#124 Jul/Aug 2002

The Power of the Community Press

When grassroots groups in the North Lawndale community of Chicago protested the lack of local labor in the reconstruction of an elevated subway line, the North Lawndale Community News made […]

When grassroots groups in the North Lawndale community of Chicago protested the lack of local labor in the reconstruction of an elevated subway line, the North Lawndale Community News made sure that those who weren’t there knew that it happened. The protest, coupled with the coverage, resulted in a change in policy to recruit workers from the community.

My newspaper, the Norwood News, which covers three neighborhoods in the northwest Bronx, uncovered massive incompetence by the city’s School Construction Authority in the building of two local schools. The series of articles spurred a grassroots community group to mobilize and eventually form a parent committee that organizes on education issues.

In Highbridge, a largely Latino neighborhood overlooking Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, the three-year-old Highbridge Horizon wrote about traffic accidents in front of a local school. The paper crusaded for speed bumps – and quickly got them. After a series of articles and editorials, the Horizon also succeeded in securing a mobile postal station for residents who were forced to walk to a post office in another neighborhood. In one of the paper’s first crusades, neighborhood teenagers were provided with cameras and enlisted in a hunt for the most dangerous potholes, under the supervision of a Horizon photographer. Their photos ran with the city’s pothole hotline number. City work crews hit the streets to make repairs not long after.

In Fenway in Boston, the monthly Fenway News has for almost three decades been the counterweight to developers seeking to displace long-time residents.

All of these papers are crusaders for their communities. They also have another thing in common: All are not-for-profit and, because of insufficient advertising revenue, virtually none would be able to exist otherwise. Some are published by community development groups, but others are nonprofits in their own right and have 501 (c)(3) status.

There is no official count of exactly how many nonprofit papers exist, but there certainly aren’t enough. Nonprofits aren’t publishing them to any significant degree, and the foundation world, by and large, hasn’t caught on that community journalism is a powerful tool for community change. But the role that these newspapers play in effecting change in low-income communities is the strongest argument on their behalf.

A Vital Role

As media companies continue to merge and grow, the news gets further and further away from ordinary people’s lives and concerns. Neighborhoods without their own newspapers have little access to local news and information. At a time when urban issues have faded from state and national political agendas, the absence of a widely read record of the issues confronting urban communities is even more serious.

Community newspapers are critical because they can return to issues repeatedly, shedding light on them until they are resolved. Large newspapers and TV news, on the other hand, may drop in on the neighborhood once to report on a problem but are unlikely to return for months, if at all. And reporting in community papers almost always leads to coverage further up the media food chain.

Jon Ball, a volunteer at the Fenway News, remembers when the paper wrote about a speculator who bought a local building and attempted to start evictions, beginning with a long-time tenant who had taken in a young homeless man. Ball, who lived in the building, said the major media stayed away until the Fenway News covered the issue. “It’s not newsworthy to the Boston Globe,” Ball says. “But it is newsworthy to the Fenway News.” And the Globe eventually picked up the story after the Bay State Banner, an African-American paper, and then The Phoenix, the alternative paper, picked up the story from the Fenway News.

“I think the coverage of little papers has a huge effect on bigger papers,” Ball says. “It presses the envelope of what bigger papers are willing to cover.”

It also brings the attention of larger media to stories they would have no other way of knowing about. The Bronx’s all-news cable channel routinely follows up on articles in the Norwood News, according to sources quoted in our stories who tell us the station calls them after the paper comes out.

There are other benefits of a local press. The post office and pothole situation in Highbridge and the jobs issue in North Lawndale are perfect examples of how local papers make it more difficult for politicians and bureaucrats to ignore a particular community. Then there’s the notices and event listings that get people circulating in a neighborhood, driving up attendance at community meetings and cultural events. Mom-and-pop merchants, who can’t afford expensive advertising in daily papers, have an affordable way to reach thousands of people in their own backyard, aiding economic development in distressed areas.

Local papers also boost the self-image of struggling communities that usually only receive major media attention for criminal activity. “The only time that your neighborhood is in the major papers is when there’s a gang shooting or a drug bust or some scandal,” says Susan Munro, a program officer at the Steans Foundation in Chicago, and a board member of the North Lawndale Community News. “We wanted something that the community could feel proud of.”

Getting Started

There are several blueprints for creating and sustaining newspapers in low-income communities. All require some outside funding or consistent subsidies from a parent nonprofit.

