The funding to save local journalism: Importing an idea from San Diego

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS — August 20, 2018 — Mary Walter-Brown came to New York the other day on a mission to help save our local journalism. She may seem an unlikely savior to New Yorkers. A graduate of Northern Kentucky University, she went west to work in San Diego, which has the weather L.A. wishes it had.

But Walter-Brown has something we need: years of experience finding revenue to support quality reporting.

Like a hangman’s noose, the sharp staff cuts at the Daily News have at long last focused New Yorkers on a threat to our civic life that other parts of the country have been grappling with for years now. Coverage that holds leaders to account, knits together communities and gives us the facts to participate in decisions is in steep decline.

The problem is simple. For more than a century, newspapers were the leading source of local news, and their leading source of revenue was advertising. But as their audiences moved to digital, their ads moved elsewhere, too.

Eight of ten advertising dollars land in the coffers of Google and Facebook, which to date have made only nominal efforts to apply their entrepreneurial talents and profits to reinvigorating local journalism in service to the public.

The problem is not that people don’t want or need local news. “There is an appetite,” Walter-Brown says. She has a touch of that non-New York talent for understatement.

If you doubt this, just ask a New Yorker if she wants to know why her subway is chronically late, her neighbor was deported, her rent is too damn high, and the governor and the mayor can’t seem to work together.

But newspapers can no longer afford to do the work they used to do because they don’t have the funding stream they used to have. That’s why every New York daily newspaper has cut its coverage of New York.

That’s where Walter-Brown enters. Twelve years ago, a group of journalists and civic-minded supporters in San Diego became alarmed about their local news void. They created a digital news site called the Voice of San Diego. It hasn’t replaced the Union-Tribune. But it has grown into a feisty and independent alternative.

We tend to focus on journalists as the public face of what makes a publication work. But most journalists know the real secret is people like Mary. As publisher of the Voice of San Diego, she found enough people to sign up as paying members.

It started doing so well, Mary recalled, that she started getting calls from all over the country asking how they did it. So a year ago she stepped aside as publisher and set up a separate organization to help other digital startups build membership.

She is now assisting 20 digital news sites, from Honolulu to Philadelphia to, yes, Brooklyn. “We are all stronger working together, rather than struggling alone,” she says.

That’s why she was visiting New York. The Revson Foundation and the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment asked her to check in with digital news sites here and see which ones might benefit from her revenue tool-kit.

Her report isn’t quite ready yet. But a conversation with her suggests, to put this in a glass-half-full way, that there is a lot of opportunity for growth.

Sure, we are different from San Diego: exceptional and diverse. But — to turn the famous saying on its head — if a local journalism start-up can thrive there, can’t it make it here?

Sandorf is president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation.

Read the full story here.