FROM THE FOLKS at designTAXI, here are some typography puns created by Caisa Nilaseca.
IS THERE A “SCIENCE” to logo design? Yes.
Logos play an important psychological role in influencing design making, especially when time is short. It takes only 400 milliseconds for the brain to recognize a logo and trigger a response, based on our preferences and previous experiences with the brand. Those brands we like stir activity in the area of the brain associated with positive emotions and self esteem.
Neuroscientists have been researching how the brain recognizes and perceives logos and the impact they have on consumer behavior. Some of those findings are noted in the following infographic, created by Logomaker.
A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, I posted a piece on this blog titled “A radical departure.”
I’m doing it again this week, with this article on The Fight for the Future of Local News.
As with the previous article, I believe this piece is more-than-worthy of the time it will take you to read it.
Again, it’s the only post on this week’s blog.
Yes…it’s that important.
The Fight for the Future of Local News
By Kate Knibbs | The Ringer
Last year, hyperlocal coverage proved as vital as ever—and also faced some of its worst cutbacks yet. Can an embattled industry find new ways to support the oldest form of journalism?
IN FEBRUARY 2017, Katia Kelly ambled down Union Street, a peaceful, leafy, brownstone-lined road in her longtime neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. “Wherever I can walk, I cover that,” Kelly, the owner and sole writer of long-running Carroll Gardens news blog Pardon Me for Asking, told me. Kelly has lived in the area for more than 25 years, although she retains a trace accent from her native Germany, and she’s a passionate booster for the area. That day, the fair-haired 56-year-old was on her way to take photographs of a nearby public school expansion. On this particular reporting mission, Kelly walked herself into an unusual tip when a local woman on the street confided that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had bought a brownstone next door to her. Carroll Gardens has plenty of stuff in abundance — expensive strollers, pretty gardens, wine bars — but it’s not a real estate hotspot for high-profile politicos. Manafort’s presence in the area was obviously peculiar. Even more peculiar: The brownstone he’d bought was the block’s only eyesore.
Kelly snapped some photographs of Manafort’s shambolic property, littered with blue scaffolding and piled-up cinder blocks. Then she looked up the public records associated with the house, sifting through the details of the purchase. Something smelled off. “Even with home prices going up tremendously in Carroll Gardens in the past few years, one could say that the mortgage amount of $6,803,750 exceeds the current value of this house, especially in its current condition,” Kelly wrote on February 16. “I don’t know what to make of all of this. Maybe one of my readers can interpret these transactions?”
Readers quickly obliged. Kelly has been updating her blog faithfully for more than a decade, and while she attracts a geographically narrow crowd, her audience was still wide enough to grab the attention of WNYC, which cited her reporting in its investigation into Manafort’s odd real estate dealing. Two New York–based attorneys, Julian Russo and Matthew Termine, started digging further into Manafort’s transactions after reading Kelly’s post, and created a blog called 377Union to go into more detail. The Intercept and WNYC both also cited their reporting. By that fall, the quirky story that Kelly had happened upon on her niche beat had become a key part of a national scandal. Federal prosecutors claimed, as they indicted Manafort, that the house on Union Street was evidence that Manafort was laundering money made as a pro-Russia operative.
“Stories sometimes have very strange ways of making their way to our mainstream media,” Kelly said. “And everything kind of starts out with neighbors talking to each other.”
KELLY’S SCOOP WAS a triumph of hyperlocal, on-the-ground reporting, and a thrilling reminder of how neighborhood reporting can provide the building blocks for uncovering truths with great consequences. It also happened in a devastating year for local journalism. “There’s an element of crisis, and it’s real,” Liena Zagare, who runs the independent local website Bklyner, told me when she was in the middle of a desperate crowdfunding campaign to save her website in late December. The climate had already pinched Zagare; her company had originally published eight hyperlocal sites, each focusing on a different Brooklyn neighborhood, but she’d consolidated them into one website focused on events, restaurants, and real estate news in the whole area. “It can only be someone’s hobby for so long,” she said. “It doesn’t really make money.” (Bklyner did, however, raise enough reader funding to remain open, at least in the short term.)
