Reporter's Notebook

Mark Russell, executive editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis
Mark Russell, executive editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis Courtesy of The Commercial Appeal

A few days ago I published an item about a new online journalistic site in Tennessee, The Daily Memphian. In that item, I quoted some Daily Memphian officials saying that they had been prompted to action by the shift of the long-established local daily, The Commercial Appeal, to a more statewide emphasis in its reporting, under its current Gannett ownership.

Yesterday I quoted a response from a reader (and friend) in Knoxville, who noted the shift away from local emphasis but said there were virtues in statewide-network coverage.

Now, here is a response from the executive editor of The Commercial Appeal, Mark Russell. At his suggestion and request, this message quoted below is the same as what he published in his newspaper, under the title: “Enough! Time to Set the Record Straight About the CA.”

Here is what he wrote:

The Atlantic, as part of an ongoing series, recently profiled the Daily Memphian and described the non-profit’s journalistic mission. In doing so, the Atlantic and its reporter, James Fallows, asserted that The Commercial Appeal is declining and included quotes from DM leaders falsely asserting that Nashville reporters are routinely writing stories about Memphis and that The CA is not focused on the city where it has been based for 178 years.

All three assertions are hogwash and can be easily dispelled by the simple, easy-to-see facts. In response to such hyperbole from DM leaders, including CEO Eric Barnes, I’ve taken the high road, preferring to let our strong journalism speak for itself. But the misstatements have become so frequent—and are littered throughout this Atlantic story—that I thought it was important to set the record straight.

First, some relevant background. The DM built its staff last year by raiding The Commercial Appeal of 10 veteran staffers. It also hired several younger staffers, both from The CA and other Memphis newsrooms.

That staff exodus gave The CA a chance to recruit energetic local and national talent and we did that in quick fashion, rebuilding the newsroom. We added a second investigative reporter and hired a food writer and sports columnist. Our staff today is aggressive, passionate about telling the stories of Memphians, and is far more diverse and reflective of our city than before the DM raid. I am proud of the team we’ve built and how readers have responded to their work. For the last six months, we have seen a significant increase in our digital audience, an important measure of reader engagement.

For the last two months, our monthly page views have exceeded 8 million.

Our paid digital-only subscribers have increased by just shy of 10% so far this year and our overall market footprint dwarfs the Daily Memphian's. For example, our recent coverage of the Memphis Tigers and the NCAA’s action on James Wiseman generated some of the highest readership numbers this year, along with 50 new subscribers. So much for a declining CA.

I often hear from other journalists, but not many readers, that The CA has fewer staffers than it had a decade ago. That is true, and it’s also the case at every newspaper in the nation because of profound changes in journalism’s business model. The then-and-now comparisons are interesting footnotes, but add no context about the current work we do and The CA’s relevancy in the market.

Our staff size has been largely stable for a year, and we have more journalists covering Memphis and Shelby County than we had the day the DM raided our staff. Those staffers live in Memphis and the surrounding suburbs. None of them live in Nashville or any other city outside our market area.

The only Nashville-based reporters routinely writing about Memphis are doing statewide investigative or issue stories or writing about Gov. Bill Lee or the Memphis delegation to the state legislature. We’re similar to the DM in that regard; the Daily Memphian has employed a Nashville-based reporter, Sam Stockard, to write about the Shelby County delegation.

Regarding the “Tennessee network” branding that Barnes called the last straw for some readers, I’ll demystify what he miscast as simply branding. In fact, the USA TODAY Network allows The CA to punch above its weight class, to use a boxing metaphor. We routinely publish important, statewide stories on opioid abuse, state education and political issues because we are part of a statewide network. Our watchdog work has had a profound impact on issues affecting Memphians. We’ve broken critically important stories around TennCare, the state’s Medicare program. Despite Barnes’ parochial assertions, Memphians and other West Tennessee citizens do care about issues that affect the entire state. We also routinely fight for journalists’ First Amendment rights, spending thousands in court fees to stand up for our readers’ right to know.

The Network ensured that we had the most expansive coverage of the gubernatorial and Senate elections last year and Memphians got a chance to hear candidates themselves; we hosted a gubernatorial debate at the University of Memphis.

We at The CA are passionate about covering Memphis and shining a spotlight on important issues, such as our recent investigative story on the misleading ballots that some politicians paid to get on ahead of the Oct. 3 election. I also welcome the added journalism competition. It makes us all better and news consumers are the beneficiaries.

I thank Mark Russell for taking the time to respond; I regret using the opinionated word “declining” and have removed that from the original post; and I recognize the complexities of anyone in journalism trying to find a path forward. I agree with him completely that the competition among different business models of journalism, and different approaches to coverage, is beneficial to all in the community.

All notes on "Memphis, Tennessee" >
The author's sister (on lap), mother (left), great-aunt (rear), and great-grandmother in rural Minnesota, circa 1947
The author's sister (on lap), mother (left), great-aunt (rear), and great-grandmother in rural Minnesota, circa 1947 Courtesy of Susan Zerad Garau

Along the way of our reporting for American Futures and Our Towns, I ran into the stories of some remarkable women—living and dead. Eliza Tibbets, who planted the first navel oranges in California; Isabella Greenway, who helped shape the entire copper-mining town of Ajo, Arizona, went on to found an airline company and the iconic Arizona Inn, and became the first woman representing Arizona in Congress; Jerrie Mock, a housewife from Columbus, Ohio,  who chased the dream of Amelia Earhart to become the first woman pilot to circumnavigate the globe on her own; the Women of the Commons in Eastport, Maine, who are a big part of rewriting the civic, cultural, and commercial story of Eastport, Maine; and Tracy Taft, an educator and organizer who followed Isabella Greenway to Ajo, Arizona, to drive its change from a failing former-mining town to a thriving community based on the arts.

Recently, I hit the motherlode, where well over 200 women from rural America met in Greenville, South Carolina for a gathering of the Rural Assembly, a coalition of nationwide organizations that advocates for rural communities. This one was the first ever Rural Women’s Summit. (Okay, I counted on one hand the number of men who were there, too.) They met to talk about civic life, incarceration, health, water, education, poverty, faith, relationships, conservation, family, entrepreneurship, all in the context of women living in rural America. They framed their comments from their experiences as women in the military, as organizers of movements, as filmmakers, journalists, artists, nurses, lawyers, civic leaders, mothers, convicts, politicians, faith leaders, actors, and more.

“The diversity of voices and experiences in the room was meaningful and telling,” Whitney Kimball Coe, of the Center for Rural Strategies, told me after the conference, via email. “It pushed back on stereotypes of a monolithic rural America.”

My own rural roots dwindled about a century ago, after my family had immigrated from Bohemia and Moravia, in the part of the Austro-Hungarian empire that later became Czechoslovakia, to the Midwest. Most of my relatives had lived in rural areas in Europe. My cousins and I of the American-born generation chanted that our forebears were butchers, bakers, and candy makers. My great-grandfather, who lived and died in the dozen-house village of Mlyny (mills in Czech) was the chief gardener for trees in Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s country estate, Konopiste.

I went to see his trees, maybe some had been saplings in his time, about 20 years ago, and then found my way to his village, where an older woman told me the story she heard growing up of the two young boys from Mlyny who went to America to seek a new life. One of those boys was my grandfather.

The author’s father (left), aunt (in white), grandfather (the baker), and uncle circa 1928 (Courtesy of Susan Zerad Garau).

Mostly from photographs, I remember standing in the fields of tall corn in my great grandmother’s family farm in rural Minnesota. And as clear as it was yesterday, I remember the backyard garden in the West Side neighborhood of Chicago, where my grandparents ultimately moved, and where my grandfather (the baker) grew sunflowers that were twice my height. My rural connections are twice-removed compared with those of my friends from the small Ohio town where I grew up, who actually lived on farms. But I will defend some deep bloodline sense I feel when I see and listen to the stories of rural life in America today. Those are the feelings I took with me to the meeting of rural women.                                   

I gleaned a few principles about the lives of rural women that I hadn’t appreciated before.

The first is how aggravations from a single issue can quickly cascade into a series of complications that make problems worsen toward intractable.

Let’s take water, for example. Martin County, Kentucky, in the coal country of Appalachia is, as one woman described it, a poster child for water crisis. We have all been enlightened by the stories of Flint, Michigan, which would not be public without the women on the front lines there, by the way. The  broken infrastructure of water protection and handling in Martin County—cleanliness, safety, delivery, affordability, sewage—in Appalachian coal country is another piece of the troubled water story around the U.S.

