The Future of Local News on Giving Tuesday

Editor’s note: Today, or at least by Giving Tuesday, Nov. 29, consider news—especially local news—isn’t free. Support the only Haverhill-based news source by becoming a WHAV member. Take advantage of new, budget-friendly, monthly membership options. Starting at $8.33 a month, no one offers a more affordable way to keep up with the news.

By Tim Coco
President and General Manager (volunteer)

Click for WHAV membership options, starting at just $8.33 per month.

Click for WHAV membership options, starting at just $8.33 per month.

I was deeply struck by an innocent—yet remarkably insightful—local social media comment two weeks ago about the consumer’s role in paying for news.

The writer made no distinction between local, national or international news, but likely summed up better than a team of industry experts the underlying problem facing news organizations today.

“News is everywhere. Why should anyone pay?” the commenter asked rhetorically.

National and international news is indeed everywhere, and while it is certainly not free, it seems that way. According to Pew Research Center, 57 percent of Americans rely on television for news. Television news is largely paid for by advertisers who effectively underwrite reporters, editors, photographers, management and others. Contrary, perhaps, to the writer’s understanding, consumers who subscribe to cable television also “pay” for news. Half of CNN’s revenue, for example, comes from your cable bill. Other than an extraordinary—if not sensationalized—story, Greater Haverhill news is rarely reported by television.

Thirty-eight percent of Americans get their news online, whether through websites, social media or apps. Again, it isn’t free. Some newspapers have a “paywall” and give away a few stories—a loss leader of sorts—and charge for the rest. Others are supported by advertising. Because WHAV doesn’t have a paywall at, it has no financial motivation not to simultaneously share news on such social media sites as Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn and Tumblr.

WHAV news isn’t free either. Other than fixed costs, almost every dime nonprofit WHAV receives pays for news. It is paid by too few generous underwriters heard on 97.9 WHAV FM, banner advertisers at and WHAV members. Frankly, it isn’t enough. As one WHAV listener aptly observed, weekend stories are reported mostly on a “catch up” basis—or by volunteers, who are fast burning out. More on what’s missing from today’s news—no matter where you receive it—is described below.

The third most popular way Americans consume news is by listening to the radio. Pew Research said 25 percent rely on radio for information. If you’re keeping track of totals, the numbers exceed 100 percent due to overlap. Here again, WHAV is the only radio station providing Greater Haverhill news. It is, in fact, the only Haverhill-based news source. Between online and radio, there is no disputing WHAV captures the overwhelming majority of the local audience.

Under the proverbial hood at WHAV is a vast apparatus and philosophy that may well serve as a national model for writing original local news and successfully delivering it across the country. Alas, WHAV isn’t sexy enough—lacking a fancy and meaningless slogan—to attract national foundation support.

‘Future Lost Art of Placing Ink on Dead Trees’

At the very bottom of Pew Research’s rankings are newspapers, garnering a 20 percent share. Looking more deeply, about half of newspaper readers are retirement age or greater. When those readers are gone, so are newspapers absent an elusive new model. Paywalls at newspaper sites as they now exist prevent them from growing online. It understandably scares the daylights out of newspaper owners.

As I told an editor at CommonWealth magazine, I have no axe to grind against newspapers. In an email, I wrote, “After all, I was City Hall reporter at the former daily Haverhill Gazette during the 1980s and, later, regional reporter for the Daily News of Newburyport. I am, however, a realist.”

CommonWealth, published by nonprofit Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (MassInc), says it is offering a “type of journalism that’s badly needed today as the economic model that fuels most news media is running out of gas.” It publishes a magazine four times a year, uses its website between issues and releases a daily email with local stories mostly coming from—you guessed it—the very medium most in danger of “running out of gas,” newspapers. I joked, “…maybe your organization should be called MassINK, dedicated to the future lost art of placing ink on dead trees.”

Yet, CommonWealth has been successful in receiving grants from The Boston Foundation and the Knight Foundation, “who see CommonWealth as a major experiment in nonprofit journalism,” according to the organization. The bottom line is organizations with a form of sex appeal can wangle funding.

What’s Missing in Local News?

Haverhill’s news heyday probably took place from the end of 1957 to the middle of 1965 when the Haverhill Gazette and the Haverhill Journal fought it out to cover everything of consequence—and even much without consequence. Competition meant heads would roll if either paper was “scooped” by the other.

As such, visiting out-of-state relatives and returning service members were enough to make the news, along with lists of those receiving property tax abatements, building permits, marriage licenses, politically connected fee waivers, giveaways and more. Regional agencies, still snaring wads of bills indirectly from taxpayers’ wallets, received much more scrutiny.

WHAV hopes to grow enough to better and more completely cover these stories, but it needs your membership and your employers’ underwriting support.

Incidentally, during Haverhill’s great newspaper war, the top eight city retailers, two local utilities and many more depositor-owned banks kept the media afloat. Today, the top eight along with local gas and electric companies are distantly owned and quite disconnected, making it even more difficult to pay for news. That’s a national and state problem for which officials must eventually answer, but for now solutions remain elusive.

Guaranteed: Double Your Money Back

Unlike indoor plumbing, people won’t immediately know what they’re missing if they don’t receive local news. They’ll notice, though, when the sewer backs up.

WHAV serves as residents’ watchdog, peering deep into city coffers. WHAV’s very existence keeps now or future unwanted hands out of the municipal cookie jar. That jar contains your property taxes, water and sewer payments, automobile excise taxes, parking and other fees and local option meals and room occupancy excise taxes. WHAV’s original reporting on these topics has had a ripple effect—forcing other media to cover stories that otherwise wouldn’t have been on their radar screens.

WHAV takes no sides, however, on the myriad spending debates. It’s up to you to use the information the radio station delivers to prod elected and appointed officials one way or the other. You may even disagree certain stories were reported or how they were reported, but know the end result is still paying you dividends in avoided costs.

WHAV guarantees whatever you donate in memberships will be paid back to you many times over as its spotlight helps limit excessive or unnecessary spending.

If you are among those whom this economy has left behind, you can still help. Ask local businesses where you shop, dine, drink or otherwise do business with to buy affordable on-air messages or website advertising. Need a stocking stuffer? Give away a WHAV membership. You may also use the volunteer form to offer your help at the station.

It’s Giving Tuesday. Any and all help is appreciated. Check out the membership options here.