Nic Dawes is the Executive Director of The City, a non-profit newsroom covering local stories in New York. He serves on the board of investigative journalism organisation AmaBhungane, Coda Story and the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. Before joining The City, Nic was the Deputy Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. He spent three years at Hindustan Times as the Chief Content Officer, and eight years at The Mail & Guardian, where he started as an Associate Editor before becoming the Editor-in-Chief.
We bumped into Nic at the International Journalism Festival and stopped him in the middle of the street to ask him about his work at The City, and the role of local journalism in New York City and beyond.
If you’d prefer to listen to the interview, click here.
In Old News: New York City is home to many journalism organisations, but your organisation covers local stories. Why is there a need for a local publication in New York City?
Nic: If you look at New York, you think it's the media capital of the world, right? There are these huge legacy news organizations like The New York Times. There are, of course, many television stations and broadcast companies. There are digital startups, but almost all of them have their eyes fixed on the horizon of the whole country or the world. And what's happened is that all the coverage that used to be there of New York, done by the local tabloids, even by big papers, by TV and radio, to some extent, has kind of withered away and been hollowed out. So you don't have reporters anymore sitting in courthouses and sitting in city hall, going into New York's neighborhoods, especially the neighborhoods that are less white less rich than in lower Manhattan.
People still write about Lower Manhattan because it's a place where people with resources and power live in that they care about. So we created The City in order to both fill that gap that's been left by the retreat of traditional newspapers, and to try and do it a little differently, to bring a view from the neighborhoods, a view from less affluent and more marginalized communities, and to do accountability journalism around that, to do explanatory journalism and provide solutions and to start to rebuild that civic information infrastructure that a great city needs.
In Old News: Do you think the transition to digital contributed to the erosion of local journalism in New York City?
Nic: There are many reasons, I think, why local news has been eroded and of course, the easy excuse is the ad revenue went away, especially local ad revenue went to social platforms and search platforms. But it's also true that there's been tremendous consolidation in print, and especially local newspapers have been bought up by hedge funds and other investors whose basic plan is to rip out the assets and milk them as much as they can, degrade the journalism.
So you have these companies that are almost like zombie news companies owned by hedge funds owned by large investors, and they haven't invested at all in reaching audiences on digital platforms. And frankly, they don't care about it. So there's a dimension of it that is due to technology change and revenue changes and a dimension that is more cynical and less easily put down to external forces.
In Old News: How does local news set the stage for global narratives?
Nic: In a sense, all journalism is local, right? Every journalism starts in a place. And the power of local journalism is that if communities can recognize themselves and their neighbors in the storytelling if they can identify issues that affect them, often those are issues that affect everyone, especially in polarized societies. And the US is just as much a polarized and conflictual society as many of the places that we more traditionally think of that way.
So the big national stories play out at local levels for sure and the trends that we're seeing nationally. But also it's possible to convene conversations and drive accountability at a local level in a way that's a lot more effective, often, than national storytelling. But I mean, I can think of a few examples [like] climate change. Most people in the world are going to experience the worst impacts of climate change in an urban setting.
So, for example, in New York, we've experienced increasingly intense bursts of rain that the city is not built for. So we've seen people's... particularly poor and immigrant neighborhoods, where many people have had to find accommodation in converted basement apartments, often illegally converted. During Hurricane Ida, when we got a big rainstorm sweeping through New York, those apartments flooded. More people died in New York City than died in the south where the hurricane really hit. So that story of climate change, the way it's playing out and the way it's affecting the most vulnerable people the most profoundly is an urban story, a city story, a local story. So finding those connections and amplifying them, treating them with the seriousness and the quality of journalism that a national news outlet would do... Not treating local journalism as a second class thing that you graduate from. Those are some of the sorts of things that you can do to both tackle national and global themes and drive a real civic conversation where you are.
In Old News: What role do independent journalists, columnists or people who don't work in the traditional newsroom setting have to play in local reporting?
