Will philanthropy step up to address the gap in local news coverage as more and more communities see local papers disappear? As Tom Stites observed last month in NPQ, “A quarter of all US newspapers have failed since 2004, and the COVID-19 pandemic is only making this grim trend worse.”
There is no doubt that in recent years philanthropic support of nonprofit journalism has increased, even though it still falls short of the need. That said, the prospects for growing support seem favorable.
Within philanthropy, two primary approaches are apparent. One supports nonprofits that seed journalists within existing, often traditional for-profit media. The other approach seeks to boost nonprofit media outlets.
Among the former, one of the most tantalizing possibilities involves Report for America, a nonprofit that raises money to put reporters in the field in under-covered communities to report on under-covered stories. The grant pays half of a reporter’s salary, helps the local news organization to raise more funds, and also offers continuing training. Report for America is one of six finalists for a $100 million MacArthur Foundation grant in the foundation’s second “100&Change” competition for a “big solution to a big problem”—in this case, to bring news to news deserts.
Another example of this approach comes from the Knight Foundation, which this March opened applications for grants to support strengthening digital platforms in newsrooms, continuing last year’s initiative. Knight offers 26 grants of up to $20,000 to publishers who are looking to adopt and manage a publishing solution that can help improve their business sustainability. For instance, last year it made a grant to the 10-year-old Native News Online to improve the publication’s ability to serve readers who access the news on mobile devices.
When it comes to providing direct grants for nonprofit news organizations, the American Journalism Project (AJP), which was founded in 2018 and has assets of over $15 million according to its Form 990 filing, looms large. It was started by Texas Tribune founder John Thornton and Elizabeth Green, author and co-founder/CEO of the nonprofit Chalkbeat, a seven-year-old education sector–focused news organization. AJP is also part of a donor collaborative, along with the Ford Foundation among others, called the , which aims to increase civic engagement for communities of color by strengthening news organizations directed by BIPOC leaders.
The News Integrity Initiative at the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark Graduate School is also a member of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund. It supports amplifying marginalized voices through news coverage, creative information sharing, and storytelling projects. It also backs groups that work toward trust and mutual respect between newsrooms and the public, including by supporting research and projects that mitigate the harm done by misinformation and manipulation.
These are but a few of the organizations that are stepping up to fill the gap left by disappearing local papers. The Institute for Nonprofit News (INN)—a network of more than 300 independent nonprofit, nonpartisan news organizations—issued a press release last month touting its members’ fundraising success. According to INN, through the NewsMatch fundraising collaborative, funders, including Knight and many others, along with individual donors and businesses, helped nonprofit newsrooms raise a record $47 million.
NewsMatch completed its latest fundraising campaign, its fifth, during the pandemic, but this did not dissuade donors. Indeed, more than 430,000 individuals made more than a million separate contributions during a challenging year, about 65 percent more than the year before.
Philanthropic organizations have been established to support getting news to the public, especially underserved communities, but philanthropy can be fickle. For this reason, it is even more significant that individuals are stepping up.
As INN notes in its press release, the mission of its 300 members is to build “a new kind of media network: nonprofit, nonpartisan, and dedicated to public service.” Where will INN’s path lead? A half-century ago, radio news, like local news today, was dominated by commercial networks. But with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—a nonprofit, private organization founded by Congress’ Public Broadcasting Act of 1967—National Public Radio (NPR) was formed three years later, although it took decades to become a media juggernaut. As NPQ observed back in 2018, current NPR listener numbers exceed those of broadcast television news. Could the future of local digital news likewise be nonprofit?
As NPQ writer Rob Meiksins noted last year, news organizations like the Salt Lake Tribune have been successful in shifting from commercial corporation to nonprofit. Increasingly, it seems the local corporate news model may be going the way of the dinosaurs. The challenge will be to see whether nonprofit news services or the community news co-ops Stites promotes can fill the gap, perhaps with a mix of public funding, foundation support, and generous members and donors.
We know local commercial news has shrunk rapidly in recent years. News is critical to a democracy, and it is fortunate that philanthropy has responded. But where and how should it respond? Clearly, philanthropic dollars for reporters have helped keep important local reporting work alive. Still, supporting for-profit news organizations does raise at least potential concerns. Donations should come with transparency; nonprofits are accustomed to informing their donors how their money is spent, with expenses tied to supporting the nonprofits’ programs and mission. Can commercial news corporations offer that kind of transparency?
Another question is whether philanthropic support for reporters is enough to right the commercial news ship, or might additional support be needed for the rest of the operation, such as editors and publishers, without whom reporters will not see their articles appear in either traditional or electronic print.
Nonprofit news services answer to the public and their donors, so accountability is clearer, but foundation support of nonprofit journalism poses its own challenges, since, as NPQ has noted before, foundation grants can influence coverage. This is another reason why small donor support is so important, since it diffuses influence among a broad public.
The future of local news remains decidedly uncertain. The choices philanthropy makes in response to a rapidly changing local news market could greatly influence its future form.