How Local Foundations Can Support Local News – Knight Foundation

How Local Foundations Can Support Local News

Local foundations are stepping up to fund nonprofit, for-profit and collaborative journalism projects around the country. Here is how to join them.


Place-based foundations typically focus their energy on supporting nonprofits and charities in their geographic area, but rarely have they thought about supporting local news. But that has changed dramatically in the past five years, as more of these foundations start to see local newspapers and legacy media struggle, while nonprofit, public media and for-profit digital natives offer new ways to inform citizens on crucial topics of interest.

Feather Houstoun, the senior advisor for public media and journalism at the Wyncote Foundation, remembers the moment when she realized how important local journalism was in Philadelphia.

“The way I got into this as president of the William Penn Foundation, was thinking, ‘Oh my god, nobody is watching the Zoning Board, no one is watching the Planning Commission, and only the insiders have any idea what’s going on,” she told me in a recent interview. “That was the genesis for PlanPhilly [in 2006], which has now been taken over by WHYY.”

Houstoun notes that anemic local news staffing leads to less coverage of topics of interest to foundations, such as public health and solutions for underserved communities. “We were deeply into planning and zoning. We knew if we didn’t have aggressive coverage and smart people following it, the plan would just go on the shelf,” she said.

This is becoming a common fear among local funders: If there is no press coverage for their issues, for their areas of focus, then the work they support will not have the necessary impact. Most foundations consider their communications departments as the main way they can maintain press coverage and drive community awareness. But if that local press shrivels, how do they get visibility and spur dialogue?

Julie Sandorf, president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation in New York, has been thinking about this problem for years, and most recently shepherded Revson’s $2.5 million grant to help create a new digital-native publication The City. To convince her Board of Directors to make this very bold grant, Revson had to raise a dollar-for-dollar matching grant (which came from Craigslist founder and journalism philanthropist Craig Newmark), identify an editor-in-chief and publisher, and expand The City’s board from three to five people. 

“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,” she told me. “The best way to do that is through quality local journalism. The best way to have civic engagement is to have quality local journalism. The studies are bearing that out. It’s not sold as journalism, it’s sold as, ‘If you care about any issue in this town, then you need to put aside some portion of your spending to support strong, quality local journalism that makes an impact.’ ” 

Challenges for Local Foundations Funding Journalism
Many place-based foundations aren’t comfortable funding journalism directly. Quality, independent reporting means having no interference or input from funders, and many of those in-depth reports can unearth uncomfortable truths in a community. Taking the leap into funding local news can be challenging and a stretch for many foundations, but working with other seasoned funders in collaboration can help many of them take the leap.

LaMonte Guillory, chief communications officer for LOR Foundation, helped spearhead the “Small Towns, Big Change” collaboration in 2016. This eventually became a larger Mountain West project with 50+ newsrooms and three other place-based foundations supporting it. The goal was to cover smaller communities in the region, take on tough topics such as poverty, health care access and water rights. But the key was having a focus on how to address those issues head-on, and LOR partnered with Solutions Journalism Network to help change the local news dynamic from covering the litany of problems until people tuned out.

Guillory took a “soft sell” approach to other local foundations, speaking at events and hosting a series of webinars for funders so they could hear how journalists and the Solutions Journalism Network operates. Eventually he brought in The Kendeda Fund, The Santa Fe Community Foundation and the Thornburg Foundation with a total of $600,000 in funding for the collaboration.

Guillory told me that foundations have a “litany of excuses” when it comes to why they won’t fund local media. But he succeeded by changing the lens for foundations to finding solutions for communities rather than just helping to save local media.

“Our approach was not through the lens of: ‘Here are the side effects of not having local news’ but ‘Here are the side effects of having it,’” Guillory said. “Flipping the narrative: Here’s what you get if you have strong local news. Here’s how your community benefits, here’s how people benefit. It removed the blame game.” 

How Convenings Can Help
For place-based foundations that want to get started in supporting local news, a great first step is a convening of the key stakeholders, including activists, politicians, journalists and community members who care about the health of their town. The discussion should center on social issues that aren’t being addressed in the community — or in the media. To inform or follow up on the convening, foundations can fund landscape studies to better understand the needs of people in the community.

That was part of the strategy that the Gates Family Foundation employed before helping create the Colorado Media Project, which connects Colorado news organizations and journalists with funding, training, technology and other relevant programs. They consider themselves to be “ecosystem builders,” so funding for the Project is not going directly to content or one news organization, and includes nonprofits and for-profits.

