OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Two nonprofits are forging a path in the world of Nebraska journalism. Flatwater Free Press and Nebraska Examiner are part of a news industry trend; a nonprofit business model where funding is provided by philanthropy rather than advertising.
Jim Friedlich recently wrote for Harvard University's Neiman Lab, a media think tank, that he expects to see an expansion of nonprofit news services in 2022: "Nonprofit news has created meaningful new reporting capacity for American journalism, but its long-term success and impact depend upon it becoming a much larger and smarter business."
The journalists from Flatwater and the Examiner who spoke with 3 News Now are certainly aiming for long-term success in Nebraska.
THE HOMEGROWN STORYTELLERS
Matthew Hansen has spent most of his career telling stories about Nebraska. He cut his teeth as a student journalist at Red Cloud High School and then at the Red Cloud Chief, the weekly community newspaper in his hometown of, you guessed it, Red Cloud, Nebraska.
“Until this point, almost my entire life and career has been spent inside working for Nebraska newspapers,” said Hansen.
He went on to write for The Daily Nebraskan at UNL, the Lincoln Journal-Star and worked 13 years at the Omaha World-Herald. The latter part of his time at the World-Herald was spent as the metro columnist, which meant he got to write stories from his personal perspective with humor and personality.
Hansen loves Nebraska and telling stories that, as he says, bind us together as a state. It’s one of the reasons he helped found Flatwater Free Press, where he’s an editor. It’s a nonprofit publication entirely focused on telling stories throughout the state and bridging what might be seen as a rural-urban divide.
“We’re not two unrelated groups of people — Omaha and Red Cloud. A lot of people who I grew up with in Red Cloud now live in Omaha. We care about stories that are Omaha stories and we also care about Red Cloud stories,” said Hansen. “And we also care about stories that are from neither of those places but remind us of the importance of, and the unique nature of, being Nebraskan. ”
Recent stories published by Flatwater display a wide range of subjects: an investigation of prison employees' overtime salaries, the history of homesteading in the state, innovative Nebraska-based companies, recently arrived immigrants and the indigenous communities of rural Nebraska, to name a few.
“It’s very easy to ignore important stuff that’s happening in rural areas,” said Hansen, explaining that telling rural stories is part of the Flatwater Free Press DNA.
“We believe that state government has the most impact on people’s lives and is covered the least. Not that there aren’t journalists doing good jobs in Lincoln and Des Moines and Raleigh, there’s not as many of them as there once were; and we believe that the public — to make good decisions about their lives — just needs more information,” said Chris Fitzsimon, President and Publisher of States Newsroom.
“Not just the legislature, but administration, education policy, healthcare policy; trying to center it on how it affects people. Just to give people in states more information about what’s happening in their capital, so they can have more information about making important decisions,” Fitzsimon continued.
Much like Flatwater Free Press, the reporting done at the Nebraska Examiner is available to other media outlets to republish.
“We’re funded by philanthropy, by donors, by readers, by foundations, by community funds around the country and, I guess, if we have one advantage it’s that we’re, we think of ourselves as participating in the public discourse as a public good. Which means that since we don’t have to make money, our goal is to provide information to as wide an audience as we can,” Fitzsimon said.
A seasoned print and television journalist, Fitzsimon has spent much of his 40-year career in North Carolina. He emphasizes that States Newsroom hires reporters with deep ties to their communities.
“All of our outlets, just like the Nebraska Examiner, are run by local people who grew up, have reporting experience in the state, understand the issues. I would never presume to tell Cate Folsom (editor-in-chief) what’s important in Nebraska or Aaron (Sanderford) ... they’ll make the decisions,” said Fitzsimon.
THE THREATS TO LOCAL NEWS
Journalism jobs are shrinking. On its face, that might not seem like such a big deal. Technology changes, access to information changes and people have more choice than they once did. However, losing local journalists isn’t good for local democracy, say both Hansen and Fitzsimon.
“The number that we often use here is that Nebraska has lost 52% of its journalism jobs in the past two decades. So, if you just imagine that across the state, we’ve halved the number of reporters that are covering city council meetings, you know, mayors' races, the university — kind of the bread and butter stuff that really does matter inside the state of Nebraska,” said Hansen.
The Nebraska Examiner and its counterparts in other states can free up reporters at legacy outlets and allow those organizations to provide more news to their readers and viewers, says Fitzsimon.
