bought City Paper earlier this year, to the great consternation of the Baltimore alt weekly’s staff. In the process of cleaning house before the sale, City Paper’s parent company censored several stories, fired a number of longtime employees and eventually shut the staff out of the website and social media accounts. (In a sign of how the world has changed, the public got all the lurid details via Twitter, Facebook and a handful of local and national blogs.)

Tribune has bought up several other struggling publications in the region as well. Some observers speculate that the company is planning to consolidate the regional media market, then sell it all off wholesale, in an attempt to make what one local calls “a working boat out of several sinking ships.”

Regardless of what happens with the Tribune and its holdings, the Brew won’t be short on work for the foreseeable future. Still, Shen is wary of growing too large: “People say, ‘What’s your business model?’ I say, ‘Keeping costs down. Living on a shoestring.’”

“A lot of people over the years have wanted us to dream big, be big, go for it,” she adds. “But I don’t think we need a big operation to have a really big impact.”

It’s a lesson that many others in this city of grand old journalistic institutions are learning, too — sometimes the hard way. Mark Reutter says that when he first started writing about the water meter deal, the Mayor and her team were dismissive. Their stock response: “This is just a blog.”

That argument clearly doesn’t hold water. “More and more people are seeing us as the source of real information, not just a blog,” Reutter says. “We’re punching way above our weight, and we’re happy about that.”

Now it’s Baltimore’s job to keep the Brew swinging, or lose what has become one of its most valuable resources.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

Greg Hanscom is a senior editor at the non-profit news website Grist.org, where he writes about cities and climate change. He cut his teeth at High Country News, also a non-profit, and later edited the Baltimore city magazine Urbanite.