Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

From the Wreckage: Nonprofit news tries to build back what has been lost.

Illustration by Rich Hauck.

If you drove down Market Street in Harrisburg in recent months, you may have noticed something unfolding—the slow-motion demolition of the old Patriot-News building.

In itself, this may be no great loss.

The building has been empty and deteriorating since 2011, when the 160-year-old news organization, now recast as PennLive, downsized and decamped for suburban Hampden Township. And the sprawling building itself, while rich in memories for staffers and citizens, was never anything special to look at.

The destruction, though, could be considered symbolic. Where hundreds of reporters, editors, designers, salespeople and pressmen once worked around the clock to put out a formidable daily newspaper, a pillar of the Harrisburg community, there is now, well, nothing—an empty lot.

I feel a similar sense of loss when I venture up to the second floor of the state Capitol building. Walk to the top of the grand marble staircase, and you’ll see a cool old glass sign that says, “Newspaper Correspondents.”

But go through the doors, and you know what you won’t find much of anymore? Newspaper correspondents.

The warren of rooms, once manned by scores of statehouse reporters employed by newspapers from the Delaware River to the Ohio River, from the Mason-Dixon Line to the New York state line, is often eerily quiet. Newspapers across the commonwealth have slashed staff, and Capitol reporters were among the first to go, leaving so much state news uncovered and so many legislators unaccountable.

But I’m not here to pick over the bones of the newspaper industry, which is a story you may already know. I’m here to talk about what comes next.

In recent months, no fewer than three well-funded, nonprofit news organizations have taken root locally. Some analysts have said that nonprofit news is the future of the industry and, at least in Harrisburg, they may be on to something.

First out of the gate, launching last September, was PA Post, a project led by WITF, our area’s venerable public broadcaster. PA Post has assembled an impressive team of journalists and digital news specialists focused on state-centric topics, accountability journalism and multimedia storytelling.

Last month, a second nonprofit launched, the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, a four-person newsroom covering state government and led by John Micek, PennLive’s former opinion editor. Micek promptly hired away TheBurg’s city reporter, Lizzy Hardison, for his new venture, but I can’t really blame the guy for wanting a talented young journalist on his team.

Finally, there’s Spotlight PA, which envisions a substantial, dozen-person newsroom. This nonprofit is a partnership between two of the state’s largest newspapers, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, as well as the Caucus, a state government watchdog outfit owned by LNP Media Group of Lancaster. Spotlight PA also plans to partner with PA Post.

As nonprofits, these new ventures will depend upon fundraising and grants—not advertising—to back their newsgathering operations. Major donors include the Lenfest Institute for Journalism (Spotlight PA and PA Post) and the Hopewell Fund (Capital-Star), among other foundations and wealthy individuals who have opted to fund public interest journalism.

So, if you wondered who the heck was going to keep your state legislators accountable as the newspaper industry crumbles, here, at least in part, is your answer.

But why was this necessary?

In recent years, digital advertising has boomed, but not to the benefit of journalism. Three non-news companies dominate the space: Facebook, Google and, increasingly, Amazon. So, ad dollars that used to stay local, employing reporters, editors, designers, etc., now go to make Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos even richer.

The result for journalism has been devastating, with major, cascading layoffs and depleted newsrooms throughout the country. Even digital-only, “new media” outlets, places like Buzzfeed and HuffPost, which have tried to step into the reporting void, are cutting jobs, as they also can’t compete with the likes of Facebook and Google.

But, thankfully, a new way to fund journalism is emerging, one that raises money from donors who believe that aggressive reporting is critical for ensuring the public good. Sometime in 2019, you might just see these reporters walking briskly up State Street, interviewing lawmakers inside the Capitol or having a meeting in Little Amps. I’m happy to have them here.

The new nonprofits may never replace the ad-based, for-profit model, which, at its peak, employed hundreds of journalists just in Harrisburg. But it’s far better than a dystopian future void of accountability, with little more than waste-strewn lots, aging memories and ghosts of what was.

Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

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