“Community papers that used to be able to afford Associated Press or even send a reporter to the capital; they can’t afford that anymore. They can use our coverage and they can cover other things. They can cover their local city council with somebody who used to have to try to also keep up with state government or the education policy of the administration,” said Fitzsimon. “What we want to do is fill in the gaps, help them survive and bring important information to the people in the state.”
Hansen says that reporters are increasingly spread thin, which makes it hard to develop a “beat,” or an area of expertise where the journalist has some in-depth knowledge and knows the players involved.
“Part of what reporting is — good reporting — is focusing on a mastery of the thing that you’re covering that often doesn’t lead to an immediate story,” said Hansen.
With fewer shoe-leather reporters on the job, there is less time for each journalist to develop a beat.
“It becomes harder to master a subject. You find yourself moving from thing to thing to thing quickly and — you know, as a consequence — the level, the quality comes down,” said Hansen. “And it does make it harder to catch hidden wrongdoing in the thing that you might be covering.”
Fitzsimon added, “There are always more stories than there are reporters. And what we hope to do is to be able to play an important role in the media ecosystem of Nebraska and try to address some of those things that aren’t covered.”
A cause for uneasiness in the Nebraska media ecosystem is an attempt by a hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, to mount a hostile takeover of Lee Enterprises, which owns the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal-Star, Council Bluffs Nonpareil, and a number of large and small newspapers across Nebraska and Iowa.
Hansen says that not all corporate owners are alike: “But Alden is so much worse than so many other corporate owners, that I sincerely hope — and it looks like Lee is fighting hard to stay away from Alden — I sincerely hope that continues. And, again, I only really care about that because I’m a lifelong resident of this state and I know it will do damage to the state if Alden does manage to take over a bunch of Nebraska newspapers.”
In December, the board of Iowa-based Lee Enterprises rejected a bid from Alden to take over the company and developed a “poison pill” strategy to keep Alden and affiliated entities at bay, should the investment group gain control of 10% of its stock.
Alden was deterred. It’s now suing Lee Enterprises over rejecting its offer.
According to a report from the Poynter Institute: “The hedge fund has developed a reputation for slashing staff in newsrooms and other departments and selling off real estate at outlets it owns. It announced cuts at Tribune as soon as the deal closed. Besides investing little in news, it lags the industry in technology upgrades.”
“An Alden takeover of the lion’s share of Nebraska’s newspapers would be very, very bad for the journalism in the State of Nebraska and also for the State of Nebraska itself. I have no doubt about that,” said Hansen. “It is a nightmare scenario for both local journalism, Nebraska journalism and quite honestly, writ large, for functioning democracy inside our communities and our state.”
“I think we’re in an era where, unfortunately, traditional journalism is under attack — sometimes even by our political leaders — and it’s really important, I think, that viewers and listeners and readers understand that professional journalists care deeply about the community and they’re doing the job that they’ve been trained to do. And believe they’re, I think, they’re playing a vital role in our democracy,” said Fitzsimon.
With endless sources of content, search engines and social media designed to show us information that reinforces our preconceived ideas about the world, not to mention very few guardrails on the information delivery platforms — even news media professionals work to recognize reliable sources of information.
Hansen says he looks for “news outlets that show their work; that explain to you how they got the information they got, who they talked to, why they did what they did and also, by the way, who are willing to admit it when they messed up. I think all those things are very, very good signs that the organization is trustworthy.”
He also says that people should ask reporters they know or like about their process and he encourages journalists to have conversations with their audience.
“(Readers) understand in most cases that I’m not ‘the mainstream media.’ I’m Matthew. And I’m a person that’s interested enough in them and their concerns that — and to argue with them if I feel it necessary — but I’m there as a real guy. Not as some sort of, you know, foot soldier in this nameless, faceless army.”
Fitzsimon says to look for local, familiar sources of news.
“I think what happens so often is that a lot of the disinformation comes from out-of-state sources; on sites that don’t have an ethics policy, for example, or don’t follow traditional journalistic standards. I think most viewers, most readers, most listeners are savvy enough to understand that," he said. “I have confidence in folks that once they recognize the names and the work of someone, they realize those are people they can trust. We’re proud that those are people we have working for us in Nebraska.”
Hansen thinks that anyone who asks hard questions for a living should also be willing to answer hard questions from others. It’s incumbent upon journalists, he says, to talk about what they do.
“That might not be why any news outlet cuts a reporter a paycheck, but I guarantee that reporter is a more valuable member of the reporting corps and also of the community in which they live. If they’re willing to engage in conversations about the function, the form, the importance of a journalist.”