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Sept. 7, 2023, 10:02 a.m.
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Is half a billion dollars a big-enough Band-Aid to cure what ails local news?

The Press Forward coalition, led by the MacArthur Foundation, has pledged to invest $500 million in revitalizing local news over the next five years while working to raise more.

2023 has not been kind to the balance sheets of media companies. In the notoriously challenging business of local news, even for-profit and nonprofit regional heavyweights looked to as the industry’s bright spots have announced layoffs this summer, a grim addendum to the big picture of the losses of well over 2,000 local newspapers since 2005.

Amidst those losses, though, there’s another trend intensifying: an uptick in philanthropic funding flowing to both for-profit and nonprofit local news. On Thursday, 22 organizations, led by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, launched a nonpartisan national initiative called Press Forward that aims to turbocharge that trend: The coalition has pledged to invest an eye-popping $500 million into the local news ecosystem over the next five years, focused on “building out the infrastructure of local news,” supporting local news organizations that have earned community trust, and shrinking inequities in journalism practice and coverage, per a press release. Press Forward, a massive philanthropic coordination effort in support of local news, has an ambitious goal: to “reverse the dramatic decline in local news,” and in doing so, “boost community, civic participation, and strengthen democracy.”

The 22 initial funders include the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, several other major foundations, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, and democracy-focused organizations, and will collaborate with the bipartisan initiative More Perfect. (Disclosure: The Knight Foundation and an individual funder, Mary Graham, have both donated to the Nieman Foundation.) With this initiative, many of the funders are channeling their resources into journalism for the first time, and hope to inspire others to jump onboard: The coalition “welcomes and continues to invite additional funders to enhance nonprofit, public, and for-profit news and information.”

John Palfrey, now president of the MacArthur Foundation and previously chair of the Knight Foundation’s board, is the “chief fundraiser” of this project, said Karen Rundlet, the Knight Foundation’s senior director for the Journalism Program. Along with Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green, Palfrey convened journalists and funders to discuss a “Road Map for Local News” earlier this year, in January. That gathering, and discussion of the report, helped lay the groundwork for Press Forward.

“The philanthropic sector recognizes the need to strengthen American democracy and is beginning to see that progress on every other issue, from education and healthcare to criminal justice reform and climate change, is dependent on the public’s understanding of the facts,” Palfrey said in a statement. MacArthur is contributing $150 million to that $500 million, according to The New York Times, and Press Forward has the goal of eventually raising and investing $1 billion into the local news ecosystem. A MacArthur Foundation spokesperson did not respond to a request for information about Press Forward by press time.

In 2019, the Knight Foundation pledged $300 million over five years to several prominent organizations, from ProPublica to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Now, the Knight Foundation is also putting $150 million toward the Press Forward coalition’s $500 million over five years — doubling the amount the foundation channels to journalism, since Knight “typically invests $30 million a year in strengthening journalism,” per Knight’s press release. This round of funding is different from 2019, Rundlet told me, because so many more funders are teaming up and because instead of only funding individual organizations, Knight aims to prioritize funding an enduring “infrastructure.”

In addition to directly supporting newsrooms, “Knight is also thinking about systems, and tools, and services,” Rundlet said. Knight Foundation leaders hope that this infrastructure focus will make help make local news more sustainable in the long run, and help outlets do more reporting even as leaner operations. While journalism funders sometimes focus on topic-specific funding — funding for reporting on issues like climate, poverty, and health care — Rundlet said thinking about infrastructure is different: “What are the services, what are the tools that journalism providers need to have, so that their businesses can be sound, so that their content management systems can be sound, so that they can do the good reporting?” (Legal support and membership programs are other examples of infrastructure that Knight believes will help newsrooms be sustainable, Rundlet said.)

In its approach to journalism philanthropy, “Knight’s been on a journey,” Rundlet said. When journalism ecosystems were healthier, the foundation focused on funding journalism education, she said. As the role of technology in journalism grew, Knight prioritized that in its funding. With its investment in 2019, “ we were funding big ideas that would no longer just support one newsroom at a time but many newsrooms at a time.” Now, in this latest stage, “we’re growing the philanthropic pie” going into journalism and focusing on infrastructure.

