Local foundations are known for directing grants to nonprofits in their towns, but not as much for supporting local news. That equation is changing, as more place-based foundations see watchdog journalism faltering. Many times they have an “a-ha” moment when they realize that no one is covering a topic of interest in their community: education, climate change or public health.
“If [foundations] do not have a megaphone, they do not have a way to amplify the issues they are concerned with, then they are not going to be successful in their missions,” said Julie Sandorf, president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation in New York. “The best way to do that is through quality local journalism.” Sandorf most recently shepherded Revson’s $2.5 million grant to help create a new digital-native publication The City.
But there are many challenges for place-based foundations that have never funded journalism. Independent journalism must be truly independent from input from funders and investigative reports can dig up uncomfortable truths. One way to overcome those challenges is for the foundations to work in collaboration with seasoned media funders.
LaMonte Guillory, chief communications officer for LOR Foundation, helped create a Mountain West project with 50+ newsrooms with three other place-based foundations supporting it. Guillory took a “soft sell” approach to other local foundations, speaking at events and hosting webinars to make them comfortable with the idea before pitching for support.
Because many local foundations might be hesitant to support media outlets directly, Knight Foundation suggests a number of funding strategies for national organizations that align with their own grant-making in local news, which will total $300 million over the next five years.
Strategy #1: Fund capacity in a specific location.
A great way to fund local media is for foundations to team up. The NewsMatch project has been a collaborative success story around the country. Last year, NewsMatch helped raise $7.6 million for 154 newsrooms around the country, with 240,000 individual donors.
Another vehicle for local foundations to support news in their community is the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, which so far has $10 million in funding from Knight Foundation, $10 million from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and $1 million from Facebook. This Fund so far has been aimed at supporting for-profit metro newspapers in digital transformation as well as the News Catalyst project at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication.
Strategy #2: Fund content on topics important to a community.
Another strategy for a local foundation could be supporting content in a local or regional market that would align with its mission. For example, Report for America (RFA) places reporters covering specific topics into strapped newsrooms around the country. What makes the program sustainable is that RFA only covers half the funding, while the outlet covers 25% and a local funder or crowdfunding campaign covers the other 25%.
Two other projects are ProPublica Local Reporting Network, which funds an annual full-time reporter’s salary at one newsroom to cover one in-depth topic, with support from ProPublica on editing, data, research, engagement, audience and production/design; and the Local Journalism Project, just announced by PBS investigative program FRONTLINE.
Strategy #3: Subsidizing the business or technology of local news.
One fatal weakness of many local outlets is a failure to innovate their business models in the face of digital transformation. To counteract this, funders can support projects that are helping them improve their businesses, diversify revenues and deeply engage in communities.
For example, the new American Journalism Project (AJP) aims to invest in what it calls “civic news organizations” (CNOs) to increase their revenue-generating capacity. There’s also the News Revenue Hub, which offers a suite of services to support them, with everything from donation processing and email marketing to analytics and training.
Strategy #4: Strengthen the networks, associations and support ecosystem.
How can a place-based foundation’s funding become a force-multiplier for local news? By supporting journalistic networks and associations that can bring their power to bear on problems happening in a region.
One good example is the work that Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) has done in supporting collaboratives in places such as Philadelphia, Charlotte and New Hampshire. SJN helps newsrooms around the world tell stories that focus not just exclusively on problems but also on ways that communities are addressing them.
Two newer associations, the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) and the Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION) both help more nascent efforts do tough watchdog and neighborhood reporting that has dropped off with cuts to newspaper and legacy media staff. Both INN and LION have grown to more than 200 members each over the past few years, spread out around the country.
There’s also the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP). With its recent grant from Knight, the RCFP aims to triple the number of attorneys offering free support for journalists on the ground in communities.
Strategy #5: Fund education, news literacy and community “listening.”
Knight has also supported projects that help fight misinformation and bring underserved voices to the fore in communities. The News Literacy Project trains teachers in news and digital literacy at in-person NewsLitCamps. Another innovative project is Cortico, and its Local Voices Network (LVN) which combines in-person dialogues and digital listening to help the media better understand the issues that communities they serve and care about.
Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift.