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Experts say the donation of LNP Media Group to WITF is a rare but growing trend

  • By Lisa Scheid and Chad Umble/ LNP
Robert Krasne, chairman & CEO of Steinman Communications, which includes LNP Media Group Inc., speaks at a company town hall Tuesday, April 25, 2023.

 Suzette Wenger / LNP Staff Photographer

Robert Krasne, chairman & CEO of Steinman Communications, which includes LNP Media Group Inc., speaks at a company town hall Tuesday, April 25, 2023.

Transactions like the donation of LNP Media Group to public broadcaster WITF are rare but growing and represent good news for the organizations’ audiences, experts say.

“It seems like it is very good news for the paper, that’s for sure,” Dan Kennedy, a professor at Northeastern University’s College of Arts, Media and Design in Boston and author of a forthcoming book called, “What Works: The Future of Local News,” to be published this year by Beacon Press. “And good for the owners for actually donating it. It’s not the first time that’s ever happened, but it doesn’t happen often, that’s for sure.”

The deal announced last week by Steinman Communications and WITF is expected to be finalized in June, and leaders said they are still working out fine details of corporate governance and content sharing. Steinman intends to give LNP Media Group, publisher of LNP | LancasterOnline, at no cost to WITF, based in Swatara Township, Dauphin County.  LNP Media will be converted to a public benefit company and become a subsidiary of WITF.

To support the mission and activities of LNP and WITF, Steinman Communications and WITF will create the Steinman Institute for Civic Engagement, which will be overseen by WITF and funded by a donation from The Steinman Foundation, a local independent family foundation funded by the companies that make up Steinman Communications.

Officials declined to say how much the donation of LNP Media Group is worth or how much funding would be provided to the Institute for Civic Engagement.

What’s happening in the news climate?

Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for Poynter Institute, a Florida-based nonprofit journalism school and research organization, said LNP’s print circulation is big for the size of the community. So is its staff.

With a Sunday circulation of about 42,000 and a weekday circulation of 35,200, LNP is the second-largest seven-day-a-week newspaper in Pennsylvania. Its website, LancasterOnline, has nearly 12,000 paid subscribers and gets about 4 million page views a month (it will continue to operate with a subscription model).

LNP Media Group operates with 150 employees, including 70 reporters and editors in the LNP | LancasterOnline newsroom which focuses its coverage on Lancaster County and its 550,000 residents.The Philadelphia Inquirer, the largest newspaper in the state with a Sunday circulation of 265,000 and daily circulation of 100,000, has 215 reporters and editors covering a metro region that’s home to more than 5 million people.

The trend in the industry has been to limit delivery to only four or fewer days a week, Edmonds said. In announcing the deal, LNP Media Group leaders said there are no plans to limit days of publication or cut staff for at least five years.

“If MediaNews, Gannett or other chains bought the paper instead, I think you would see a huge reduction in staff,” Edmonds said. “Gannett is trying to run its papers with a slim staff.”

Newspaper organizations in counties on Lancaster’s borders are all owned by chains, and some have cut back days for delivery of print and the size of their newsrooms as digital audiences have grown. In York, Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, owns the Evening Sun in Hanover, York Dispatch and York Daily Record/Sunday News and Lebanon Daily News. The Daily Record and Dispatch have a combined average daily circulation (including digital replica) of 12,154, according to an Alliance for Audited Media’s September report. The number for Sunday is 15,292.

York Daily Record/Sunday News and York Dispatch, which are operated jointly but maintain separate news teams that compete against each other, cover the county of 459,000. The Daily Record lists 10 reporters and editors on its website and the Dispatch lists 14 . Last year the Record stopped printing and delivering a Saturday newspaper and switched that day to digital only. The Dispatch publishes weekdays.

In Dauphin County, The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News is owned by Advance, which also operates news publications and websites in eight states. In 2012, The Patriot-News was the first daily paper in the region to curtail daily newspaper distribution, switching to a three-day a week publication as it embraced a digital strategy with PennLive. Its average daily print circulation for Tuesday and Thursday is 16,981 and digital subscriptions of 10,655, according to AAM’s September report. The combined number for Sundays is 42,675.

Chester County’s Daily Local News and Berks County’s Reading Eagle are owned by MediaNews Group, which is owned by hedge fund Alden Global Capital. The Daily Local News combined average daily circulation is 9,601, which includes 4,533 digital replicas. On Sundays the total is 11,670. The Reading Eagle’s average daily circulation is 21,495, which includes 8,291 in digital replicas, according to AAM’s March report. The Sunday total is 30,553.

In Berks County, the Reading Eagle was sold for $5 million in a 2019 bankruptcy to the only qualified bidder, MediaNews Group, which is owned by hedge fund Alden Global. Before the sale, The Reading Eagle newspaper employed more than 70 reporters, designers, editors and photographers and many freelance writers. Now it operates with fewer than 20 staff and a few  freelancers.

In Lebanon County, the Lebanon Daily News has gone from a newsroom of about 15 in 2015 to just three in 2023 to cover county of about 143,000. It has an average daily combined circulation of 2,851, including 187 digital replicas, according to AAM’s March report. It does not print on Saturdays. Its total combined circulation on Sundays is 3,331.

The donation of LNP is a key part of the deal because it gives the public broadcasting operation a chance to operate the paper without taking on any debt, Kennedy said.

