When Jon Mitchell, the mayor of New Bedford, Mass., delivered his state of the city address in 2019, he made an unusual plea.
“Support your local paper,” he said, referring to The Standard-Times, New Bedford’s daily newspaper. “Your city needs it to function effectively.”
Owned by Gannett, the parent company of USA Today and more than 250 other dailies, The Standard-Times was getting thin. Like thousands of newspapers across the country, it was taking on the characteristics of a “ghost” paper — a diminished publication that had lost much of its staff, curtailing its reach and its journalistic ambitions.
Now, two years later, the mayor’s assessment is more blunt.
“We don’t have a functioning newspaper anymore, and I say that with empathy with the folks who work there,” he said in an interview. “It used to be that I couldn’t sneeze without having to explain myself. Now, I have to beg people to show up at my press conferences. Please, ask me questions!”
He was so eager for the city to have a robust paper that he joined a group that explored buying The Standard-Times — but Gannett wasn’t selling.
So when a cadre of journalists, including former editors of The Standard-Times, said last year that they planned to start a nonprofit digital news outlet to cover New Bedford, the mayor was all in.
As unusual as it may seem, Mr. Mitchell wanted his administration to be held accountable. Beyond that, he said that a trusted news source could restore something vital that he felt New Bedford had lost: “a sense of place,” by which he meant an ongoing narrative of daily life in this multicultural blue-collar city of 95,000 residents.
In the 19th century, when Melville embarked from its shores on the whaling voyage that would inspire “Moby-Dick,” it was the richest city per capita in North America. Now, 23 percent of New Bedford’s citizens live in poverty.
The mayor’s vision of a trusted news source was similar to what the group of journalists had in mind when they created The New Bedford Light. With its newsroom still under construction, in a refurbished textile mill, the publication went online June 7.
“There’s a crying need in a complex city like New Bedford for in-depth, contextual, explanatory investigative journalism,” Barbara Roessner, The Light’s editor and the former managing editor of The Hartford Courant, said in an interview.
The publisher is Stephen Taylor, a veteran journalist from The Boston Globe, which his family owned for generations, who has taught the economics of journalism at the Yale School of Management.
In its first week, The Light delved into the local effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 400 people in New Bedford.
The coverage led with the human cost, with photographs and detailed profiles of residents who died of the virus, and the editors asked readers to submit additional names. The Light also provided a data-filled analysis of how the disease had hit New Bedford’s communities of color the hardest and examined the toll it had taken on the city’s retired textile and garment industry workers, on its vibrant social club scene, and on two local “long haulers” who still suffer from lingering effects, including a 5-year-old.
“We all want to move on,” Ms. Roessner wrote in a message to readers. But to do so, she said, “we need to know where we’ve been, and where we are.”
In its second week, The Light looked at the city’s surging real estate market, boosted in part by the pending revival of commuter rail service to Boston, defunct since the 1950s. It also considered ways to stave off gentrification. Future topics, Ms. Roessner said, will include race and policing, the offshore wind industry and municipal finance.
The plan is to publish an in-depth article every weekday while skipping some of the staples of local papers, like high school sports and a police blotter.
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“We cannot go down the route of the daily newspaper that tries to do all things for all people,” Ms. Roessner said. “The challenge for us is to stay disciplined to do the deeper work and not be caught up in the daily news cycle.”
The Light, which has no print edition, is free to readers. It does not accept advertising, relying on donations, grants and sponsorships from local businesses. It plans deep community involvement, including media literacy workshops for residents who might become contributors.
It is largely following a playbook for digital nonprofit news sites prepared by the Institute for Nonprofit News, a group that guides start-ups and emphasizes editorial independence and financial transparency.
As traditional dailies and weeklies have shrunk or died out in recent years, nonprofit news sites have sprung up across the country, from The Texas Tribune to The New Hampshire Bulletin. Of the hundreds now online, more than 50 have gone up in the last two years, said Jonathan Kealing, the institute’s chief network officer.
Mr. Kealing said he was impressed by the support that The Light had attracted so far. “It was considerable for a nonprofit news start-up in a relatively small town,” he said. “Our hope is that more organizations will see this sort of community support and that it will allow them to launch out of the gate with high-impact journalism.”
Although many of the local “powers that be” are backing The Light, its founders said that donors would have no role in editorial decisions and that there were no sacred cows — not even the supportive mayor.
“He hasn’t had any criticism or scrutiny in a long time,” Ken Hartnett, a former editor of The Standard-Times and a driving force behind the Light, said in an interview.
“But everybody recognizes the need for having a clear instrument where you can outline on a regular basis the realities of the town,” he continued. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have a coherent understanding of what’s going on.”
(Lisa Strattan, Gannett’s regional editor for New England, who oversees The Standard-Times, did not respond to requests for comment for this article. But she told The Boston Globe in April that The Standard-Times uses sophisticated analytics to determine what readers want.)
The Light sees plenty to examine, with cultural, political and economic changes afoot. New Bedford’s diverse population includes large communities of Portuguese Americans and Cape Verdeans. The city has been a traditional Democratic stronghold, but support for Donald J. Trump grew from 2016, when he captured 31 percent of the New Bedford vote, to 2020, when he won 37 percent.
And New Bedford is on the verge of a potential economic renaissance. Thanks to a thriving scallop industry, the city has the biggest commercial fishing port by dollar value in the country. With the recent approval of the nation’s first industrial-scale offshore wind farm nearby, the city is angling to become a staging ground for construction and installation of the massive turbines that could soon populate the Atlantic coast.
With the city at such an important inflection point, Mayor Mitchell is all the more eager for a reliable narrator to tell New Bedford’s story.
Studies over the last decade have shown real costs to cities without a watchdog, including declines in voter participation and drops in a city’s bond rating. The lack of accountability can lead to waste and corruption, which drives up the cost of government.
It is the rare public official who has done as much as Mr. Mitchell, 52, to encourage a media presence in his jurisdiction. A Harvard-educated former federal prosecutor who was first elected mayor in 2011, he successfully made the case some years ago to Rhode Island Public Radio and a network television affiliate to put correspondents in his city.
“You’re wondering if I’m the most naïve politician in America,” he said. “Ask me six months from now, when The Light is doing a hard story on us, and I might not be so enthusiastic.”
But he said he was willing to “take the hit” because it would be better than living without robust news coverage.
“I’m surprised there aren’t more mayors talking about this, because we’re all seeing this play out before us,” he said. “When local media is diminished, the city is diminished, and when the city is diminished, the office of mayor is diminished. So it’s in the self interest of mayors to care about this.”