Journalism

Local news 2021: How newsrooms can rebound post-pandemic

Since its inception, the Knight Media Forum has focused on bringing together place-based foundations to strengthen local news around the country. And as the challenges for publishers have grown during the pandemic, support from local foundations, donors and even tech platforms has been a positive light during dark times.

This year’s forum, which took place online from March 2 to 4, shone a spotlight not only on the many challenges for local news, but on the growing solutions, case studies and trends that could open up a path forward. For example, the Seattle Times has created a series of philanthropy-supported labs that now fund 17 reporters in the newsroom. Microsoft has stepped up to provide funding and tech support for local news in five diverse communities. Report for America and the Local Media Association brought in a harvest of philanthropic dollars to for-profit newsrooms – including many in communities of color – for the first time. (You can read a detailed Report for America analysis on how it’s boosted local news outlets’ fundraising here.)

And maybe, just maybe, the U.S. Congress could put in place financial support or tax breaks benefitting local news outlets around the country, though the details are still a bit foggy. What kinds of publishers would get that money and which of the many bills in Congress under consideration might pass? That’s still TBD, but this year could be crucial in making progress.

And communities have a new resource from Impact Architects to help them gauge the health of their local news ecosystem. Understanding the current situation can help funders and other key stakeholders as they try to bring reliable, trusted information back to news deserts.

Philanthropic dollars flow to for-profit media

During the virtual sessions, many people in the audience asked whether funders would support for-profit news outlets as well as nonprofit. In the past, most foundations would only support nonprofits, so it’s a more recent phenomenon of commercial publications receiving philanthropic support. The answer was largely that funders aren’t as focused on the business model or IRS tax status of local publishers as long as they have a civic-minded mission.

In a breakout session titled “Case Studies: Community Foundations and Local Journalism,” Joaquin Alvarado and Michele Matassa Flores talked about their years-long effort to create labs at the Seattle Times that gave funders a way to support coverage of education, homelessness and more. In a year with so many stories to cover, the labs helped the Times keep up.

“The labs helped us cover more, dive deeper into more subjects, including the pandemic, racial reckoning, elections and even wildfires,” said Flores. “We did have to adapt from the typical lab MO. They are by design meant to experiment with engagement and solutions journalism… In 2020, to cope with the unprecedented pace of news, we had to break with the typical pace we had before. The big lesson is that it’s a constant endeavor to manage labs as well as a newsroom at the same time.”

Gaining inspiration from the Seattle Times, the Fresno Bee set up its own Education Lab and has raised more than $600,000 for it so far. One of its funders is the Central Valley Community Foundation and its president and CEO Ashley Swearengin (a former mayor of Fresno) spoke on the panel about the lab’s success during the pandemic.

“The Education Lab, which had been going for a couple years, had an extraordinary impact during COVID-19,” Swearengin said. “Thank God we had the infrastructure in place to cover kids learning remotely, going back to classes, and more. Overnight, that coverage reinforced trust for the newspaper.”

The foundation set up a special Impact Media and Measurement Fund that allows any donors or local foundations to collectively support local news in the Central Valley. That’s an important trend that is starting to happen in more places around the country – and should be considered by more community foundations who play such a central role in place-based giving.

Serving diverse communities

Community foundations played a key role in Microsoft’s recent forays into supporting local news in new ways. The tech company’s initiative funds outlets in five communities around the country, providing technology support as well. Mary Snapp, Microsoft’s vice president of strategic initiatives, talked about the importance of community foundations as a hub for fundraising for local news. She noted the importance of supporting collaborations in communities to help strengthen reporting on big topics.

“It’s important we have a common set of facts,” she said. “If we had that, we might not have had that violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6. It’s important for journalism to play a role in solving community problems. We want to build three different pillars: supporting the business model of local journalism; helping to ensure trust in local media; and on security, making sure journalists are safe. We wanted to partner on the ground with locations doing innovative things and willing to try collaborations between what had been competing stations and outlets. We wanted to give them skills for modern storytelling, and put money into community foundations and give them the role to raise more funds.”

Snapp pointed to the company’s efforts to support coverage of issues important to the Black community in Jackson, Miss., with a collaboration that includes Black media and  Jackson State University. They’ve also supported a collaborative in El Paso that includes the local paper and a Mexican daily, and helped the Yakima Herald-Republic in Washington state with data reporting on missing and murdered Indigenous women.

In Colorado, there have also been similar efforts to support underserved communities with its COLab,  with support from the Colorado Media Project. Based in Denver, this project was born after the struggles with massive editorial layoffs at the Denver Post, which was acquired by hedge fund Alden Global Capital. The collaboration was supposed to take place in person at a new facility at Rocky Mountain PBS, but when COVID-19 hit, they became largely virtual – and have been able to bring on a whopping 120 news outlets as part of the collaborative. 

Laura Frank of COLab and Tom Gougeon of Gates Family Foundation spoke about their efforts during the panel, “Stories from the Field: Funders and Local Journalism,” moderated by Knight Foundation’s Karen Rundlet.

