When Jon Mitchell, the Mayor of New Bedford, Massachusetts, delivered his speech on the state of the city in 2019, he made an unusual plea.
“Support your local paper,” he said, referring to the Standard-Times, New Bedford’s daily newspaper. “Your city needs it to function effectively.”
Owned by Gannett, the parent company of USA Today and more than 250 other daily newspapers, The Standard-Times kept getting thinner. Like thousands of newspapers across the country, it assumed the character of a “ghost newspaper” – a scaled-down publication that had lost much of its staff, limited its reach and journalistic ambitions.
Now, two years later, the mayor’s assessment is clearer.
“We no longer have a functioning newspaper, and I say that with empathy for the people who work there,” he said in an interview. “Before, I couldn’t sneeze without explaining. Now I have to ask people to come to my press conferences. Please ask me questions! “
So eager for the city to have a robust newspaper that he joined a group investigating the Standard Times purchase – but Gannett didn’t sell.
So when a cadre of journalists, including former Standard-Times editors, said last year that they were planning to set up a not-for-profit digital news agency to cover New Bedford, the mayor was there.
As unusual as it may seem, Mr. Mitchell wanted his administration to be held accountable. He also said that a trusted news source could restore something important that he believed had been lost in New Bedford: “a feel for the place,” by which he meant an ongoing narrative of daily life in this multicultural, working class town of 95,000.
When Melville set off from its shores on a whaling voyage intended to inspire “Moby-Dick” in the 19th century, it was the richest per capita city in North America. Today, 23 percent of New Bedford’s residents live in poverty.
The mayor’s vision of a trusted news source was similar to what the journalist group envisioned when they founded The New Bedford Light. The newsroom still under construction in a renovated textile factory went online on June 7th.
“In a complex city like New Bedford, there is an urgent need for in-depth, contextual and explanatory investigative journalism,” said Barbara Roessner, editor of The Light and former editor-in-chief of The Hartford Courant, in an interview.
The editor is Stephen Taylor, a veteran journalist for The Boston Globe who has been family-owned for generations and taught journalism economics at the Yale School of Management.
In its first week, The Light looked at the local impact of the coronavirus pandemic that killed more than 400 people in New Bedford.
The coverage led to the human cost, with photos and detailed profiles of residents who died from the virus, and the editors urged readers to provide additional names. The Light also provided a data-filled analysis of how the disease hit New Bedford’s colored communities hardest, examining the toll it has taken on the town’s retired textile and clothing industry workers, its vibrant club scene and two local “long-distance runners”, who are still suffering from the aftermath, including a 5 year old.
“We all want to move on,” wrote Ms. Rössner in a message to the readers. But to do that, she said, “we need to know where we have been and where we are.”
In the second week, The Light looked at the city’s booming real estate market, fueled in part by the impending revival of the Boston commuter train, which had been shut down since the 1950s. It was also considered how to ward off gentrification. Future topics, said Ms. Roessner, include race and policing, the offshore wind industry and municipal finances.
The plan is to have an in-depth article published every weekday while skipping some of the staples of local newspapers like high school sports and a police record.
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“We cannot go the route of the daily newspaper that tries to do everything for everyone,” said Rößner. “The challenge for us is to stay disciplined to do the deeper work and not get caught up in the daily news cycle.”
The light that has no printed edition is free for readers. It does not accept advertising and relies on donations, grants, and sponsorship from local businesses. It plans full community participation, including media literacy workshops for residents who may become contributors.
It largely follows a playbook for digital nonprofit news sites created by the Institute for Nonprofit News, a group that guides startups and emphasizes editorial independence and financial transparency.
As traditional daily and weekly newspapers have shrunk or died out in recent years, nonprofit news sites have sprung up across the country, from The Texas Tribune to The New Hampshire Bulletin. Of the hundreds that are online now, more than 50 have grown in the past two years, said Jonathan Kealing, the institute’s chief network officer.
Mr Kealing said he was impressed with the support The Light has received so far. “For a not-for-profit news start-up in a relatively small town, that was remarkable,” he said. “Our hope is that more organizations will see this type of community support and enable them to start effective journalism from the start.”
Though many of the local “rulers” support The Light, its founders said donors didn’t play a role in editorial decisions and that there were no sacred cows – not even the supporting mayor.
“He hasn’t seen criticism or scrutiny in a long time,” said Ken Hartnett, a former editor of the Standard Times and a driving force behind the light, in an interview.
“But everyone recognizes the need for a clear instrument with which to regularly sketch the realities of the city,” he continued. “If you don’t have that, you will not have a coherent understanding of what is going on.”
(Lisa Strattan, Gannett’s regional editor for New England who oversees the Standard-Times, didn’t respond to requests for comment on the article. But she told The Boston Globe in April that the Standard-Times used sophisticated analysis to determine what the Readers want.)
The Light sees a lot of exploration, with cultural, political, and economic changes. The diverse population of New Bedford includes large communities of Portuguese Americans and Cape Verde. The city was a traditional Democratic stronghold, but support for Donald J. Trump grew from 2016, when he received 31 percent of the vote in New Bedford, to 2020, when he won 37 percent.
And New Bedford is on the verge of a possible economic renaissance. Thanks to a thriving scallop industry, the city has the largest commercial fishing port in the country by dollar value. With the recent approval of the country’s first industrial-scale offshore wind farm nearby, the city aims to become a stage for the construction and installation of the giant turbines that could soon populate the Atlantic coast.
With the city at such an important turning point, Mayor Mitchell is all the more eager to find a reliable narrator to tell New Bedford’s story.
Studies over the past decade have shown that cities without a watchdog have real costs, including a drop in voter turnout and a drop in a city’s bond rating. The lack of accountability can lead to waste and corruption, driving up government costs.
It is the rare official who has done as much as Mr Mitchell, 52, to promote media exposure in his area of responsibility. A former Harvard-trained prosecutor, first elected mayor in 2011, successfully filed the case on Rhode Island public radio and a television station a few years ago to post correspondents in his city.
“You’re wondering if I’m the most naive politician in America,” he said. “Ask me in six months if The Light has a tough story to tell about us, and I might not be that thrilled.”
But he said he was ready to “take the hit” because it would be better than living without solid coverage.
“I’m surprised that no more mayors are talking about it because we can all see this playing in front of us,” he said. “When the local media is downsized, the city is downsized, and when the city is downsized, the mayor’s office is downsized. So it is in the mayor’s own interest to take care of it. “