Considering Supporting Local News as a ‘Public Good’? Here’s the Whole Story – Knight Foundation

Considering Supporting Local News as a ‘Public Good’? Here’s the Whole Story

More foundations and high-net worth individuals are funding local news. Learn how to join them.


Save the whales. No child left behind. Rock the vote. Support local news. 

It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, but local news is poised to become a cause célèbre alongside all the other bumper sticker fodder of years past. 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.

And local news does not have a history of being a cause, a charity, a place for those people with means to show their philanthropy. Instead, local news is associated with newspaper chains, large broadcast TV conglomerates and perhaps public media. And public media has the tried-and-true business model that is informing the new round of nonprofits in local news. “We thank this foundation… and that foundation… and viewers like you.”

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.

Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of tech mogul Steve Jobs, has been investing in media outlets such as The Atlantic and Pop-Up Magazine. She also supports the new American Journalism Project, which will provide “venture philanthropy” to civic news organizations. (Venture philanthropy combines techniques from venture capital investing and applies them to help achieve philanthropic goals.) Powell Jobs doesn’t see her work as charity, but as a way to bridge the gap as newer organizations find their way to sustainability. 

“I actually think that we should think about [local journalism] as a civic good, a public good that should be supported by public and private entities,” Powell Jobs told Recode’s Kara Swisher earlier this year.

As that mindset changes, more institutional foundations, high net-worth individuals (i.e. billionaires) and even tech giants such as Google and Facebook are making varied investments into local news around the country.

Knight Foundation has made a commitment to spend $300 million over 5 years to support local news. Such philanthropists and foundations should take note about where Knight has placed their bets, and consider doubling down, where possible.

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.”

We have seen a series of billionaires, many from the technology world, swoop in as white knights to save long-standing legacy publications. That includes Amazon founder Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post, investor John Henry buying the Boston Globe and Salesforce founder Marc Benioff buying Time magazine. While many of these splashy buyouts are much larger prestige national or regional news outlets, the appeal for supporting smaller local outlets is not as apparent.

What moves the needle to bring other supporters into the fold is 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.

“We’re only a decade into local news as a charitable cause,” said Jason Alcorn, vice president of operations at the American Journalism Project. “People are much more familiar with giving to environmental causes or social causes or policy and political causes… What’s exciting to me about the American Journalism Project and the other programs Knight is supporting with its local news initiative is that these are ways to take action and do something about it in a meaningful and quantifiable way.”

As Alcorn points out, many American foundations have sat on the sidelines when it comes to supporting local news because they are focused on other cultural issues or concerns. But as the devastation in local news spreads across the country, it will be difficult to ignore or downplay.

“The foundation world will get there because people understand the urgency about informed communities, and helping people understand issues that they need to vote on,” said Melissa Davis, vice president of strategic communications & informed communities at the Gates Family Foundation. 

“I think it will happen more because the industry has gotten to a dire place and people are seeing it more. It’s a slow-moving avalanche. Pretty soon you have local papers shutting down that have been around for 100 years, and people don’t have that independent news source. Their business model will include a slice from philanthropy.”

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 as well as nonprofits. LION executive director Chris Krewson noted that local news outlets which clearly communicated their mission, their outlook, and their goals would receive more funding as well.

“Foundations and high net-worth individuals should recognize that this is the kind of investment that will make a big impact on communities where they live, where they grew up,” Krewson said. “And LION’s place in that intersection is unique because there aren’t that many nonprofits that support for-profits the way that we do.”

Another great support system for local news comes from the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), helping them cover not just problems in a community, but evidence-based solutions as well. SJN has been supporting the growing number of news collaboratives around the country, including a newer effort in Charlotte, NC.

“We had a convening of funders in Charlotte,” said Liza Gross, VP of newsroom practice change at SJN. “We don’t just go and say ‘fund the Charlotte Collaborative.’ We started further back by talking about the state of journalism today, the role of journalism for freedom of information in a democracy and community. Why is that important? Then we go into the crisis, and crumbling traditional business model, and say now is the time to step in. We’re not asking you to fund a newspaper or three news organizations—we’re asking you to support the free flow of information in your community to make it a better community.”

This is the way that networks and collaboratives can work to improve local news: When the network gets stronger, then the nodes on that network are more robust and can bring support to the edge of the network. A more established network is taking shape in Philadelphia, where funders such as Knight Foundation, Lenfest Institute for Journalism, Solutions Journalism Network, and the new Independence Public Media Foundation are making a deep impact.

Jim Friedlich, executive director of the Lenfest Institute, notes that they take an “ecosystem approach” to supporting local media in Philadelphia.

“That [means] trying to engage digital startups, that’s leveraging partnerships with public media and public radio in particular,” he said. “A major grant from the Knight-Lenfest Local Transformation Fund is for Resolve Philadelphia, which is a collaboration of 20 organizations in Philly covering poverty and economic justice.”