When Isaac Lewis sought funding in 1999 from the Steans Foundation to publish a community newsletter about jobs and housing, he was encouraged by foundation officials to take the idea a step further. Steans is a family foundation that focuses exclusively on the community of North Lawndale, which was devastated in the 1968 riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. With foundation support, Lewis established the North Lawndale Community News as a nonprofit monthly that also provides job training in advertising sales and delivery and other positions, and serves as a marketing consultant for local businesses. North Lawndale has also received funding from Harris Bank and now publishes twice monthly.

The Norwood News is published by Mosholu Preservation Corporation (MPC), a nonprofit affiliate of Montefiore Medical Center founded in 1981. With funds contributed by Montefiore trustees, MPC bought and rehabilitated several local apartment buildings to generate income for nonprofit community improvement activities.

In 1988, the Norwood News was launched as a monthly, edited by a staffer who spent half her time on the paper, while a freelance consultant sold advertising. Over time, that position was devoted wholly to the production of the paper, which eventually became a biweekly produced by a full-time editor and a crew of freelancers from the community. In 1998, we secured funding from the New York Foundation to pay for another full-time reporter, and to expand from the two neighborhoods we served to a third and deepen the paper’s overall coverage. That position is now supported by the New York Community Trust.

Also in the Bronx, a year after local residents decided they wanted a newspaper to spur community involvement, the Highbridge Community Life Center published the first issue of the Highbridge Horizon with the help of a young VISTA volunteer. The center, a nonprofit that provides job training, GED programs, and help for the homeless, was one of five New York City groups funded by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation as part of its Neighborhood Partners Initiative (NPI) for community projects. Clark became a big fan and supporter of the paper, and the center interested another small funder, the Pascal Sykes Foundation, in the project. The paper began as a monthly and is now published twice a month, in Spanish and English.

One of Highbridge’s goals was to have the paper produced largely by community residents. The VISTA volunteer and a consultant employed by Clark organized training programs for community residents on everything from reporting and writing to computer layout.

Perhaps one of the oldest nonprofit community papers is the Fenway News in Boston. The newspaper and the Fenway Community Development Corporation were founded in response to the vast urban renewal and institutional expansion plans of the mid-1970s. The Fenway News, which is published monthly with volunteers and a part-time editor who receives a small stipend, survives through advertising and an occasional grant from the Fenway Mission Hill Trust, a community-controlled fund endowed by local hospitals as mitigation for expansion.

The Importance of Independence

It’s a challenge for many nonprofits to provide the independence necessary for a newspaper to be useful and effective. Some organizations are inclined to report on their own activities, and the result is more of a newsletter than a newspaper.

Brother Ed Phelan, director of the Highbridge Community Life Center, believes that a large measure of editorial independence from a paper’s parent organization is critical to its success.

“It’s really nothing if it doesn’t have some independence,” Phelan says. “The nature of the thing has to be about the community … singing the praises of the organization is a newsletter, and we already have that. The paper should only touch the organization in terms of how it plays out in the community. … The day should come when they criticize something we’re doing.”

When Montefiore Medical Center decided to open a methadone clinic in Norwood, a block association mounted a protest. The Norwood News reported on and editorialized on the issue, and the president of the medical center agreed that the paper, which is published by a nonprofit created by the medical center, would not be taken seriously if it hadn’t.

As with any publication or TV news operation with a parent organization, there may be times when a paper has to fight with its parent to get an article into print. But if the newspaper is to be respected by the community and have the impact it was created to have, it must be independent.

Not all organizations are suited to publish an independent paper. “Some groups are politically astute and are very concerned that community residents may be attacking politicians or established organizations, and those organizations may be partnering with [the organization publishing the paper],” says Sue Bellinger, a program officer for Clark. Clark decided to take the funding away from one organization whose publication turned out to be more like a newsletter. “You have to have a sense of freedom that community residents can decide their own agenda, and not worry so much about fallout, and that’s tricky,” says Bellinger.

Finding the Dollars

The greatest challenge for nonprofit papers is, of course, funding. While all the papers mentioned in this article have secured enough funding to stay afloat, it’s a constant struggle. No funder usually supports a project like this indefinitely and it is an uphill battle to find replacement funding. Clark, which is radically changing its focus, will no longer be funding the NPI organizations. And there are no foundations known specifically for funding community newspapers the way funders are known for supporting, say, drug treatment or job training programs.