Melissa Davis, vice president of strategic communications & informed communities at the Gates Family Foundation (not to be confused with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), told me that these convenings and studies can help lay the groundwork for transformational change in a city or region.

“I’ve seen a number of other communities, where they start with convenings, raising awareness, hearing from normal people about what they care about,” Davis said. “I’ve seen communities do landscape studies, like we did, that quantify what’s going on in the sector so we have something to go to the community to show what’s going on: ‘Here are the gaps. What do we want to do as a community?’”

The Colorado Media Project was born out of the crisis at the Denver Post, with a front-page editorial in April 2018 decrying draconian job cuts by its owner Alden Global Capital. Despite the outcry for a buyout, the hedge fund owner wouldn’t sell, leading many community leaders to support other media in the market, including the Colorado Sun, now backed by the blockchain media startup Civil. 

Davis said that while most of their conversations have been in Denver, she would like to see those meetings reach out into the rural areas of the state as well. 

“For foundations it’s moving the conversation beyond the journalists, because they’ve been talking about it for 10 or 15 years, and no matter how creative they want to be, they are still thinking about it in terms of the newspaper,” she said.

Funding Strategies
The most direct way for a local foundation to get started in funding local media is to make connections with any nonprofit, public media or for-profit outlet in their community that is amenable to getting donations or targeted grants. However, many foundations are skittish about making these connections, or don’t have experience funding media. For that reason, Knight Foundation suggests a number of funding strategies 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.
One of the most impactful ways to fund local media is for foundations to team up. The NewsMatch project has been a collaborative success story around the country. The fund was launched in 2017 by Knight Foundation, but is now supported by an open collaborative fund at The Miami Foundation, with many national funders supporting the program. How does it work? For every donation given from November 1 to December 31 each year to participating nonprofit newsrooms, 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. 

That money goes to capacity-building in newsrooms around the country, but foundations also have a chance to fund coverage of more specific topics in communities as a “supporting partner.” In fact, for 2019 REI Co-op will be matching $100,000 in donations to 10 newsrooms around the country to cover environmental and outdoor issues. There is a potential for local foundations to fund topics in a similar way at specific newsrooms as supporting partners. And NewsMatch includes the potential to triple local foundation investments by matching their matches. So for each individual donation that comes into a chosen newsroom, the local foundation and the group of national foundations will match those donations. These “local matches” are made through the local newsrooms’ fundraising efforts, not from NewsMatch.

NewsMatch is more than just a great matching mechanism for donations. The program also includes a national awareness campaign about supporting local news, provides 500+ hours of training to local newsrooms and creates a “campaign-in-a-box” toolkit for participating newsrooms to help them raise money. Plus there is a national day of action called #GivingNewsDay that works in coordination with Giving Tuesday, which lands on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving and is considered the start of the year-end charitable donation season around Christmas.

As Josh Stearns, director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund, pointed out in his detailed report on the 2018 NewsMatch campaign: “NewsMatch is also creating new on-ramps for local and national foundations around the country to easily support and strengthen nonprofit journalism. NewsMatch has been designed as an open and trusted place for funders who want to invest in local news and investigative reporting and learn more about effectively supporting journalism.”

Another vehicle for local foundations to support news in their community is through 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. Rather than supporting nonprofit newsrooms, this Fund so far has been aimed at supporting for-profit newsrooms at metro newspapers, especially with cohorts of editors getting support and training in digital transformation. The support project was initially called “Table Stakes,” but is now being called the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative. 

The Fund has also given $2 million to a new project News Catalyst, which will support local news organizations with tools, technology and training to make them more sustainable. The effort is housed at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication, and led by news technology veteran Aron Pilhofer.

The Fund’s executive director Roxann Stafford is focusing on bringing in more ethnic media for support in the future, and the project’s work in Philadelphia has taken an ecosystem approach including digital news startups, public media and radio. 

How can local foundations get involved?

“The structure of the overall fund is designed so that other cities and other local funders can and we hope will join the effort,” Lenfest Institute’s executive director Jim Friedlich told me. “There are several leverageable components to the work that add depth to that idea — like using our 501(c)3 structure and learning from our own lessons.”

Friedlich notes that many foundations require grantees to have nonprofit status, so Lenfest or a local nonprofit can act as a fiscal sponsor to provide a glide-path for funding to for-profit news outlets. He gives the example of the Seattle Times associating with the Seattle Foundation as a fiscal sponsor so it could receive gifts in the public interest. He says that many local foundations might not be adept at the nuances of digital transformation, so Lenfest could provide important assistance for them.

