How National Digital Networks Are Transforming Local News

Axios, ProPublica, The Athletic and Chalkbeat Take Different Approaches to Going Local

National digital news organizations are increasingly entering local media markets, creating a new model for serving local audiences whose traditional news sources have suffered from years of disinvestment.

In the last few months, Axios has announced that it is placing reporters into four local markets, and ProPublica is starting new operations in the South and Southwest while also expanding its Illinois operation to cover the Midwest. Meanwhile, The Athletic reported that its sports coverage – now in nearly 50 local markets – has passed the 1 million mark in subscribers. And Chalkbeat, which covers education in eight local markets, is also positioned for growth, though the pandemic has pushed back its plans to expand this fall.

This trend, a twist on the system of legacy newspaper chains, is sometimes described as a “network model” or a “hub-and-spoke approach.” Some of the national organizations are going head-to-head with the local outlets, but others are nonprofits looking to work with and bolster the existing local journalism.

The long-term impact on local news is unclear. The nonprofit ProPublica has partnered often with local newsrooms to produce hard-hitting investigations that draw attention to both partners. But a for-profit entrant like The Athletic may create worry lines for news executives whose local outlets have long profited from their sports coverage.

This market shift reflects a trend found in other industries too, said Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean and John M. Mutz Chair in Local News at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

“What’s happening to general-interest metro news organizations is similar to what’s been happening with department stores,” Franklin said. “Parts of their businesses are being chipped away by national specialty shops that in some cases can come in and provide deeper local coverage of specific topics. We’re now seeing that in coverage areas that were once dominated by metro newspapers, like sports, schools, higher education, politics and business. And when you combine this trend with already shrinking budgets, metro news outlets really need to make hard strategic choices and ask themselves the questions: What can we uniquely do better, and what coverage areas do we need to own? And in answering those questions, it’s critical that they clearly understand their audience.”

Jim Brady, CEO of the Spirited Media consulting firm and a veteran news executive, also thinks local newsrooms may need to narrow their focus. In fact, he said, they may want to consider giving up on certain subjects, including sports.

You might run into a case where five years from now the local paper’s path to survival is to say, ‘No, can’t do sports anymore.’

Jim Brady, CEO, Spirited Media

“You might run into a case where five years from now the local paper’s path to survival is to say, ‘No, can’t do sports anymore. Can’t have two expensive sports columnists traveling to eight football games a year. Maybe we should just partner with The Athletic and take those resources and put them on things we can excel at.’

“I always use the roulette table metaphor,” Brady said. “Which is, you’ve got one chip on every number, which is kind of a classic newspaper model. It used to be a little bet on everything – on education and then you have transportation [etc.] Now I think you have to stack them on the things you can win at – that’s enterprise, investigative, accountability. Stack on those because that’s probably the thing you’re going to win at. I don’t know if you can out-Athletic the Athletic in sports five years from now or cover education better than Chalkbeat can if they can throw five reporters at it.”

Franklin, who heads Northwestern’s Medill Local News Initiative, said some news outlets will feel more impact than others.

“This networking trend is really more of an existential challenge for big-city news outlets than for mid-sized and smaller news shops,” Franklin said. “The smaller news markets have their own challenges, for sure. But The Athletic is moving into markets like Philadelphia, not Paducah.”

Axios’ Local Entry

Axios, a general news outlet known for its short articles featuring bullet points, is moving into four markets – Tampa, Denver, Minneapolis and Des Moines – with locally oriented newsletters.

Axios will start with “one or two” reporters in each market, said Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Johnston. As far as timing, “I think we’re aiming for the new year.”

Why those markets?

“We looked at a ton of stuff, like the number of people who read Axios in those markets, what we knew about the advertising market in each of those places,” Johnston said. “And then we wanted some sort of diversity, like cities [that] are different, like some are a little bigger, some are a little smaller, they have different news ecosystems, they have different demographic patterns. We wanted a nice mix so we could see what works and what doesn’t work.”

Our goal isn’t to show up someplace and replace what exists there.

Nicholas Johnston, Editor-in-Chief, Axios

Johnston doesn’t see Axios as a usurper in local media.

“I think we’re going to be part of the ecosystem there,” he said. “Our goal isn’t to show up someplace and replace what exists there.”

Newsletters are a major revenue source for Axios, and that’s the focus of this local project even though there will also be a dedicated page on the website for each city.

“The point of this isn’t to build a habit of going to Axios.com/desmoines but to build subscribers to the newsletter,” he said.

The topics will be wide-ranging.

“It should be all things local,” Johnston said. “We don’t just want to launch a newsletter that’s just about national politics through the prism of these cities, or even just about … state government or local government. It’s certainly an element of it, but what you think about when you’re interested in a city, when you talk about a city, it’s more than just politics. What are the big companies? What are the big universities doing? Maybe it’s a sports story. We want to be very fulsome and complete.”