This story of water there is intimate to the lived experience of the women who tell it and those who report it. By and large, it is the women who open the taps for water they use to cook, to do the laundry, to bathe the children, to drink. If the faucets deliver, which is not a given, the water often runs brown, sulfury, and smelly.

Reporting from those who live or spend time in Kentucky, be that in newsletters or rural press, adds a nuance of understanding that delivers insistent stories of a contaminated water supply, leaky and crumbling pipes, wastewater pipe shortages, industrial leaks and spills, a declining tax base from mine closures, rising water costs, and all the humanly compelling drama that ensues.  

Then the cascade begins. The women bathe the babies, who then develop rashes. The women drive them long distances to see doctors, which is costly and time-consuming. Researching medical counsel or the alternatives of telemedicine often demand broadband connections, which are scarce, spotty, or thin in poor, rural America. Navigating coverage of telehealth from insurance companies is, as you’d imagine, complicated. And of course, all these steps require technology, transportation, and bill-paying, not to mention the wherewithal to accomplish them.

The problem of rural water into and out of rural homes is a speck in the universe of the bigger forcefield of water, which includes big agriculture, mining extractions, chemical runoffs, big industry, lobbyists, federal regulators, courts, big insurance. Crises like Flint's notwithstanding, those of us who live in non-rural America usually take our water supplies for granted—or we at least trust that if something goes wrong, it will soon be fixed. But that is not necessarily the case in rural America.

It seemed clear that the case of bad water was not a one-off but rather an example of a pattern. I heard about other issues where one event cascaded into a flurry of others; violence on Indian reservations and the incarceration of women, especially mothers, were two of the worst.  

The second thing I learned at this meeting of rural women is the particular way they address their problems and design solutions. It will not surprise you if I say that rural women approach solutions and take action with a driving practicality. Isn’t that how pioneer women and immigrant women and farming women survived?

At the Rural Women’s Summit  (Courtesy of Shawn Poynter / Poynter Photo Co.)

It may surprise you (it did me) that the rural women wrapped this practicality with sentiments that you might link with being too soft, weak, or self-defeating (read: emotional, vulnerable, caring). And that they sought solutions in the places that you might consider unimportant or even a throwback to an earlier pre-feminist era (read: the kitchen, the living rooms).  

But on the contrary, I heard women suggest that these “women’s ways” (my words), when they  emerge comfortably and naturally, are powerful tools to make actions effective and arguments accessible to more people. The message I heard: Do not shy from showing vulnerability, caring, or emotion. Do not apologize for it. Use it. Go into the places that are your comfort zones for work that is uncomfortable and requires you to be brave.

At the Rural Women’s Summit  (Courtesy of Shawn Poynter / Poynter Photo Co.)

Here are a few specific examples for taking action:

Run for office: VoteRunLead runs training programs and online tools to encourage women to run for office, and to help them win. A starting point is planting the idea, #runasyouare, for those who may think they’re not up to it and are reluctant to jump in. According to Erin Vilardi, VoteRunLead president, “There are over 1,000 women sitting in elected office through our program. We have rates over 50 percent for first-time candidates winning their races,” adding, “One in five of our alumni are from rural communities.”

Practice radical hospitality: People’s Suppers and communal dinners are opportunities for public discourse about fraught issues, like LGBTQ issues, addictions, and arrival of refugees. Sometimes, faith leaders or places of worship step in to bridge gaps. Jennifer Bailey, an ordained itinerant elder at the African Methodist Episcopal Church and director of the Faith Matters Network, said, “Women can turn a box of spaghetti into a feast.”

Create safe spaces: Basketball courts on church grounds, daycare centers, quilting clubs in living rooms, shelters, gardens, girls’ night out. Look for activities that build familiarity and trust, and are just nice as a vehicle for discussions, ideas, and actions.

Take healthy steps at the source: get rid of deep fryers in hospital cafeterias; provide applications to SNAP and other food programs at food pantries; change the menus in school cafeterias. These are easy wins.

South Carolinian Kyshona Armstrong performing at the Summit (Courtesy of Shawn Poynter / Poynter Photo Co.)

Tell stories: Use different frames to tell the big stories, in local media or as freelancers or in entrepreneurial journalistic start-ups. These give (new) voice to issues. There were a number of examples of reporting at the source, like the Daily Yonder, High Country News, Southerly, and 100 Days in Appalachia.

More from this series

All notes on "Greenville, South Carolina" >
The Daily Memphian is trying to revive local news in Memphis, Tennessee
The Daily Memphian is trying to revive local news in Memphis, Tennessee Sean Pavone via Shutterstock

A few days ago I published an item about a year-old online effort to revive local news coverage in Tennessee, The Daily Memphian. It was part of an ongoing series about efforts to revive, reinvent, preserve, and in other ways shore up the crucial-but-imperiled function of local journalism. Links to previous pieces are at the bottom of this one.

In that item, I quoted some Daily Memphian officials saying that they had been prompted to action by the shift of the long-established local daily, The Commercial Appeal, to a more statewide emphasis in its reporting, under its current Gannett ownership.

Here is a note from a reader on the other side of Tennessee from Memphis—Neil McBride, who lives in Knoxville—about a virtue of the statewide-network approach that he thinks has gotten short shrift. McBride, whom I have known since we worked together on a Ralph Nader project in Georgia back in the 1970s, is the former director of a public interest law firm that focused particularly on health policy and poverty issues in the South. He is now on the board of the Tennessee Justice Center, where you can read more about his background.

Neil McBride writes:

In fairness, it is important to acknowledge some of the benefits of the statewide newspaper network that we now have, even while recognizing it has drawbacks.

In Tennessee, the trend toward statewide ownership of media has had some negative effects on local news coverage, and probably on local circulation. But it is also important to acknowledge that local readers across the state now have the significant benefit of reporting by investigative journalists from different local areas.  

Nashville reporters, especially, are effectively covering important policy issues that affect all of Tennessee:

  • In recent months, they have produced national-caliber reporting on several state policy failures and changes that vitally affect families across Tennessee.  
  • They have produced (and the local Knoxville News-Sentinel  has been publishing) long-running, readable and detailed stories that have exposed several critical failures of state policy.  
  • They have addressed the state’s previously-unreported failure to spend over three-quarters of a billion dollars in unspent federal funds for assistance to our neediest families—funds which it is apparently now holding for general purposes in the state budget.  
  • They have consistently published similar reports on Tennessee’s failure to accept and spend tens of millions of dollars for medical assistance to working families, children and the elderly, and on the impact of  these policies on rural hospitals as well as family health.  

Tennessee leads the nation in its rate of hospital closure and is one of the most unhealthy states in the country. Some of this reporting has attracted our new governor’s attention, and may stimulate changes in state budgeting. These are vitally important but complicated issues, which have been actively hidden from public and sometimes even legislative scrutiny.  

These policies might not even be in debate now but for the statewide reporting and publication that has become possible through consolidation. And, of course, these policies affect the people of Memphis more than any other community.

I am grateful to Neil McBride for spelling out this side of the balance. The tradeoffs in local journalism were so much easier to deal with, when papers from the Los Angeles Times to the Louisville Courier-Journal were cash cows. In those days, papers could just throw more money at whatever seemed to be the problem of the moment. In future installments I’ll try to go deeper into the complexities of the chain-versus-local, business-owned-versus-nonprofit, print-versus-digital tradeoffs today’s news sources are wrestling with.

For previous installments, please see these items: from Mississippi; from Maine; from Massachusetts; from Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area; from Massachusetts again; from the Hudson Valley of New York; from Tennessee; and from points beyond.

All notes on "Memphis, Tennessee" >
Giant Sequoia seedlings, planted at Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles
Giant Sequoia seedlings, planted at Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles Courtesy of WildPlaces

Last month, as part of a “Big Little Ideas” series, I mentioned a surprisingly valuable short-term step that communities can take, on their own, for positive climate effects. That is to start planting trees. More on the science behind the idea, plus discussion of exactly how much difference trees can make, from: MIT Technology Review, the long-established Arbor Day Foundation and Nature Conservancy, the newer One Tree Planted and Plant for the Planet organizations, and Cool Antarctica, with links at these sites to much more.

Short version of what you’ll find: Intensified tree-planting obviously is not the full answer to the climate crisis. But it’s a step in reducing atmospheric carbon levels, and potentially an important one.

Last week, a team from Otis College, or formally the Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles, put this outlook into effect with its “100 Giants” project. The idea originated with Shelley Forbes, an Otis alum who is circulation manager at the campus library, as part of Otis’s centennial observations last year.

