By JOSHUA VALIQUETTE
Capital News Service
LANSING — At a time when many small newspapers are financially struggling, hit by the changing economics of the industry and now by the impact of COVID-19, nonprofit online news sources help fill the void.
Amber DeLind, the membership director at the Bridge Magazine, the nonprofit publication with the largest online readership in Michigan, says its autonomy from ad revenue lets it operate as normal while many smaller weekly papers have closed temporarily or imposed massive cutbacks since the virus outbreak.
She said the Bridge’s funding comes from three sources: 40% from founder Phil Power, 40% from philanthropy and 20% from reader support.
“The goal is to be sustainable,” DeLind said.
She said the Bridge has not only become sustainable but also has grown and employed talented journalists who lost jobs at newspapers.
For example, C&G Newspapers, a chain of 19 weeklies in Oakland and Macomb counties, recently announced it is temporarily suspending its print editions, saying the coronavirus took a heavy toll on much of the company’s revenue.
The drop in newspapers’ advertising revenue since the outbreak of coronavirus follows a larger trend starting almost two decades ago.
Since 2004, Michigan has experienced more than 30 newspaper closures and a drop of more than 40% in the number of working journalists, according to government employment statistics and industry studies.
Nonprofit news sources rely on philanthropy and voluntary reader support instead of on advertising revenue and subscriptions to cover operating costs.
Mike Wilkinson, an investigative reporter with the Bridge, said he has freedom to ask questions without the bureaucracy of larger papers.
Last year, he wrote an investigative piece finding that Michigan’s GOP-dominated Legislature approved a $10 million grant to a company led by the former chair of the state Republican Party.
“The Bridge is just another newspaper that allows me to be curious and to keep public officials accountable in an age where some reporters might not get that chance,” Wilkinson said.
The Bridge Magazine isn’t the only nonprofit online newspaper in the state.
Susan Demas, a mainstay in Lansing political reporting for the past two decades, launched Michigan Advance in 2018 as a nonprofit news source.
The Advance and the Bridge are the only nonprofit members of the Michigan Press Association.
Less than a year ago, the Advance hired Laina Stebbins, who had little experience as a reporter. She said Demas “mentored me and helped me flourish, trusting me to write about what I am passionate about.”
“She empowers us to produce hard-hitting localized reporting,” Stebbins said.
Alice Dreger, founder and publisher of East Lansing Info, a citizen-run local news cooperative launched in 2014, said, “Our model of nonprofit funding is the model of the future for local newspapers.”
Her publication’s reporting on the city of East Lansing’s sale of a $1 million property through eBay without notifying the public showcases the importance of local news, Dreger said.
“We were able to go to the city council meeting where they announced the property sale without much detail, and we asked them tougher questions,” Dreger said. “Nobody would have noticed that if it wasn’t for us.”
Without local news outlets such questions often go unanswered, she said.
The Bridge’s DeLind said publications like hers and Michigan Advance are just the beginning.
She said the Bridge Magazine used to be the only Michigan paper represented at conferences of the Institute for Nonprofit News, an association of over 230 similar organizations. Since then, more and more organizations have joined.