Beyond its Press Forward funding, Knight is also investing close to $15 million in additional funding in the same vein, for “organizations focused on building the tools and services that enhance efficiency and alleviate burdens for journalists and publishers,” per its press release. That funding is going to:

  • Tech Sustainability Initiative ($7,250,000): To stimulate and stabilize the marketplace of technology services for small- and mid-size publishers, including content management systems and customer relationship management tools. The first two participating organizations will be Automattic’s Newspack and BlueLena. LION Publishers will serve as the program’s project organizer.
  • CatchLight ($2,000,000): To expand the CatchLight Local Visual Desk that provides centralized and subsidized visual journalism services to newsrooms.
  • Tiny News Collective ($2,000,000): To support the expansion of services that help small publishers survive early-stage growth and thrive: access to website and newsletter publishing tools, legal support, fundraising assistance and fiscal sponsorship.
  • The Local News Lab at Columbia University ($1,500,000): To transform the reader engagement and revenue optimization tools developed by the Lab from a pilot program into a sustainable product suite for publishers.
  • Northwestern University ($1,000,000): To research, synthesize and communicate best practices for news organizations experimenting with and adopting generative artificial intelligence.
  • URL Media ($1,000,000): To strengthen and expand a targeted ad network, onboard more BIPOC publishers and develop revenue-focused solutions for its partners.

“There was a time where one or two newsrooms were coming to us asking us for support,” Rundlet added. “Now, there are many. And so we’ve got to make our dollars go further.”

Press Forward grantmaking will be driven by four focus areas, per the press release: strengthening local newsrooms that have community trust; contributing to an infrastructure they hope will grow and sustain the local news ecosystem in the long term; closing inequalities in journalism coverage and practice; and advancing public policies to expand access to local news and civic information. For Knight, years of conversations with news organizations at conferences and individuals, as well as reviewing previous grantees’ experiences, helped inform the direction of this funding, Rundlet said.

Strengthening local newsrooms that have the trust of local communities, Rundlet said, means looking for organizations that “have brought value to the lives of people” and made a community impact. She cited MLK50, a news nonprofit in Memphis focused on “the intersection of poverty, power and policy,” as an example of an organization that has made the kind of community impact Knight wants to recognize and support; MLK50 reported on the hospital debt that working-class Memphians were taking on, resulting in millions of dollars in refunds to thousands of community members. “It changed lives,” Rundlet said. “People got their credit restored; people were able to buy homes for the first time. So that’s the kind of community impact that we’re talking about.”

Funding will be distributed both from a “pooled” fund fiscally sponsored and managed by the Miami Foundation that several organizations, including Knight, contribute to, and separate “aligned” funding more tailored to individual organizations’ goals and expertise, or to smaller partnerships within the coalition. Knight, for instance, might support an organization, share the reasons why it’s supporting that organization with other Press Forward coalition members, and they might be inspired to support it as well. This approach allows organizations to learn from their individual focus areas and team up: “We learn from them, they learn from us, we learn from their grantees,” Rundlet said. But the exact way funding will be distributed “is evolving,” she added, and a team will be hired to help strategize how the funding should be distributed.

Grants from the pooled fund will be distributed beginning in 2024, while some funders “are expected to make exemplary aligned grants before the end of the year,” according to the press release.

It’s too early to say whether most of the funding will be invested in newsrooms or bigger organizations like Report for America, Rundlet said, and she did not know whether there would be a minimum newsroom size for grant recipients. But she noted that one of the four pillars has the goal of funneling dollars directly to “trusted local newsrooms.”

In July, Sarah Alvarez reported for Columbia Journalism Review that a coalition involving the Knight and MacArthur foundations was considering this massive donation. Some of the organizations mentioned in her piece, including the Tiny News Collective and URL Media, are beneficiaries of Knight’s separate $15 million infrastructure-focused initiative, while her suggestions to support “networks…to share tools and resources” and “news organizations unapologetic in wanting their work to make people’s lives materially better” are reflected in Press Forward’s core grantmaking principles.

“Right now philanthropy is a necessary bridge to help us build networks and models that can make local news a dependable community service,” Alvarez wrote. While philanthropy has helped sustain and grow many news organizations, it has not proven to be a silver bullet. (Marty Baron, a member of the Knight Foundation’s board, noted in an interview last month that nonprofits are still subject to business considerations and that news organizations “can’t just be the damsel in distress all the time, saying, ‘Please help us help us. We’re beautiful. We’re wonderful. Come to our rescue.’” He encouraged a focus on learning from successes in the news business landscape.)

“This is new,” Rundlet said. “We haven’t done this before. It’s bold, it’s going to be imperfect at first; it’s going to be human.”

Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash.

Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     Sept. 7, 2023, 10:02 a.m.
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