In the fall, the websites DNAinfo and Gothamist, two well-liked local news destinations, were abruptly shuttered by their billionaire owner, Joe Ricketts, after a vote to unionize. Ricketts went so far as to delete their archives, before relenting in the face of criticism. The long-beleaguered Village Voice fired almost all of its unionized staffers in the fall, shortly after the iconic paper announced that it would stop its print edition; the Houston Press, which is also owned by Voice Media Group, also shuttered its print version and downsized its staff. L.A. Weekly fired the vast majority of its staff, leaving only a single staff writer. And Baltimore City Paper completely shut down.
While major newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post saw increased subscriptions in the wake of the Trump presidency, the appetite for news did not translate into an industrywide boom. The year saw pivot after pivot after pivot to video, which usually meant layoffs and restructuring, at established institutions like ESPN and Condé Nast as well as rising stars like BuzzFeed and Vice. Meanwhile, major media enterprises like GateHouse Media and Tronc scooped up independent outlets to add to their content empires, further consolidating the industry. (Last year, Tronc paid $1 to buy the flailing New York Daily News.) The Athletic sank its teeth into anemic sports desks across the country.
Local news, from investigations by city alt-weeklies to community reporting by small-town papers, has been in tumult for decades. As the internet of the early 2000s upended print media’s business model, it also allowed local and hyperlocal websites to emerge, from one-woman operations like Katia Kelly’s blog to staffed newsrooms like DNAinfo. At the same time, it enabled digital companies that primarily or exclusively aggregated or riffed on the work of reporters, establishing an ecosystem of toady blogging properties that glommed eyeballs away from original sources without spending money on reporting themselves. With reporting available for free online, internet readers were resistant to the idea of paying for digital news.
MEANWHILE, Craigslist absolutely cratered the classified ads business on which local news had depended. In an attempt to emulate Craigslist, Village Voice Media (then known as New Times Media; the company changed its name after it bought the Village Voice) launched a competitor called Backpage in 2004; although Backpage revenue helped keep VVM’s stable of alt-weeklies temporarily afloat, the site’s popularity with sex workers and sex traffickers embroiled it in scandal.
Classifieds were only one element in a larger financial decimation, especially after the economic recession in 2008. Between 2004 and 2014, more than 100 daily newspapers across the U.S. closed. “It is being accelerated by consolidation of the industry,” Matt DeRienzo, the executive director of the Local Independent Online News Publishers, told me. “Bad actors are buying up newspapers — basically private-equity hedge funds who have no background in the journalism business and no intent to be in the journalism business in the future, either — and in kind of a vulture-capital sense, they see the opportunity to profit from its decline over the next couple years.” John S. Carroll, a veteran newspaperman, called this type of bad-actor buyout the “harvest strategy,” in a 2006 talk titled “What Will Become of Newspapers?” He noted that he first heard the term as the editor of The Baltimore Sun, in a board meeting. “They meant milking a declining business for all the cash it can produce until it dies,” Carroll said.
When this happens, local news reporting is often impoverished by changes made by these bad actors; neighborhood stories and community watchdog investigations require resources that these companies, with their eyes fixed on the bottom line, are unwilling to give. “It’s not that people aren’t interested in their communities — local news usually ranks as the top priority in surveys — it’s that the economics of the digital age work strongly against reporting about schools, cops and the folks down the street,” Pau Farhi wrote in a 2014 Washington Post piece about the decline of local news reporting. “In drawing readers and viewers from a relatively small pond, local news outlets struggle to attract enough traffic to generate ad dollars sufficient to support the cost of gathering the news in the first place.”
