If you could create the perfect local newspaper, what would it look like?
John Q. Murray, publisher of the Clark Fork Chronicle, has an idea:
“The model that I’ve come up with is a commercial for-profit entity and nonprofit hybrid,” Murray says of the Chronicle’s new business plan.
To help achieve that fusion, Murray has created the Corporation for Public Community Newspapers (CPCN), a nonprofit organization that will include the public in setting the editorial direction of the four-year-old Chronicle, which recently moved its headquarters from Huson to Superior.
Members who contribute financially to CPCN will underwrite the Chronicle’s journalism and thus be invited to take part in reviews of the paper’s progress, as well as help identify, and direct funding toward specific reporting projects.
“This is about democracy,” Murray says. “Why should only a rich community have access to information about the decision-making in their community? Why does it only have to be commercially driven?”
While its current focus is the Chronicle, Murray hopes CPCN will eventually help rural newspapers across the country emphasize “relentlessly local” community journalism. He envisions a situation in which small newspapers contract with CPCN to guarantee free space in the paper for community organizations and set targets for regular coverage of community events. Funding provided by CPCN could allow the newspaper to increase its news hole to provide additional coverage regardless of the amount of advertising sold that week.
Murray says the Chronicle’s goal is to be “an old-school community newspaper,” but that the economic model for that kind of newspaper is disappearing.
“We’re looking at the long term, and what we see is Frenchtown and eastern Mineral County basically becoming a bedroom community for Missoula,” Murray says. “There are not that many businesses [read: advertisers] out there anymore.”
His hope for CPCN, Murray says, is that the public will have a formal mechanism for setting the news agenda for community newspapers, and in doing so help keep them solvent.
“We’re trying to find ways to keep local rural community newspapers alive.”