Can Nonprofit News Save the South From Itself?

When I moved here in 1987, Nashville had two daily newspapers: a morning paper, The Tennessean, whose editorial page leaned left; and an evening paper, the Nashville Banner, whose editorial page leaned right. I still a subscribe to The Tennessean, but the Banner is long gone. In 1998, The Tennessean bought its longtime competitor and shut it down.

I recall with fondness that venerable newspaper, no matter that its editorial page did not align with my own politics. Some of the local journalists I most admire got their start at the Banner. And a city with competing newsrooms, each determined to get the news first and to get it right, is protected by a powerful bulwark against extremism and governmental mischief. In a democracy, the only way to be sure there isn’t a fox watching the henhouse is to set a whole bunch of reporters the task of watching the foxes.

Today less than a dozen U.S. cities have two competing daily newspapers, and many communities have no local news source at all. Nashville, like many other midsize cities, still has television news channels, an alternative newsweekly (the Nashville Scene) and various online publications to do some of that henhouse-watching. Nevertheless, the combined ranks of reporters covering crucial beats like state and local politics, education, criminal justice and the like, are dramatically smaller than they were in the days when the Tennessean and the Banner, each fully staffed and fully funded, were scrapping for scoops.

It’s hard to conceive of a local newspaper, in print or online, that’s fully staffed and fully funded anymore. Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country, owns the daily newspaper in three of the four largest Tennessee cities, including The Tennessean in Nashville. In 2019 it fought off a hostile takeover by a predatory hedge fund but later in the same year was forced to merge with another fund-backed company.

The fallout has been catastrophic: dozens of newspapers shuttered, more than half the staff jettisoned, journalists in revolt — the list goes on and on. “The scale of local news destruction in Gannett’s markets is astonishing,” reads the headline on an analysis by Joshua Benton for Harvard’s Neiman Lab last year. And Gannett’s plundering of its own newspapers’ resources is far from the only trouble facing the news industry.

Into this media landscape, the veteran Nashville journalist Steve Cavendish has launched a 21st century Nashville Banner as a daily online source of local news. The new Banner shares nothing with the old Banner but the name and a commitment to local journalism. Like the Tennessee Lookout, a daily digital publication that began operations in 2020, and WPLN News, Nashville’s NPR affiliate, the new Banner is not locked behind a paywall. Also like the Lookout and WPLN — as well as outlets like the Daily Memphian and MLK50 in Memphis — the new Banner is a nonprofit newsroom. Mr. Cavendish believes that difference represents the future of viable local journalism: “The only successful startups at the local level in the last 20 years have been on the nonprofit side,” he told me in a phone interview.

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