The goal was to plant 100-plus seedlings of the famed giant sequoias of northern California’s forests; nurture them to the stage where they could be transplanted; and then ship them northward, for permanent rooting in the Giant Sequoia National Monument. The organization WildPlaces, which focuses on conservation and “re-wilding” in the Giant Sequoia National Monument, was a partner in the project.

Sequoia seedlings in the background, at Otis College, growing before their transplantation at the Giant Sequoia National Monument in northern California (Courtesy of Fawad Assadullah / Otis College of Art and Design)

They grow up so fast! This past week, the Otis community bade farewell to their year-old, several-inch-high seedlings, which began the trip north. As an article by Anna Raya on the campus news site said:

Spread across The Commons lawn they stood—staffers were proudly taking selfies with them, students were wandering amongst them, saying their names: Charlie Brown, Little Buddy, Paisley. These were the 100 Giants of Otis College, Sequoia tree seedlings that were whisked off this week to their final home in the Trail of 100 Giants in the Giant Sequoia National Monument …

“The front of the library will seem very naked now that the trees are gone,” says [library official Shelley] Forbes of the popular growing spot on campus for the seedlings. “I am, however, very excited that the trees are going home to their native lands.”

Mehmet McMillan, founder of WildPlaces, and Shelley Forbes, of Otis College, at the seedling-shipping ceremony last week (Courtesy of Fawad Assadullah / Otis College of Art and Design)

“From a scientific point of view, giant Sequoias are one of the best carbon sinks there is,” Mehmet McMillan, founder of WildPlaces, said of the project. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, giant sequoias are the largest and most massive trees on Earth, and their trunks and limbs contain more carbon per tree than any other species. “Imagine a tree growing massively over two- or three-thousand years,” McMillan said. “it’s holding carbon [all that time] … Spiritually, it goes without saying that being in a forest with big trees is going to help your spirit.”

Grow well, little trees. In their prime, giant sequoias can gain one and a half to two feet in height per year. Thus it will take centuries for any of them to reach the species’ peak height of 300 feet or more.

None of the students or staffers at Otis will see their trees at full maturity. But if the best time to plant a sequoia is 500 years ago, the second best is now.

At Otis College’s ceremony last week, as they sent off the seedlings (Courtesy of Fawad Assadullah / Otis College of Art and Design)

All notes on "Los Angeles, California" >
U.S. Army marched in the Veterans Day parade on November 11, 2014.
The U.S. Army marched in a Veterans Day parade on November 11, 2014. Mike Segar / Reuters

On November 11, known as Remembrance Day through the countries of the British Commonwealth, the public honors those who died in the military service of their nations.

The same date is observed as Armistice Day in France and Belgium, in observance of the armistice ending the “Great War,” the First World War, 101 years ago today.

In the United States, November 11 is Veterans Day, to honor all those who have worn the nation’s uniform. (Memorial Day, in May, is the U.S. counterpart to Britain’s Remembrance Day, to honor those who died in service.)

On this day, most public presentations in the U.S. include the line, “Thank you for your service.” In a long cover story for The Atlantic nearly five years ago, I argued that the real way today’s American public could honor the tiny fraction of its members in military service would be different.

(For perspective on the “tiny fraction”: At the time that I wrote that article, a total of about 2.5 million Americans, roughly three-quarters of 1 percent of the population, had served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any point in the post-9/11 years, many of them more than once. These days America’s total active-duty forces, in all branches, number less than 1.5 million, or well under one-half of 1 percent of the population. This is a different concept of “the 1 percent” than references to the economic elite.)

The article was called “The Tragedy of the American Military,” and the opening page summarized its argument this way:

The American public and its political leadership will do anything for the military except take it seriously. The result is a chickenhawk nation in which careless spending and strategic folly combine to lure America into endless wars it can’t win.

After that article came out, I received thousands of responses from service members or their families, a number of which you’ll see quoted in the posts in this thread. The vast majority were “positive,” in discussing the military’s keen awareness of its status in a “chickenhawk” era—one in which the country was constantly in battles, but only a handful of its people were directly exposed to the costs.

Some circumstances have changed since that time; most have not. The phenomenon of “honoring the troops,” but then skating on to other matters, has, if anything, grown all the stronger over the years.

The article is here.  I hope you will find a chance to read it; if there is further response, I’ll revive this discussion thread.

All notes on "Chickenhawk Nation" >
Justin Rushing, advertising director of the online news site The Daily Memphian
Justin Rushing, advertising director of the online news site The Daily Memphian Courtesy of Patrick Lantrip / The Daily Memphian

It’s time for another look at new financial, editorial, and technological models for local journalism. You’ll find previous entries at these links: from Mississippi; from Maine; from Massachusetts; from Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area; from Massachusetts again; from the Hudson Valley of New York; and from points beyond. They all involve efforts to revive existing news operations, invent additional ones, and replace organizations that are being starved out of relevance by their hedge-fund or private-equity chain owners.

Today we go to Memphis, Tennessee. This is of course the metropolis of western Tennessee, with the state of Mississippi just across the border to the south, and Arkansas just across the Mississippi River to the west. Memphis is the second-largest city in Tennessee, after Nashville. Its population is around 650,000—more than 60 percent African-American, about 30 percent white, and the rest a variety of others. On average its people are poor. The median household income for the United States is above $60,000, whereas in Memphis it is below $40,000.

The best known Memphis-based company is FedEx, which has operated there since the early 1970s. Other major operations include the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the AutoZone company. In 1956, local phenom Elvis Presley broke the local color line by performing alongside Ray Charles and B. B. King at a benefit for a black radio station. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis includes the site of the Lorraine Motel, where, on what I several times heard described as the worst day in the city’s history, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968.

Through the ups and downs of the city’s modern evolution, its main morning newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, played an outsized regional role. “I’ve been around newspaper journalism since the 1970s, breathing it in as a kid before that,” Otis Sanford told me. Sanford grew up in northern Mississippi; worked as a reporter and editor for several papers including The Commercial Appeal; and has been a professor in the journalism department at the University of Memphis since 2011.

Otis Sanford, long a reporter and editor at the Memphis Commercial Appeal and other papers, now a professor at the University of Memphis and a columnist for the new Daily Memphian. (Courtesy of Otis Sanford.)

“Whether you liked the editorial opinions of The Commercial Appeal or not, it was of tremendous influence,” Sanford said. “You’d have to go to Atlanta to find comparable regional papers.”

The Commercial Appeal had been owned since the 1930s by the Scripps-Howard group. During the Great Extinction of local and regional papers over the past dozen years, the paper went through several changes of ownership, and is now part of Gannett.

Through this process, The Commercial Appeal shrank by all locally important measures: the size of its news staff, its circulation and influence, and even its connection to Memphis at all. Its printing plant moved out of town, 90 miles away to the city of Jackson, Tennessee. “Why did that matter?” Otis Sanford said to me. “That means earlier deadlines every day, so you can’t get any late-breaking news into the printed paper, or even late afternoon news.”

The overall spiral of contraction sounds similar to what has happened in many other areas. It was accelerated for The Commercial Appeal by Gannett’s decision to operate the paper as part of a statewide network of Tennessee coverage—in a state with very distinct regional identities and differences. “They were having people in Nashville write about Memphis,” Otis Sanford said. “People were hungry for something that was much more local.”

“This ‘Tennessee network’ branding was kind of the final straw,” Eric Barnes told me. Barnes is a prominent Memphis journalist, a novelist, and host of a popular weekly PBS news show. “West Tennessee doesn’t like East Tennessee, and they both don’t like the middle. Lumping them all together in a ‘network’ might make sense on a whiteboard in the headquarters, but it made no sense to people in Nashville [in the middle], or Knoxville [on the east], or Memphis [in the west].”

“Memphis is wildly proud, and we’ve also got a chip on our shoulder,” Andy Cates, who is CEO of a nationwide outdoor-resort company based in Memphis, told me. “We don’t get along with Nashville—it’s like Boston and New York. We think it’s incredibly important to have journalism about our community that is rooted in our community.”

That is the central idea behind a one-year-old online publication called The Daily Memphian. Eric Barnes is the CEO; Andy Cates is chairman of the board; Otis Sanford is a columnist; and together with some three dozen journalistic colleagues and many Memphis-area donors and supporters they are trying to bring locally based, serious journalism back to town.

Here is a summary of what I learned by talking with the three of them, by following news on their site, and by asking for judgments from other figures in Memphis.

