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Healthy local democracy requires healthy local journalism. For decades, however, the tsunami-like forces of search and social platforms, political polarization, income inequality, and social and demographic disruption have pummeled local news enterprises while weakening community ties.

Geography, which literally configures our democracy and for so long explained local news profitability, now blocks local news organizations from scaling like Google, Facebook and other behemoths that amass billions of users.

No wonder advertising and circulation revenue--and local journalism jobs--have dropped precipitously, fostering the alarming rise of news deserts, which in truth are local democracy deserts.

In 2015, leaders of the Knight Foundation chose to combat this narrative of decline and despair. With their generous support (and later that of the Lenfest Institute), leaders from The Dallas Morning News, The Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, The Star-Tribune of Minneapolis and The Philadelphia Inquirer gathered in Philadelphia to fight back.

Together with the American Press Institute, they started the table stakes movement, which today numbers about 100 local news enterprises across the United States and in October will start in Europe.

Table stakes analogizes business to poker. It asks: What's the ante--the minimum required--to be in the game? You cannot play at a $100 poker table without anteing up $100. The leaders defined seven core table stakes required to serve valued and valuable local audiences.

Essentially, these boil down to focusing maniacally on the needs of different local audiences (namely, you), earning the financial support of audiences (you again), expanding how to make money in order to serve audiences (you), and working together with others to innovate to make places where people like you live better.

Guided by these seven stakes plus the courage to change decades-old habits, newsrooms--whether urban, suburban or rural, owned by corporations or families, for profit or nonprofit, operating in strong or weak local economies--have gone through the table stakes program. They returned to their communities and have seen real results from building new skills and audience-first mind-sets, including:

Significant increases in digital subscriptions: Newspapers from Sacramento to Fort Collins, Colo., to Milwaukee have reported double-digit growth rates in digital subscriptions. Before table stakes, Philadelphia did not offer digital subscriptions. Today, 100,000 people pay for digital content.

Reconnecting to local audiences: In Durango, Colo., Charleston, S.C., Minneapolis and elsewhere, people in local news regularly convene audiences to have fun, find jobs, discuss common problems and get to know one another and the opportunities and challenges they share.

Fundraising for high-quality local journalism: Inspired by a pioneering effort in Seattle, local news groups tap foundations and others for funds needed to report on the causes of and local solutions to opioids, education, environmental deterioration, transportation, unaffordable housing, homelessness, transportation and more.

Local news enterprises also have created new products, teamed up with one another, and fostered new skills and mindsets that put audiences first: Inspired by the success, large news corporations--McClatchy and GateHouse, to name a few--have embarked on internal table stakes programs.

Amid all this, local newsrooms reaffirmed that high-quality local journalism--not clickbait--is the pathway to restore sustainable local journalism. Nearly a dozen table stakes participants have won or been finalists for a Pulitzer Prize since 2015.

According to the Pew Research Center, Americans trust local news more than other news sources. They also yearn for local newsrooms to connect them. Yet 71 percent believe local news groups are doing well financially, which may explain why only a paltry 14 percent pay for local news.

That has to change. It took decades for local journalism to find itself on the brink. Restoring sustainable, high-quality, audience-centric journalism won't happen in a month or a year. Scores of local news enterprises are making progress. But they are not yet "doing well financially."

And they need your support because democracy--for all of us and our children and grandchildren--depends on it.

Douglas Smith is the architect and a co-founder of the table stakes programs, and a co-author of Table Stakes: A Manual for Getting in the Game of News.

A future without the front page

What happens when the presses stop rolling? Who will tell the stories of touchdowns scored, heroes honored and neighbors lost? The New York Times asked news industry innovators to share their visions for what comes next, and what fills the void. Today’s column is 3 of 3.

Editorial on 08/25/2019

Print Headline: Ante up for the community

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