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Nov. 9, 2023, 11:53 a.m.
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To turn $500 million into $1 billion, Press Forward looks to the local level

The coalition announced its first six local chapters, and their leading funders, last week.

When a coalition of funders led by the MacArthur Foundation launched Press Forward in September, they pledged to invest $500 million into local news over five years — as a starting point. But the coalition hopes to raise double that amount, at least, and on Nov. 3, MacArthur Foundation president John Palfrey announced the “next phase” of that philanthropic effort: raising “the next $500 million at the local level” through city and state-based Press Forward chapters across the country.

The coalition also announced its first six local chapters, and their leading funders. There are four city-based chapters — in Chicago; Springfield, Ill.; Philadelphia; and Wichita — as well as two state-based chapters in Alaska and Minnesota.

Chicago’s chapter is led by the MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, while the Springfield chapter is led by the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln. Philadelphia’s chapter is led by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism; Wichita’s chapter is spearheaded by the Wichita Foundation; Press Forward Alaska is led by the Atwood Foundation, in partnership with the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism; and Press Forward Minnesota is led by the McKnight Foundation. A few of these funders — Lenfest, the Land of Lincoln, and McKnight — were already involved in Press Forward’s national effort as founding partners, and most of these organizations already contribute to funding local news in their communities. Press Forward Chicago already has close to $10 million in commitments from a coalition of 10 funders, while Press Forward Springfield has $2 million in commitments, including $1 million from the MacArthur Foundation and $1 million from Patrick Coburn, a former local news publisher.

According to Press Forward’s announcement, each of these local funders will:

  • Support local journalism beyond existing funding
  • Bring new donors to the local effort
  • Establish or support pooled funds or funding collaborations that build common purpose and strengthen the local news ecosystem
  • Convene local stakeholders and advance mutual understanding and analysis of the local information ecosystem
  • Track and report funding and metrics to Press Forward
  • Share models, tools, and lessons learned with other Press Forward Locals

Kristen Mack, the MacArthur Foundation’s vice president for communications, fellows, and partnerships, did not specify how many local chapters Press Forward hopes to ultimately establish. “We’d love for as many communities as possible to join the movement,” she said in an email.

To help explain the role its local chapters should play in communities with different news needs and resources, Press Forward defined three types of news “ecosystems” characterized by different stages of media and philanthropic development. In “nascent” news ecosystems, where quality local news is scarce or nonexistent, funders are supporting local news “for the first time” and focusing first on “conducting landscape studies, building the case for journalism support with new donors, and creating a foundation for ongoing collaboration.” At the next stage, “expanding” news ecosystems already have a rich variety of local news outlets with some funding and community support, but “remain undercapitalized,” with a need for expanding the donor community and making the ecosystem more sustainable. And “flourishing” news ecosystems are the role models, with substantial funder collaboratives in place supporting robust local news, but still need “heavy ongoing investment” and “an opportunity to widen the circle of donors to provide longer-term support.”

These ecosystem definitions have somewhat fluid boundaries; Press Forward Minnesota, for instance, is categorized as both a “nascent” and “expanding” news ecosystem. Press Forward Alaska and Springfield are both categorized as “nascent” news ecosystems, while Chicago and Wichita’s chapters are defined as “expanding” news ecosystems. Philadelphia is the only “flourishing” news ecosystem among the first six chapters.

“Each of these chapters are evaluating their local news ecosystem (if they haven’t already), seeing what the needs are, and working together to invest funding to strengthen it,” Mack said.

The Alaska-based Atwood Foundation, like many community foundations, supports education and the arts — but because its namesake family owned the Anchorage Times, the foundation also has a legacy of specifically funding and supporting local news in Anchorage and across the state. (Executive director Ira Perman described it to me as a much smaller version of the Knight Foundation.)

Perman recalled that another Alaska philanthropy leader connected the Atwood Foundation with Press Forward, leading to their collaboration. Press Forward wanted to “include broad geographic representation on the first cohort, and also different types of local journalism development efforts,” Perman told me. “And in terms of being rural, boy, it’s hard to get more rural than Alaska.”

While many of the Atwood Foundation’s philanthropic activities are more Anchorage-focused, Perman told me that a statewide lens has long made more sense for its journalism philanthropy. “It’s pretty hard to just focus journalism on one community,” he said. “It affects everybody.”

