Opening Remarks by Maribel Pérez Wadsworth at Knight Media Forum 2024

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Good morning! Welcome to the 17th annual Knight Media Forum. And welcome to Miami, my beautiful, dynamic hometown.

Miami is a city of opportunity, a place where generations fleeing the darkness of repression have arrived to seek new beginnings and brighter futures.

My own family came here from Cuba in 1961. Two generations later, we are proud Americans — and, like so many of us, have come to understand that democracy is not easy to rebuild once it’s torn down.

That’s a powerful reminder of why this moment for American democracy is so critical. And it’s why the work we’re gathered here to do — our efforts to reinvigorate local news and to support our communities — is so important.

Since this is my first Knight Media Forum as CEO of Knight Foundation, let me take a moment to tell you a bit more about myself.

I began my career as a news assistant and reporter in the AP’s Miami bureau. I spent many years working as a reporter and editor in local Gannett newsrooms — starting as the agricultural beat reporter at the Register Star in Rockford, Illinois — before taking on senior business roles in innovation, strategy, and transformation. Just over a year ago, I stepped down as president of Gannett Media and publisher of USA Today.

So for nearly three decades, I’ve had a front-row seat as technology reshaped our relationship with the news and information that is the lifeblood of our democracy.

The pace of change and disruption was at times exhilarating, bringing new tools for creating journalism and new ways to connect with audiences. It was also, at times, really hard.

Exhilarating and hard — and always worth it.

Witnessing the profound and positive impact of journalism on communities and individuals is what kept me committed to the fight for sustainable solutions.

And that fight continues to grow more urgent.

Technology has fundamentally transformed how we communicate, enabling more news sources to flourish, more people to access them, and all sorts of communities to find one another and come together. It has democratized who gets to tell the story.

Yet at the same time, technology has unleashed viral disinformation and sorted society into like-minded bubbles, two developments so destructive to our democratic process. We’re seeing that again this election cycle, as misinformation and news avoidance threaten civic engagement and undermine trust in the institutions that bind us together.

The digital revolution has decimated the business model that for so long supported our information ecosystem. Ad- and subscriber-based media once generated sufficient revenue to support ambitious reporting — and it also kept sources of revenue diversified, so that no one advertiser or funder had the power to influence content. But that model is no longer working.

The thrill of my new role is that I am now at the forefront of the hunt for solutions. We have work to do, and I am truly honored to be doing it alongside all of you.

It will be exhilarating and hard — and always worth it.

If there is one message I want you to take away from this gathering, it’s that we are well past time to just be talking about solutions. We need a bias toward action. Collectively, we have seeded countless projects designed to support sustainable news operations over the years we’ve been meeting at this Forum. We have boldly, persistently experimented. Some of those experiments have developed into successes.

Maribel Pérez Wadsworth poses for a portrait.

Five years ago at KMF, Knight announced the creation of the American Journalism Project to help launch and support nonprofit newsrooms, and to provide guidance to the people running those newsrooms. Today AJP is supporting dozens of news nonprofits all across the country, helping them build their revenue and hone their operations. And it has recently launched new statewide efforts in Ohio, Indiana, and Nebraska, with more on the horizon.

The National Trust for Local News — the Knight Foundation’s partner in Central Georgia — is buying and transforming legacy community news brands, converting them to nonprofits and focusing on financial stability.

NewsMatch and News Revenue Hub are organizations that help nonprofit newsrooms turbo-charge their fundraising. Together, they’ve helped local newsrooms raise more than $350 million. There are dozens of other examples.

Yet, very few news organizations supported by these efforts have become successes at scale. And we are running out of time.

Worthy nonprofit efforts are running out of funding. Major news outlets are facing devastating layoffs.

Medill’s State of Local News report found that the loss of local newspapers accelerated in 2023 to an average of 2.5 per week, creating new news deserts in more than 200 counties. Countless others are ghost newspapers, they have a product but no local journalists. Today, more than half of all U.S. counties have limited access to reliable local news and information.

The best time for solutions was yesterday, as the saying goes — but the next best time is right now.

It is time — now — for philanthropy to move at the speed of news.

Last fall, in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation and more than 20 other philanthropies, we announced Press Forward, an investment of a half-billion dollars — and counting — to strengthen democracy by supporting local news.

John Palfrey, president of MacArthur and former chair of our Knight board, will join me on stage in a moment to talk more about that work.

Knight committed $150 million to Press Forward — doubling our commitment to journalism to $300 million over the next five years!

Most of it will not be funding investigative projects or specific reporting positions; rather, we are focused on building sustainable models for independent journalism.

Three hundred million dollars — on top of the $632 million Knight has invested in journalism since 2005 — sounds like a lot of money, and it is a lot of money. But it’s not nearly enough.

Philanthropy is not a business model — it’s a revenue stream. ‘Nonprofit’ is not a business model — it’s a tax status. And, by the way, billionaire ownership is not a business model.