Nic: Yeah, I mean, I think there's a range of different ways in which that plays out. So, I mean, I've noticed a young woman on TikTok who picks up our stuff and breaks it down in a TikTok way on her own. Adds her own stuff and her own perspective and distributes it to an audience of young, policy engaged but not wealthy and not media connected people. And so she does she's doing a mix of repurposing and distribution and community engagement without ever talking to us. She never told us, "Hey, you know, can I use your stuff?" Which is fantastic. So you see that kind of thing? You see people who have almost like an Instagram show that they've created using reels, telling stories from the neighborhood.
I don't think even our organization is very good at tapping into that energy yet. But we have done things, we've created a lot of collaborative journalism projects where we collaborate with communities. We created an obituary project for COVID 19. Obituaries are deeply unequal. Wealthy people get obituaries in the paper. Famous people. White people. Most of the people who died in the pandemic were neither wealthy nor white, nor famous.
So we created a platform for people to share stories of loved ones that they lost. We created a network of volunteers to research and write their obituaries to form a huge digital memorial. We worked with the library, the Brooklyn Public Library, to have commemorative events that thousands of people attended. A theater group came to us and said, "Can we make a play?" So these are all things like there's a new but traditional media organization involved. But we're working with journalism-adjacent information infrastructure, civic conversation players.
In Old News: A lot of national and international publications rely on local journalists to get their story ideas. Do you see that as a good thing, or is it a challenge that you face?
Nic: So our stories are constantly picked up and picked up in a couple of different ways when we give them away. Please publish our story. We would like you to include our tracking pixels so we know that it appeared somewhere and we ask you to do that. And we put the code in the story and we would love community papers, big papers, other outlets to do that. Then we would like people to follow our reporting, and we really appreciate it when they mention us and oftentimes they don't. And that frustrates us. And we complain because the links back matter to us. They show us that we had an impact. That's important for us both to track our effectiveness, it's important to our funders... but if they don't, it's also kind of okay because what we want to do is achieve an outcome.
We want a more equitable, better city for New Yorkers with a healthy, robust information environment. And if that means other people steal our stories, which I promise you happens every day, we can live with that as well. And the same happens when national and global news organizations want to come and hire our journalists. We want and one of the things that I find most inspiring about our team is that so many of them have told me they're not looking to graduate to The New York Times or the BBC or even Vox Media.
They want to work in local news. So that's a vocation that is inspiring to me. And clearly drives our people. But we've had people who've been hired into really good, really impactful jobs at big news outlets. And that's great too. To rebuild a healthy journalism ecosystem, you have to have different pathways. And one of the roles we play is we take lots of younger reporters, particularly from the public university system, from CUNY, the City University of New York, which is probably the greatest engine of economic mobility anywhere in America.
And if those kids get noticed working for us and make their way into elite media institutions and start to change them, that's a huge win for our model. And we're fine with that.
In Old News: Do you think a lot of journalists would choose city or metro reporting because of the stories that they get to tell?
Nic: I think if they have a good work environment, if it's treated as desirable, quality work... And the incredible thing about metro journalism is the impact you can have. And traditionally, as journalists, we like to pretend that we don't care about impact, that we just tell the story. But suddenly, when it comes to the time for the award ceremony, we're all writing the impact down, right? And that's the secret truth is that we all want impact. And so the incredibly empowering thing about doing metro journalism is the officials look you in the eye every day. And they look the communities that you serve in the eye every day. And so the response that you get the speed of the response is extraordinary. And the impact we've been able to have on everything from the rollout of vaccines to the disbarring from city government of corrupt officials, even to small things, we got a suicide hotline installed on the Triborough Bridge, which hadn't been there for 20 years.
So that's incredibly rewarding for reporters. And I think people who do it, see it and they love it. And they also come to love the connection you have with the community. I know having done national and international news as well as local news that you often deal with a very small group of people and a very insular elite. And the opportunity to engage daily with a much wider audience and a much wider community of sources that doesn't just represent a tiny little insular circle is incredibly, incredibly professionally satisfying.