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 the mission of the foundation. These types of stories could help keep the foundation’s priorities fresh in the minds of key people in the community.

For example, Report for America (RFA) is a groundbreaking project that places reporters covering specific topics into newsrooms around the country that need resources. But what makes the program sustainable is that RFA only covers half the funding, while the news organization covers 25% and a local funder or crowdfunding campaign covers the other 25%. The new round of corps members include reporters covering religion in Chattanooga, Tenn., hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and Native American issues in Montana and Wyoming.

“We say [to local foundations] that for $10,000, you can fund a full time reporter for a full year – so it’s a cost-effective way to make a difference,” Steven Waldman, co-founder and president of RFA told me. The No. 1 question he gets is about the sustainability of the program, but Waldman points out that “community journalism will only survive if a community supports it. So we believe if we can get new money off the sidelines, then we can make these positions more permanent.”

There are two other projects Knight Foundation supports that help create more local content on important topics – but these reports are all investigative, digging deeper for months at a time. One is the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, which 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 recently expanded to 20 newsrooms, including newspapers, public media and online publications. Recently, the Network added an application for a reporter in Youngstown, Ohio, after the closure of the only major newspaper there.

The Local Reporting Network so far has included coverage of topics such as the lack of law enforcement in 1 in 3 Alaskan villages (Anchorage Daily News), how a Memphis non-profit hospital sued poor patients and even employees over unpaid medical bills (MLK50) and how failings in the Rhode Island 911 system put people into harm’s way (The Public’s Radio). 

A similar initiative, the Local Journalism Project, was just announced by FRONTLINE, the PBS investigative program. 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. The difference is that FRONTLINE focuses on visual journalism first and foremost, with video and TV content, possibly leading to long-form documentaries.

“We are focused in particular on places in the country with limited resources for investigative reporting,” Raney Aronson-Rath, executive producer of FRONTLINE, told me. “We want to bolster local news in these regions as well as provide support and training in investigative reporting and visual storytelling. Our goal is to have a meaningful collaboration with local reporters and editors, so they can produce in-depth stories that have an impact in their communities, and may even resonate with wider audiences.”

Strategy #3: Subsidizing the business or technology of local news.
If there is one weakness leading to the downfall of many local news organizations it’s a failure to innovate their business model in the face of digital transformation. One way to counteract that trend is to fund projects that are helping news outlets improve their businesses, diversify revenues and deeply engage in communities. A rising initiative in that vein is the new American Journalism Project (AJP), which 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.

“We model it on support like venture philanthropy; these are meant to be catalytic support for organizations to help them move toward sustainability,” AJP vice president of operations Jason Alcorn told me. “These are structured as grants, as we don’t expect to make a return…We won’t ask for our money back, that stays in the organization, and serves to increase revenue generation in the organization, and ultimately increase the resources for newsgathering.”

Another project looking to subsidize the business side of local news operations is 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. 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. This year, the Revson Foundation’s support for The City and Bklyner included money to pay for News Revenue Hub’s services.

“Many news organizations are struggling to grow their audience, so we realized we need to dedicate more resources so they can scale audience development,” Mary Walter-Brown, CEO, president and founder of the News Revenue Hub told me. “We need to build out that side of our team, and want to help out the broader sector… We have a lot of conversations with placed-based foundations, who are more focused on sponsoring a local news organization to join the Hub.”

Strategy #4: Strengthen the networks, associations and support ecosystem.
How can a place-based foundation’s funding become a force-multiplier for support of local news? There are a number of networks and associations that support local news and can bring their power to bear on problems happening in a region or community. 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 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 around the world. 

While there was a time when every local news organization viewed the others in their market as hated competition, times are changing, and they realize they can accomplish more together. That’s how collaboratives took hold in Philadelphia, Charlotte and elsewhere, with newspapers joining with nonprofits, public media, for-profit digital startups and even commercial local TV to cover topics such as prisoner re-entry and poverty.

As Liza Gross, VP of newsroom practice change at SJN, told me, “When the collaboratives form, they are not legal entities, can’t process invoices or prepare reports; so when they start, we must be there. We are active players, so the place-based foundations need to fund SJN and then we can sub-grant to the collaboratives.”

How do you support newer local nonprofits and even for-profit digital startups in communities? Two newer associations, the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) and the Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION) both help these more nascent efforts to 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, and they have important annual events to help train and support their publisher members.

