At the height of its popularity, the Emmy Award-winning NBC television series The West Wing offered more than 17 million weekly viewers a look inside the executive offices of the White House. Chronicling two terms of the fictional Democratic President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, the show aired from 1999 to 2006, addressing timely issues and events in America. While the TV drama drew a wide range of viewers, it was particularly popular with the 50+ crowd – people as old as, or older than, the on-screen president. But Jamie Lovegrove ’12 was also a loyal viewer. Starting at age 9, he watched the series on his telly in London, where he was born and raised.
Jamie’s American mother and British father didn’t work in politics, but they were interested in all things political and were big fans of the show. They enjoyed sharing this interest with their son, who got solidly hooked. When his dad accepted a work transfer from London to Washington, DC, 13-year-old Jamie was thrilled to be moving closer to those American corridors of power. A decade later, Jamie was covering Capitol Hill for The Dallas Morning News, one of the country’s largest daily newspapers. It was an exciting beat, but Jamie soon left the mecca of political reporting to accept a job in Columbia, South Carolina, a city of about 130,000. The small screen may have offered his first glimpse into American politics, but Jamie says the proverbial small pond provides his preferred vantage point today.
Newly graduated from Northwestern University with a double major in journalism and politics, Jamie headed to the Hill in July 2016, the month Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton won their parties’ nominations to run for president. As a Washington correspondent, Jamie covered Texas’s 38-member Congressional delegation. Having access to powerful lawmakers – particularly amid a norm-bashing, frenetic news climate – was a rush, and Jamie stayed with his beat through President Trump’s election and the first five months of his presidency, relishing the excitement and prestige of working in the nation’s capital. But he began feeling an “anxious disconnect” from Texas voters: “I wanted to be on the ground more often, talking with Texans. Rather than parachute in every now and then, I wanted to live my life the way they lived theirs and better understand their concerns.”
Jamie also thought that Washington was teeming with too many reporters, especially compared to elsewhere in the country. Statistics bear that out. About one in five U.S. newsroom employees call the metropolitan areas of Washington, New York, and Los Angeles home, according to Census Bureau data analyzed by the Pew Research Center. Jamie wanted to be someplace where his work might have a greater impact and feel more rewarding. He loved Southern culture and politics, so he set his sights in that direction and found his new home at The Post and Courier, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina. Jamie is based in the state capital, at the Columbia Bureau, where he covers the Statehouse, South Carolina Congressional delegation, and campaigns. “The balance is ideal,” he says. “I get to go to Capitol Hill every few months, but I’m truly a part of South Carolina.”
On his first day at the paper, staff got word that the state’s ambitious 10-year-old project to add two nuclear reactors – the first such construction in the United States in 30 years – was going belly up. Jamie and a team of fellow reporters spent much of the next year uncovering the corporate mismanagement and poor oversight behind the massive failure, which has likely left residents to pay a $9 billion tab over the next 20 years. The boondoggle prompted a couple dozen lawsuits, two federal investigations, and efforts to repeal a state law that enables utility companies to charge South Carolinians for projects not yet completed.
Barely covered in the national media but extensively reported in South Carolina, the story was the kind of critical local journalism Jamie wanted to pursue. It’s also the kind of journalism most greatly at risk today, given the health of the news industry.
More than one in five U.S. newspapers have shuttered in the past 15 years, including about 1,800 local papers that have merged or closed entirely, according to research by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism. The well-worn pattern is readers gravitate toward online and free news, advertising revenue drops, the paper lays off reporters, the publication produces less and poorer-quality content, more readers look elsewhere, and advertising declines further until the enterprise is no longer viable.
Jamie notes that The Post and Courier is in the enviable position of being family-owned and well-managed. Transitioning to a paid-subscription model built around producing less but higher-quality content unique to its market has helped the paper weather the storm and recover from declining ad revenue in the early 2000s. McClatchy, the nation’s second-largest newspaper conglomerate, which owns three dailies in South Carolina, has declined in recent years, ultimately declaring bankruptcy this February. Meanwhile, Jamie’s bureau has been expanding and filling the void left as McClatchy’s paper in Columbia, The State, contracted. “There’s community demand for local news,” he asserts. “The industry, particularly the huge companies that own multiple papers, just hasn’t figured out how to supply it.” While a subscription-based model could be adopted by many publications, wealthy local families committed to the societal benefit of a thriving newspaper are harder to come by. However, a growing number of individuals across the country who value local news are pooling their resources to found nonprofit outlets with an emphasis on civic engagement and public dialogue. Jamie says it’s one of the most exciting developments in his profession.