But creating a general-interest local product instead of a niche product may carry risks, according to Spirited Media’s Brady, who emphasized that he was not talking about Axios’ plan specifically because he didn’t know the details of it, including how much aggregation they planned.

In general, though, Brady said, “You can probably throw more reporting heft at, like, education in a city than the local paper can, but I don’t think you can throw more resources at the city broadly than the local newspaper can.”

The Athletic Has a ‘Team’

The Athletic, with a dramatically different financial model from Axios, maintains a hard paywall and sells subscriptions to a website that offers local sports coverage as well as national reporting.

Now operating in about four dozen markets, The Athletic started slowly and carefully.

“In the first couple years we were only in three or four markets, and that was very intentional in terms of us fine-tuning the model,” said Co-Founder Adam Hansmann.

It chose where to expand based on “a mix of factors,” including the size of the market, the demographics and the quality of the sports teams.

However, Hansmann said, “We quickly learned in our case that finding staff and talent that would resonate with readers was really more important than how the teams were doing. Sports interest tends to be counter-cyclical in a lot of ways so where even if a team isn’t doing well, people are still highly engaged in terms of what’s the future, what’s the draft, what’s going to happen with the coach.”

We quickly learned in our case that finding staff and talent that would resonate with readers was really more important than how the teams were doing.

Adam Hansmann, Co-Founder, The Athletic

Hiring “recognizable names” has been important, Hansmann said. Those names include baseball writer Ken Rosenthal, who came aboard in 2017 when Fox Sports dropped written content and who broke the Houston Astros cheating scandal story with Evan Drellich last year. Other Athletic recruits have included Tim Kawakami from the San Jose Mercury News, Jeff Schultz from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Jeff Zrebiec from the Baltimore Sun.

Hansmann said The Athletic’s hiring has been helped by “competitive salaries, great benefits” and stock options for full-time employees. Reporters also appreciate the ability to collaborate with The Athletic’s journalists in other cities, he said.

“If you are the [Chicago] Cubs writer for The Athletic – actually, we have two – being on the same team as Ken Rosenthal, the primary news breaker of baseball, and writers in every other one of the major league markets, and you can work together on double bylines and special projects … that is just powerful. And I think an underrated aspect to why we’ve been successful is we have a team.”

ProPublica as a Force Multiplier

ProPublica announced in October that it was creating bureaus in Atlanta and Phoenix to cover the South and Southwest and was expanding ProPublica Illinois as a Midwest hub that would also cover Wisconsin, Michigan and “likely Missouri.”

ProPublica Deputy Managing Editor Charles Ornstein said the scope of its expansion was based on “a variety of factors. The first is obviously the news, and the stories that need covering. … We also looked at things like news deserts. We looked at the number of reporters per capita. We looked at the change in the numbers of reporters per capita. We looked at the dominant news organizations and their positions in the market. We looked at other nonprofit efforts that were taking place and what exists in each place.”

Ornstein said his investigative outlet’s expansion elicited “tremendously positive” reactions from journalists in the affected areas. “Oftentimes the only people who aren’t super-happy about us coming to a region are the region’s politicians,” Ornstein said.

Oftentimes the only people who aren’t super-happy about us coming to a region are the region’s politicians.

Charles Ornstein, Deputy Managing Editor, ProPublica

ProPublica has a demonstrated ability to boost local news, especially in collaboration with existing outlets. For example, its work with the Anchorage Daily News on the lack of police protection in Alaskan villages earned the Public Service award in the 2020 Pulitzer Prizes. And when the 150-year-old Youngstown Vindicator closed in 2019 in northeastern Ohio, ProPublica helped fill the gap by teaming with the area’s Business Journal on a major investigation of a troubled business development.

Both of those projects were part of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, which Ornstein runs. “We provide funding to local news organizations to fund their reporters to work on an investigative project for a year,” he said. “So these are reporters who stay in their newsrooms who work on projects with us.”

Just this week ProPublica announced an outgrowth of that program that runs for three years instead of one. Six local reporters will serve as the inaugural class of the new ProPublica Distinguished Fellows program that will pay the six reporters’ salaries and benefits for three years as they work out of their home newsrooms. A total of about 20 journalists are participating in the two programs.

As it expands, ProPublica doesn’t want to be viewed as competition.

“You take the South – we are hiring six reporters to cover a five-state region,” Ornstein said. “That is not an effort on our part nor should it be construed as a threat to the news organizations that are covering these areas and these regions as it stands. We are going to try to cover regional trends and accountability stories, but I think it’s one of these situations where there’s more than enough stories that need to be covered than there are reporters to cover them.”

Chalkbeat Is on the Board

Chalkbeat reports on education from eight markets: Chicago, Colorado, Detroit, Indiana, Newark, New York, Philadelphia and Tennessee.

How does it choose its locations?