INN focuses solely on nonprofit newsrooms, who are eligible to participate in NewsMatch to get matching funds during their big year-end fundraising drives. INN executive director and CEO Sue Cross told me that she is getting more calls from people who aren’t journalists, but who are local foundations, businesspeople and civic activists, and she’s even creating a 10-point guide for community foundations in Canada. 

“We end up consulting beyond what you would think of as the mission of INN,” she said. “I sat with people in Cleveland, Ohio, and they are looking to rebuild Cleveland, which is my hometown. They are doing story-level grants to for-profits primarily but they needed help, so I gave them some feedback on their grants and budgets… Why did I take the time to do this? It is the seed of broad interest in civic interest groups in Northern Ohio, and if it works they can really build a lot more community support, and if it’s messy or a problem, it could chill interest.”

LION, by contrast, is 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). While it doesn’t have a history of working with community foundations, LION’s new executive director Chris Krewson is bullish on the idea of working with them to help harness local support for new local digital startups. “I think LION is a natural fit for community foundations,” he said, and some of them have approached LION after layoffs or closure of local newspapers. 

As Krewson notes, “nonprofit ownership doesn’t guarantee stability,” pointing to recent layoffs at the Philadelphia Inquirer, which is now owned by the Lenfest Institute. Support for LION and INN leads to stronger networks, meaning that their trainings, convenings and tools and vendor discounts can help stabilize the field just as new players start to gain a foothold.

One support network that takes a unique angle at helping local journalists is the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), which 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.

“What’s appealing to us is having lawyers regionally located, because there’s a difference litigating cases from Washington vs. having a local presence,” RCFP’s Executive Director Bruce Brown told me. “Being there on the ground and being more deeply woven into the local journalism, local clinic or university program, we have an advantage having an attorney there, and it’s a significant one. On the ground, we can do much more work bringing in pro bono support.”

Strategy #5: Fund education, news literacy and community “listening.”
Local journalists are not only fighting for their legal free press rights, but also trying to stem the tide of misinformation, lack of trust and disconnection from the communities they serve. In order to build trust in news, audiences first have to understand what they are reading online, on social media, and in forums. The News Literacy Project has been taking a direct approach to this topic 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.

Supporting a local NewsLitCamp could help bring more understanding of the news into a community, building trust for online news sources. Alan Miller, founder and CEO of the News Literacy Project said they typically cost $25,000 each, and in one case a Camp was supported by a local Kiwanis Club. “That is an opportunity for a local funder to do something quite impactful in a community,” Miller told me. “We get 65 to 100 educators, and they take news literacy back to their classrooms for a big multiplier effect. They engage both journalism and educational institutions in a community to work together.”

Another current failing of American communities are the divides growing between rich and poor, between classes and races, and between liberals and conservatives. One innovative project helping to bridge those gaps is Cortico, and its 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.

As Cortico, which grew out of work at the MIT Media Lab, starts developing its business model and deploys LVNs around the country, local foundations could help launch conversations in their communities, which are then fed into the local media. “We are moving towards a world where people can fund specific LVN deployments,” Russell Stevens, co-founder of Cortico, told me. “So a local foundation could bring it to Tacoma, Wash., for example… We could bring it to a small community or a certain part of a city or bring it to a state.”

Forward Thinking
As the problem of deteriorating coverage from local news outlets hits community after community in America, more place-based foundations will have to step in to shepherd more support for a variety of public-interest media. The days of just cutting a check to a local public media station are long over. Much more needs to be done to make sure that public service reporting is alive and well in cities, suburbs and rural areas of the country. That means supporting newer nonprofit newsrooms, for-profit digital natives, support networks, education and more.

These funding strategies are an entrée, a way to get started in supporting local news in a time of crisis and making a difference in a community. And rather than taking on all the risk themselves, place-based foundations can work hand-in-hand with Knight-funded projects that have experience in fundraising and working with grants. Logically that leads to a deeper understanding and relationship with local news outlets in the foundation’s community so they can make more direct support to them in the future. As the pool of local journalists, local watchdogs, local investigative journalists shrink, there’s no better time for local foundations to help expand what’s possible, building trust in a community and making sure key topics don’t wither from the public’s eye.

For more reading on this topic, check out the following stories and research papers:

Lessons Learned from the Local News Lab, by Molly de Aguilar and Josh Stearns

Funding the News: Foundations and Nonprofit Media, by Matthew Nisbet, John Wihbey, Silje Kristiansen and Aleszu Bajak

A Guide to Assessing Your Local News Ecosystem, by Fiona Morgan for Democracy Fund