“The debt that these corporate chains and hedge funds take on when they acquire papers is one of the principal reasons that they immediately set about cutting,” Kennedy said. “Of course, another reason is greed. But debt plays a big part in that as well.”

A chance to find a way forward

The WITF-LNP deal comes as traditional news organizations, large and small, try to find a path to sustainability amid the decades-long collapse of the print newspaper business model coupled with the rise of the internet and mobile phones.

Since 2005, more than a quarter of the country’s newspapers have closed, according to the 2022 State of Local News report from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In that same period, newspaper revenues have dropped from $50 billion to $20 billion while newsroom employment has declined by 60%, Medill found.

The result is that a fifth of the population is living in what Medill describes as a “news desert,” where there isn’t a newspaper or where there is only one paper – often a weekly – trying to provide coverage across a vast area.

This has led newspapers to pursue other, more sustainable models, including nonprofit status or working with a nonprofit.

Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, CEO and co-founder of the National Trust for Local News, said local news is becoming increasingly important for public media organizations as a matter of sustaining and increasing their audience. The National Trust for Local News brokered the deal announced last fall between KERA, a public radio station near Dallas, and the Denton Record Chronicle.

WITF, which has 70 full-time and 25 part-time employees, has an annual budget of around $13 million. It gets about 10% of its funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1967 to manage the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting. WITF, which does not charge for its services, is also supported by 22,000 member donors.

Hansen Shapiro said Steinman’s creation of the institute to support the new organization is “a testament to their civic mindedness.”

“I think it is very promising for the future of the newspaper,” Hansen Shapiro said. “It should give folks who are newspaper lovers and readers some comfort for the future.”

Will this model work?

Sarah Stonbelys, coordinator of the Center for Cooperative Media, School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University, said in an email that the LNP-WITF deal sounds a lot like the Chicago Sun Times–WBEZ merger that happened in January 2022. It was regarded at the time as a good move for both.

“More broadly, there is a lot of experimentation in the local news space with new ownership models, business models, etc., so I think there’s reason to be hopeful,” she wrote.

Edmonds said it was too early to tell if this model will be successful.

Kennedy said the promise of support from the Steinman Institute for Civic Engagement and a pledge to maintain staffing, printing frequency and coverage focus for at least five years offers some time to figure out a new, sustainable business model.

“If the five-year period does not lead to sustainability, then yeah, there will be cuts to come down the line,” Kennedy said. “But I think everybody ought to be optimistic that a way out of this will be discovered. But sure, that’s certainly a risk.”

Hansen Shapiro, who wrote a guide to public media mergers, said there’s great potential for two organizations to grow bigger than they are separately through the merger.

“I think it’s promising that your executive editor will oversee both newsrooms,” she said, referring to LNP | LancasterOnline Executive Editor Tom Murse. She said that it’s good to have someone committed to journalism quality leading the collaboration.

Hansen Shapiro said no one knows yet if the model will work because it is still in the early stages, but research shows the public media stations that are doing the best are the ones that have invested in newsrooms and local news distribution capacity. She said public media’s donor structure gives a foundation for a sustainable path for newspapers.

She said the process of collaboration is a long one, and it takes time for organizations to become cohesive. Some organizations stumbled when they were thrown together.

“Newspaper newsrooms have ways of doing things and thinking about the community and public media newsrooms (have their ways) and figuring out together how they are stronger together – that’s a work in progress,” Hansen Shapiro said.

She said the mission of education is needed more than ever. Part of service and sustainability of news is helping people understand how to read the news and be smart citizen consumers of the news.

Kennedy said a potential model is to accept donations through a nonprofit arm in order to pay for certain types of public interest reporting, such as health care or education.

“It’s becoming a fairly common thing to do,” Kennedy said. “And it would seem to me that with this it would be a simple matter of being able to donate to the radio station for certain types of reporting that you want the newspaper to do.”

Remaining independent 

Could donations for certain coverage chip away at the newspaper’s independence?

“Any decent nonprofit news org has some pretty strict rules about the donations not affecting the way some things are covered,” Kennedy said. “But what can be hard to prevent is donors who are funding coverage of a certain topic. If good ethical rules are in place, they don’t have any say whatsoever on how that topic is covered.”

Hansen Shapiro said the Institute for Nonprofit News has created best practices standards that help readers understand who is paying for coverage. The institute also has standards for newsrooms to retain editorial independence.

WITF maintains its own guidelines for editorial integrity, which state: “We strive to assure that our editorial process is free from undue influence. We take care in deciding from whom we seek and accept funds and in setting boundaries with respect to those who contribute. A large and diverse group of funders supports our work, including many individuals, businesses, governmental entities, and foundations. Most of the funding and underwriting we receive supports overall operations rather than specific programs or series. A diversity of sources, the number of contributors, and the unrestricted character of funds all reinforce the independence and integrity of our editorial process.”

Kennedy said, “You do have funding decisions entering into what topics you’re going to cover on a regular basis. That doesn’t particularly bother me as long as the rules are clear that the way it’s covered won’t be dictated. But that’s a concern, for sure.”

Some coverage could be funded through donations while other types of coverage could likely only be supported through subscriptions and advertising, Kennedy said.

 “You’re probably not going to be able to get a grant to cover high school sports, for instance. But it’s obviously something that your readers want, and I assume it’s something you’ll continue to do.”

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