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Dec. 10, 2019, 8 a.m.
Business Models

Here are the American Journalism Project’s first 11 recipients, taking home $8.5 million to grow their business operations

“The grants will fund an organization’s first dedicated revenue positions, or grow an existing revenue team. Most will fund at least two new full-time positions for 24 months dedicated to revenue and fundraising.”

Fresh off painful layoffs, the tally of 7,700 media jobs lost this year, and a warning that the first six months of 2020 will be especially painful for local newspapers, in steps the American Journalism Project with its first set of grantees — aiming to fill some holes in that market with venture philanthropy.

AJP, the co-brainchild of Chalkbeat cofounder Elizabeth Green and The Texas Tribune’s biggest financial fan John Thornton, has raised $46 million over the past year from a collection of journalism funders — including the Knight Foundation, Emerson Collective, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, the Facebook Journalism Project, and a few individuals. (Democracy Fund recently upped its commitment, also announced Tuesday; full disclosure: I’m going to work there next month.) Basically, it wants to support civically motivated local news outlets by throwing money at them — strategically.

More specifically, it aims to support an ecosystem of news organizations (especially local) that “deeply believe in access to civic information [topics like government, environment, education, social, criminal justice, public health] as a public service in and of itself” and doesn’t expect a return on its investment aside from the social good, AJP’s director of portfolio development Anna Nirmala said earlier this year. Nonprofit news outlets were strongly preferred; other requirements included no paywall and having two years of other funding lined up. AJP is also joining the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund, a new commitment among funders that aims to strengthen the capacity of news outlets led by people of color.

The first 11 grantees? If you’re around here often, you’ve probably already heard of most of them; most have been around for a decade or more. Each site gets a part of $8.5 million — average grant around $800,000 — that will make up between 15 and 30 percent of an organization’s 2020 budget. “The grants will fund an organization’s first dedicated revenue positions, or grow an existing revenue team. Most will fund at least two new full-time positions for 24 months dedicated to revenue and fundraising. Three are going to early-stage organizations [marked in the list below with an asterisk] where we saw an opportunity to step in with important early support,” said Jason Alcorn, the vice president of operations for AJP. Here’s the list:

  1. Berkeleyside — The ten-year-old Bay Area site also today announced a grant from the Google News Initiative of the same amount ($1.56 million from each) and an expansion to Oakland. The AJP money will support the development of Berkeleyside’s new nonprofit parent organization.
  2. Centro de Periodismo Investigativo in Puerto Rico — The CPI was founded in 2008 and relies on donations from individuals and institutions to support investigative journalism in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Its reporting with Quartz and the Associated Press into the death toll of Hurricane Maria received an Online Journalism Award, Data Journalism Award, and others.
  3. City Bureau — Founded in 2015 as a “nonprofit civic journalism lab” based on Chicago’s South Side, City Bureau is focused on equipping residents to create change with the information that they have, through its public-meeting Documenters and Public Newsroom programs, among others. It’s receiving a $1.18 million grant from AJP.
  4. The Connecticut Mirror — Hartford’s nonprofit news outlet was created ten years ago with $1.8 million from residents of the state concerned about layoffs at local news outlets. Now, 90 percent of the Mirror’s revenue comes from reader donations and its journalism is shared in the state’s 12 largest daily papers. The Mirror said it has a $830,000 grant from AJP.
  5. inewsource — One of San Diego’s nonprofit outlets, inewsource was formed in 2009 and focuses on investigative reporting to hold elected officials accountable. The organization has developed into a $1 million business based on foundation money and individual donors.
  6. Mississippi Today — Launched by NBC News chief (and Mississippi native) Andy Lack in 2016, the nonprofit site has tried to follow the Texas Tribune’s model while reporting on addiction and pregnancy in the state’s criminal justice system and flooding in the south Delta. It also recently collaborated with a local TV station on an investigation into evictions.
  7. MLK50: Justice Through Journalism* — Former Nieman Fellow Wendi Thomas created this Memphis-based organization originally as a one-year project in 2017 examining economic justice in the city where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. After the 50th anniversary of his death in 2018, it has continued on as a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power, and public policy, including as a ProPublica Local Reporting Network participant. MLK50 is receiving a $178,000 grant.
  8. NOISE* — North Omaha Information Support Everyone is “a grassroots news network is working to fill the news coverage and information gap in North Omaha,” according to its launch in March 2018. It stems from a Listening Post Collective grant and is directed by North Omaha native Dawaune Lamont Hayes.
  9. Underscore* — This Portland, Oregon site emerges from a former team at InvestigateWest, which itself came from the remnants of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s print paper in 2009.
  10. WyoFile — Another veteran nonprofit site, this Wyoming outlet became a nonprofit in 2009. It’s investigated infant mortality on the Native American reservations in Wyoming and the impact of immigrants on the state’s economy, among others.
  11. VTDigger — This ten-year-old site has become a model for other statewide nonprofit news outlets, though its operations head recently decamped for LION Publishers.

This is the first of several grants in AJP’s first round; as Nirmala said in July, the organization hopes to support 25 to 35 civic news organizations with the $46 million fund as its first round. The goal is to create a cycle of investors, recipients, and coaches to snowball the money’s impact. Here are the next steps, as I explained in October 2018:

  1. Starting now through mid-2019, AJP is recruiting venture philanthropists — foundations, families, individuals worried about the political climate and the plight of local news — into the firm. Thornton said many of the people they talk to are so consumed by national news that they need to be reminded of the significance of local reporting — or they’re people who understand the crisis of local news but feel overwhelmed by the need to scale. “Journalism philanthropy is only a generation old. In geological time this is happening fast,” he said.
  2. As it collects the initial capital, AJP will also start distributing it through grants. “That means identifying these smart, high-capacity leaders to represent the information needs of the country and [who] look like the country,” Green said. “We have to identify those people in organizations and identify the right size of a gift that will position them for growth.”

    Those grants will also come tied to a venture philanthropy partner: “The partners, as at a VC firm, would have experience building media businesses, experience in building philanthropy, experience in building the product team for example,” Green added. “Not only could the social entrepreneurs have access to this really smart person who’s helping them figure out their strategy — the partners will also have the job of connecting the organization and their leadership to resources in the field that can help them.”

  3. Third, the firm will launch multiple cycles of investment and support, based off the growth from the primary stage funds. The goal is to grow a culture of philanthropic support toward journalism, which journalism has already been noodling — but newer donors still need some convincing.

The journalists at these organizations and many others are already holding down the editorial-side fort. Now they’ll have more people on the business side to help convince those donors.

POSTED     Dec. 10, 2019, 8 a.m.
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