Home page of the Daily Memphian site this week

What it is: The “paper” is an online-only, by-subscription news source, which began operations in September of 2018 after initially raising some $6.7 million in startup funds from local donors. Subscriptions are $7 per month, or $84 per year—with some news items provided outside the paywall and free or reduced-price offerings for schools and libraries and some other users.

According to Eric Barnes, the paper’s target was to attract 4,500 paying subscribers within its first year. It reached that target within three weeks and now has about 11,000 paying subscribers. “We’re not doing any dollar-a-week, dollar-a-month introductory offers,” he told me. “The churn rate”—people dropping subscriptions—“is less than 6 percent, and our web traffic is solid and growing.”

The Daily Memphian is owned by a new 501(c)3 non-profit, Memphis Fourth Estate Inc., which has no editorial control of its content. Memphis Fourth Estate continues to encourage donations toward the paper’s survival, and since the launch has raised another $1.5 million.

The paper’s total editorial staff is about 40, many of whom were familiar names in local journalism who came over from the Commercial Appeal or other publications.

Why it was started. The “About” page of the paper’s web site minces no words:

Frustrated by the gutting of local journalism in Memphis, a group of seasoned journalists, media professionals and concerned citizens gathered to discuss the need for strong, locally focused and locally produced daily news.

Andy Cates, chairman of the local non-profit that has created a news site for the city (Courtesy of Patrick Lantrip / The Daily Memphian)

“People realized this was what it was like not to have a hometown paper,” Eric Barnes said, of the Memphis reaction when news operations shifted to the statewide network.

“We didn’t do this haphazardly,” Andy Cates told me. “We spent years exploring it,” as the local-news crisis in Memphis intensified. “We took the best journalists from The Commercial Appeal, and other stars from other publications. We realized that there was mounting anger, across the community, that a civic function that was so critical had gone so far down.”

How it’s paid for: According to Andy Cates, the $7 million raised for the Memphian is the largest-ever charitable investment in one city’s news organization. (The Texas Tribune, a well-known non-profit founded ten years ago, is a larger operation but covers an entire state.)  

“It is like a political campaign,” Cates told me. “We have been to every Rotary meeting. We have gone to every church. We have spoken with every group that will listen to us. We have shaken hands, kissed babies, hugged people. We have asked everyone for support, and we have gotten it.”

Eric Barnes, CEO of The Daily Memphian. (Patrick Lantrip, The Daily Memphian)

The supporters include local foundations, corporations, and wealthy individuals and families. Cates and Barnes both stressed that donations went to the Memphian’s parent foundation, with no conditions or guidance accepted about its coverage.

“We think of this as ‘philanthropic venture capital,’” Cates said. “Question one to donors is, Do you believe that a healthy newspaper is important for a healthy community? And question two is, Given all of Memphis’s other needs, is this a high enough priority to be worth this much capital. The answer to both has been an overwhelming yes.”

Eric Barnes, whose background is in journalism rather than Cates’s in finance, stressed that while the paper was structured as a non-profit, its operating outlook is as a “real” business. “Our head of subscriptions, our marketing people, our ad people, we downplay that we are a nonprofit,” he said. “We want to become sustainable, which means getting to about 25,000 subscribers per year,” or a little more than twice the first-year level. “We try to run this like a business. Our goal is to put up high-level content, and have people pay for it.”

“People will pay for news,” Barnes said. “They did so for decades if not centuries. That the industry ever got away from that is a real historical anomaly.”

Hira Qureshi, an editorial intern at The Daily Memphian (Courtesy of Patrick Lantrip /The Daily Memphian)

How it is being received across Memphis’s racial divide: Barnes and Cates, and most members of their board, are white. Most of Memphis’s population is black. What are its intentions for covering the area’s African-American community, and what have been its results?

As for intentions, Andy Cates said, “We’re very clear that if the entire community does not buy into this venture, and support it—if the entire community does not feel that its story is being told—then we have failed.”

Eric Barnes told me that when the site launched, he went to talk with a number of African-American church communities. “I said that one decision we made was, We weren’t going to feature coverage of ‘last night’s crime.’ Of course we’d cover crime trends, and not shy away from problems. But we weren’t going to splash out mug shots and be driven by the police blotter.” Barnes said he got applause for that line—but that a “wait and see” attitude understandably  remained.

I asked Otis Sanford, one of the area’s best-known African-American journalists, who now writes a featured column for The Daily Memphian, about the site’s reach across the racial divide.

“I don’t think that The Daily Memphian has quite resonated yet with the African-American community,” he said. “That’s not to say it has not registered at all.  But by and large it has not penetrated the market. They are working on it, and they are doing a relatively decent job so far.” Sanford’s own column is routinely one of the best-read on the site.

Why it all matters, outside Memphis: “We want to be known as the lab experiment of whether the Fourth Estate can flourish in Middle America,” Andy Cates told me. “We want to be a national model, but our mission is local.

“The life boats aren’t coming to save us. We have to do this ourselves. ”

More from this series

All notes on "Memphis, Tennessee" >
Overlooking downtown Dayton this autumn
Overlooking downtown Dayton this autumn James Fallows / The Atlantic

This is the first in a series of posts on the city of Dayton, Ohio. I’ve been there three times since August and am about to make another trip.

Almost every trend affecting modern America is on display in Dayton. It was one of the earliest, and hardest-hit, centers of the opioid disaster. Its economy, plausibly known as America’s “invention capital” in the early 1900s, as the home of the Wright brothers and with the highest-number of U.S. patents per capita, has been hurt even more than other midwestern cities’ by the demise and departure of big firms. Last year a PBS documentary, Left Behind America, described what happened when the Dayton-born corporation NCR, plus others, left town. The excellent recent movie American Factory (Atlantic review here) portrayed the next chapter in that story, as the Chinese automotive-glass firm Fuyao reopened a closed GM plant. The city’s population has fallen significantly from its factory-era peak.

This past May, marchers from the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in town—and Klan opponents put on a bigger display. Just a few days later, a series of devastating tornados roared through the town. Then, in the first weekend of August, Dayton was of course the site of a mass shooting, a few hours after another gun massacre, in El Paso.

A mural in the Dayton Region’s Walk of Fame, in the Wright-Dunbar neighborhood, depicting three local sons. On the left, the writer Paul Laurence Dunbar. On the right, Orville and Wilbur Wright. In the late 1800s, Dunbar and Orville Wright were friends and classmates at Dayton Central High School, where Dunbar was the only African American student and the editor of the school newspaper. (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

But Dayton also has a wide variety of ambitious new projects under way. It will soon open a pioneering addiction-treatment center, in partnership with the Alphabet/Google life-sciences enterprise, Verily. The Dayton Arcade structure that was once the pride of its downtown is in the middle of a $90 million renovation project, similar to ones we have seen as centerpieces of transition in cities from Greenville, South Carolina; to Allentown, Pennsylvania; to Bend, Oregon. Dayton’s public-library and arts scenes are civic assets.

The University of Dayton, a research university founded by the Catholic Marianist order and with more than 8,000 students, is opening new downtown offices and research centers. Eric Spina, an engineer who came from Syracuse to become the University of Dayton’s president three years ago, has announced a strategy of making the university “the anchor institution for the entire community,” as he put it last week at a conference in Dayton I attended called “Gem City Rising.” (Why “Gem City”? Apparently not because Dayton was ever a jewelry center. One hypothesis, relayed by the Dayton Daily News, is that some outside writer called it “the gem of all our interior [American] towns” in the 1840s.)

The city’s mayor, Nan Whaley, a Democrat who is in her early 40s, was elected to the City Commission 14 years ago, while in her 20s, and is now in her second term as mayor. Deb Fallows and I have known her and followed her career for several years. She won national attention, and based on what I’ve seen wide acclaim, for her statements and appearances after the shootings in August. The exception in the admiring chorus was Donald Trump himself. While on Air Force One, headed from Dayton to El Paso, Trump began sending tweets attacking Whaley, because he felt that in a press conference she hadn’t been effusive enough about the reception he received from shooting victims he saw in the hospital.

