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May 22, 2019, 8 a.m.
Business Models

Why local foundations are putting their money behind a rural journalism collaborative

$660,000 to support a 50-member network will go to Solutions Journalism Network and Report for America for one year from a trio of place-based foundations.

In the many questions of the future of local news, philanthropy — and more recently, the support of locally-grown philanthropists and funders — is stepping up as a bigger potential answer.

But media philanthropy, like most everything else about media, is still largely centered on the coasts and in major metropolitan area — even though most everyone regardless of their ZIP code would like access to relevant, quality news. A handful of local foundations (along with Report for America and Solutions Journalism Network) are now upping their commitment for a journalism collaboration across the Mountain West, a.k.a. where those Rockies go from Montana and Idaho down to New Mexico — focusing especially on rural issues and Native American stories.

“The absence of a credible news source for local communities to interact and engage with perhaps would put a [rural] community at a disadvantage. They wouldn’t have access to the same fact-based info as counterparts in urban areas,” said LaMonte Guillory of the LOR Foundation. (It’s a family foundation focused on, well, the Mountain West and started just over a decade ago by Ed Jaramillo and Amy Wyss, the daughter of a Swiss multibillionaire who sold his medical equipment company to Johnson & Johnson.)

The total commitment is $660,000 for one year, but builds on a partnership that originated in 2015. That year, the LOR Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network surveyed 1,540 residents in New Mexico, Colorado, and Montana in 2015, finding that only 20 percent considered their local news to be “consistently relevant and valuable.” Close to 80 percent, Guillory said, said they found most of their local news on Facebook; others named friends and even tavern hearsay as more useful sources than the local newspaper or TV station. “The communities had lost interest in their local newsrooms,” he said. “The problem was the lack of information or credible news in the local markets because the local media was more focused through the lens of problems.”

And there just so happened to be the Solutions Journalism Network. LOR wanted to focus on the problem at scale, Guillory said, to quickly train several newsrooms to focus on solutions in their reporting, which is SJN’s bread and butter. And the group adoption would hopefully help win over solutions skeptics at other local outlets, too.

“Land use or water rights or affordable housing or access to healthcare, to broadband: 90 percent of those issues travel across 90 percent of the community,” SJN president Keith Hammonds said. “The question is how can we create connections between both newsrooms and these civic actors and between the journalists and the civic actors to help the stories and the underlying intelligence travel to where they’re needed across the region?”

(It’s a big question.)

Around the same time, the LOR Foundation and Wyoming Public Media’s general manager, Christina Kuzmych, had started building a relationship (though it made no direct donations to WPM). “They had always been more interested in funding solutions than actual reporting,” Kuzmych said. “I had the feeling LOR was looking for something a little more self-contained than what we had [as a statewide network] and focused on the solutions.”

In 2016, LOR and SJN launched a pilot collaborative between seven New Mexico and Colorado local newsrooms for six months that produced 50 total stories and focused on a different issue in rural communities each month, including healthcare access and water use. In 2017, the collaboration evolved to an expansion of 12 newsrooms in New Mexico and a new collaborative of 12 newsrooms (eight weekly papers, two dailies, and public television) in Montana for nine months. (There was a project editor coordinating all of this, don’t worry.)

Heather Bryant reported on the network’s impact for MediaShift in 2017:

Nick Ehli, an editor with the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, is participating in the Montana project. He currently has a reporter in Bend, Oregon reporting on a nearby community that has a challenge Bozeman also faces: much of the working population commutes into town from surrounding communities.

“We would’ve never done that without Solutions Journalism. We might’ve thought it was a good idea. But with budgets being what they are, it would’ve been a tough sell,” Ehli says.

The Daily Chronicle has two of its six reporters working on stories for the collaboration. Ehli says the appeal of participation was the openness about the reporting focus.

“That they didn’t come in telling us what the big story was in Montana was something I was looking for,” Ehli says. “They’ve almost been just a facilitator with this bigger group working together, keeping us on track, setting our deadlines, offering up financial assistance when needed.”

Over three years, LOR and SJN built up a network of 50 newsrooms like High Country News, Albuquerque’s NPR affiliate KUNM, the Civil newsroom of mostly Denver Post expats the Colorado Sun, the Idaho Times-News in Twin Falls, and Montana PBS. But they kept hitting the roadblock of manpower: There just weren’t enough reporters in these newsrooms to continue growing the solutions approach.

In the meantime, Guillory had been hosting webinars for other place-based funders interested in supporting journalism. “Just funding the essence of newsrooms getting better and having more tools and resources at their disposal, they will unearth and uncover issues that are inherently important to our philanthropic model,” he said. By covering issues like healthcare, education, water scarcity, and mental illness, “they’ve helped us as the foundation be a better listener at the kinds of issues that are happening on the ground so we can be an even more engaged organization and we have better access to what’s happening on the ground.”

Soon a handful of other local foundations were on board: The Kendeda Fund, a family foundation started by Diana Blank, the ex-wife of the Atlanta Falcons owner and Home Depot co-founder, is based in Atlanta but includes Montana’s community-supported environmental well-being as a program area. The New Mexico Local News Fund is a new entity thanks to a $400,000 investment by Democracy Fund via the Santa Fe Community Foundation and also the Thornburg Foundation, created by the chair of a Santa Fe-based investment firm. (Sarah Gustavus, the New Mexico fund’s program coordinator, is also SJN’s Mountain West regional manager.)

I’ll spare you the logistics, but those local foundations have now committed a total of $660,000 for one year to expand SJN’s engagement training in newsrooms in their respective states and also bring in seven Report for America participants. SJN is acting as a buffer between the foundations and the newsrooms, many of which are for-profit, and RFA is getting direct money as well. Over the next few months, Hammonds said, a to-be-hired coordinator will lay the groundwork for the network, while the RFA reporters — including two with Native American roots — join the newsrooms in June. (Report for America’s model funds half of a reporter’s annual salary for the first year of their work, the news outlet provides a quarter, and a local supporter, like a local foundation, is supposed to cover the last quarter.)

At Wyoming Public Media, Savannah Maher, a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, will be covering the Wind River reservation, which is currently covered by a reporter who’s a six hour drive away. She joins two other remote reporters at the station who are covered by local grants covering regions of the state: a family foundation supporting coverage of the northern part of the state and another in the southeastern quadrant funded by a compilation of individual donors and also the city of Gillette via three-year grants.

“It provides a reporter in your area and it provides a platform on which you can actually go directly to donors and give them a project that they may truly be interested in,” Kuzmych said about Report for America. “Donors like to see deliverables. They like to see solutions. This is a game changer for many stations.”

Philanthropists have tried to pump journalism with support as its model, especially locally, collapses; does it matter if the money is coming from local foundations versus Craig Newmark or, say, the Facebook Journalism Project?

“Both are good,” Hammonds was quick to say, “but I think it’s incredibly important that local and regional foundations see the importance of local media as part of the infrastructure of civic life in their communities and also see the indelible importance, the relationship between high quality local reporting and the rest of civic life they are funding. Whatever a foundation’s local interests are, it cannot advance without the free flow of quality info that keeps businesses informed engaged and activated. I think that that piece of this may be the most critical of all.”

Bird’s eye view of a Wyoming forest by Jeremy Bishop used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 22, 2019, 8 a.m.
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