With print journalism struggling, local outlets like Matter and the Ohio Capital Journal are experimenting with a new model.

Local news ain’t what it used to be. Or as Michael W. Flamm puts it, “The business model for 20th-century American print journalism has broken completely.”

Flamm, an Ohio Wesleyan University professor specializing in political history, recited what’s become a familiar story among concerned journalists: The internet’s limitless free information made audiences increasingly unwilling to pay for news, resulting in declining circulation and ad sales, layoffs, consolidation by large chains and hedge funds, and sometimes shutting down operations entirely.

According to researchers at the University of North Carolina, nearly 1,800 newspapers closed between 2004 and 2018 in the United States. A Pew Research study found that between 2008 and 2017, the number of newspaper employees nationwide dropped from 71,000 to 38,000. A recent New York Times report indicates that 1,300 communities have no local news coverage. “If you only focus on national news,” Flamm says, “then politicians here in Ohio can run amok and do whatever they want with very little scrutiny and oversight.”

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In an industry where profits are shrinking or disappearing altogether, the path to survival may involve becoming a nonprofit. Last year, The Salt Lake Tribune was the first major newspaper to become a 501(c)(3) public charity, allowing supporters to contribute tax-deductible donations. As other outlets ponder similar transformations, news nonprofits are springing up elsewhere, including Columbus.

In 2018, a group of Central Ohio journalists started Matter, a digital news operation specializing in investigative deep dives. Ohio Capital Journal, an online news site covering the Statehouse, launched in December. Report for America, a nonprofit that embeds journalists in newsrooms nationwide à la Teach for America, will send reporters to The Columbus Dispatch and the Associated Press’ local bureau this year.

“What ends up getting cut first in most of these newsrooms is their investigative team,” Matter co-founder Jaelynn Grisso says. Because nonprofits aren’t beholden to clicks, Grisso says, they’re uniquely suited to tackle the long-term projects many newsrooms can’t afford to prioritize. “The idea is not that we are creating a product like most organizations would be,” she says. “The idea is that we are promoting a cause, and that cause is a more informed and engaged civic society.”

To that end, Matter encourages other outlets to republish its content. Ditto for the Ohio Capital Journal, which focuses on state government and its practical impact on Ohioans’ lives. “We don’t need to cover the same story that the [Toledo] Blade, cleveland.com, the Dispatch and the [Cincinnati] Enquirer are all basically running,” editor David C. DeWitt says. “We can dive deeper. Or we can go over to the Statehouse and sit in these committee meetings and report what’s actually being said in them.”

OCJ and Matter are supported by national organizations that serve as incubators for nonprofit news startups—States Newsroom and the Institute for Nonprofit News, respectively. Both publications are working to build donor bases that would allow them to become standalone nonprofits.

Grisso is hopeful such ventures can flourish in an age when creatives with loyal fans can support themselves via crowdfunding platforms like Patreon. “Seeing that membership model really start to work and people investing in that because they like the content, not necessarily because they have to in order to get to the content—I think that’s a fairly persuasive argument.”

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