Sherrod Brown, a Democratic senator from Ohio, and Dayton’s mayor, Nan Whaley, greeting Donald Trump when he arrived in Dayton in August to meet victims of the shooting there (Leah Mills / Reuters)

By coincidence, I was in Dayton on the August weekend of the shootings. The coincidence was aviation-related: To get back into the aerial world, I was doing flight training at Steel Aviation, based at the tiny Phillipsburg Airport just outside town, and was staying at a motel near the main Dayton International Airport. On Saturday evening, August 3, with a day’s worth of instruction behind me, I went to Dayton’s revived and thriving downtown Oregon District to walk around and, naturally, to stop in at the Dayton Beer Company to have a beer. I had just one, since I had to drive back to the motel, but I also got a to-go six-pack of their Oregon Alley IPA. (Plus, since I didn’t then know when I’d next be in town, a souvenir take-home six-pack of canned Gamma Bomb from the nearby Warped Wing brewery. )

Later that night, the Dayton mass shooter opened fire in the Oregon District. Although on-scene armed police responded within 32 seconds and killed him almost immediately, the rapid fire and large ammunition capacity of the AR-15–style rifle he brought with him allowed him to murder nine people and wound 27 others before he went down.

Within 24 hours, network- and cable-news crews were on-scene in Dayton. This was the look of the Oregon District late Sunday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the killings, with one network’s crews on one side of East Fifth Street, not far from the shooting site, and another across the street:

East Fifth Street, in the Oregon District of Dayton, the day after the shootings (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Again for aviation reasons, I was back in Dayton less than two weeks after the shootings. This time I went to Nan Whaley’s office at City Hall to ask her what it was like to be the center of cable-news attention for three or four days—and then to know that the 24/7 coverage would move on to the next breaking-news site.

“This has been a really important, special part of our community,” Whaley told me about the Oregon District when I spoke with her. The district—pronounced in the Midwest as Or-e-gone, versus the West Coast pronunciation Or-uh-gunhas a beautiful residential area and small stores, but during Dayton’s economic decline was dangerous and distressed. Now it’s the site of restaurants, locally owned stores, restored homes, and the general vibe of economic improvement you find in many midwestern downtowns.

A house in the Oregon District, not far from the shooting site, on the Sunday afternoon following the Saturday-night shooting in Dayton (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Whaley said that since the shooting, she had been in touch with the mayors and other leaders of communities that had suffered similar disasters. The diversely appealing nature of the Oregon District, she said, made this shooting different from some other recent massacres.

“I was talking with the mayor of Parkland [in Florida] about their high-school shooting and the mayor of Pittsburgh about the Tree of Life [synagogue] shooting,” she said. “Those were mass shootings at communities where people all belonged—they were going to school, or going to services.”

By contrast, she said, the crowd in downtown Dayton was a diverse group of people who all just happened to be there for a night out (as I had happened to be there, in the same space, a few hours earlier). “This is more like the Aurora, Colorado, shooting [at a theater], where by chance people were there at the same time.” The several dozen people who were killed or injured, and the hundreds exposed to the shooting, were “a super-diverse group, with very different stories, some of them not even from the state of Ohio, and all illustrating the kind of community we have now.”

“This was the place where the urban renaissance happened first in Dayton,” she said. Houses and apartments are in demand; the mix of businesses had changed from mainly bars to “the right number of bars, and restaurants and locally owned stores.” It was, she said, “a place for everybody—and in a kind of a grotesque way, the very diversity of the shooting victims showed that.” The nine people killed were black, and white; male, and female; older, and younger; from the area, and from far away. “One of them [Saeed Saleh] had grown up in Eritrea and walked across the Sahara desert—only to get here, and be killed in the Oregon District, which like all the stories was heartbreaking,” Nan Whaley said. “In a town that is still too separate and too unequal, the district represented more of what we all wanted the city to become. It’s a place for everybody.”

“My concern,” she said in August, “is that the shooting stops that work and that vitality and that uniqueness.” What comes next for Dayton will be the subject of the next set of reports.

On East Fifth Street, near the site of the shooting, the day after (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

“You don’t want to be known as a city where something terrible happened,” Nan Whaley told me in August—reeling off a few other names of cities now mainly identified with gun massacres. “But you don’t want what happened here just to be forgotten.” She pointed out that just two days after the killings, Donald Trump offered condolences, in comments at the White House, to “those who perished in Toledo”—one Rust Belt city apparently being hard to tell from another. “We don’t want to be a city you can’t find on the map, or even remember the name of.”

And what did she hope would come of her city’s turn in the cable-news spotlight? “I would like us to be known as a place that action came out of,” she said this past summer.

Before the killings in Dayton, there had been 250 mass shootings in the United States in 2019. (This is defined as four people shot, apart from the shooter.) “This made us No. 251. I think every mayor whose city has suffered this way says: ‘We’d like to be the place where something happens from our pain.’” She said, back then, that she thought the traumatic effect of the Dayton shooting might have an effect at least in Ohio’s state policies.

That was the mayor’s reaction, immediately after her city’s highly publicized trauma. In upcoming installments: the longer-term efforts to revive the area’s economy, deal with addiction and related challenges, connect a divided community, and in other ways move Dayton forward.

At the Dayton Beer Company in the Oregon District, with its “Gem City” logo (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

More from this series

All notes on "Dayton, Ohio" >
The Shawangunk Journal offices in Ellenville, New York. Backwards sign made by artist Roger Baker.
The Shawangunk Journal offices in Ellenville, New York. Backwards sign made by artist Roger Baker. Courtesy of Amberly Jane Campbell

Here’s another installment in the ongoing series on how local news operations, especially newspapers, can devise new ways to stay in business. For previous entries—from Mississippi, from Maine, from Massachusetts, from Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area, from Massachusetts again, and from points beyond—please check these preceding links.

A theme that runs through nearly all of these reports is the importance of ownership structure. Times are tough for little newspapers everywhere, but the papers least likely to survive are those that have fallen under the control of hedge-fund and private-equity chains, which are starving them into short-term profitability and longer-term demise. The successful counterexamples are mainly family-owned, community-owned, or in some other way bolstered against the pressure to cut the publication into insignificance.

Today we travel up the Hudson River Valley to the small village of Ellenville, New York, in Ulster County, near the borders of Orange and Sullivan Counties. This is not the bedroom-community exurb part of the Hudson River Valley but instead one of the Northeast’s many declining former industrial zones. It once was famed and prosperous as the home of Schrade cutlery (later Imperial Schrade), and as the manufacturing center for Channel Master “rabbit ears” TV antennas, back in the day when TV signals were broadcast over the airwaves rather than traveling through cables or the internet.

That industrial era is past, and the surrounding communities have struggled. As in many one-time manufacturing centers in the Northeast and Midwest—and contrary to a frequent media assumption that “troubled factory town” means “mainly white”—Ellenville’s population of some 5,000 people is ethnically diverse. “This little town is surprisingly representative of the country,” Alex Shiffer, co-founder with his partner, Sharon Richman, of the local newspaper, the Shawangunk Journal, told me. (The name is drawn from the local geological landmark, the Shawangunk mountain ridge, or “the Gunks.” Among nearby features is the well-known Mohonk Mountain House.) In the Ellenville area, about half the population is white, about 25 percent Hispanic and 15 percent black, and the rest Asian or from other groups.

“The community had no newspaper, and we wanted one,” Alex Shiffer told me, about the decision he and Sharon Richman made in 2006, to start the Shawangunk Journal. Shiffer had grown up in Westchester County, closer to New York City. He and Richman met at SUNY New Paltz, and came to Ellenville in the 1990s to operate the area’s first internet service.“We resurrected an older community paper that had been out of print for a few years,” Shiffer said. “We didn’t do much more than take its name, but it was the start of something the community seemed to want too.”

Cartoonist R. Robert Pollak and publisher Amberly Jane Campbell, of the Shawangunk Journal (Courtesy of Amberly Jane Campbell)

The Journal is a print publication, now with a paid circulation of about 2,000. You can see some of its stories here—although, as I’ll explain in more detail in a moment, you need to register to read the articles. As an example of the kind of story you don’t often find in papers this small, you can look for two articles by Chris Rowley about the situations of homeless people in the area, and another by Tim Michaels on what heavyweight-truck traffic is doing to local roads.

Like other small papers, the Journal has had its ups and downs through its dozen-plus years of existence, in recent years especially downs. “Three years ago, the newspaper was in serious financial trouble,” Shiffer told me. “Around the beginning of the year, we said: We’re likely to lose $50,000 this year, and that’s money we don’t have.” Through an appeal to readers and a local fundraising campaign, it found the money to get through that pinch. “Despite the economic problems here, there’s a strong sense of community, which is why the newspaper has survived.”

And now? The paper’s ambitions, as explained to me by Alex Shiffer and his daughter Jasmine, are interesting in three ways:

1) Digitally minded from the beginning. “One of the things that was different about our origin, is that we were always interested in an online presence,” Alex Shiffer told me. “My background is tech, not journalism. But when we started, it was just way too soon to have an online platform as the main basis for local content.”