One of the most notorious recent failures in hyperlocal reporting is Patch, AOL’s constellation of local-news websites, which company CEO Tim Armstrong created in 2007. In 2010, AOL claimed that it would be the largest hirer of full-time journalists in America that year, and by 2014 Patch employed more than 540 people at more than 900 neighborhood and town sites, covering local politics and events, and linking out to breaking news. But the Patch sites were roundly criticized for their inconsistent quality — “often the sites are like digital Yellow Pages,” the New Yorker noted in 2011 — and they struggled to make money, as the anodyne journalism didn’t attract enough community enthusiasm to also attract lucrative advertisers. AOL sold a majority stake in Patch to investment firm Hale Global in 2014. The company is now finally profitable, but prestige has not followed profitability; the collection of sites is a decent resource for quick-hit news, like police blotter items, but nothing more. (One positive note: A number of former Patch editors started their own independent local news sites, such as Pennsylvania’s Saucon Source and Connecticut’s New Canaanite, both of which are still up and running.)
IN THE CHICAGOLAND AREA, then–Chicago Sun-Times parent company Wrapports began a venture called Aggrego, in which local news items for its chain of suburban papers were farmed out to young staffers who lived nowhere near the communities they wrote about. The writers were asked to scrape “Twitter, Google News, and Reddit for trending stories in the cities they are assigned to,” according to former employee Sam Stecklow, who wrote about the inanity of his old job in 2015. The Chicago News Guild called Aggrego “an assault on journalism.” The program shut down in July 2017.
All of these negative developments do not cancel out or lessen the truth that people do want to know the local news. “We’re still in the middle of a revolution, and it’s going to take a while for this to sort out,” PolitiFact founder and journalism professor Bill Adair said. “We know there’s demand for the product. People want to know what their school board is doing. People want to know what their city council is doing. They want to know if the local high school team won last Friday. The old business models obviously don’t work anymore, and we shouldn’t cling to the ideal that the print-based models are going to survive. I think we all know that they’re not.”
Some new programs, like Report for America (which functions similarly to preexisting efforts like Teach for America) and ProPublica’s Local Investigative Reporting Project, are attempting to fill growing gaps. Report for America will send aspiring journalists into community news organizations across the country, while the Local Investigative Reporting Project will offer support to newsrooms in smaller cities and towns, allowing local teams the resources they need to conduct deeply reported investigations.
“We’re nonprofit by choice, but unfortunately a lot of news organizations are nonprofit not by choice. Meaning that the models that have supported news organizations historically are not what they once were,” ProPublica senior editor Charles Ornstein said. “And the fundamentals, in some cases, appear to be getting worse.”
Shuttering outlets and shrinking local coverage has widespread repercussions. Beyond job loss in the journalism industry, entire communities lose vital information about themselves. Without writers who are embedded in communities and who approach their work from the street level, reporting lacks the depth of knowledge that comes. There’s an old cliché about how success often depends on simply showing up, and it’s exceedingly true in the world of journalism. Local news reporting has exposed wrongdoing of powerful national figures, from outgoing New Jersey governor Chris Christie to former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford. It has also brought to light problems plaguing specific communities. The Storm Lake Times, the local, family-run paper in Storm Lake, Iowa, provides a striking example of what truly excellent coverage can do. The twice-a-week paper for the town of 11,000 people (with a circulation of just 3,000) won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2017, thanks to editor and co-owner Art Cullen’s dogged work investigating the agricultural business in his community.
“IF YOU HAVE one reporter or two reporters when you need to have 20, and you’re covering a town with six school districts, you’re not covering it. You’re rewriting stuff, or just doing the bare minimum, and wire copy. At that point, it’s just a vehicle for preprint advertising,” DeRienzo said.
The idea that communities deserve actual journalism instead of passionless, farmed-out content is at the heart of many independent local news projects. “I found that larger newsrooms were turning their backs on community journalism,” Jiquanda Johnson, the founder of Flint, Michigan’s Flint Beat, told me. “My site was established after talking to residents and hearing that they wanted something focused only on Flint.” Johnson says she expanded her original mission to also focus on news literacy for young people.
As longtime L.A. Weekly columnist Jeff Weiss pointed out to me, his paper’s coverage of the arts and cultural scenes in Los Angeles had a proven track record of introducing talent to the world and giving up-and-coming artists much-needed exposure. “Eight out of ten times when I would interview somebody, it’d be their first interview ever,” Weiss said. “Most of my columns were about people of color. Those are the communities that are often underserved and undercovered, in every city.” Former employees are organizing a boycott of advertisers; Weiss emphasized that the paper had quickly become a shell of its former self after it changed hands, publishing content directly at odds with the from-the-ground-up ethos that had formerly guided the outlet.