The Atwood Foundation has funded programs to educate reporters and specific reporting projects for decades. In 2019, the foundation established the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism to fund in-depth reporting throughout the state and bring more expertise and funders (like the Alaska Community Foundation) into the fold. The center has focused most of its grants on investigative reporting (and COVID-related measures to support reporters), but some of its biggest early funders have pulled back recently, Perman said, leading the center to brainstorm how to bring in funding from new places and continue to support local news across Alaska. The center is now collecting more information about what local journalists and outlets need, and trying to recruit funders who haven’t traditionally supported journalism — two goals that mesh nicely with Press Forward’s nationwide ambitions.

While the center will continue to meet with potential funders across Alaska, Perman described a long-term challenge that hits many American rural communities — and some of the communities most likely to be news deserts — hardest: There aren’t all that many local funding sources, especially relative to big metropolitan areas in other parts of the country.

“It’s a giant-sized state, but it’s a small population,” Perman said. For the most part, “we don’t have long-term big wealth that’s been established yet.”

When the Atwood Foundation initially made contact with Press Forward, Perman said he was excited about the prospect of gaining access to more national funding. But with just $500 million across the entire country over five years, “it’s not realistic for us, or anybody else, really, to be expecting that this is going to be a major new source of revenue,” Perman said. “The reality is, if we’re going to have sustainable improvements to Alaskan journalism, it’s going to have to be supported locally.”

Still, Perman is excited about how Press Forward can support the Atwood’s Foundation’s efforts by “provid[ing] us with technical assistance, capacity-building systems, best practice[s]” through a network of funders across the country at different stages of growing their own local funding for news. For the Atwood Foundation, Perman emphasized that this kind of support is concretely useful: “It’s the right project at the right time for us,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Kansas, the Wichita Foundation has supported local news throughout the city since 2018, and views funding local news as a way to help build a more connected and engaged community, chief strategy officer Courtney Bengtson said in an email.

“Press Forward Wichita aims to center community needs, enable growth with equity and diversity of thought, ensure accessibility for all, and reconnect Wichitans with the information they need to thrive,” Bengtson said. “The Wichita Foundation will continue to invest in local news initiatives with a heightened focus of bringing new donors and other philanthropic institutions along with us to expand reach and resources, and announced our next multi-year program investment in early 2024.”

As a community foundation, Bengtson noted that “it continues to be a cultural shift to recognize local news as a public good or a civic service,” and that educating donors on the importance of supporting local news philanthropy is an important part of its work.

In Philadelphia, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism was already involved with supporting Press Forward’s national effort.

“Nationally, Press Forward has the dual goal of increasing funding and impact from existing journalism funders and bringing new funders into the field. We see our work in Philadelphia much the same way,” CEO Jim Friedlich told me in an email. Beyond Philadelphia’s existing network of journalism funders finding new ways “to collaborate programmatically and financially,” Friedlich said Lenfest leaders “hope and believe that funders historically focused on other issues such as public health, social justice, education, civic engagement, and democracy will use journalism funding to help advance the cause they hold most dear.”

Friedlich gave an example of a recent citywide collaboration called Every Voice, Every Vote, in which 25 news media groups and 50 community groups formed a voter engagement coalition funded by journalism foundations, Comcast, and philanthropic families, among others.

“Our goal is to leverage the advent of Press Forward, its national brand and perhaps national funding, to create new journalism collaborations on such issues as gun violence and public safety, civic engagement and healthy democracy, and the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence,” he said.

To Friedlich, Philadelphia’s classification as a “flourishing” local news ecosystem refers to the fact that “relatively large-scale collaborative journalism efforts like Every Voice, Every Voice or Resolve Philly have taken root, and funding here — while still modest — has been relatively robust compared to many other cities.” But he added that the categorization “overstates the case to suggest that local news media here is flourishing and the job is done,” noting that The Philadelphia Inquirer (which Lenfest owns) is still implementing its long-term digital transformation and “its sustainability by no means guaranteed.” Similarly, WHYY (Philly’s public radio station) relies on fundraising each year to expand its offerings and The Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s legacy Black publication (and the oldest such publication in the country) “is working on a number of new investment activities to help ensure a healthy future.”

“The lesson of the Philadelphia experience is that healthy local journalism requires long-term, committed, collaborative work between multiple news media, community organizations, and funders,” Friedlich said. “It is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Press Forward’s national funders plan to announce their first round of “aligned grantmaking” in December, while funders contributing to Press Forward’s pooled fund will share grantmaking guidelines for that fund in early 2024.

Photo of the United States seen from orbit by NASA 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     Nov. 9, 2023, 11:53 a.m.
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