The Community Foundation for Southern Arizona announced a new Local News Initiative to support local journalism at a launch event Thursday.

The community foundation’s intent is to raise funds locally and nationally to support local news and information “so our community has reliable, pertinent, nonpartisan information that they can trust,” CFSA president and CEO Jenny Flynn said at the event. 

The specific goals are:

  • Raise $1 million, starting with $100,000 from the Democracy Fund and gifts from local philanthropists including Stephen Golden and Don Pitt,
  • Educate the public about the crisis of local news, including a community survey in English and Spanish,
  • And make grants to locally owned news organizations — like Arizona Luminaria — to hire more journalists.

Local news business struggles have led to a massive loss of local journalists. Research shows when communities lose local journalists, it leads to lower voter turnout and civic engagement and more political polarization.

“In the last two decades, the local news crisis has been spreading to communities across the U.S. as the collapse of the traditional advertising business model for local news has led to the shutdown of more than 2,200 local newspapers and the elimination of thousands of local journalism jobs,” community foundation leaders said in an announcement. “Today, millions of Americans lack access to coverage about important local events and issues. In Tucson and Pima County, dozens of local journalism jobs have disappeared in recent years at Tucson-based news publications.”

In Tucson, the 145-year-old Arizona Daily Star has seen several rounds of layoffs from Iowa-based owner Lee Enterprises. And Virginia-based Gannett closed the Tucson Citizen print newspaper in 2009. Gannett also runs the business side of the Star through a partnership agreement. 

While the number of newspaper journalists in Tucson has shrunk, there are new, modern news organizations serving Tucson in the digital age.

Arizona Luminaria — a 501(c)3 nonprofit — was launched by three longtime local journalists who previously worked at the Arizona Daily Star and the Arizona Republic. 

Here’s what you need to know about the local news crisis and why there’s hope. 

What has happened to local newspapers

The local news business model is in total disruption.

Legacy newspapers were basically advertising businesses. In other words, local news was subsidized by local advertising. But now, local-level advertising dollars are flowing to Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Classified ads are on Craigslist and Facebook.

And consumer preferences have changed. Yesterday, the news was delivered on paper to your front doorstep. Today, the news is delivered digitally to the lock screen on your smartphone.

There have been other factors, including the rising cost of printing and delivering papers. And there are trust and credibility problems, including  real or perceived political bias and a lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the news that has led to real harm of Black and Brown communities.

Many newspapers won’t survive this disruption. In recent years more than 25% of Arizona newspapers have shut down or been absorbed by consolidation, following the national trend

Newspaper giant Gannett tried to sell the Tucson Citizen in 2009 during The Great Recession, and finding only one potential buyer who offered 50 percent of the asking price, Gannett stopped printing of the Citizen after 138 years and laid off more than 60 journalists. After print operations ceased, continued as a group of local opinion blogs until 2014. A former Citizen journalist founded a nonprofit digital news site, Tucson Sentinel, in 2009 in response to the Citizen’s closure.

At the Arizona Daily Star, self-reported circulation published by the Arizona Newspapers Association is about 40,000. The Star has about 10,000 paid digital subscribers.

The Star currently has about 30 journalists, according to the community foundation. Two former Star journalists launched the newsletter Tucson Agenda after a round of layoffs in 2023.

The Star’s Spanish-language publication, La Estrella de Tucsón, was also shut down in 2023 and the journalists were laid off. Former editor Liliana López Ruelas spoke at the community foundation launch about the importance of news that reflects Tucson’s Latino community and news that serves Spanish speakers. 

Arizona Luminaria employs bilingual journalists and publishes in English and Spanish, filling a critical gap. 

Arizona now has only 3 daily journalists per capita, compared to about 22 in 1990. The national average is 6 daily journalists per capita, according to Report For America.

Why does it matter? A local news organization is a community asset. A healthy and engaged community needs local news.

When local news disappears:

  • Voter turnout decreases, according to research from the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at The University of Texas at Austin.
  • Polarization increases, according to research published in Governance: The Political Science Journal at UNLV.
  • Civic engagement erodes, according to research published in Political Communication.
  • Misinformation and disinformation spreads rapidly, according to research from the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy.
  • And the Democracy Fund says we can expect increased taxes, higher municipal borrowing costs, less efficient government, and less accountability among local leaders.

People are frustrated by the lack of relevant information and by the polarized news atmosphere.

A new model and a light of hope

A different way to think about the local news crisis is to think about building a modern online news organization. A local newspaper, minus the paper.

That’s the way we’re thinking about it at Arizona Luminaria and that’s what gives us hope.

We’re a 501(c)3 nonprofit, nonpartisan, bilingual, and community-minded news organization. 

We began publishing in February 2022, in English and Spanish. We’re growing carefully and building a sustainable, equitable newsroom that reflects the diverse communities we have the privilege of covering in a borderlands state with 22 federally-recognized Tribal Nations. Our staff is 82% women, 55% people of color, including Latino and Navajo journalists, and 73% bilingual.

Our website and newsletters are free, as part of our public service mission.
We’re fundraising to make this happen and we’d love to hear from you if this is an issue that resonates with you. Now through Dec. 31, any donation you make will be tripled by national foundations and local philanthropists.

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Becky Pallack is the Operations Executive at Arizona Luminaria. She's been a journalist in Arizona since 1999.

Irene is an audience development expert and obsessed with reader-first journalism. She is a former Arizona Daily Star editor and was co-founder of #ThisIsTucson and led that team until July 2021. She is...