Saving Local Media Outlets Is a Way to Love Your Neighbor
Written by TM of JC on July 20, 2022
In 2015, as local newspapers were folding right and left, a community paper in Pflugerville, Texas, made the surprising announcement that it planned to construct a 36,000-square-foot facility with a new printing press.
At the time, Community Impact Newspaper, a hyperlocal monthly newspaper founded by John Garrett, had 20 editions covering communities in Austin, Houston, and Dallas. Printing and production costs for the papers, delivered free to each home in the community, totaled nearly $5 million a year, so he began scheming about owning his own printing presses.
Garrett flew to New York to look at a new Goss press, which would be a $10 million investment, not including constructing the facility, hiring workers, and purchasing the other equipment needed.
“It was the biggest, craziest thing I could imagine,” Garrett said. “I’m just praying, ‘God, I need you to show up in a way that only you can. … I need you to do your thing, because this is too big.’”
The day he flew home, he heard that the Austin-American Statesman would stop its press and outsource its printing. To Garrett, that confirmed God’s timing: The Statesman was one of the few operators in the Southwest that could print Garrett’s newspaper. It was a wakeup call that he couldn’t rely on other printing presses; his company needed its own. He signed the paperwork for the new press.
Then came a second sign: Garrett received a call from the Statesman asking to hire their press operators. The machines required specialized skills that few still possessed. The pressmen’s six-month severance pay ended exactly when Community Impact’s presses would be up and running.
“Everyone is running away from this business as fast as they can, and we’re running toward it,” Garrett said. In May, Community Impact opened its 41st edition in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In total, the papers reach 2.5 million people through daily newsletters, monthly print newspapers, and corresponding news websites.
Garrett and Community Impact are an outlier in the nationwide downward trend of local media. Since 2005, about 2,200 local papers have shuttered as traditional media struggled to transition to digital and lost lucrative advertising dollars to Google and Facebook. Corporate buyouts left local newspapers with a skeletal staff unable to adequately cover regional news.
Organizations, politicians, and local citizens are starting to see the consequences of the demise of local media: a less-informed public, less accountability for local officials, less civic engagement, and a weakening sense of community. Groups like Report for America and the American Journalism Project are trying to rectify the problem by pouring money and talent into local newsrooms.
And Christians have joined the fight.
Garrett argues believers should care about the survival of local news because God is the author of truth and shining a light on wrongdoing, highlighting the good work of everyday people, and informing voters help a community thrive. Local news can also help Christians love their neighbors better as they learn about who those neighbors are and the struggles they face, said Mike Orren of TheDallas Morning News. He pointed to the times when readers have rallied to help individuals down on their luck after their stories were featured in the news.
Personally, I first gained journalism experience as a college student interning at a local newspaper in Bremerton, Washington, where I did a ride-along with a singing bus driver and attended a weekly dance for people with disabilities. Not groundbreaking material, but it was rewarding to hear the driver’s giddy excitement when he told me his wife’s friends all commented on seeing him in the paper and to learn that the NGO putting on the dance received an influx of donations. To ensure these stories continue being told, I’m helping to organize the Reforming Journalism Project, a five-day intensive course to train Christians interested in starting local news sites.
Evangelicals in local media, though, find themselves working to save local news while combating the growing distrust of the industry among fellow believers. Three Christians in local media—Garrett, Orren, and Rob Vaughn of the Allentown, Pennsylvania, station WFMZ-TV—talked to CT about how their faith makes them even greater proponents of the news.
Finding the courage
Garrett was the advertising director at the Austin Business Journal when he and his wife, Jennifer, dreamed up the idea of starting a publication that served not just business insiders in central Austin but also everyday citizens living in the suburbs. The paper would inform residents and businesses of issues that directly impacted their lives: local development projects, new business openings, and city council meetings.
He sketched out a business plan but wasn’t ready to quit his secure job and leap into the unknown.
Then one day in 2005, his boss told him she had received a call from corporate: Someone complained that Garrett was sharing his faith at work; his boss warned that if he did it again, he could be fired. The news shocked Garrett: “I’ve always been pretty outspoken about my faith, but I’m not awkward. I’ve always been very relational.” Other Christians in the company felt Garrett had been unfairly targeted, while the corporate leadership feared they would have an HR nightmare on their hands if Garrett sued the company.
Yet Garrett felt at peace. He believed God was giving him this opportunity to quit his job and take a step of faith: He took out a $39,000 credit card loan to start the community newspaper. Friends were baffled when he said he wanted to start a free monthly newspaper while everyone else was pushing digital. “I might as well be selling typewriters,” Garrett remembers.
In September, the paper sent out its first issue to 60,000 homes and businesses in Pflugerville and Round Rock (northern suburbs of Austin). A story about a new toll road headlined the paper and included a large satellite map plotting the entrance and exit ramps for the road.