A PLACE TO CALL HOME
U.S. nonprofit media outlets have existed in various forms since 1846 – most notably, a collaboration among New York newspapers that became the Associated Press, the now-ubiquitous international news agency that operates as a nonprofit to this day. Other nonprofit niche and investigative organizations have been active in the United States since the 1970s; however, a wave of online entities such as Voice of San Diego, MinnPost (Minneapolis), and The Texas Tribune – where Jamie did his Northwestern journalism residency – broke ground in the early 2000s as local nonprofit news outlets. In the past five years, several others have launched, including Mississippi Today, The Montana Free Press, Searchlight New Mexico, and The Nevada Independent. The Institute for Nonprofit News, founded in 2009, now has more than 230 members across North America.
These media organizations frequently start with pooled venture capital and have an affiliated foundation that solicits donations, grants, and sponsorships. Some operate with additional revenue from advertising, subscriptions, events, and specialty publications. Further demonstrating the industry trend and perhaps signaling a sea change for large dailies, in late 2019 the 150-yearold Salt Lake Tribune became the first legacy newspaper to convert to a nonprofit structure.
Jamie figures that the majority of young reporters will still be drawn to large markets, national publications, and broadcast journalism for the greater professional visibility and higher pay. But he and many others in the industry hope that a growing number will open their eyes, as Jamie did, to opportunities at smaller papers and local online outlets. In an attempt to help revitalize local news through recruitment, Report for America, akin to Teach for America, launched in 2018 to match news organizations demonstrating urgent gaps in coverage with talented young journalists interested in completing a training program and serving these communities for one- to two-year terms. Report for America contributes 50 percent of the journalist’s salary with the news organization and local donors contribute 25 percent, resulting in a salary that often averages $40,000 and is competitive in the local market. In its first year, Report for America placed 60 journalists with 50 news organizations across 27 states and Puerto Rico; the organization aims to place 1,000 reporters by 2024.
TRUST WHO YOU KNOW
One reason industry observers think that local journalism is a promising means to revitalize a struggling industry is that readers generally trust it more than national outlets. While public trust in major American institutions, including the press and government, has been eroding for decades, research shows that the more local the entity, the higher the trust. According to a joint Knight Foundation and Gallup study published in 2019, 45 percent of Americans trust the reporting by local news organizations “a great deal” or “quite a lot,” compared to just 31 percent for national news organizations.
Similarly, while the percentage of Americans who told Gallup that they trust their state government a “great deal” or “fair amount” has fallen during the past two decades, it still stands at 63 percent – more than 20 percent higher than the rating given to the federal government. Strikingly, the percentage of Americans who say that they trust their local government has held relatively steady since the 1970s and is now 72 percent.
Yet the country is experiencing a nationalization of political news, as large national news outlets like The New York Times and CNN deploy their far greater resources to produce extensive coverage, and many local news organizations struggle with dwindling staffs. In fact, some national media organizations are experiencing something of a boom during the country’s current fiery, tumultuous political period. The Times, for example, has seen a surge in digital subscriptions, which it projects will help it outpace a formidable goal set five years ago of $800 million in digital revenue by the end of 2020.
While national media may saturate the market and command Americans’ attention, these widely distrusted organizations continue to focus on the least-trusted level of government. It’s no wonder the country appears to be facing an information confidence crisis. Jamie, writing away in Columbia, receives the occasional “fake news” slur in emails or social media posts, but he says that there is markedly less animosity toward the press at the local level. “The national media are an easy target and convenient scapegoat for a lot of people,” he observes. “It’s a little harder to vilify someone you meet face-to-face or a publication you see regularly represented around your community.” Like many journalists, Jamie makes a concerted effort to build trust and earn public confidence, through both the quality of his reporting and strategic use of social media. He says, “I’ve always felt that the best way to counter ugliness is to simply do the job well. Some reporters become confrontational and try to fight back against people who say ‘fake news’ and those kinds of things, but I think it’s more effective to keep your head down and do the job well.”
Starting in summer 2019, Jamie’s time was dedicated primarily to covering the Democratic presidential primary. He crisscrossed South Carolina in his 2016 Chevy Cruze and attended hundreds of events, racking up more than 50,000 miles. He interviewed countless voters and met one-on-one with every candidate at least once, often multiple times. In addition to daily print and online reporting and frequent social media posts, Jamie regularly appeared on podcasts and TV news shows, offering an insider perspective on Palmetto State politics.
After election day in February, Jamie distilled into a well-received analysis piece the insights he had gleaned about the biggest development in the primary race to date, an outcome that immediately riveted the nation’s attention in anticipation of the 2020 presidential election: “How Joe Biden won South Carolina – and how his 2020 rivals made him fight for it.” That article, like all of his reporting throughout the primary process, illustrates what Jamie hoped to achieve when he left Washington: to live among South Carolinians and come to understand them as no journalist outside the state could. And as he observed in his story, familiarity is critical to success. Biden won, Jamie wrote, because “South Carolina knows Joe.”