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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

New, independent digital outlets and nonprofits have begun to fill some of the gap left by fading local newspapers. Limited resources and the pandemic have driven many toward providing community news, information and services rather than traditional accountability journalism.

Why it matters: "It's not just about a legal or structural shift, but it also represents a shift in how the mission of journalism is changing," said Emily Roseman, research director & editor at the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN).

  • "The decline of local newspapers has not just led to more government corruption and waste, but also polarization and misinformation," said Steven Waldman, president and co-founder of Report for America, a local journalism nonprofit.

By the numbers: There are now more than 700 independent local news startups in the U.S. and Canada, according to Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION), a trade organization.

  • LION now has over 400 paying members, up from 177 at the start of the pandemic, executive director Chris Krewson told Axios.
  • By comparison, at least 100 newspapers have closed during COVID, said Penny Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
  • Without additional government support, the U.S. could lose 100 more newspapers next year and another 500 over the next five years, she estimates.

Between the lines: New digital sites and legacy local newspapers alike are finding it difficult to attract sustainable, commercial investment, making philanthropic support and reader donations more important.

  • The number of local news companies that have registered as nonprofits has roughly doubled in the past five years, per INN.
  • The past year, saw "a tipping point" of people in the philanthropic world "understanding that nonprofits have to play a bigger role in local news," said Waldman.
  • New estimates from Poynter suggest around 50 local outlets were added during the pandemic, many of which are digital nonprofits.

Yes, but: Many local upstarts and nonprofits are still small compared to the newspapers that once dominated American journalism.

  • Most of LION's members (80%) have four or fewer employees. Many are individuals writing newsletters or blogs. "There's a line to be drawn between the nascent creator economy and work we're trying to do," Krewson said, referencing local newsletters on Substack and Facebook's Bulletin.

The big picture: The past two years have pushed local news companies to focus more on service journalism, but the value of that impact is hard to quantify to funders and commercial partners.

  • "There is a financial value of those services that hasn’t been calculated yet," Roseman noted. "If we quantify it, people will start taking it seriously," she said, referencing things like vaccine campaigns and extreme weather reporting.
  • Cassie Haynes, the co-executive director of Resolve Philly, a journalism nonprofit in Philadelphia, said her team sends local readers surveys about whether their journalism led to services or information that was "life-saving, life-sustaining and life-affirming" in order to measure its impact.

Between the lines: The trend also calls into question what the long-term business model is for accountability journalism — like investigations into local government spending and school boards — will be when larger newspapers continue to close.

What to watch: Government subsidies could help newsrooms move away from being reliant on commercial metrics that are often at odds with quality local journalism, like clicks, said Mike Rispoli, senior director of journalism policy at Free Press, a journalism advocacy group.

  • President Biden's Build Back Better plan included a $1.7 billion tax subsidy for local journalism. If it doesn't pass, state governments will need to take more action, he noted.

The bottom line: "It's an evolving marketplace with lots of volatility," said Fran Wills, CEO of the Local Media Consortium, which represents hundreds of local newspapers.

  • "People are looking at local media in a different way and starting to value it in a higher way than they might have pre-pandemic," she added.
  • The recent hostile takeover battle between the board of Lee Enterprises, one of the last independent local news chains, and hedge fund Alden Global Capital reflects the tension between the commercial market and local communities over the value of local journalism.

Go deeper

Updated Dec 30, 2021 - World

Blinken slams Hong Kong news outlet raid as police charge 2 with sedition

Patrick Lam, acting editor-in-chief of Stand News (center), is arrested in a raid of the pro-democracy media outlet's offices in Hong Kong on Dec. 29. Photo: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Hong Kong police announced Thursday they've formally charged two people with "conspiracy to publish seditious publications," a day after a raid on Stand News' office that's been denounced by Secretary of State Tony Blinken.

Why it matters: Hong Kong previously enjoyed freedoms that saw the city "flourish as a global center for finance, trade, education, and culture," Blinken said in a statement Wednesday evening. But these have been encroached on since China's government passed a draconian national security law last year.

45 million Americans under winter storm watches near New England

Computer model projection showing the winds moving around the powerful East Coast storm on Saturday Jan. 29, 2022. Image: https://earth.nullschool.net

Nearly 45 million Americans are under winter weather alerts and warnings from North Carolina to northeastern Maine Thursday night, as a major winter storm threatens the region.

Why it matters: It is predicted to be the biggest blizzard since 2018 to strike the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow possible in parts of eastern Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service.

Judge nixes Gulf of Mexico oil leases in climate-focused ruling

Tug boats prepare to tow the semi-submersible drilling platform Noble Danny Adkins through the Port Aransas Channel into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 2020 in Port Aransas, Texas. Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday canceled the Biden administration's late 2021 sale of new oil-and-gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Why it matters: The ruling that the greenhouse gas emissions analysis by the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was insufficient is a win for green groups that challenged the decision, as they seek to curb fossil fuel production.