Shiffer said that he and Richman and their teammates were planning for the time when they could “use our tech experience to figure out how you can make an online publication actually work, with such a tiny market.” One significant shift was when people began using smartphones as a principal source of news and information. Another was when the Journal company began conditioning people to pay for what they read online.

“We still fight the battle every day, of people saying on Facebook, ‘What, do I have to pay for this?’ And we’re on there constantly saying, ‘Yes, you do, and here’s why.’ It’s taken us this long to get people who are willing to pay for content.” Through the efforts of their publisher, Amberly Jane Campbell, the system has grown to include four other regional publications: the Delaware Hudson Canvas, the Livingston Manor Ink, Hudson Valley Livelihood, and the BKAA Guardian. “We have proven the model works for our newspaper,” Campbell said, “and it can be adopted by any independent publisher, without having to reinvent it for themselves.”

Alex Shiffer and his daughter Jasmine (Courtesy of Amberly Jane Campbell)

2) A subscription-and-micropayments business model. As you’ll see if you register (for free) on the paper’s site, NewsAtomic, after an introductory-offer period, articles from the paper for nonsubscribers cost 25 cents apiece. For as long as the internet has existed, I’ve heard journalism leaders talk about the coming era of micropayments. Here’s a tiny newspaper in rural New York that has put the plan into effect.

Subscribers to the paper, for as little as a few dollars a month, get unlimited access to its articles. Occasional visitors can sample the stories for a low price, with the hope and expectation that some of them will be attracted to become long-term readers and subscribers.

“A weekly paper publishes once a week—and provides a finished, crafted piece that often is many days ‘old news’ but is still quite relevant and desired,” Shiffer said. (In previous installments from Maine and Massachusetts, I’ve emphasized how small newspapers have turned a weekly-or-slower publication schedule into an advantage.) “The NewsAtomic system allows us to provide both to our readers—regular updates to a developing story, and more in-depth pieces where sources have had time to get back to you.” Every publication that hopes to survive in the digital age is trying to balance the variables in this equation: on-the-news immediacy versus analytical value; outside-the-paywall “free” material to draw attention and shape public conversation, versus subscribers-only items to keep the reporting-and-editing core going. The Shawangunk publications are trying to create a new model for smaller publications.

“The micropayments are for occasional readers, and, crucially, allow one publication’s readers to sample another publication’s content from time to time,” Alex Shiffer said, “especially in cases where there is coverage of a story by multiple pubs. It’s a way of spreading reader revenue across our participating publications fairly, and it puts the bulk of the revenue where it belongs: with the publisher, not the platform.”

Staffers of The Devil’s Advocate, the high-school-student-run news application from Ellenville (Courtesy of Amberly Jane Campbell)

3) The students’ own paper. As Alex Shiffer studied the Journal’s readership, he came across this blunt fact: “The main reason we lose print readers is due to death. It’s not that reading the paper is all that dangerous! It’s just that they’re old.”

To replenish the readership, and to increase student involvement in the community and interest in journalism, the print Shawangunk Journal and online NewsAtomic site are complemented by a student-run news app called The Devil’s Advocate. (It is free and available in iPhone and Android versions.)

Jasmine Shiffer, elder daughter of Alex Shiffer and Sharon Richman, is 17 years old and a senior at Ellenville High School. “When I was a freshman, the high school had a paper—but it was in print, and it only came out twice a year,” Jasmine Shiffer told me on the phone. “It was kind of pathetic.”

“Then in my sophomore year, it just completely disappeared. I thought that every school deserves a newspaper, and online seems to be the only way to get to kids like me these days. So I wanted to start a paper for the school.”

She did. Without any official involvement from or approval by high-school authorities, a group of students now put out news posts every school day on the Devil’s Advocate app. “We cover a wide variety,” Jasmine Shiffer said. “Some sports, some culture—the real stuff, and the fun stuff.

“People love it,” she said. “So much of ‘the news’ seems so boring and disconnected from our real lives. To have this school paper written by their friends, and about their friends, makes everything seem so much more accessible.”

What comes next for Jasmine, after her senior year in high school? “I’ve really enjoyed doing this, much more than I thought I would. I have seen my parents and all the struggles they have gone through owning this paper. So I was nervous about the whole journalism thing. But at least in college I want to be involved in journalism.”

Is the Shawganunk Journal/NewsAtomic/Devil’s Advocate model “the” answer for other local publications? Of course not—their combined success is still provisional, and market and civic circumstances vary city by city.

But together they offer another illustration of a range of possible solutions for local publications, and the communities that depend on them.

All notes on "Ellenville, New York" >
City of Asylum houses on Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh
City of Asylum houses on Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh Deborah Fallows

As we’ve traveled around the country with our American Futures and Our Towns projects since 2013, my husband, Jim, and I have evolved from being skeptics to evangelists about the impact of public arts on communities. We have seen how towns’ self-image, their presentation to visitors, their marking of history or current experience, their civic engagement and quality of everyday life and interactions of residents can all be changed by the public arts.

The array of art is created by everyone from professional artists to young children, bringing a rich collection of perspectives and making for opportunity for all to participate. Judgment seems to be more forgiving of arts that are public; sometimes the process of creation brings more value than the product.

It may be daunting for people to start public-arts projects: Who gets to decide? Is it worthy? Will it be expensive? And so on. But we have run across some that are imagined and executed in a very simple way. Here is one unusual example that surely qualifies as a Big Little Idea that any town could try and that has delivered a big payoff.

In 2011, Israel Centeno was living in Pittsburgh, in the neighborhood called the Mexican War Streets. It is a proud, eclectic neighborhood on the near north side of town, walking distance to a few of Pittsburgh’s bridges and the stadium, a park, and the riverfront, old warehouses in transition, and much more. Interesting people live in the neighborhood: young families who decorate their rowhouses at Halloween, creative types of all sorts, longtime residents, all of whom feel attached to their community.

In the middle of this is a small street called Sampsonia Way, which I would describe as an American version of a Beijing hutong. Attached houses, a dusty street that is not quite paved, and an intimacy among neighbors. Centeno lived with his wife and two daughters in a renovated rowhouse there.

Alphabet Fence at the Alphabet Reading Garden, City of Asylum (Courtesy of Renee Rosensteel)

Centeno is a writer and poet who needed asylum from his native Venezuela. He was offered sanctuary to live and work there for a few years by City of Asylum, an organization founded and originally funded by a Pittsburgh couple, Henry Reese and Diane Samuels, an entrepreneur and an artist.

City of Asylum is celebrating its 15th anniversary of offering asylum to exiled artists from countries like Iran, Burma, China, El Salvador, Iraq, and more. In exchange, the artists give back to Pittsburgh in the form of some kind of artistic work and public presentation. Several of the artists who have passed through City of Asylum are returning for that celebration. They will surely admire all the expansions that have happened since we first visited in 2014. There is a new park, called the Alphabet Reading Garden, also a newly renovated Masonic Temple building turned into a literary center for readings, a bookstore, a coffee shop, and performance spaces. Crowds for the artists’ public presentations have continued to grow.

Israel Centeno’s Big Little Idea is called the River of Words. Here’s how it worked:

Temperance, one of the words chosen in Pittsburgh’s River of Words (Deborah Fallows)

Centeno chose 100 words, which to him held some special meaning for Pittsburgh and his evolving experience there. Among them were all kinds of words: talent, thought, baseball, temperance, equation, horizon, ginger, nostalgia, fear, plenilunio, God. Then, the residents of the neighborhood were invited to adopt and host a “word in residence” and to display it for the public. The reaction was astonishing. People went crazy, in a good way, claiming their words. “Vortex! I must have vortex!” cried one.

A graphic artist, Carolina Arnal, and Gisela Romero, a graphic designer and visual artist, fabricated and affixed the words, from bold to lightly conspicuous, sometimes on a garden gate, by the front door, near a window.

What began as a temporary installation in 2014 remains, as residents refused to give up their words. Henry Reese told me that only a few are gone, and those because the owners moved and took the words with them. When Jim and I returned early on after the installations, we prowled around looking for the words, wondering each time we found one about the backstory of the word and the owners.

Now there is a map to follow for some of the words, which reminded me of the Map of the Stars near Hollywood.

Hosts of the words tell stories about the installations, and how curious neighbors came out of their houses to watch, and ended up asking for their own words to adopt. They talk about how the words help create an identity for the community and to share that story with anyone who happens by. Sometimes, I daresay, they puzzle, which makes people stop, think, and discuss.

