Can This BU Political Scientist Help Save Journalism?
Daniela Melo cofounded and chairs New Bedford’s online nonprofit newspaper
Once upon a time, newspapering was an essential of democracy and a subject for communication schools. Today, it rivals the T-rex as a paleontologist’s research project: an estimated 2,500 papers across the country have become extinct since 2005—on average, two fold every week. With revenue plummeting as readers and advertisers migrated to social media and other online sources, newsrooms hemorrhaged more than half their employees in the last generation. As a result, one-fifth of Americans now reside in so-called news deserts of desiccated coverage.
The latter category includes New Bedford, Mass., where the Gannett Co.-owned Standard-Times has seen its staff chainsawed to the point that the New York Times describes it as “taking on the characteristics of a ‘ghost’ paper.” The Times article focuses on the recent launch of The New Bedford Light, an online nonprofit newspaper, sans paywall and advertising, where Daniela Melo, a lecturer in social sciences at the College of General Studies, is doing her part to save journalism in her city as the upstart’s cofounder and chair.
The two-year-old Light is part of a “nonprofit media boom” that’s seeing start-ups supplement—or, in cases like the Light, replacing—ailing traditional-newspaper advertising with donations: philanthropic, foundation, and corporate. As the Light’s unpaid volunteer chair, Melo runs board meetings, attends committee meetings, and has helped with grants-and-bylaws writing and approaching donors.
MoonLighting in journalism has been invigorating, Melo says, for a scholar whose writing appears in publications with heady titles like Foreign Policy Analysis and Comparative European Politics. “Like any student of comparative politics,” she says, “I spent a lot of time studying democracy. [But] everything was very abstract to me. This is that in practice. In order to have a healthy democracy, you need to have information [and] accountability of institutions. If you don’t have information, you lose trust. If you lose trust, you get to a moment like the one that we’re crossing right now, [with] high levels of distrust in political institutions.”
In order to have a healthy democracy, you need to have information [and] accountability of institutions. If you don’t have information, you lose trust.
The New Bedford Light, Melo says, actively avoids competing with the Standard-Times, concentrating on coverage that the older paper no longer produces, such as investigations. The paper’s staff of 19 and its board include former Standard-Times staffers as well as other veteran journalists. Founding publisher and board member Stephen Taylor spent a quarter of a century at the Boston Globe, ultimately as executive vice president; another board member, Walter Robinson, led the Globe investigation that exposed the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal. That series earned the paper the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
Melo, meanwhile, brings essential and intimate knowledge of the community, says Taylor: “Daniela is one of the principal leaders and best-known people in the Portuguese-American community. The fact that she’s a smart academic and all of that—all the better. …I actually knew the city quite well along the waterfront,” as a sailor and longtime board member for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “But I didn’t know much of anything from two blocks in.”
Melo provides that community knowledge—an asset to fundraising from donors, she notes—while respecting newpapering’s traditional wall separating the business and editorial sides. She assiduously shuns newsroom editorial meetings. “We’re not going to be working on stories together,” says Light editor Andy Tomolonis, 67, referring to Melo. He’s worked at the New York Post and Boston Herald and more recently, the Standard-Times.
Melo’s academia-to-newpapering journey follows a similarly expansive geographical one. Born in Felgueiras, Portugal, she came to the United States in 1998, when her parents migrated with the 17-year-old and her four siblings to Central Falls, R.I. Three of her grandparents couldn’t read or write, she says. “My parents grew up in farming families during the Portuguese dictatorship” [which ended in the mid-1970s] and had only an elementary school education. “My mom worked as a seamstress, starting at 11 or 12, and owns her tailor shop in Pawtucket; my father started working as a factory worker at a very young age—13 or 14, if memory does not fail me—and is currently a janitor at an elementary school.”
Daniela, their eldest child, graduated from Central Falls High School and then Connecticut College, the first in her family to have completed high school and attended college. She moved to New Bedford in 2008 to join Timothy Walker, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, now her husband (“He’s not Portuguese, but a veritable Lusophile, and an expert on Portuguese history,” she says). “It’s my profound love and admiration for New Bedford, its people, and its history that inspire me to do this work.”
Back to the future
The Light’s offices huddle alongside the lawyers, artists, yogis, restaurateurs, and other tenants of a textile mill that stretches the equivalent of several blocks and 113 years back in time, to the city’s manufacturing heyday. Sandwiched between a roadway and the New Bedford waterfront, the building, and the Light, exudes a vibe of old-meets-new. The wooden floors and stark walls in the unadorned newsroom surround laptops and monitors creating 21st-century journalism that Melo says averages 70,000 to 80,000 monthly visitors.
