Many parts of the Mountain West are news deserts -- and it’s getting worse. More than 20 counties in our region have no local newspaper. The ones that are left are struggling. And research suggests news deserts contribute to low voter turnout and increasing partisanship.
Scott Converse could feel the desert closing in on his community. His local newspaper in Longmont, Colorado had just announced it was closing its offices and moving to Boulder.
“All of Longmont's news left Longmont, effectively,” says Converse. “Honestly, it just P.O.’d me.”
So, he took action. He and another Longmont resident started their own publication -- the Longmont Observer. From the get-go, though, funding was a problem. It’s run by a small team of reporters and editors, all of them volunteers. Converse jokes their editor-in-chief is doing really well.
“She has gotten at least a dozen raises from zero, to two times zero, to four times zero to eight times zero,” he says. “We're proof that news is not profitable. We get enough donations to pay our rent and our Internet here and that's it. That’s literally it.”
So lately, Converse has been looking for new ideas for how to fund local journalism. That’s when he came across an article called, “Journalism is a public service. Why don’t we fund it like one?”
Simon Galperin wrote the piece. He’s the founding director of a nonprofit called the Community Information Cooperative, based in New Jersey.
“People feel it in a visceral way when they don't have the sort of information they need to get about their day,” says Galperin. He says we need a way to publicly fund news that’s independent from the local government, and he says the way to do this is through a common technique -- starting something called a special improvement district. These already exist in communities across the country for a bunch of purposes: parks, sewers, airports, highways.
“Fire safety, mosquito abatement,” Galperin adds. “So, it kind of just made sense to say, ‘Okay, let's create one for local news and information.’”
Technically, special districts are their own independent government units. They have their own funding, separate from the city budget, and their own governing board.
“The info district idea is an opportunity for people to do this themselves without relying on benevolent billionaires or wealth to come in and prop up a news organization,” he says. “This is a way for the public to have a say in how their local news and information needs are met.”
Galperin, who just published a how-to guide on starting a special district, says funding through a special district might allow a community to spread information in a bunch of different ways, including by hiring journalists -- maybe even full newsrooms. Back in Longmont, that idea was a light bulb moment for Scott Converse.
“I thought, ‘That's brilliant. What a great idea,’” he says.
He learned that there’s a type of special district that’s actually really common in Colorado. They’re for libraries. And what are libraries, he says, if not non-partisan, non-profit sources of trusted information chock full of some of the nation’s best information ninjas?
“Librarians are badasses. You do not mess with the librarian. If you try to remove a book from a library, you almost have to kill a librarian. It's not easy. And that's because they believe in the freedom of information,” says Converse. “They have more legal protections than just about any other entity on the planet for protecting information.”
They’re also non-partisan, nonprofit and community-driven, he adds. “What better place to put a newsroom?”
Converse dreams of the library housing not just a staff of local journalists, but also tools for citizen journalists to cover their community, like a makerspace for news.
“Never shushed anyone in a library in my life, don’t plan to start,” says Longmont Library director Nancy Kerr, as she walks through the lobby on a weekday morning. The library is gently bustling with residents looking through books on display and kids picking up prizes for summer reading.
“You expect libraries now [to] have at least a low hum of conversation going on. It’s not your parents’ or grandparents’ library,” she says.
The city is doing a feasibility study right now about how to better fund the Longmont library, including the possibility of starting a special district. Kerr says they're asking stakeholders "a sea of questions" about the future of the library, and its role in creating local news content is among them.
“We really believe in people's rights to read anything and everything and support that,” she says, so she was intrigued to hear the idea Scott Converse had hit on.
Libraries, Kerr says, are changing. If you haven’t been to one in a while, take a look. You might be surprised. This library has an old card catalogue full of seeds for people to plant in their gardens. Kerr says librarians help people with resumes and job applications all the time. And they just started a library of things, where people can check out everything from ukeleles and telescopes to wifi hotspots.
“We're always looking at new opportunities to connect people with information.” she says. “There have been some arguments out there that libraries are not content creators, but more and more libraries are content creators.”
In the most literal sense of content creation, a growing number of libraries host equipment for physically producing new material, like 3-D printers and machinery for self-publishing actual books. In a broader sense, Kerr adds, they’re already starting to share more characteristics with news organizations -- like the libraries that have podcasting equipment and green screens available, or even the ones with plans to house a public TV channel in the same building.
“Nothing is an impossibility for libraries,” says Kerr. “I can't see immediately that libraries would necessarily be able to do this on their own and be the producer -- the creator -- of the news. But as far as disseminating news from a library, I don't see that as a strange thing. That's what we do.”
Scott Converse says he’s getting some pushback on the idea of a government funded news service. But he’s got an answer for that.
Still, there are skeptics. Sure, a library could spread information about local events and such, but what would it mean for library-affiliated journalists to take on local investigations? That’s one of the questions Melissa Milios Davis is mulling.
“I think there's a lot of people who wonder if that would erode the trust of the library for them to be in that role,” says Davis, who is a Longmont resident, a former journalist and who works for a Colorado organization called the Gates Family Foundation (different from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). “I think that's a real, valid concern.”
As a member of the executive committee of a group called the Colorado Media Project, she’s leading a public policy study due out in the fall on what role public funding could play in sustaining local public-interest journalism.
“We're looking at: What is the role of philanthropy? What's the role of individuals? And what's the role -- potentially -- of local governments in supporting the information needs of communities?” she says. “I think the conundrum right now as we're looking for different revenue sources is to really figure out where are those bright lines between what government sources could be good and better used for, in terms of informing communities, and then other things that are really the realm of independent journalism.”
The Longmont Times-Call has run a number of articles and opinion pieces criticizing the idea that the library could play a role in disseminating local news, likening it to “a government-owned press,” “a tool of dictatorships” and quoting people on issues of trust and the importance of transparent funding.
Ironically, that paper is one of many that are backed by a New York-based hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, which is not only opaque about its investors but has also shown itself to be hostile to local news.
“We’re just naturally a cynical nation about big government -- about government of any kind,” says Julie Reynolds, a freelance journalist who’s investigating Alden Global Capital. But, she says, “I don't think people understand very much about where their news comes from or how it gets produced or how it gets funded.”
The hedge fund backs the MediaNews Group, previously known as Digital First Media. According to its website, it currently owns about 100 local publications, 19 of them in Colorado, including the Longmont Times-Call and the Denver Post. Reynolds says it took her 3 years to trace what funds the newspapers were held under.
“Like most hedge funds, Alden Global Capital is a labyrinth of real estate, LLCs, small corporations, other funds, most of them based in tax secrecy havens in the Cayman Islands, where they pay lower taxes and there's also almost no disclosure,” Reynolds says. “So, you don't know who owns or controls those funds. We don't actually know who ultimately is invested in them. Are there overseas actors involved in our media? We don't really know.”
As she writes in Newsweek, Reynolds used to work at a California paper that was “stripped for parts” by Alden Global Capital. (Court records show the hedge fund used profit from such publications to buy unrelated businesses, like a pharmacy chain called Fred’s).
Reynolds recently started a new online publication to revegetate her county’s news desert. It runs on philanthropy and reader contributions to stay afloat. She says the special district idea that Longmont is looking into stands out.
“I can see some issues and concerns, but there's always issues and concerns about the independence of the media,” says Reynolds. “I think it's a fascinating idea.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.