Asset Framing: Why Communication Matters
Published February 8th, 2023, By Maximilian Eyle
Syracuse has a new paper in town: Central Current is steadily establishing itself as a nonprofit, independent alternative for regional journalism. They see themselves as part of a national trend of emerging news outlets that are attempting to fill the massive gap left by the closure and decline of local newspapers across the United States. Although this position is challenging and the future unclear, Central Current’s leaders have found that the narrative around their mission and struggle is also one of their greatest assets.
“11 years ago there were 75,000 newspaper reporters in the U.S.,” says Julie McMahon, Editor in Chief of the Central Current. “There are half that now.”
Central Current staff and board members show off their new hoodies during the nonprofit’s first board retreat, held in Nov. 2022. (Photo credit: Larry Bousquet)
McMahon is referencing the massive transformation of journalism that has taken place over the past two decades. As digital media exploded, traditional newspaper revenue dried up. Today, a few major national publications like the New York Times have achieved a renewed stability but many local publications remain in disarray.
“Syracuse has been watching these declines in media happen for a long time,” says McMahon, citing the 2019 closure of The Syracuse New Times as a recent example. “Something people see in local media across the board that confuses them is a headline about something crazy like ‘Man Gets Eaten By Dog’, but when you click on the story – you notice it happened in Louisiana. It’s emotionally manipulative, and exploitative, and people feel that. It’s another way to not trust the media, which we are pushing back against.”
Central Current is a new nonprofit newspaper based in Syracuse, NY.
Unlike most traditional newspapers, Central Current is a registered nonprofit with a 501(c)3 tax exempt status. For revenue, they depend heavily on the “public radio” model – offering a membership program for individual donors, as well as being eligible for a variety of grants from private and public sources. At the end of 2022, they received a $15,000 grant from The Gifford Foundation to support the purchase of a suite of software tools for their newsroom aimed at growing their audience, raising revenue, and more effectively parsing web traffic data.
Reporter Chris Libonati (left) and board member Dr. Roosevelt “Rick” Wright are part of the team working to establish Central Current as an integral media institution within CNY.
The nonprofit status is not just an administrative detail: it speaks to a fundamental part of Central Current’s philosophy around the work they do. “Journalism, from my experience, does not fit well into the commercial media model,” says McMahon. “It drives sensationalism and it drives click bait instead of ‘capital J – Journalism’ with investigative work, storytelling, and things that move you.” They are working to attract new readers and supporters using this idea that their model – however new – is worth investing in. This means getting people to see that they can be a part of birthing something new, rather than just propping up something that is dying.
More than just a romantic vision, this strategy has been borne out by survey data into donor priorities. Through a partnership with News Revenue Hub, they conducted a community poll around what strategies would be most effective for driving donations. The findings showed that direct asks and transparency around their development were the most impactful approach. “We don’t have to do a dog and pony show to get donations,” says McMahon. “We just have to be honest about what we need.”
As Central Current works to build momentum and educate people about their mission locally, they are actively seeking resources and inspiration from other newspapers and organizations across the nation. The Institute for Nonprofit News and the News Revenue Hub are two national agencies that have already provided a source for consulting and other resources. McMahon says that monitoring the work and structure of other nonprofit newspapers has also become a critical strategy in this evolving field. Locally, they have drawn inspiration from The Stand – a collaborative local news outlet formed by community members on Syracuse’s South Side and Syracuse University that blurs the line between reporter and resident.
Editor-in-Chief Julie McMahon (left) and board member Laura Lavine (right) discussing the launch of Central Current.
So far, McMahon says that the community response has shown a deep appreciation for the role journalism can and should play. “As we are able to take on more and grow as an institution, we hope to be more of a check on power,” she says, emphasizing that most people understand the connection between strong journalism and strong democracy. They hope that the power of that story will carry them to the point that they can fill the larger role of a true, investigative news organization. “What I really see is the opportunity as a small organization to build that kind of trust and apply it without any strings attached. I think that is really missing in Syracuse and something we can help bring right away.”