It is possible for the larger housing companies and community development corporations to start newspapers with their own funds. Many nonprofits, which put a great deal of money into newsletters and glossy annual reports, could consider redirecting some of that money towards the production of independent newspapers.

Those already publishing these papers and those interested in doing so need to do a better job of explaining to funders, locally and nationally, that effective community papers contribute to change in urban neighborhoods and that they are a tool and an impetus for community organizing and improvement efforts.

Funders also need to look more carefully at the role local media plays in building the social, economic, and political capacity of poor and working class communities. Though all nonprofit papers should continue to work to bring in advertising and subscription revenue, funders need to understand that they will probably never be totally self-sufficient, just like virtually all of the other programs they fund.

Collaborations and Networks

Sustainability is possible if community newspapers work together. A model for how this can work is emerging at the Independent Press Association-New York (IPA-NY), an offshoot of the national IPA, an association of independent magazines based in San Francisco. IPA-NY recently formed a network of community and ethnic newspapers in New York City, which launched AllCAS (All Communities Ad Service), an advertising cooperative with a sales staff that targets large advertisers who would not otherwise have the time or the interest in dealing with small publications individually. If this model is successful, a larger cooperative targeting national advertisers could help to further sustain community newspapers.

The other benefit of collaboration is that local voices can gain a much wider audience. IPA-NY publishes “Voices That Must Be Heard,” a weekly compendium of stories from the community and ethnic press that is distributed widely via e-mail to public officials and community activists. If a national consortium of independent community newspapers were formed, local issues with wider policy implications would get a national airing. The e-mail publication could even form the basis for a print edition if funding were available. And, at a time when major newspapers are reducing coverage of state capitals, these papers could jointly hire a reporter to cover issues affecting their neighborhoods in the state capital or Washington.

Connecting these papers nationally, through the IPA or otherwise, may also make them more attractive to funders, who could fund a consortium that would be responsible for fielding proposals and granting the money to individual community newspapers.

“Local media” in this country is becoming an oxymoron, as media giants like Viacom, Time Warner, and Clear Channel gobble up smaller news organizations. Nonprofit groups and funders can reverse the trend, helping to deliver the news and information that can truly empower people, transform communities, and change the world.

Getting Fit to Print

There are a number of things to consider before your organization decides to run the presses:

  • Check out existing community newspapers in your city and decide what you like about them, what you don’t, and what areas or issues they neglect.
  • Seek advice from editors at the papers you respect, and contact your state’s press association. Most states have a state association of community newspapers. The website of the New York Press Association, www.nynewspapers.com, has links to many other state press associations.
  • Connect with similar organizations that publish local newspapers in your city, and see if you can pool resources to report on the local school board, or sharing listings, for example.
  • Be realistic and start as small as you need to, even if it means publishing once every two months. Consistency is critical for readers and advertisers to get to know you and support you. Set a schedule and stick to it. Educate yourself. Journalism is a profession like any other, but it’s not rocket science. Ordinary people with passion and good language skills can learn to report and write good articles. Read a lot of newspapers and participate in press association conventions and workshops. One excellent resource is the Center for Community Journalism, which runs regular workshops and free on-site newsroom trainings. Check out their website: www.oswego.edu/ccj.
  • Equipment is critical but not that expensive. A new computer is about $800. A photo scanner and a zip drive are about a $100 each. Quark Xpress, the most commonly used layout program, is about $800. A digital camera (get one with at least 3 megapixels) costs around $500 but will save you a bundle in film and processing fees.
  • Printing costs vary but if you print 5,000 copies of a 12-page tabloid-size paper, the cost should be about $600. Make sure you ask several printers to bid on the job to get the best price.
  • Staffing the paper doesn’t have to be costly. An organization may not be able to afford a paid full-time editor right off the bat, but a VISTA volunteer, a college intern, or an existing staff person may be able to get the ball rolling. Monstertrak.com is a terrific way to recruit student interns for your organization.

— Jordan Moss


Fenway News
P.O. Box 230307, Astor Station
Boston, MA 02123-0307
(617) 266-8790

Isaac Lewis, Editor
North Lawndale Community News
1211 South Western Avenue
Suite 203
Chicago, IL 60608
(312) 492-9090

Denae Brewer, Editor
Highbridge Horizon
156 W. 164th Street
Bronx, NY 10452
(718) 294-4352

Jordan Moss, Editor
Norwood News
3400 Reservoir Oval
Bronx, NY 10467
(718) 324-4998


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