BY KINSEY WILSON · NOV. 18, 2022
The Better Government Association of Chicago and Signal Cleveland are separated by 100 years of history yet share remarkably similar missions.
Founded in 1923 to promote voter participation, BGA is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative force that teams with other Chicago newsrooms to shed light on government activities and hold public officials to account.
Signal is one of a growing number of digital-news startups combining traditional shoe-leather reporting with greater citizen participation in news gathering.
Both unveiled new websites in the past week on Newspack, an open-source publishing platform that in just three years has launched 200 independent publications to help publishers find a path to financial sustainability.
We’re proud of that accomplishment. But Newspack is part of a wider story of how local newsrooms are finding support from a growing network of organizations, some for-profit, some not-for-profit. These groups spread the cost of technology, training and back-office services so that local news operations such as BGA and Signal can focus on what they do best, namely reporting stories and connecting with readers and small businesses.
The model is familiar to anyone who has worked within larger newspaper chains or broadcast conglomerates, where technology, HR, legal, finance and other services were consolidated.
But unlike those commercial concerns, which often put corporate profit ahead of public service, the new crop of so-called “shared services” organizations are designed to promote independence and local control.
The logic is pretty straightforward. The technology required to operate any modern digital news site with best-of-breed advertising, audience development and reader-revenue systems, is not that different from what powers The New York Times or The Washington Post.
But small local sites lack the capacity to deploy systems of that sophistication. And even where they can tap into a larger system, the business expertise to operate them is often in short supply.
And local newsrooms have an equally urgent need to speed the development of digital journalism skills if they are to survive and thrive. That’s generally best done by organizations that can deliver technology, business operations and training at scale.
Richard Tofel, the former President of ProPublica and now a consultant, took issue with the growth of these “intermediaries,” as he termed them, in a pair of Substack posts last week. He questioned whether some of the philanthropic money flowing to these service organizations would be better directed to individual news organizations.
“[A] great deal of good work has been and will be done with such money by these and other fast-growing intermediaries,” Tofel wrote. “But I am convinced that more good might have been done by directing much of institutional foundations’ money instead to the most deserving news nonprofits…”