How More Philanthropists, Foundations Can Support Local News as a ‘Public Good’

Journalism / Article

As local newspapers struggle amid massive cuts, newer nonprofit and for-profit outlets are establishing themselves as the new watchdogs on the block. This is certainly a time for hope and renewal—but the newer players are going to need a big slice of philanthropy and investment to mature into community stalwarts.

For larger foundations and donors, the cultural shift to giving to local news starts with a change in viewpoint—understanding the importance of having a reporter keeping an eye on city hall, on corrupt police, on shady business practices. Then, local news goes from being a profit machine for media companies (and hedge funds) to being a public good, a civic service for the community that everyone must support.

Who Needs to Get Involved
The loss of so many local journalists who covered communities means that rebuilding the infrastructure of local news will be a painstaking and costly long-term project. That means help needs to come from many sources, including civic leaders, local businesses, local and national foundations and the community members themselves.

But in many locales, journalism just doesn’t rate as a charitable cause where people are fundraising at soirées and country clubs. As ProPublica president Dick Tofel said, “We need to put journalism on the list of people’s philanthropic priorities.”

What moves the needle to bring other supporters into the fold? Advancing the idea of supporting the news ecosystem as a whole, to make civic engagement happen across the country in medium and small markets that are often falling behind.

What They Can Do
To make a difference in communities, foundations and philanthropists can of course make direct donations and grants to the important news outlets in their own regions. But there’s a multiplier effect when giving to larger organizations and associations that are serving as support for the entire ecosystem of local news around the country.

For example, check out the work of the Institute of Nonprofit News (INN), serving nonprofit watchdogs, and the Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION), serving mostly for-profits. Another great support system for local news comes from the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), which helps them cover not just problems in a community, but evidence-based solutions as well. 

When Should Support Come?
Now is the time for more foundations and philanthropists to come off the sidelines and begin supporting local news. 

The numbers are certainly daunting: Newsroom employment has dropped 25% from 2008 to 2018, according to the State of the News Media report from the Pew Research Center. While radio broadcasting lost 26% of employees, newspapers lost a staggering 47% of workers. 

How can we get more reporters into newsrooms around the country? One great effort, Report for America (RFA), was inspired by the idea of Teach for America, with a mission of reporting as a public service. RFA just announced a new class of 61 reporters

Where the Needs are Strongest
While we’ve seen billionaires step in to help struggling national media such as the New Republic, Time magazine and others, the need for donors and support is strongest in local spots without any dedicated media: the so-called “news deserts.” And those deserts typically form where the last local newspaper dies, leaving no one to cover the local government and local businesses.

A recent example is Youngstown, Ohio, where The Vindicator newspaper closed its doors. But this time, there was energy to help the community rather than just mourn the newspaper’s passing. ProPublica launched an application to have a local reporter start covering the town in-depth. The local business journal announced it would expand its coverage of the region. And the new Compass Experiment, a collaboration between Google and McClatchy, launched a new local news outlet, Mahoning Matters, within 40 days of the newspapers shutting its doors.

Many projects are prioritizing coverage of underserved communities, and that diverse-led media organizations have the unique support they need. For example, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism has made that a key part of the equation when they give grants.

Why Does Local Media Matter?
There are a few big reasons why foundations decide to start supporting local news: they care about the state of democracy and civic engagement; they care about other issues which need local coverage for people to fully understand those topics; they want to make sure all perspectives are included in public debate; they know that informed communities are healthy communities so want to make sure local news outlets are vibrant and active.

Craig Newmark, the founder of craigslist and Craig Newmark Philanthropies, has become one of the most high-profile funders of journalism and media over the past few years, and his interest comes from a view that a “trustworthy press is the immune system of American democracy.” 

“Trustworthy local news helps to ensure that all Americans have a good, working knowledge of our government, our communities, and more,” he said. “We need all hands on deck to help shore up this pillar of society. Our democracy depends on it.”

How to Make a Difference
For foundations and philanthropists who would like to help support local news, check out Knight Foundation’s local news initiative grantees and their projects, which offer great launching pads. 

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift.