Annual Letter 2018: The Future of Journalism and Local News

Some personal news and where journalism is headed…

The Great St. Lawrence, Quebec, Canada on December 30th, 2018

The Great St. Lawrence, Quebec, Canada on December 30th, 2018

I have been remiss in letting many of you know why TheEditorial interviews have not been popping up in your email over the past eight months. I have some news: Last spring, I became Director of Special Projects at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. It took me this long to catch my breath.

For context, TheEditorial was an attempt to report on some of the biggest ideas coming out of our privileged cities of Boston and Cambridge and share them with anyone who wanted to learn about them. You see, while some trade on farming (calling on Texas, Missouri, Iowa, California) or urban design (I see you Portland) or driverless cars (helloooo, Pittsburgh)...This city trades on ideas. Many of the greatest advancements in technology, healthcare, biotech, policy, and social movements germinated here in Cambridge and Boston. 

I LOVE doing these interviews. They make me incredibly happy. However, like many local news outlets today, I could not find a viable revenue model to grow a newsroom to cover more beats like transportation, the funding roundup for startups, or our Cambridge City Hall with its $636 million annual budget! (Would be good to follow the money....and those tree canopy-cutting developers, if anyone wants to fund that.) That was the dream.

The original idea was simple: Cover emerging ideas using a singular profile interview to build TheEditorial following. For six years we grew a very loyal and strong base but it was not enough to support a newsroom. The interviews on emerging ideas with people in your city were meant to be the glue and Cambridge our "spiritual home", as my colleague Sharon French once coined. Events turned out to be the only way we could earn revenue and they were generously funded by many of YOU and a few loyal local corporate giants including Google, BNY Mellon Wealth Management, Novartis, and athenahealth. Yet that profit, in a good year, was not enough to allow us to grow and hire more reporters. Pay-per-read was a flop and we needed more quality content for a meaningful subscription. We had grand ambitions and a solid business plan that showed that once we were in five cities using the same approach, our events would collectively generate a few million in revenue but VCs and funders were not convinced the 20% gain would ever be there on their investment. 

In retrospect, we should have made TheEditorial a non-profit but even then you need significant seed capital. The big success stories in the non-profit space, like John Thornton at the Texas Tribune (a VC himself), have founders who often contributed over a million dollars of personal wealth to jumpstart the pursuit. We are seeing wealthy media ownership continue with Jeff Bezos owning and growing the Washington Post into one of the nation's most profitable newspapers, John and Linda Henry owning the Boston Globe, Laurene Powell Jobs purchasing the Atlantic, California Sunday and PopUp Magazine through her foundation the Emerson Collective, and now Salesforce's Marc Benioff buying Time. Today, it is media by philanthropy. As revenue paths for newsrooms falter, we may be find ourselves very grateful they swooped in before all legacy newsrooms and institutional memory disappeared. With this trend of ownership, we will need to ensure holding truth to power remains intact.

This conundrum (lacking revenue streams in an age when creating a digital newsroom and disseminating news to relevant audiences has become so accessible) is utterly frustrating. No matter how nimble, we could not crack it. What was even more galling were those profiteering in this new attention economy using disinformation to sow viral momentum or, worse, prey on readers with divisive disinformation. This division elicits rage, which in turn gains clicks, goes viral, and thus, gains profit for the content maker. The digital landscape, as it is today, favors rage-inducing, sensational, celebrity-driven content. It was fine in days of old when a tabloid ran on that, while the daily newspaper brought you the fact-based news. It was bifurcated for readers. But in today's digital world, it is one big mosh pit. How does a society move forward on that?

I realized the only path to help solve this was to find others who were equally concerned and who brought different strengths to the brainstorm. Today, I collaborate with some of the biggest thinkers in this space at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. 

From this vantage point, I am encouraged by what I am discovering: foundations, private donors, and universities, like Harvard, have stepped in to fill this leadership void in our national media crisis to fund research and new approaches. Together they are researching and working to clean up the information disorder that is crippling our democracy. The focus is on building an informed community that keeps us together in a functioning democracy. If you want to understand who is trying to clean up disinformation, I published a paper this fall: The Fight Against Disinformation in the U.S.

Dan Kennedy interviewed me about this paper for WGBH a few weeks ago and I don't hold back on my views around local news.

With this work, we hope to support strong local news towards further self-sufficiency in markets where it exists, spawn quality news in news deserts, and sustain and study trusted national news that is making profit. The most vital part of the future of journalism, in my view, is that it serves us by holding power accountable, inspires us with stories of innovation, and informs our community with context around what is happening. This will likely require policy changes and more innovation.

As I say to the business people in my purview, "If we don't have a free press, we don't have democracy. And if we don't have democracy, we don't have free markets." We need an all-hands-on-deck approach right now. Reach out if you want to be involved or fund the work.

I will try to bring you a few interviews when I have time and encourage you to go back and read of few of the old ones. Ideas and how they came to be are evergreen. I am grateful to all of you for subscribing and encouraging me along the way. Thank you so very much.

Wishing you a 2019 that brings us all an informed citizenry and more cities with leadership and emerging ideas that inspire. 

Happy New Year!

Heidi Legg