City of Asylum's jazz-poetry concert (Courtesy of Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo / ArtPlace America)

We all know the power of words. They can please or hurt; indict or free; validate, disarm, declare, symbolize, obfuscate, or clarify. Sometimes they can’t be translated, so we borrow them from one language into another. Sometimes they are used incorrectly, out of ignorance or for effect. They can stand for much more than their size alone, especially single words, or short phrases. Their meanings can grow and shrink over time. Sometimes we make them up when we need them for inventions or marketing. Some catch on. Others go out of fashion or disappear. Their pronunciations change; their versions change within their grammars or social mores. Alphabets change. What have I overlooked?

River of Words may do all these things. It also marks a moment in time in the history of this community on the North Side of Pittsburgh, which is something the residents there seem to appreciate and acknowledge. That is a lot to say about 100 words.

More from this series

All notes on "Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania" >
"Traditionally, white gowns were for girls, blue for boys," Worth Robbins said of Harvard's high-school-graduation ceremony, pictured here in 2016. "For the past six years, seniors have voted to have the gowns distributed randomly. This year the seniors voted to have only blue gowns, a symbol of their propensity for knocking down differences and announcing themselves as a class of innovators and activists."
"Traditionally, white gowns were for girls, blue for boys," Worth Robbins said of Harvard's high-school-graduation ceremony, pictured here in 2016. "For the past six years, seniors have voted to have the gowns distributed randomly. This year the seniors voted to have only blue gowns, a symbol of their propensity for knocking down differences and announcing themselves as a class of innovators and activists." Lisa Aciukewicz / The Harvard Press

Do local public-radio stations play an important role? In big cities, from Boston and Washington to San Francisco and L.A.? In small towns, like those across Mississippi or Alaska or Maine? Do they matter in the South as well as the North? In inland states as well as those on the coast?

All the evidence I’m aware of, anecdotal and statistical, suggests that in every one of these places, the answer is a clear and obvious yes. Public radio matters; it matters all the more in remote and rural areas farther from other news outlets; and it is seen as mattering in a way that transcends normal regional or political dividing lines.

But suppose those public-radio hosts, programs, and stations were judged not by their broadest social, civic, and cultural effects but instead by the narrowest financial measures. How many would pass muster if they were held as part of a private-equity fund’s portfolio, in which each program or local station stayed in operation only as long as its return-on-equity matched that of some alternative investment, from a big construction project or a biotech start-up firm?

In those circumstances, virtually none of the stations could exist. Nor would any library. Or public park. Or museum. Or zoo. Or virtually any educational institution except for the shadiest diploma-mills. Or any of the other aspects of social life whose “returns” may be enormous but are not captured in one investor’s profit-and-loss sheets.

That’s a way of understanding the predicament of local newspapers, in a private-equity age. And it’s a reminder that a specific business model and a broader public interest can be fundamentally at odds.

Obviously small-town papers face a hyperintense version of the pressures affecting the news business as a whole. But previously in this series, we’ve discussed local papers that are for now defying the harsh economic trends—in Mississippi, in Maine, in Massachusetts, aspirationally in Southern California, and in points beyond. More reports are ahead—from Tennessee, from Michigan, from Northern California, and elsewhere.

The central message in all these reports has been that ownership structure matters. If papers are owned by private-equity-based firms, of which the most familiar examples are the MediaNews Group (better known by the trade name Digital First Media) and GateHouse Media, the prospects for community news are grim. The chains are in the news business as “just another business,” and their coast-to-coast track record is of squeezing the reporting and editing budget until there is nothing left that subscribers would want to pay for. But in the same market where a private-equity-owned paper would be doomed, some family- or community-owned papers have shown that they can make “enough” money to keep providing the news.

This brings us to the little Massachusetts town of Harvard, about 30 miles northwest of Harvard University, in Cambridge, but with no connection to it. It is the latest arena of attempts to create a paper that can be sustainable, on a non-private-equity business model.

Around 6,000 people now live in Harvard, Massachusetts (which I feel compelled to keep identifying that way, to avoid confusion with the “other” place). In the mid-1800s, it was a haven for transcendentalists, Shakers, and other spiritually minded New England Utopians. One of its current tourist attractions is its Fruitlands Museum, which tells the story of some of these groups. In modern times, Harvard’s main business has been farming, especially apple growing, plus spillover from nearby Fort Devens, until it began shutting down as part of the base-closing movement of the 1990s. It also now serves as a bedroom community, within reasonable commuting range of Cambridge and Boston.

The Fruitlands Museum in winter (Lisa Aciukewicz / The Harvard Press)

Starting in the early 1970s, Harvard, Mass., had a local paper called The Harvard Post, founded by, among others, a civic activist and news entrepreneur named Ed Miller, then in his 20s. This is the same Ed Miller who, now in his early 70s, just founded a local weekly for Cape Cod, as I described last month. In 1978, Miller, his Post co-founder Kathleen Cushman, and Lawrence Anderson wrote a how-to book on the art and science of successfully running small papers.

After the Post served Harvard, Mass., for 30 years as a locally owned community newspaper, it was unexpectedly sold in 2003 to a chain called Community Newspaper Company, or CNC. For a little while, CNC kept the paper’s journalistic and civic role mostly intact. But soon the cutbacks began, the local coverage thinned out, and local readership waned. The paper’s office was moved out of town to a regional center; CNC itself became part of GateHouse; and by 2013, long after it had ceased to be a significant part of local affairs, The Harvard Post officially shut down.

As their existing paper caved in—really, as it was dismantled by design—four local residents decided to take matters into their own hands, and to start a paper to play the part that the Post had in its pre-chain days. One of the four, Worth Robbins, explained on the website of the new paper, The Harvard Press, what happened next. The chain-owned Post, he said, “stopped being a local paper, by and for Harvard residents.” And in response:

The Harvard Press was born when four Harvard residents decided to band together to produce a high-quality, locally owned newspaper, like the town once had.

In early October 2006, we put finishing touches on a rudimentary business plan with assumptions about subscriptions and advertising (the two sources of revenue for any newspaper), and cost estimates for equipment, printing, and distribution. We would operate initially in the home of one of the partners … The owners/partners would take token compensation for the first year. The business plan projected a first-year deficit in the range of $50,000 to $100,000; we would need financial help to make it happen.

We decided not to organize as a nonprofit, because of inherent constraints. We wanted the paper to be fully independent, free to engage with the town without restriction; therefore support contributions would not be tax-deductible, nor would they confer any special privileges or influence.

We expected it would take several months to attract contributions to enable us to get started, and initial plans called for a January 2007 launch. We were fortunate, however, to receive significant support from a small number of longtime residents, who shared our belief that Harvard needed a good local newspaper. Less than a week after we began looking for help, we had received commitments for enough money to begin, and we set November 17, 2006 as the target for the first issue—less than six weeks away!

What’s happened since then is chronicled in a large number of update posts, mainly by Worth Robbins, collected in the “Economics of Local News” series at The Harvard Press’s main website. It’s also analyzed in an article in the Yale journal The Politic, by Lily Moore-Eissenberg, who grew up in Harvard, Mass., and was a high-school reporter for the Press before going to college at Yale.

The short version of these accounts is: The Press has operated on a shoestring, with borrowed and donated equipment and low-paid or volunteer labor; it has steadily increased its role and presence in the town, now with paid distribution to over two-thirds of the town’s households; and having operated it for more than a dozen years, its owners are now considering how to make it viable for the long haul.

“Most of us who started the paper and are still here are in our 70s,” Worth Robbins told me when I spoke with him on the phone last month. “We’re doing it for love of community. We’re not going to keep doing this forever. People are being paid, but not a lot. So we want not only to put the paper on a sound financial footing—and be prepared to pay more meaningful salaries to attract younger people to work here.”

Harvard residents stand in line during the annual peach festival at Carlson Orchards. (Lisa Aciukewicz / The Harvard Press)

Robbins said that the paper’s staff had made a point of including and training students and young people from the community. But he and his colleagues realized that to entice any young resident to return, the paper would need a different business basis. And so they were trying to move from just enough community funding to survive to a large enough budget to allow the paper to grow.

“Three years ago, I put a story in the paper saying, ‘We’re getting low on funds, we could use some help,’” he told me. “One person wrote in saying, ‘I love the paper, and I’ll put in $5,000 to match $100 donations from other people.’” That campaign led to about $12,000 in total donations. “Then we came up with this idea of ‘sustaining subscribers,’” he told me. “People who would pay $100 per year, rather than $30 or $40—and if they could pay for five years, at $500, in advance, please do so!” Since the beginning of the sustaining-subscriber campaign, the paper has gotten about 240 people to support at that level, “and 40 of them for five years!” he told me.