“Our reporters were pretty street-level on stuff, and we became an important daily source for news for hundreds of thousands of people,” former DNAinfo Chicago senior editor Andrew Herrmann told me by email after the sites had been shuttered. As one of those daily readers, I felt the loss of DNAinfo acutely. It had been, in my eyes, the most reliable place to find out what was happening in my Brooklyn neighborhood every day, from small-time crimes to restaurant openings and closings or City Council announcements.
The rise of social networks like Nextdoor, which can function in some communities like a message board and a channel for announcing hyperlocal activities, has given people new forums to learn about what is happening around them. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram also provide ample opportunities for people to broadcast information about their communities to their neighbors and the outside world. But these new options rely on the unpaid labor of people who use them in their free time. While they can function as channels for breaking news, they do not supplant dedicated newsgathering. They can also be potent forums for spreading misinformation and invective, creating myopia instead of understanding. Nextdoor, for example, has attempted to weed out racist community posts with an algorithm, but BuzzFeed News pointed out how frequently racial profiling still occurred on the platform in 2017.
WHEREVER PEOPLE have lost their local news sources, they lost knowledge of the places they live. “It’s really important to understand that without reporters, you can’t have a functioning democracy. Without local reporters, you can’t have a functioning local democracy,” San Francisco–based veteran reporter Tim Redmond told me. “The New York Times is playing the last man standing and will probably survive for the next 10 or 20 years, and The Washington Post has Amazon money. But what happens at City Hall? What happens at your local schools? What happens when there’s homeless people on the streets, when the buses don’t run on time? Most of what people deal with every day when they walk out the door of their house is local — local government, things that happen locally. You have to have local journalism,” Redmond said. “Sadly, that’s what’s dying fastest in this country.”
Redmond had already experienced his own local journalism disaster, when he was fired from his longtime editor position at the San Francisco Bay Guardian after he refused to make further cuts to its staff, but he’s not ready to call it quits. “When I was summarily fired by the Bay Guardian after 30 years when there was new ownership change, I thought, there has to be another way to do this. We can’t not have good daily journalism in cities. We can’t not have good local journalism. There has to be another way,” he said. “I thought, I’ve never been out to make money. If I wanted to do that, I would have chosen another line of work.” In 2013, he opened a local news website in San Francisco, 48 Hills, as a nonprofit, which has allowed him to bootstrap a lean site funded by foundation grants and donations. (Most of the donations they receive are small, within the $100-$200 range.)
“It may not be the model for the future of local journalism, but it certainly is a model,” Redmond said. “We’ve lasted four years, we’ve broken stories. We’re still out here every day, doing investigative journalism.”
Five hundred miles south of San Francisco, Voice of San Diego has been a particularly promising longer-term example of what local, digital, substantial nonprofit journalism can be. The site has been running for more than a decade, and it has been so successful raising money through its membership program that it created the News Revenue Hub to help other independent publishers survive. The hub has partnerships with community news sites like Honolulu Civil Beat and Denverite, social issues programs like the Marshall Project, and other local and progressive journalism organizations.
“[News organizations] are starting to make the case directly that this is a valuable enterprise, that if you care about your community or our shared reality that we all experience, you should invest in this. It just so happens that nonprofit news organizations are perfectly optimized for that. They don’t have a shareholder or profit responsibility — they have a responsibility to a mission,” Voice of San Diego editor-in-chief Scott Lewis told me. “Thinking of journalism as an educational resource is a better way to anchor what we do.” The idea that the future of local news depends on recasting it as an essential public good came up again and again as I talked to people in the field. “The concept of journalism as an altruistic public benefit is key,” DeRienzo said.
MAJOR NEWSPAPERS have been playing to the idea of reporting as a public good; The Washington Post changed its motto to “Democracy Dies in Darkness” and The New York Times recently began an advertising campaign about its commitment to truth. Local news outlets are trusted more than national ones, according to a Pew report from May 2017, and so playing up the solidity of reporting seems like a savvy choice.
