During a recent event hosted by the Milwaukee Press Club, veteran journalist Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press shared his professional insights into the state of journalism and what the future may hold. Over the next decade, Todd predicted his profession’s landscape will shift slowly beyond the public scorn and skepticism cast on journalists during a deep political divide. He indicated that many print and broadcast newsrooms already decimated by staff reductions have been acquired by large news corporations, often more interested in online clicks and monetizing news than telling it like it is. Todd said another force that has turned people away from national news programs has been the public’s addiction to social media, which he said amplifies negativity and often sidesteps actual facts and data in favor of unsubstantiated opinion and innuendo.
It was refreshing to hear his optimistic vision for a future in which a more independent media will return to trust, community and embracing shared values. As public relations professionals who work with all forms of local and national media to hopefully share our clients’ stories, successes, challenges and key messages, having trustworthy, engaged and ethical journalists to work with via established communication channels is critical to our ongoing role as communicators.
In the wake of a year with once-in-a-lifetime headlines breaking almost daily, the demand for high-quality, trustworthy news reporting with a community focus is at an all-time high while traditional advertising revenue has dropped steadily. As such, across the country a shift toward non-profit journalism is popping up in local communities to help bridge the gap between nationalized cable news programming and the for-profit local news sources that are becoming fewer.
Todd insightfully posed thought-provoking questions to the audience such as, can a news organization be for-profit and maintain neutrality? Where and how is the money being made in journalism and how does that impact budgeting for stories in newsrooms?
While a trend toward non-profit news is easily justified by a corresponding decrease in advertising revenue, another key aspect of this shift is an opportunity to create news organizations independent from the influence of advertisers or large corporate owners. Evolving journalism from a commodity to more of a utility or public service model allows reporters the freedom to follow a story where the facts lead and deliver news responsibly.
According to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s Tow Center, since March at least 66 media outlets have permanently closed their doors, and another 42 have been impacted by mergers and consolidations during the course of the pandemic. Most of those affected were local outlets independently operated or owned by small news chains. Of those affected were Chicagoland-based 22nd Century Media’s 15 for-profit newspapers in March 2020 — right as the news of the COVID-19 pandemic was breaking. In response, three 22nd Century Media reporters who found themselves unemployed and unable to reach readers when their services were needed the most started The Record North Shore, a non-profit newsroom covering hyperlocal government, schools, and businesses in the Chicago suburbs. After a successful crowdfunding campaign raised $60,000, The Record began publishing in October to fill the hole left behind from 22nd Century Media’s closure.
Additionally, in May of 2020, Chicago Reader transferred ownership to an Illinois non-profit, the Reader Institute for Community Journalism, after seeing a 90% decrease in advertising revenue amid the pandemic. Hyperlocal non-profit news organization Block Club Chicago was founded in 2018 and has since published more than 5,000 stories on Chicago’s neighborhoods, covered hundreds of community meetings and sends newsletters to more than 82,000 people daily. Most recently, investigative publication ProPublica announced it would expand its Midwest operations to cover Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri in addition to Illinois which they have been reporting from since 2017, and perhaps most notably, The Baltimore Sun will separate from Tribune Publishing and will be preserved as a non-profit.
This new business model signifies a hopeful future for a diversified media ecosystem with high demand for quality journalism and established public trust.
Brian Knox is a PR veteran of more than 20 years and spent more than a decade in television news as a reporter and anchor.