The paper was a hit. In the second month, it sold out advertising space in 15 days. “It was a calculated risk. … I think God blinded me to a lot of the reality so that I could do it,” Garrett said. “I think if I knew then what would happen even in those first few months of production, I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do it.”
Community Impact continued to expand into other metros, even as local papers laid off journalists around the country. In five years, the newspaper added 60 employees and launched 10 community newspapers. The key to the paper’s business model is that it allows local advertisers to target a very specific audience by gathering data on its distribution area. Ads are specific to mail-carrier routes, so a local restaurant can pay for ads only in the newspapers delivered to homes near their venue.
Yet Community Impact’s complete reliance on advertising also meant that the COVID-19 pandemic hit them hard. With businesses shut down, Community Impact let its advertisers out of their contracts, thinking the shutdown would last only six weeks. The paper lost 40 percent of its revenue and for the first time had to lay off staff. The government’s Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses helped keep the papers going.
Other challenges Garrett has faced include a controller stealing money from the company, issues with paper supply, and the deterioration of the local newspaper industry, which impacts Community Impact’s credibility among advertisers. But Garrett keeps going by remembering God’s incredible provision and faithfulness to him and his family, as well as how his work honors God.
“If God loves truth and God wants us to connect to each other and to our communities, then local news can play an amazing role in helping make all that happen,” Garrett said.
Championing local news
While Garrett may have stepped back in time by purchasing a printing press, Orren is stepping into the future by pushing the boundaries of what digital local news sites can become. The chief product officer at The Dallas Morning News, Orren describes himself as a “mad scientist” concocting new ways to ensure the 137-year-old newspaper survives in the digital age.
For instance, his team is building a database platform with interlinked people, places, and events so that based on the stories readers choose to view, an algorithm can find related content to keep them engaged. They’re also focusing on the features readers can’t find elsewhere: Each Friday night the paper sends 70 stringers to football games around the city so they can type up live play-by-plays. Orren said that helps sell tons of digital subscriptions to football-crazed Texans. For areas the paper doesn’t have the manpower to cover, they’re looking into using AI to write up reports on city council meetings (based on meeting minutes) and residential real estate.
While he’s optimistic about The Dallas Morning News’s future, he’s very pessimistic about local journalism in general. For the past 30 years, he’s been shouting from the mountaintops that “the print train is coming to the station, and we better figure it out.”
At this point, he doesn’t think most local newspapers will be here in their current form in 10 years. And that hurts communities, he said: Studies have found that areas without strong local newspapers have reduced civic engagement and increased government corruption as the cities lack watchdogs to keep them in check.
Orren spent his career in this intersection of local journalism and new tech: Working at Dallas’s D Magazine in the ‘90s, he created the nation’s first city-magazine website. Then in 2004, he founded the hyperlocal Pegasus News, which pioneered now-common functions such as user customization, comments, and content partnerships. While the startup was professionally successful, personally Orren said the process wrecked his life, destroying his marriage, friendships, and finances.
The dark time brought Orren back to the christian faith and changed his outlook on life. Instead of chasing fame or money, he became a “better, happier local news crusader.” He remembered why he wanted to work in local journalism in the first place.
“You can tangibly see the positive impacts that informing people locally has, whether that is being able to vote smarter in an election or protest their property taxes or figure out where to eat tonight,” Orren said. “What happens on your school board impacts your life a thousand times more than what happens in Washington.”
Orren worries Christians are too busy demonizing the media to see the pivotal moment local journalism is in and why it should be supported. Local news helps Christians love their neighbors by telling stories about the people around them and the needs in the city, he said. It shares about events so people can get out to support local theaters or businesses and get to know their neighbors. “How can you love your neighbor if you don’t know them or what they’re going through?”
Pushing back on distrust
According to a 2021 Pew Research Center poll, Americans trust local media more than national media (75% versus 58%). Rob Vaughn, an anchor at WFMZ, an independently owned station covering the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, points to several factors: Often local news is focused less on culture wars and more on fires, traffic accidents, or local events. Residents also get to see local reporters in the community and feel more connected to them—viewers frequently tell Vaughn they feel like he’s part of their families.
Still, Vaughn feels that in the 35 years he’s worked at the station, he’s never seen as much distrust for the media as he has in the last six years, especially among other Christians.
He recalls a woman he met at a church picnic who rolled her eyes when he mentioned he previously worked for the Associated Press. Some church friends shoot puzzled looks and ask, “How are you in the media?” Others comment that he’s different from the other dishonest journalists.
While he knows his friends mean it as a compliment, it bothers him how all journalists have been painted in such a negative light that they see him as the exception rather than the rule. At the same time, viewers who don’t know him personally send him nasty emails about his coverage, including one viewer who claimed he was reading off scripts dictated by the Democratic National Committee.
When talking with fellow believers, Vaughn will often push back by asking them where they get their news.