No matter how a news organization is structured, or who owns it, it requires multiple and diverse revenue streams to provide stability and allow for independence, and the trust that comes with it. It still requires revenue that outpaces expenses. It requires product-market fit. It requires an audience. And it requires a cost structure that aligns to that revenue.

Knight’s investments are designed to help publishers find those necessary levers for success. We are in it with you, and together we will crack the code of sustainability.

Today I am excited to announce a new set of tools to do just that. Knight Foundation and Pew Research Center are developing research that will improve our understanding of how Americans gather information and how that information fuels their beliefs, shapes their identities, and inspires civic participation. Together, we are committing 20 million dollars to this new effort.

This research will go beyond measuring the information people receive and will focus on what they choose to trust, act upon, and share with others. Our aim is to understand how disruptions in today’s news environment are fundamentally changing the way people consume information, and what these disruptions mean for American society. 

Our industry also needs strong public policy, one of Press Forward’s key pillars. Some are rightfully skeptical about government assistance for news.

Poorly designed policies would undermine editorial independence and threaten press freedom. But given the scale of the challenge, I believe that government action — nonpartisan, content-neutral policies — can and should be part of the solution — for all size news operations.

We’ve seen government intervention work elsewhere in the world. Australia and Canada both passed laws in recent years requiring social media companies to pay a fee to the news outlets whose content fills their platforms. In its first year, the Australian law brought almost $150 million to publishers.

There are models elsewhere, too. The South African Media Development and Diversity Agency, a partnership between government and major media outlets, has supported community and local media there since 2004. In the Netherlands, the government-funded Dutch Journalism Fund has, since the mid-1970s, supported struggling media organizations.

In the US, there are also promising policy discussions happening on the state level.

We are a country that saw journalism as so integral to democracy that we guaranteed press freedom in our First Amendment. Surely, our legislators can find effective ways to support solutions aimed at saving quality, sustainable, independent local journalism.

And finally, the news industry needs you – the funders, the journalists and the entrepreneurs in the room.

Our Knight investments are significant, but they must be catalysts for further support. There are hundreds of funders here today, and you are the donors who will make a difference in your own communities.

I know foundations and philanthropists are eager to support this work — and I know you might need our guidance on how best to do that. Ensuring that local journalism thrives is what will allow our democracy to flourish. But the kind of journalism we support matters. It has to be quality, independent, sustainable, reliable, and – above all – journalism that is representative of and trusted by the communities it serves.

I understand that investing in journalism isn’t a straightforward decision. Journalism involves a complex set of ethics and standards aimed at serving the public and maintaining independence from outside influences. At Knight we believe that it’s not enough to ask you to simply fund journalism; we must help facilitate the process.

That’s why I am excited to share that we’re collaborating with the Poynter Institute to create a program to educate those new to funding journalism. It’ll cover how journalism works and its ethical principles, with the goal of demystifying the field for those unfamiliar with or hesitant about it. This effort will help provide a common language for donors and news organizations alike, which we hope will pave the way for meaningful investments and outcomes. Stay tuned for more details.

And for the journalists, publishers and innovators in the room, we need you to commit to building sustainable new business models with diverse revenues. We need to hold ourselves accountable, measuring reach and impact in our communities. We need you to collaborate when it makes sense. Smart partnerships are a force multiplier.

Around the world, fully half of humanity will be choosing their leaders this year. There is no question that authoritarianism is on the rise. Freedoms are under assault. And we — all of us here today — know that journalism can be a mechanism for confronting these threats head-on. By bringing accountability. By defending values. And by equipping citizens with the information they need to remain informed and engaged.

My parents celebrated democracy, and they ingrained in me that democracy is a privilege, one that requires hard work to maintain.  Democracy goes far beyond Election Day. Sustaining democracy is the hard work every day after. All of you in this room are putting in that work.

And so I ask you to recognize the stakes, and to share my sense of urgency. The time to act is here. The time to bring vital dollars off the sidelines and into the battle is right now. No one is coming to save us. WE are the protectors of the local news and information that will safeguard our democracy.

By the time you leave Miami, I hope that you will reach some conclusions about what efforts you can support, what investments you can make, to help ensure the reliable flow of information that allows democracy to flourish and our communities to thrive. And I hope the journalists and news leaders in the room will recommit to building sustainable business models with diverse revenues, reach, and relevance.

When we look back on these few days together, will we feel pride in what we started? Will we see that we took a stand commensurate with the challenge?

My ambition, our shared ambition, is that the $500 million seed investment in Press Forward will grow into a bigger, bolder statement — three or four times bigger, at least — that creates a sustainable, locally-driven path to secure journalism’s future and ensure our democracy endures.

Thank you for being here today. Thank you for joining this fight. Thank you for your commitment to this work. Thank you for your willingness to act with urgency — at the speed of news.

It will be exhilarating and hard – and always, always worth it.