Much of the $1.7 million budget comes from New Bedford donors, Melo says. Coverage of the start-up in the Globe and the Times drew more supporters, from the Knight Foundation to an anonymous (even to Melo) donor, whose early $100,000 matching seed grant initially flipped the on-button for the Light. The site also welcomes collaborations with other media: ProPublica teamed with the Light for an investigation of the “revolving door” between local government and the offshore wind industry. (Some undertakings are more New Bedford-y and less Woodward-and-Bernstein. For example, the site publishes the Daily Catch, listing fish auction prices each day of the Light’s Monday-through-Friday publishing schedule.)
The offices’ visual mix of past and present metaphorically captures the mission of publications like the Light, which hope to resuscitate the long tradition of newspapering by innovating a future business model. The problem is more than academic: without local news coverage, research shows, voting drops, while official corruption spikes.
“In many ways, these nonprofits are the last hope in local journalism,” says Brian McGrory, chair of the College of Communication journalism department and former editor of the Boston Globe, who spoke at an August fundraiser for the Light. Many independent newspapers, “seeing the collapsing business models, have sold off to chains that are often driven by private equity companies. Those companies only cut the news organizations further. In a place like New Bedford, and many smaller communities, nonprofits are the most immediate and viable model.”
In many ways, these nonprofits are the last hope in local journalism.
Taylor’s decades in the business corroborate that. “The only way you can do really well in the web-based, digital, predictive analytics form of advertising is to have a huge database,” enabling a business to tailor advertising to customers’ interests, he says. “It’s the way Amazon works—people who like this book might like that book. In the newspaper industry, you can do an OK job at that if your database is pretty darn big,” à la the Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.
Smaller communities and newspapers have databases too tiny to make that work, however. “In places like New Bedford,” Taylor says, “it begins to get really dicey whether you can simply make money on advertising [with] predictive analytics.” A steep paywall might make up for that lost advertising in a wealthy community. Long ago, “wealthy” described New Bedford; it was the richest city in the world in the 1800s, thanks first to whaling (Herman Melville set out from its port on a trip that would lead to a certain classic novel about a white whale), and then textiles.
But today, almost a quarter of the city’s 95,000 residents live in poverty. “New Bedford proper is really not a wealthy community,” says Taylor, “and we would lose a lot, and so would others, if you tried to have a big paywall. The nonprofit model is in fact really important. And it’s essentially the same model that public television and public radio are. And they’ve proved that they’ve stood the test of time.”
McGrory still calls himself “a huge believer in the for-profit model for news,” but it requires “relentlessly interesting journalism” that people will pay for. And he cautions that there’s a flashing yellow light ahead for the nonprofit sector: “We’re starting to see some philanthropic fatigue for nonprofit journalism in other places. The City in New York and the Texas Tribune in Austin, both entirely philanthropically driven, have both undergone significant cuts.”
And then there was Light
Melo’s plunge into community journalism incubated at Fay’s, an Italian restaurant in nearby Dartmouth, Mass.
That’s where, for years, Ken Hartnett, retired editor-in-chief of the Standard-Times, has held court with an informal salon of friends who discuss public affairs. When he invited the BU political scientist who lived across the street from him in New Bedford to join, “I was the youngest person in the room, by a lot,” Melo, now 42, recalls. “But I loved it.” This group became the springboard for the Light, as members pondered both the Trump-era misinformation monsoon and cratering local news coverage.
A local Facebook page was considered and rejected, on the grounds that “we either do this in a very serious manner, or we don’t do it at all,” Melo says. “What we want[ed] to do is something that will last well beyond us, something that is actually a gift to this community.” A newspaper checked the very serious box, and the seriously risky box, for they’d be cannonballing into the polar opposite of a growth industry.
“It was a gamble,” Melo says.
Unwilling to compete with and undercut the Standard-Times, they zeroed in on the idea of a newspaper to complement that one, focusing on investigative reporting and arts coverage, two perceived holes in the news landscape. With little money, they ruled out taking on the expense of a print version of the Light.
Information from the Institute for Nonprofit News, which advises hundreds of similar outlets, settled the founders on making their site nonprofit. The decision has brought a surprising revenue stream from unexpectedly enthusiastic donors. It also straitjackets these journalists in ways that don’t restrict traditional media. For example, Melo says, while the Light editorializes about public policy, it legally cannot endorse individual candidates.
But “we’re OK with that,” she says, “because we want to be a news source for everyone.”