MASSACHUSETTS (NYTIMES) – When Jon Mitchell, the mayor of New Bedford, Massachusetts, delivered his state of the city address 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 dailies, The Standard-Times was getting thin. Like thousands of newspapers across the country, it was taking on the characteristics of a “ghost” paper – a diminished publication that had lost much of its staff, curtailing its reach and its journalistic ambitions.
Now, two years later, the mayor’s assessment is more blunt.
“We don’t have a functioning newspaper anymore, and I say that with empathy with the folks who work there,” he said in an interview.
“It used to be that I couldn’t sneeze without having to explain myself. Now I have to beg people to show up at my press conferences. Please, ask me questions!”
He was so eager for the city to have a robust paper that he joined a group that explored buying The Standard-Times – but Gannett was not selling.
So when a cadre of journalists, including former editors of The Standard-Times, said last year that they planned to start a nonprofit digital news outlet to cover New Bedford, the mayor was all-in.
As unusual as it may seem, Mr Mitchell wanted his administration to be held accountable. Beyond that, he said that a trusted news source could restore something vital that he felt New Bedford had lost: “a sense of place,” by which he meant an ongoing narrative of daily life in this multicultural blue-collar city of 95,000 residents.
In the 19th century, when Herman Melville embarked from its shores on the whaling voyage that would inspire “Moby-Dick”, it was the richest city per capita in North America. Now 23 per cent of New Bedford’s citizens live in poverty.
The mayor’s vision of a trusted news source was similar to what the group of journalists had in mind when they created The New Bedford Light. With its newsroom still under construction in a refurbished textile mill, the publication went online June 7.
“There’s a crying need in a complex city like New Bedford for in-depth, contextual, explanatory investigative journalism,” Barbara Roessner, the Light’s editor and former managing editor of The Hartford Courant, said in an interview.
The publisher is Stephen Taylor, a veteran journalist from The Boston Globe, which his family owned for generations, who has taught the economics of journalism at the Yale School of Management.
In its first week, the Light delved into the local effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 400 people in New Bedford.
In its second week, the Light looked at the city’s surging real estate market, boosted in part by the pending revival of commuter rail service to Boston, defunct since the 1950s. It also considered ways to stave off gentrification. Future topics, Ms Roessner said, will include race and policing, the offshore wind industry and municipal finance.
The plan is to publish an in-depth article every weekday while skipping some of the staples of local papers, like high school sports and a police blotter.
“We cannot go down the route of the daily newspaper that tries to do all things for all people,” Ms Roessner said. “The challenge for us is to stay disciplined to do the deeper work and not be caught up in the daily news cycle.”
The Light, which has no print edition, is free to readers. It does not accept advertising, relying on donations, grants and sponsorships from local businesses. It plans deep community involvement, including media literacy workshops for residents who might become contributors.
It is largely following a playbook for digital nonprofit news sites prepared by the Institute for Nonprofit News, a group that guides startups and emphasises editorial independence and financial transparency.
Although many of the local “powers that be” are backing the Light, its founders said that donors would have no role in editorial decisions and that there were no sacred cows – not even the supportive mayor.
“He hasn’t had any criticism or scrutiny in a long time,” Ken Hartnett, a former editor of The Standard-Times and a driving force behind the Light, said in an interview.
“But everybody recognises the need for having a clear instrument where you can outline on a regular basis the realities of the town,” he continued. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have a coherent understanding of what’s going on.”
Lisa Strattan, Gannett’s regional editor for New England, who oversees The Standard-Times, told The Boston Globe in April that The Standard-Times uses sophisticated analytics to determine what readers want.
Studies over the last decade have shown real costs to cities without a watchdog, including declines in voter participation and drops in a city’s bond rating. The lack of accountability can lead to waste and corruption, which drives up the cost of government.
It is the rare public official who has done as much as Mr Mitchell, 52, to encourage a media presence in his jurisdiction. A Harvard-educated former federal prosecutor who was first elected mayor in 2011, he successfully made the case some years ago to Rhode Island Public Radio and a network television affiliate to put correspondents in his city.
“You’re wondering if I’m the most naive politician in America,” he said. “Ask me six months from now, when the Light is doing a hard story on us, and I might not be so enthusiastic.” But he said he was willing to “take the hit” because it would be better than living without robust news coverage.
“I’m surprised there aren’t more mayors talking about this, because we’re all seeing this play out before us,” he said. “When local media is diminished, the city is diminished, and when the city is diminished, the office of mayor is diminished. So it’s in the self-interest of mayors to care about this.”