By David Jones Jr.
I am sad that this is Insider Louisville’s last day. I’m proud of the work that the organization produced and gratified that more than 100,000 Louisvillians per day got news about our city from this publication.
Other people – Insider Louisville’s fine staff – did the good work of digging for, reporting and editing the news. My role was to identify a path to fund a sustainable newsroom producing all the local news that Louisville citizens need.
We failed to find this path. Insider Louisville failed as a business, and on Wednesday closes its doors as a nonprofit corporation.
When Insider Louisville converted to a nonprofit in late 2017, I explained to readers what the publication’s shareholders had learned over four years of investment: “You can’t make money publishing real local news” in a city of Louisville’s size.
The big tech companies dominate the competition for local advertising dollars, and the pennies content providers receive from Google and Facebook when someone clicks on their work are too small to cover reporters’ modest salaries.
Real local news costs more than cat videos and trolls – a lesson Gannett apparently accepted earlier this week as it agreed to sell the CJ and its other publications into a synergy-driven merger.
Insider Louisville joined a “growing movement toward citizen-supported, community-owned, nonprofit local news” and sought voluntary donations from readers, businesses and foundations.
We had some success. Individuals signed up as members in the numbers we expected, and small donors contributed in line with our business plan; the national Institute for Nonprofit News (backed by the Knight Foundation, among others) matched some of these gifts; local foundations including James Graham Brown and Gheens made generous grants to help us expand our newsroom; and a few individuals made larger gifts.
And we proved that Louisvillians continue to hunger for real local news. Readership persisted and grew as we expanded our reporting to cover serious beats including education and health care. Readers are highly educated, high earning and (compared to any other local news publication) include far more readers under 40. Our readers care about Louisville.
But we also proved that Louisville won’t pay for local civic news. In this, we’re no different from most American cities, where a collapse of local journalism has already left some 1,300 communities without local coverage of any sort. Nonprofit civic journalism has not been Louisville’s answer.
Does this matter? Lincoln spoke of “the perpetuation of our political institutions” as a challenge for every generation. How will today’s Louisvillians rise to this challenge if we have no impartial reporting on what local government, schools and other institutions are up to?
Perhaps we just don’t care today. Perhaps the catatonia of social feeds will soothe us, and paid but nontransparent digital “influencers” will satisfy a craving to be in the know and part of the show. Democracy is hard work, and there’s no guarantee that successive generations will want to do it.
But I’m an optimist. Insider Louisville and its many unsuccessful peers nationally have made tactical mistakes from which next-generation entrepreneurs can learn. We also built a monthly audience of 200,000 Louisvillians hungering to know what’s really going on.
That hunger will still be there tomorrow.
David A. Jones Jr. was chair of the board of Insider Media Group Inc., the nonprofit corporation that has published Insider Louisville since December 2017. A longtime investor in media businesses and donor to nonprofit media endeavors, he was the largest investor in IMG’s predecessor corporation and the largest donor to the nonprofit corporation. He will join leaders of other publications for a Louisville Forum talk on civic journalism on Aug. 14.