While we often associate the phenomenon of “news deserts” with rural small towns, research has shown that they also can affect neighborhoods of cities.
The sprawling metropolis of New York City is a burgeoning example of this phenomenon. The local media ecosystem in America’s biggest city has been hit especially hard by of the failure of the for-profit model of journalism; the past few years have seen the shuttering of one-time institutions like The Village Voice, DNAInfo, and Gothamist. Meanwhile, the city’s biggest paper, the New York Times, continues to shift its aspirations nationally at the expense of local coverage. Last July, the New York Daily News, the city’s second largest tabloid and one of the largest local newsrooms, cut over 50% of its staff at the behest of its spiraling owner Tribune. “The state of local reporting in New York City is at the lowest depth that I have experienced since I started as a reporter in 1974, and it’s not healthy in the long run for New York City to have a weakened media,” the former editor of the Daily News told The Daily Beast in 2017.
Enter The City. This new digital-only local news outlet launched last month with a decidedly old-school mission: to cover all of New York's boroughs with an emphasis on public service journalism. Part of the reason they’ve gotten so much attention—splashy write-ups in the Times, millions of dollars of funding in from donors like Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, and a technology and content partnership with New York Magazine—is simply because there are way fewer outlets with that kind of mission than there used to be. Even fewer are doing it the way The City is: as an independent nonprofit funded exclusively by memberships and donations. It’s the biggest swing at nonprofit local reporting, and its ambition will be tested in America's largest city.
“We have everybody from people who this their first full time job as reporters to somebody who was with the Daily News for more than 25 years and has broken some of the most important stories over the past few years in New York,” Andrew Bard Epstein, The City’s Associate Director told me recently. The masthead for The City is over twenty people strong, and features at least one reporter focused on each of the city’s boroughs. The editor in cheif, Jere Hester, is the former City Editor for the Daily News.
The nonprofit model of funding for journalism has caught on in recent years, although it has mostly been adopted by national outlets like ProPublica and The Marshall Project. And with its aforementioned millions dollars in funding, The City is without question the largest attempt at bringing the model to local news. “I think we're confident that with the right lessons from other nonprofit news organizations writ large and the size and dynamism and wealth in a city like New York, we can figure out how to do it here and become a model for other places,” Epstein said.
Initially at least, things seem to be going well. Still in its first month, The City has received direct donations from hundreds of readers and is seeing page views that average in the mid-hundred thousands, according to in-house stats shared with me. That's far from bad numbers for a local outlet with zero name recognition. Of course, it remains to be seen how broad their reach is in the less plugged-in communities they are hoping to connect with. “It's very important to us to be able to see whether or not people are reading us in all neighborhoods and not just the sort of typical affluent Manhattan core or Brooklyn readership of a lot of other pure news organizations,” Epstein acknowledged.
The nonprofit model—less of a reliance on ads, a focus on sustainability over profitability—takes some of the pressure off reporters day-to-day, especially those shellshocked by the chaos of New York media over the last few years. And while Epstein stresses the non-profit model’s pressure of “constantly needing to extend” the “runway of funding,” the end goal of building a sustainable base of members and donors will hopefully allow The City to “foster an environment of some confidence and stability that people can go out and pursue their stories in a meaningful way.” Already, The City’s reporters have spent weeks on listening tours on their beats, taking the time to build relationships with the communities they are covering and learn what they want covered.
Those relationship may ultimately be what matters; The City can have the smartest business model around and still fail if they don’t have the reporting chops to build an audience. But conversely, the opposite is true—a bad business model can make good journalism untenable, a lesson New York reporters have learned again and again over the last few years. By combining veteran reporters with a nonprofit model that has succeeded on the national level, The City hopes to build a new model for local news. “I think it's the only path,” Epstein said of the nonprofit model. “And it doesn't guarantee success. You still have to pursue a very smart and disciplined business model. You've got to be very aggressive in terms of fundraising. But I actually no longer think fundamentally it's possible to sustain a vibrant ecosystem of local news in the for-profit model. I just I don't see it.”