When the watchdog snores
Local journalism is in decline, but can nonprofits save it?
George Santos, the snake-oil salesman turned newly-minted congressman from Long Island, lied virtually every time he moved his lips while campaigning. He lied about graduating from college (he has a GED but no college degree), working for Goldman Sachs and Citigroup (he didn’t), owning multiple apartments (he didn’t), asserting that he was a proud American-Ukrainian-Jew whose grandparents fled the Holocaust (he isn’t and they didn’t) and whose mother died in the 9/11 attacks (she died in 2016). He set up a company in 2021 with no obvious clients or revenue source, yet paid himself a salary of $750,000. He’s wanted in Brazil for check fraud.
We know all this from an excellent New York Times investigation on Santos, except The Times printed the story five weeks after the election - good journalism, but too late for voters.
In a Jan. 5 New York Times podcast, political reporter Grace Ashford, who exposed Santos, acknowledged, “The attention of members of the media, as well as the political parties, was focused on other races. This race didn’t get the scrutiny that it should have.” Podcast narrator Michael Barbaro swooped in for the rescue, saying, “It’s worth acknowledging that many news organizations, The New York Times included, are not as focused on local news coverage as we have been in the past.”
True, but it’s also worth acknowledging that this was not a race for Zoning Board.
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Long Island’s Newsday, one of the largest dailies in the country, also missed the Santos story. But one local paper nailed it - the North Shore Leader, a weekly founded in 1955. The Leader called out Santos for his lies months ago, calling him “bizarre, unprincipled and sketchy,” revealing that local Republicans called him “George Scam-tos.” The big papers - and Santos’ opponent - didn’t notice.
The demise of journalism, local coverage and the drop in numbers of newspapers across the U.S. is personal for me ever since getting laid off from The New York Times in 2009. I’ve done just fine since then, thanks, but have watched with anxiety as newsroom employment has plummeted. By one measure, journalism lost more jobs than the coal mining industry (65 vs. 61 percent).
Can online newspapers replace what we once had? I’ve been a skeptic, and yet in my state of Connecticut, the superb reporting of the CTMirror and the New Haven Independent is bolstered by some of the best journalists in the state who, with enthusiasm, gnaw at the ankles of the powers-that-are.
One of the most hopeful stories I’ve come across is that of VTDigger, the Vermont news site that boasts, “News in pursuit of truth,” which Anne Galloway began after being laid off from the Rutland Herald and Times Argus in 2009. After losing her job, “I knew I wanted to stay in journalism, but I didn’t know how,” she said in an interview. Galloway put together a business plan, got a lot of advice and launched the VTDigger website in August of that year, thinking she could publish a few times a week. Soon she was posting a story a day and began covering the state legislature.
The first year she garnered $16,000 from grants, donations and a welcome ad from Cabot Creamery. She paid freelancers, but went without a salary for three years. Her staff grew. So did the work load. “For years, I got four to six hours sleep a night. Only in the past four years could I get my workweek down to 60-70 hours a week,” she said.
In the last year, she made the difficult decision to step away as executive editor. But after 13 years, VTDigger had more than 30 employees, an annual budget of $3 million and 650,000 unique readers a month, a hair above the U.S. Census state population estimate of 647,000. Galloway led newsroom investigations that uncovered the largest fraud case in Vermont history, one that entangled a former governor and put people in prison. So are online news sites the new model of journalism?
“To make it work you have to work like an absolute dog,” Galloway said.
It has been ever thus of good journalism, but especially true when combining the tough job of investigative reporting with a business start-up. Later in the interview, she said, “I don’t know if you can replace the 60 percent of journalists who have gone by the wayside for the last 20 years, but if you have community commitment and newsroom commitment, that’s the future.”
Is it enough? Maria Archangelo is optimistic. A former Vermont editor and past president of the Vermont Press Association, she is now chief revenue officer for Open Campus, a nonprofit news site that funds reporters in different locations to do in-depth, higher education reporting. As the former executive director of another news organization, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, (now Chalkbeat Philadelphia), her eyes were opened to the potential for nonprofit news. Archangelo ticks off growing organizations that support online news, such as LION, (Local, Independent, Online News), a news entrepreneur organization with more than 400 members, and the Institute for Nonprofit News with 300.
Estimates are that $500 million would pay for 10,000 reporters annually, which seems do-able with more than 10 million millionaires and more than 500 billionaires in America alone.
“What I have seen that this argument that journalism as a public good is starting to have tracks particularly with major donors and philanthropy,” Archangelo said. “Journalism is just as important as supporting the ballet or other institutions that attract donors.”
To which I can only say, God, but I hope so. American democracy — any democracy — needs strong journalism, because as Rep. Santos has proven, you can’t take your eyes off some people for a minute.
No, everything is online. I read them compulsively through the day. Gotta stop!
It’s a new world out there, Tim!