Can digital media startups replace closed community newspapers?

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When former Washington Post editor Jim Brady departed Digital First Media — a media management company that owns more than 50 newspapers across 12 states — a few years ago, he left with a desire to focus on local news.

Brady found that it was a tough concept to pursue when your news organization was owned by a larger company or had a long legacy, so he formed two small digital startups, one based in Philadelphia and the other in Pittsburgh in 2014 and 2016, respectively.

Billy Penn (named after the state’s founder) and The Incline now both aim to fulfill their creator’s mission to cover local news.

“We want to make it clear that the decline of newspapers is not the same thing as the decline of local journalism,” said Brady, a self-described “local news geek,” who emphasized the importance of school board meetings and visits to city hall.

Image: Former New York Daily News employees leave the office
Former New York Daily News editorial staff members Carla Roman and Reggie Lewis depart the newspaper’s Manhattan office after reports that the paper was reducing its editorial staff by some 50 percent in New York on July 23, 2018.Brendan McDermid / Reuters

And Brady’s business and approach appears to be expanding. His company, Spirited Media, acquired Denverite, a small digital newsroom in Denver, Colorado, last year.

They are not alone. There are a growing number of digital media startups, like Brady’s, that are taking the place of traditional community news organizations, but questions remain whether they can fill the news vacuum growing across the United States. Even more wonder if it can ever be economically solvent, as some turn to for-profit models and others pursue nonprofit avenues.

It is indisputable, however, that newspapers throughout the country are disappearing or — at the very least — shrinking as shown by the recent layoffs at the New York Daily News when its parent company Tronc gutted its newsroom, ending the employment of almost half its staff.

Brady’s former employer Digital First Media owns the Denver Post, which has laid off nearly two-thirds of its staff via numerous cuts, declining from its peak of nearly 300 people.

And that trend line shows no sign of shaking. According to the Pew Research Center, U.S. daily newspaper circulation — print and digital combined — fell an estimated 11 percent in one year to 31 million in 2017. That’s half of the readership that newspapers enjoyed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.