When national foundations team up with local foundations, as they have done for this Philadelphia collaborative, the project is stronger and more sustainable.

And that’s where many of these efforts to support local news stand apart from previous attempts: There is a sense of collegiality and cooperation that was missing, a feeling that funders, journalists and community members are all in this together. And for each news organization that makes some progress, there’s a sense of responsibility to share the results with others.

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 in the industry: 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. This is especially significant because such reporting often serves as the backbone for on-air stories by local radio and TV stations. The bright spot was digital-native newsrooms, which nearly doubled in staff over the past 10 years, but still didn’t come close to making up for the losses.

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 announced a new class of 61 reporters being placed for a year in newsrooms all over.

“With Report for America, for example, journalism is viewed as a national service,” said Raney Aronson, executive producer of PBS FRONTLINE. “The country needed teachers, so teachers went into communities to teach. So journalism will be seen as such. Increasingly people will see that someone needs to step into the breach. Suddenly in the last year or two, the crisis got worse. New news organizations are starting to form, local non-profit consortiums are starting to form, but how do you sustain them financially?”

Similar to RFA, both ProPublica and more recently FRONTLINE, have created local reporting networks where they fund or place reporters into newsrooms to cover one topic in-depth, with support from the national news organization. The idea is to make sure crucial topics are investigated over a longer period of time, that local news outlets have the resources they need for these kinds of stories, and that those stories make an impact on a community – and around the country.

Another issue that needs to be addressed right now is the division and hatred that has formed between competing political sides in the U.S. today. Cortico is a startup that was spun out of the MIT Media Lab, and aims to build bridges in communities through unique conversations that are played for news outlets so they hear new voices. Cortico has already received funding from LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and craigslist founder Craig Newmark, among others.  

“Our specific approach is to build bridges between tribes,” said Russell Stevens, co-founder of Cortico. “Plenty of people in foundations want to support that. How to bring in the not-the-usual-suspects in funding? It’s the community. [We service] the news media, local news media, but also the community with these conversation networks. Too many people’s voices are not being heard through traditional or social media.”

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, was able to launch a new local news outlet for Youngstown called Mahoning Matters within 40 days of the newspaper closing.

“The goal is to not only support the dissemination of news in these communities, but also make the local operations financially self-sustaining, through experimentation with a variety of revenue models,” wrote Mandy Jenkins, general manager of the Compass Experiment. “We will also document and share what we’ve learned with the broader news community, with the intention of creating successful models that can be replicated elsewhere.”

Many projects are making a priority that underserved communities get coverage and that diverse-led media organizations have the unique support they need. That’s been a fundamental goal and vision for Knight’s grantees in local news, and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism has made that a key part of the equation when they give grants.

Roxann Stafford, managing director of the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, said that the Fund is focused on understanding that “equity is innovation” and that you can’t separate digital transformation from diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Media makers of color are at the front lines of a lot of the issues that the media industry is facing, around sustainability and business models and best practices around engagement with communities,” Stafford said. “So why not learn from those folks what they would like to see us do when it comes to expanding an entrepreneurial mindset? We are in the process of doing listener tours, co-design sessions with media makers of color in Philadelphia and around the country.”

Not only do communities rely on reporters to tell them what’s going on, but reporters rely on the community to take heed of their work and trust the reporting process. That’s been difficult in recent years as the media has been demonized as spreading “fake news” and more people tune out. A key to turning this around is promoting news literacy, in general, and digital news literacy in particular, as more people get their news from places like Facebook.

A leader in this struggle is the News Literacy Project, which helps teach students digital literacy and trains teachers so they can bring lessons into the classroom. Alan Miller, the founder and CEO of News Literacy Project, says that their goal is to become a community of practice for 20,000 educators to reach 3 million middle school and high school students per year. 

“We want to become advocates for systemic change,” Miller said. “Starting in schools, districts and ultimately states. We want to forge that into a real live network, connected network, and if we are successful it would make us one of the largest educational organizations in the country. It would facilitate not only expanding our reach and impact but also impact state education standards.”

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, which only works with informed communities; they care about other topics and issues which need local coverage for people to fully understand those topics; they want to make sure all voices and 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.

Josh Stearns, director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund, has spent a lot of time focused on explaining why local journalism matters to foundations and high-net worth individuals. 

“Why should people give to journalism? Journalism is a foundation for everything else you care about,” he said. “For some people there’s a deep-seated concern about their community being informed. They look at their local newspaper and see it crumbling, falling apart or shrinking and it concerns them. They don’t know where they’re going to get trusted information. For some, that’s their motivation, but for many, media is the secondary issue. Whether you care about climate change or reproductive rights or whatever it might be, making sure there is really good journalism about those things is critically important.”

Steven Waldman, co-founder and president of Report for America, agrees with this line of reasoning and says that they often mention it in outreach to new funders. “We’ve just started using this line with education funders: There’s a whole massive world of philanthropy that’s put money into education and school reform,” he said. “Our message is ‘How is that working out reforming schools without any reporters covering education?’ You need to keep parents informed.”

