“Think and Look Outside the Box:” Local Foundations, Philanthropists Boost Giving to Nonprofit, For-Profit Newsrooms

Journalism / Article

Foundations, donors around the country step up to support local news in its hour of need

In the past few years, there has been a concerted effort to frame local news as a public good, as a new target for philanthropic giving, and as a must-have for every local community that values accurate and timely news and information. That effort has never been more crucial than today, in the midst of a pandemic, racial unrest and an election season swimming in misinformation.

So it’s heartening to see the growth of support for local news—nonprofits and for profits—from foundations and donors around the country. Local foundations who had largely been on the sidelines have been instrumental in supporting new journalism collaborations in Wichita, New Hampshire, Northeast Ohio, Western New York and Southeastern Michigan. And high-net worth individuals have given generously to publishers who have fundraised for Report for America (RFA) corps members to cover their communities.

From local foundations alone, support for local news has gone from $2.6 million in 2009 to $26.3 million in 2018, according to Media Impact Funders, and that number is expected to rise considerably for 2019 and 2020. Place-based funders have made the Knight Media Forum the premier annual gathering for local news funders and innovators interested not only in knowledge and networking, but in the broader mission of strengthening democracy through informed communities.

“Local foundations alone won’t be able to ‘save’ local news,” said Courtney Bengtson, director of strategic initiatives at the Wichita Community Foundation. “Quite frankly, I personally believe local news as we know it is past the point of saving in its current state. We must work together—funders, content producers and community—to strategize ways to ensure our citizens are informed and feel empowered to be part of decisions that affect all who live in our city.”

I reached out to this newer crop of funders to find out what motivated them to fund local news initiatives, what challenges they had to overcome (particularly with foundation leadership) and what it would take to bring more funders into the fold.

The Impetus: Funding Coverage of Solutions

Many times, funders become interested in supporting local news because of their frustration with the lack of media coverage for their area of interest — or coverage that’s too shallow or sensational. A good example is the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, which was funded from its namesake’s sale of the Buffalo Bills football team in 2014 after his death. The foundation, with interests in Wilson’s hometown of Detroit as well as Buffalo, had already helped fund the creation of an outpost of education site Chalkbeat in Detroit. 

But the foundation had a real issue with news coverage of another issue: caregivers for older family members. Carly Strachan, communications officer for the foundation, told me that their frustration was that typical coverage was about the problem without considering solutions.

“News coverage around the topic of caregiving remains largely problem focused, if it exists at all, with most outlets focusing solely on the crisis narrative,” Strachan said. “So, our team set out to see if we could take this same approach with the Solutions Journalism Network in our two regions of focus (Southeast Michigan and Western New York) around caregivers.”

On the subject of health, a couple other prominent place-based foundations have funded reporting in New Hampshire and Missouri. In the Granite State, the Endowment for Health has been supporting a “Silver Linings” series in the state’s largest newspaper, the Union-Leader. The Endowment has also taken a broader view of health with “The Sunshine Project” at the Laconia Daily Sun, looking at “issues of civic discourse and social determinants of community health—and not just health in a medical sense.”

They’ve also funded solutions journalism trainings for journalists who write the stories, to make sure they include a solutions lens in their coverage. “We wanted training for journalists and assistance from Solutions Journalism Network,” said Karen Ager, communications director for the Endowment for Health. “Then we stepped away and stayed out of their business, and let subject matter experts have input and let them know about convenings they might want to attend.”

In Missouri, the topic of interest was gun violence, and the Kansas City Star got support from across the state in St. Louis from the Missouri Foundation for Health, with a $250,000 grant to hire three reporters (see photo above) through Report for America to investigate the causes of the high rate of gun violence in the state, convene community conversations and consider solutions.

“We had been looking at advancing a more nuanced view of the issue,” said Jessi LaRose, senior strategist of initiatives at the foundation. “In the work we’ve done, we noticed that the media drives people’s takes on the issue, as with mass shootings. We saw this as a partnership in telling those stories and how it impacts people across the state.” 

LaRose said that the Missouri Foundation for Health had supported journalism before at Kaiser News Midwest in the past couple years, which opened doors for them to partner with more local journalists.

Overcoming Challenges

Local and family foundations that are considering funding journalism often run into similar roadblocks:

  • They are used to having control over the work of grantees, and must adapt to giving news organizations the editorial independence they need.
  • They don’t typically support for-profit companies, so must consider new ways to fund commercial news outlets, sometimes through fiscal sponsors.
  • Choosing which local news outlets to fund can be difficult when there are many deserving places.

One solution for many of these challenges is the rise of news collaboratives in places like Charlotte, Philadelphia, Denver, New Hampshire and now Wichita and Northeast Ohio. (Many of these are covered in the “Civic Bright Spots” story I wrote to go with our special map.) With a collaborative, the funder can take a step back from the editorial process, funnel money to nonprofits and for-profits through a third party such as Solutions Journalism Network or a local university, and support a number of news organizations in one city or region.

The Wichita Community Foundation was drawn to this model when it helped launch the Wichita Journalism Collaborative this past summer, with a focus on COVID-19 coverage, and the participation of community partners such as the Wichita Public Library, AB&C Bilingual Resources and The Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.

The two biggest challenges for the Foundation, according to Bengtson, were the “unfamiliarity in the Midwest around philanthropic entities supporting both for- and nonprofit news, along with the continual relationship-building that is required with local news organizations to reiterate that the foundation respects the ethical line between funders and editorial decision-making.”