I asked Robbins—who grew up in Kentucky and came to Harvard, Mass., in the 1970s for a tech career—what difference it had made to his community when it lost its paper, and as one has reemerged. “The town was so damaged by the loss of the Post,” he told me. “We’ve lived through the experience of having a great paper and losing it, and we do not want to let that happen again.” Thus the multifront drive for “sustaining” subscriptions, for a website with frequent updates—and a paywall (the historical items mentioned above are in a non-paywall section)—and for events like one this coming weekend, in which the former Boston Globe reporter Tina Cassidy will speak with Charles Sennott, also formerly of the Globe and now the head of the GroundTruth Project. (Sennott is also a founder, with Steven Waldman, of the ambitious new Report for America project, which I wrote about this past summer.)

What difference will that make? Robbins gave the example of the town’s decision last year on whether to spend nearly $50 million on elementary-school construction. “There was tremendous controversy and consternation,” he said. “The previous school was only 30 years old, and many people were upset. We did an incredibly good job of covering all aspects of the issues.”

Antique cars drive down a Harvard road for the annual July 4 parade. (Lisa Aciukewicz / The Harvard Press)

I have read through many of the Press stories in issues leading up to the town-meeting vote last spring, and I agree. The trade-offs and implications involved in the budget choices were laid out with great clarity and care. An in-person vote of citizens at a town meeting would decide the issue. “Usually 300 or 400 people is the most you’d ever see at a meeting,” Robbins told me. But for the vote, in May of last year, nearly 1,100 people showed up—and approved the spending by the required two-thirds majority. “Of course I’m biased, but I think a lot of the outcome was due to the depth and scope of coverage we had in the paper,” Robbins said.

By email, I asked Charles Sennott whether, as a resident of the town, he agreed with this assessment. “Yes,” he wrote back, the paper “did exemplary work on its coverage of the big vote, truly small town New England newspapering at its very best.” At this year’s awards session for the New England Newspaper and Press Association, editor John Osborn and reporters Joan Eliyesil and Marty Green of The Press won a first-place prize for their coverage of the school-funding controversy and decision.

Is The Harvard Press’s answer “the” answer for all struggling local papers? Of course not. It’s up to the people of Harvard, Mass., to see whether they can keep this model of journalism going even in their one community.

But it is one answer, for one town, and the moment, and in these times each such answer deserves attention.

More from this series

All notes on "Harvard, Massachusetts" >
Planting trees as part of a green initiative in the southern California town of Redlands.
Planting trees as part of a green initiative in the southern California town of Redlands. Courtesy of Karen Bell

Recently Deb Fallows kicked off a series of “Big Little Ideas”—innovations or reforms that could be applied fairly easily at the local level and that might have cumulatively very important effect.

(Thanks to many readers who have written in. We’ll be sharing some of the many suggestions that have arrived.)

Here’s another in the series: making it easy to plant large numbers of trees, city-by-city.

In an article in the October issue of the magazine, I cite recent findings that tree-planting matters more than many people suspect, in its potential climate impacts. The story said:

After Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, more than 400 U.S. mayors, representing most of the U.S. economy, said their communities would still adhere to it. “That is where most of the leverage lies on sustainability—with mayors and governors,” Morley Winograd told me.

He gave the example of planting trees, which might sound insignificant but, according to a new study by researchers in Switzerland, could be a crucial step toward removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. “This could spread city by city, state by state, with no federal involvement or limitation,” he said.

The tree-planting movement has gained surprising momentum. For example, check out this report from Louisville, on its ambitious “Green Heart” project to assess the impact of urban green space. Or this, from Tulsa, about the difference its “Up With Trees” program has made. Or the “Greenprinting” map tool, from the Trust for Public Land. Or the MTree tool.

More tree-planting in Redlands, Ca. (Courtesy of Karen Bell.)

For now, here’s an illustration of one community taking an innovative step. This story has three bonus reactions for attracting my attention.

First, the community in question is my original homeland, the small inland-California community of Redlands, in San Bernardino County.

Second, the tree-planting initiative is of a variety often mocked in the nation’s capital but of growing importance at the community level: namely, a “public-private partnership.” It’s a collaboration involving a private company (the mapping firm Esri); a local university (the University of Redlands); and the community’s public schools (of which I am an alum).

Third, the news is reported by a new local publication, the Redlands Community News, which fits the pattern I have reported on from Maine and Mississippi and Massachusetts, in offsetting the pernicious effect of private-equity control of local newspapers. (More reports are coming on this local-journalism theme, from Michigan and Tennessee and Massachusetts and beyond.)

It’s an idea with a history: Arbor Day planting ceremony, New York City Public Schools, in 1908. (Bain News Service, via Library of Congress.)

One of our good friends in Redlands, Shelli Stockton of the University of Redlands, explains the idea. The reason for spelling this out is the possible application in cities elsewhere:


Increase the awareness of the benefits of trees through education and give away trees to plant. Redlands’ specific project involves presentations at school assemblies, providing each elementary student in our city a tree to plant, and mapping and measuring the results with GIS [online maps, like those developed by Esri in Redlands].

The project will take place in April 2020 in honor of the 50th worldwide Earth Day celebration. Approximately 12,000 trees will be distributed.

How It’s Done:

Identify key partners in the project, including a funder to pay for the trees, an audience with whom to communicate and distribute the trees, and a person(s) to organize the project. In our case the players are:

  • Funder: a local company with an interest in the environment and climate change issues
  • Audience: the local school district and private schools
  • Organizer: the local university

How This Works Locally:

Redlands has been named a Tree City USA Community  by the Arbor Day Foundation for 22 years. It has a volunteer-led city Street Tree Committee who assist city staff in overseeing issues regarding the city’s urban forest … There was even a project to plant trees in honor of a nine-year-old girl who died of leukemia.

The University of Redlands is also 10 consecutive year Tree Campus USA school and has more than 4500 trees on its 160-acre campus.

It’s a medium-scale idea with potentially very large effects. And of course planting trees is only the first step: they need to be watered, tended, cared for. But it’s an important start, which other communities could consider. And please continue to write in, at, with more suggestions.

All notes on "Redlands, California" >
Two women involved with Project Lia look up at windows they helped restore.
Two women involved with Project Lia look up at windows they helped restore. Courtesy of Jensen Productions and New America

More than 2 million Americans are in the country’s prisons and jails now, giving the United States both the largest number of prisoners and the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world. For the U.S., the rate is well over 700 prisoners for each 100,000 of population. According to a recent BBC report, the only close contender is Russia, with an imprisonment rate of over 600 per 100,000 population. Most other developed countries are far behind—or ahead, in social-welfare terms. The rate for England and Wales, for instance, is under 150 prisoners per 100,000 population. Mexico’s rate is about 200 per 100,000. China, with a national population four times larger than America’s, has fewer total prisoners (at least according to official reports).

Just under 10 percent of America’s prisoners are women. Men and women who are “returning citizens” face some common challenges in restoring their place in economic, family, civic, and social life—for instance, the stigma of a criminal record. Some other barriers vary by gender. Women are statistically more likely to be expected to care for children or other family members, men more likely to have been arrested for violent offenses.

In Indianapolis, a program called Project Lia helps women who are leaving prison reenter economic and social life. As its mission statement puts it:

The Project Lia program is for women rebuilding their lives after incarceration. Program participants receive educational opportunities in financial literacy, communication, business ethics, and health and wellness, as well [as] support for a future job search.

Our program length is designed to be 6 months–12 months. As you advance through our technical skills and life skills program curriculum, you may advance in job title and pay, with the goal being a successful transition to a long-term career opportunity.

In two previous installments, we’ve shared videos from our friends at New America about civic-renewal projects in Indiana that are very important in the state but get little national attention. The first, about a successful job-training program called Build Your Future, is here. The second, about an ambitious public-arts project run by the Big Car Collaborative, is here.

Now a third video, about how Project Lia is trying to help previously incarcerated women regain their economic and social footing.

As you can see from Project Lia’s site, its emphasis is on “renewal” in the broadest sense of the term. Toward its aim of helping its graduates begin rebuilding their lives, many of its projects involve reviving disused or abandoned buildings, as you’ll see in this video, and recycling material that would otherwise just go to landfills.

Thanks to the videographer and editor Michael Jensen, the executive producer Fuzz Hogan, plus our other friends at New America.

All notes on "Indianapolis, Indiana" >