Making the connection between the importance of democracy, informed communities and the health of local journalism is crucial. 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.” 

“We live in neighborhoods, big and small, and need to know what’s going on at City Hall and on the school board, and maybe to whom that lost dog belongs,” he said. “Trustworthy local news helps to ensure that all Americans have a good, working knowledge of our government, our communities, and more. This is critical to a healthy democracy because it produces thoughtful voters, citizens, and neighbors. But at a time when we urgently need reliable sources of comprehensive coverage at the local level, grassroots news organizations are closing down at alarming rates, creating news deserts across the country…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, here are 13 Knight Foundation grantees and their projects, which offer great launching pads. The advantages are that Knight and other foundations are already on board, so that lowers the risk, and most of these are established organizations with strong track records.

Funding capacity
NewsMatch: For every donation given from November 1 to December 31 each year to nonprofit newsrooms that participate, a group of foundations give matching funds to double, and in some cases, triple support for that news organization. Last year, NewsMatch helped raise $7.6 million for 154 newsrooms around the country, with 240,000 individual donors. 

Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund: The Fund has a particular focus in supporting U.S. metropolitan areas, and fostering journalism innovation, community engagement, technology and business models. Includes change-management training for newsroom leaders, a technology resource hub and a continued focus on the Philadelphia area where the Lenfest Institute for Journalism is based.

Funding topics and boots on the ground
Report for America (RFA): A groundbreaking project that places reporters covering specific topics into newsrooms around the country that need resources. RFA only covers half the funding, while the news organization covers 25% and a local funder or crowdfunding campaign covers the other 25%. 

ProPublica Local Reporting Network: Funds a full-time reporter’s salary at one newsroom for a year to cover one in-depth topic, with support from ProPublica on editing, data, research, engagement, audience and production/design. The project started in 2018 with seven newsrooms, and expanded this year to 20 newsrooms, including newspapers, public media and online publications. 

PBS FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Project: Like the ProPublica network, FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Project will fund a full-time reporter in existing local newsrooms around the country with up to $75,000 for salary plus benefits, and support from FRONTLINE’s staff on investigations. But unlike the ProPublica network, the focus will be on visual journalism, with video and TV content, and eventually full-length documentaries.

Subsidize the business and technology of news
American Journalism Project (AJP): Aims to invest in what it calls “civic news organizations” (CNOs) around the country to increase their revenue-generating capacity. The AJP has already put out a call to social entrepreneurs who are interested in investments from the $50 million fund AJP has raised so far – money that could go toward existing news organizations or new ones looking to launch.

News Revenue Hub: Offers a suite of services to support local news outlets, with everything from donation processing and email marketing to analytics and training. While the AJP is making investments directly into news organizations, the News Revenue Hub gets fees from news organizations who received funding from local and place-based foundations to subsidize the cost. 

Strengthen the networks, associations, and support ecosystem
Solutions Journalism Network (SJN): Helps newsrooms around the world tell stories in new ways, by focusing not exclusively on problems but also on ways that communities are addressing those problems. The Network helps train journalists in newsrooms and even keeps a database of the 6,600+ solutions journalism stories that have been told. 

Institute for Nonprofit News (INN): Helps support nonprofit newsrooms who are taking on watchdog and neighborhood reporting that has dropped off with cuts to newspaper and legacy media staff. Offers connection to members to fundraising with NewsMatch as well as trainings, resources and events.

Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION): Made up mostly of for-profits in its membership, with some nonprofits who overlap with INN. LION is a bit younger and scrappier than INN, but is now focusing on how it can build a new “Starter Kit” to help communities who may have become news deserts (without their own publication covering the community). Has an annual conference in the fall, and provides an online forum and trainings for support.

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP): Has provided free legal services for journalists around the country since 1970. With its recent grant from Knight, the RCFP aims to triple the number of attorneys on the ground in communities so journalists can get local support rather than looking for help from the Committee’s DC headquarters.

Fund education, news literacy and community ‘listening’
News Literacy Project: Fighting misinformation around the country by training teachers at in-person NewsLitCamps to then take back lesson plans for their students. The nonprofit has helped train more than 19,000 educators and 128,000 students in half the countries in the world through its Checkology online course.

Cortico: Startup born at MIT Media Lab has developed the Local Voices Network (LVN) which combines in-person dialogues and digital listening to help the media better understand the communities they serve and issues they care about. The nonprofit has developed its own “Hearth” hardware that records community conversations in homes, libraries and other places in Madison, Wisc., Boston and the Bronx, with Birmingham, Ala. coming soon.

Guidance on philanthropic funding of media and news, by the American Press Institute

The expanding news desert, by Penelope Muse Abernathy

Dying gasp of one local newspaper, by Richard Fausset, New York Times