Even if people all over the country enthusiastically embrace the idea that journalists are public servants worthy of livable salaries, though, there is a distinct and built-in ceiling for most local news initiatives. By their very nature, they appeal to only a limited number of people, and therefore evade the scale-like-crazy-or-go-home attitudes pervasive in the financial world. “Local news, and local journalism, is what economists call a ‘market failure,’”
professor Christopher Ali, who wrote Media Localism: The Policies of Place, told me. “There’s not enough money in the market. There just isn’t, because it’s geographically bounded. So out of the five biggest cities in the U.S., it’s going to be a market failure.”
Still, after conducting a report in 2017 with fellow academic Damian Radcliffe on the state of local newspapers, Ali does not believe that “market failure” invariably leads to real failure. “We actually found that the future of small-town newspapers, or what we call ‘small market’ newspapers, is actually brighter than what most people think,” Ali said. In the report, he and Radcliffe surveyed more than 400 employees of “small market” newspapers, which means daily and local newspapers with circulations under 50,000 — the most common type of outlet. The report concedes that newsrooms (or, at least 59 percent of them) are shrinking, and that journalists routinely worked long hours for low pay and without job security, but noted that the reporters themselves had faith. “Pushing back against the popular narrative that the death of the newspaper industry is imminent, our respondents were predominantly optimistic about the future for small-market newspapers,” Ali and Radcliffe wrote.
This sense of optimism is shared by some other industry watchers. “I am optimistic about the future of local news,” Poynter local news reporter Kristen Hare told me. “Layoffs and corporate mismanagement, wonky hedge funds, and billionaires who get bored and shut down sites overnight — all that exists. But ‘the sky’s falling’ is overwhelmingly the story that we tend to hear. It’s easy, I think, in all of the shouting, to miss the whispers of things that are happening at the local level.”
“[Our] biggest challenge is a prevailing belief among readers that print is dying,” one of the respondents to Ali and Radcliffe’s survey wrote. “People associate the bad news about the big dailies with smaller, community publications. They are different business models, and the community model is more sustainable. But the public is not aware of that.”
THE UNITED STATES has thousands upon thousands of print and digital local news outlets, some covering huge cities like New York and Los Angeles, others focused on small, rural communities from Nebraska to northern Florida. The industry’s larger trend toward cutbacks hasn’t hit every community, as Ali and Radcliffe’s survey made clear, and in some cases, small markets with less competition offer surprisingly secure positions for reporters. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t news deserts, or that the lack of funding and resources in city halls around the country aren’t hurting the industry’s ability to function as a watchdog. This is a battle of many worthy champions, but an uphill battle nonetheless.
After all, Katia Kelly was able to get her scoop on Manafort only because she has the good fortune to do what she loves — neighborhood journalism — as a hobby. And she was quick to note that she sees her blogging as a sort of community activism, as many of the papers she relied on in her early days of living in Brooklyn have vanished.
“We don’t have local reporters anymore,” she said. “We used to have two newspapers … small, little, very local papers that covered Brooklyn stories. And I knew the reporters, because they came to local meetings, they showed up at community board meetings. And both of the papers were bought by [Rupert] Murdoch, who merged them into one, and now it’s the thinnest little paper. I don’t even know anybody who reads them anymore. Those were our news sources for the first 20 years that I lived in Gardens and before then, even. I’m sure for 30 or 40 years, they were our news source and the reporters really knew members of the community, knew who to call for more information. They’re all gone. They’re all gone.”
But Kelly, and journalists like her, are here. Although local news reporting is, at its core, more about community stewardship than maximizing profits, there are still people knocking on doors, making phone calls, and asking questions about the neighborhoods they live in and writing it all down. While nonprofit funding cannot possibly provide for every outlet, and while hobbyists like Kelly might continue to end up plugging the gaps left by a decimated profession, the local news industry persists. It might be a little broken, but it’s not dead.
—Thanks to Connie Hurston