But the foundation was fortunate to have a board of directors that understood the editorial independence of the news outlets and wouldn’t expect to shape the news coverage or story selection for the collaborative, Bengtson told me.

For reticent funders, a test project sometimes helps overcome fears and prove the concept. The Ralph C. Wilson Foundation ran a solutions journalism pilot before jumping in with larger collaborative projects. 

“Since this was a very different type of investment for the foundation, we decided to start with a smaller pilot project with Solutions Journalism Network to gauge the interest of editorial decision makers in the solutions journalism methodology, participation in the collaborative and the topic of caregivers/caregiving,” said Strachan. “The pilot also allowed SJN to begin to develop the goals and impact metrics for the larger, multi-year project.”

After the successful pilot, the foundation approved a two-year grant to launch the collaboratives in Southeastern Michigan and Western New York. 

Similarly, the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, with 20 participating newsrooms centered in Cleveland and Akron, went through an 18-month process to study information gaps in the community and ways they could fill them, according to Cleveland Foundation’s chief marketing officer Michael Murphy. Murphy told me they found major literacy challenges in Cleveland, with some neighborhoods having an illiteracy rate as high as 95 percent. Plus, there were significant cuts at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the complete loss of the Youngstown Vindicator, which shut down.

“This is a new space for community foundations,” Murphy said. “We have finite grant dollars, and there’s so much need in our community. We began to understand how funding local news can’t be viewed as a standalone issue — it’s the undercurrent of everything we do…There must be ongoing accountability for those in power. Reliable, trustworthy and understandable information should be part of the infrastructure of any community in order for it to thrive — it must be in the groundwater.”

Finding Big-Dollar Donors

Beyond foundations, some local news outlets are also finding high net-worth people in their community who are willing to give generously to support their work. As Report for America expands its reporting corps around the country, newsrooms are tasked with fundraising to help pay those reporters (the salary is funded 50% by RFA, 25% by newsrooms and 25% by local funders). In many cases, the newsroom runs a crowdfunding campaign to support the new reporter, and that can bring to light a major donor.

In Everett, Wash., the Daily Herald found such a supporter who was actually a former “Girl Friday” for the paper who retired in 1990. She gave $50,000, and promised a similar amount next year, according to Phil O’Connor, the paper’s executive editor. 

“She’s like an angel,” O’Connor said. “She is a voracious consumer of news, gets the New York Times, Washington Post, Seattle Times. We did go to her house and talked with her to get to know her. We’ve had some significant donors but nothing like this. It’s been so inspiring, that we might name a fund after her.”

The Daily Herald has had an RFA corps member covering housing, immigration and other untold stories in the community. Plus, O’Connor says they have launched a fund for investigative journalism, with 600+ people donating with an average donation of $80 to $100. And when they launched an environmental coverage fund, they raised more than $4,000 in two weeks with little promotion — but with the backing of local environmental activists.

In Massachusetts at the Berkshire Eagle, the independent newspaper had a similar experience when fundraising for a Report for America reporter. Publisher Fred Rutberg told me their expectations were pretty low for a crowdfunding campaign that ended up bringing in more than $46,000. During the campaign, one woman who grew up in the area and worked at a Fortune 500 company offered to pay the difference in whatever the paper hadn’t raised yet. She ended up giving $10,000 this year, and promised another $10,000 next year.

“It just dropped out of the sky,” Rutberg said. “It was extremely heartening to receive the money… People in our community have great affection for our paper for decades. 

We’re looking into philanthropy as an ongoing revenue stream.”

While the newspaper has struggled during the pandemic, with plans to drop its Monday print editions, Rutberg says that circulation revenue is up and there’s been a positive response to the paper’s COVID-19 coverage, right as many high-income people have moved out of cities into the Berkshires. “It doesn’t come close to offsetting [losses], but it shows that people care about us and want us to survive,” he said.

How to Bring in More Funders

Survival is top of mind for local news publishers, and getting more support from local foundations and big donors can help them get through a tough time. I asked these funders what they would tell others who were interested in supporting local news.

“Think and look outside the box,” said Murphy from Cleveland Foundation. “There are likely some incredible resident media makers who are trusted sources of information in their neighborhood. Find those influencers, and give them a seat at the table. Help them scale, because there is no way to replicate the inherent trust they already have in their networks. Design together.”

Karen Ager at the Endowment for Health says she thinks foundation funding could be a big piece of the puzzle for solving the local news business model. 

“I think that papers and news outlets are looking for these partnerships,” Ager said. “I was worried about being laughed out the door about this at the beginning when I approached papers. But that wasn’t the case, and when I talked to other groups, I realized that news outlets themselves are trying to figure out these partnerships. Be clear about your [topic] areas, and be willing to explore negotiations and try to find a place of overlap with what the paper wants to cover.”

And finally there’s the point about news as a public service, as something that philanthropists need to make a part of their giving portfolio.

“We are at a critical moment where place-based foundations, who are often more keenly aware of community issues in their territories than others, must not only recognize but also support local news in ways that make strategic sense for the organization,” said Bengtson at the Wichita Community Foundation. “While others may argue this point, information dissemination is a public service. As a place-based foundation, we can work to remove the barriers and gaps identified locally that will allow the voices and concerns of our everyday residents to be heard, addressed and included in decision-making.”

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For funders who are interested in supporting local news, the annual NewsMatch campaign is a great place to start, letting you search for nonprofit news outlets in your community. Funders can offer matching grants related to topic areas to help those news organizations get triple matches for each local donation to their campaign.

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.


Photo by Adomas Aleno (top) on Unsplash