It’s not just small cities or towns that are being overlooked as newspapers contract—coverage of state politics is shrinking, too. A Pew study on statehouse reporters, for example, found that there were consequences for the precipitous decline in the number of organizations with full-time statehouse reporters.
"When you don’t have anybody in the room, it impacts the way legislators speak, the questions that they ask themselves," said Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at Pew. "Not only are citizens potentially not going to find out about issues or events that are happening, but it can impact the legislative process."
Like some others across the country, Tim Redmond is trying to fill the gap with very little money or resources. In January of this year, he launched a new site, which he calls 48 hills, to cover local stories in San Francisco with a progressive twist. (There are 47 named hills in San Francisco, he said, but "in the social justice movement, we know there’s always one more hill to climb.")
Rather than try to cobble together enough money from advertisers to launch the site, Redmond went a different route: He structured the site as a nonprofit and asked friends, family, and private donors for money. He held fundraisers at Bay Area restaurants and put a “donate” link on his website. He got donations as small as $5 and as large as $15,000, and after six months, he had raised $85,000.
The site employs one person full-time: Redmond, who does the reporting, the editing, the bookkeeping, the fundraising. He hires freelancers to do pieces for him, but says he nevertheless works seven days a week, 12 hours a day. Still, he’s already been able to do some good accountability journalism, using skills he developed over his long career. He exposed allegations of sexual harassment filed against a Catholic Church official, which led to the official’s termination, wrote about a local golf club that doesn’t allow women, and investigated just who was snapping up all the luxury condos in San Francisco.
He doesn't earn much money for his labors, but he was able to launch the site faster and more cheaply than he would have been able to a decade ago. That means Redmond is able to produce accountability journalism relatively quickly—and cheaply.
"Twenty years ago, this would have required multiples of tens of millions of dollars," he said. "I would have had to have a large press, a large amount of paper, a distribution system. But now, for 500 bucks, I can just set up a WordPress site."
Nonprofit online journalism is a promising model, if only because for-profit local journalism has failed so miserably. There was Patch, a startup that aimed to cover local communities on a hyperlocal level, which was acquired by AOL in 2009, but which has had hundreds of layoffs in the past year. There was Main Street Connect, which sought to cover local news in Westchester County, New York and Fairfield County, Connecticut, whose parent company, The Daily Voice, filed for bankruptcy last year. There was Outside.In, EveryBlock, Placeblogger, all of which were folded into larger companies and faded away.