“The biggest factor is the need,” said Scott Elliott, Chalkbeat’s Deputy Revenue Officer. “I had a lady call me. She’s an educator in a western state and she said, ‘Nobody covers our state board of education anymore at all. The metro newspapers have stopped.’ … We get those kind of calls all the time.”

When choosing its sites, the nonprofit Chalkbeat also looks at the fundraising environment and takes into account the availability of talented journalists, Elliott said.

Chalkbeat’s funding structure, with donations from both national and local sources, gives it a resiliency to tolerate the ups and downs of fundraising, he said. Expansion is still in the cards but has been delayed because of the pandemic.

From the very beginning, we’ve always shared our content for free to any news organization that wants to publish it, and no strings attached.

Scott Elliott, Deputy Revenue Officer, Chalkbeat

“We had a really aggressive expansion plan that was all ready to roll out for this fall and it’s a little bit on hold right now while we reassess the landscape in the wake of Covid and economic changes,” Elliott said. “… The original plan was to try to expand to two to three new markets a year for five years.”

Like ProPublica, Chalkbeat seeks collaborations with local news outlets and doesn’t want to be thought of as competition.

“I would say that we’re very much a partner,” Elliott said. “One of the foundational questions we had when we launched Chalkbeat was: Were we going to try to sell content to local news organizations or how were we going to work with other local news organizations? And we decided from the beginning it made more sense – we’re a nonprofit, we have a public interest mission – our mission was better served by not trying to compete and wanting to do the same thing the other sites were doing, and also by not trying to view them as customers. … We thought our mission was better served if we got our content before more eyes as we could. From the very beginning, we’ve always shared our content for free to any news organization that wants to publish it, and no strings attached.”

Of course, some friction is inevitable. Members of the newspaper guild at the Chicago Tribune raised public objections in June when the Tribune published a Chalkbeat story while its own education reporter was on a furlough for cost-cutting reasons. Chalkbeat’s Chicago bureau chief, Cassie Walker Burke, responded on Twitter that Chalkbeat had approached the Tribune for a collaboration in which a Tribune photographer took photos for the story, and “We didn’t even know about furloughs when we reached out.”

Elliott said, “We’re not in any way trying to get in the way of anyone’s labor stuff.”

He emphasized Chalkbeat’s view that there is plenty of room in news markets. “It’s best when other organizations that cover education take a different track than we are,” he said. “It often occurs naturally.”

“Our typical local site has a partnership with at least one metro paper, at least one ethnic media site, typically one of the one public radio outlets, and often a business news [outlet] of one kind or another,” he said. “… It gets our stuff read by far more people than if we just put it up on our own website.”

Open Campus’ Freshman Year

Another nonprofit education-oriented national network is Open Campus, which helps fund higher education reporters and will be operating at seven sites in six states by year’s end.

Unlike Chalkbeat, Open Campus helps finance the salaries of reporters who are hired by existing newsrooms and are supervised by the local outlet. But “we don’t just put the body on the beat,” said Open Campus Co-Founder and Executive Editor Sara Hebel. “We ourselves are editors.”

Open Campus also offers brainstorming and other consultation, and its stories appear in both the local outlet and on Open Campus’ website.

Its seven partners are Cal Matters, Lookout Santa Cruz, Chalkbeat Colorado, El Paso Matters, Crain’s Cleveland Business, Mississippi Today and Public Source in Pittsburgh.

“There’s a real power in combining the strength of national news organizations that know the subject really well with the knowingness of a community news organization that knows its local area very well,” Hebel said. “We are hoping that we can be part of the answer to both the problems of diminishing local [news] ecosystems but also specifically the lack of coverage of an important actor in many local areas, in many cities, in many states, which are its colleges and universities.”

There’s a real power in combining the strength of national news organizations that know the subject really well with the knowingness of a community news organization that knows its local area very well.

Sara Hebel, Co-Founder and Executive Editor, Open Campus

The need is obvious, said Hebel, who founded Open Campus with a former colleague at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott Smallwood.

“We did a quick survey of the top 50 media markets when we got going on Open Campus a year ago and found that only a third of them have a reporter dedicated to covering higher education,” Hebel said.

Most of its funding is from major foundations, but it hopes to diversify. Hebel is confident of the concept.

“This hub-and-spoke approach of a national news organization with local outlets as part of a network, I feel, is a way to rebuild trust with local communities because you’re providing in-depth and smart coverage of topic areas,” Hebel said.

Chalkbeat’s Elliott thinks the model can work well beyond the topic of education.

“With a network, you have economies of scale because you’re able to share a lot of stuff,” he said. “You create local and national revenue, so you have more revenue opportunities, and it’s worked in the past. … We’ve thought from the beginning, and I’ve always thought since I’ve been at Chalkbeat, that this model could work for other stuff.”

About the author

Mark Jacob

Editor

A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of eight books on history and photography.

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