“The pandemic pushed the accelerator on what we were trying to do,” Frank said. “We thought we would have half a dozen news organizations in our space, but when the pandemic hit in spring, we knew we had to do something. We brought together 22 news organizations, and took a non-siloed look at the impact of COVID-19 on all aspects of life in Colorado. Fast forward to the original launch date. We had 60 outlets in the fall, and now we’ve doubled that. It’s been quite an experience.”

Colorado Media Project helped shepherd an Informed Communities grant program with funding from local foundations and the Democracy Fund to make sure communities of color were getting vital information during the pandemic — while bringing in more publishers of color to the COLab. Gougeon noted that they have also made efforts to engage more diverse communities with the New Voices: Colorado project in partnership with Free Press. 

“We [have supported] a hip-hop and R&B radio station, helping them add more news and information,” he said. “We’re still working on the transition of local legacy papers that want to do the right thing, and are boosting engagement with communities with surveys and community listening. We’ve started programs called Real Talk, Black Voices and Latino Voices to create safe spaces to discuss racism in journalism. We’ve worked with trusted BIPOC sources of information which are not news organizations too. Our goal is to grow the coalition, grow the number of funders and policy makers and grow the tent.”

Field Foundation learned that communities of color in Chicago were getting much less grant funding than white, affluent areas

There’s been a lot of talk about news deserts, but the Field Foundation’s Angelique Power brought it home by explaining their work mapping “funding deserts,” in Chicago (see image above). These are communities that don’t have access to the same kind of funder and donor dollars as more affluent neighborhoods. Power talked about the Media and Storytelling Fund that Field set up to support journalists and media makers of color. And Power said the fund was actually designed by those journalists.

“There are so many foundations trying to figure out how to have a racial justice lens on philanthropy, but if you don’t focus on narrative storytelling you won’t achieve what you want in racial justice,” Power said. One of her grantees, Tiffany Walden, a co-founder of The Triibe, said that the Field Foundation’s grant for operational support made a huge difference for her startup covering the Black community in Chicago. (She was quickly echoed and +1’ed by many people in the chat during the panel for making that point.)

“We are thankful to the Field Foundation for giving us a start with operational funding,” Walden said. “Before, we were getting funding based on stories, but that doesn’t help us build a team. Project-based funds don’t help us like operational funding. We created a coronavirus website with daily news and covered press conferences from the governor and mayor.”

Later during the breakout session, “New Solutions to Rebuild Local Journalism,” we heard about a new coalition called URL Media, created to support publishers of color with distribution, marketing and advertising. URL Media co-founder S. Mitra Kalita talked about the power of communities of color as a commercial market and not just “a bunch of Black and Brown charitable entities.” The network started with eight initial publications, including Kalita’s Epicenter NYC, WURD and Scalawag, and is looking to grow.

“We want to be meaningful to our audiences, with the magic of local news, and we are members of our community,” Kalita said. “Fighting these behemoths on the internet, trying to figure out SEO changes – how as a niche brand do you succeed? We harness the power of working together, helping to navigate this. We soft-launched six weeks ago, and the reaction of advertisers and sponsors has been great – they want to reach these audiences and value our people as a market.”

Finding New Sources of Support

If the business model for commercial local news is broken, and most fixes don’t seem to be working, there’s a growing interest in deeper structural changes in the industry —including government intervention. 

Steve Waldman, president of Report for America, is shepherding a coalition of associations representing 3,000+ local news outlets called Rebuild Local News, which is advocating for the “re-planting” of local news in deserts and supporting more nonprofit news outlets. The coalition also supports the bipartisan Local Journalism Sustainability Act in Congress, which focuses on tax credits for subscribers, journalist pay and local advertisers.

“There are risks in having the government involved in supporting local news,” Waldman said. “But the need is so big that we can’t sit on the sidelines any longer and let other people make decisions about local news.”

What kind of structure would help with the re-planting idea? Elizabeth Hansen is leading the new National Trust for Local News, and spoke about the idea of creating a new framework for ownership of local media that leverages capital markets while making sure decision-making happens locally. The concept builds on previous successful efforts to find mission-aligned financing for noncommercial public radio stations with Public Media Co.

“We’re at an exciting moment for local news, with investments from Knight and others that have helped,” Hansen said. “But there’s a missing piece: News organizations large and small are missing mission-aligned capital, with community and diverse media struggling with financing and succession to a new generation of owners. Without mission-focused investors, Alden Capital and other hedge funds are stepping in and buying local papers. 

“Many communities would like to buy a local paper, so we want to build a national-focused organization that can help transform ownership and build sustainable news outlets.”  Mark Glaser is a consultant and advisor with a focus on supporting local and independent news in America. He was the founder and executive director of MediaShift.org, and is an associate at Dot Connector Studio, and innovation consultant at the New Mexico Local News Fund.