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March 5, 2024, 1:59 p.m.
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With Midwest expansion, the Pivot Fund tries to put grassroots news sources on philanthropy’s radar

“If we really want to serve communities that are increasingly tuning us out, increasingly unsubscribing, increasingly looking the other way — my God, we’ve got to go to the communities directly.”

A couple of weeks ago, Press Forward announced 11 new local chapters among the latest developments in the growing coalition’s movement to invest at least $500 million into local news over five years, and recruit more funders to that cause. Leaders of that coalition, which now comprises more than 40 funders, also shared a Guide for Local Funders with case studies and recommendations for others looking to start local chapters. Among those recommendations, especially for “nascent” news ecosystems with most donors and foundations “new to funding journalism”: “ecosystem mapping,” which the guide says “can help you identify existing local news outlets, assess where people are going for news and find crucial gaps in coverage.”

Press Forward Minnesota, one of the first six local chapters announced last November (17 have been announced total so far), is classified by the coalition’s standards as a “nascent” ecosystem. It’s also among the first chapters in the early stages of putting the ecosystem-mapping (or landscape analysis) recommendation into action. Back in January, the McKnight Foundation (a national coalition member and the lead funder of Press Forward Minnesota) and the Joyce Foundation (another Midwest-based funder in Press Forward’s national coalition) announced they were partnering with the Georgia-based Pivot Fund, which will expand on the landscape analyses it has done in its home state to map the “emerging news landscape” of information sources trusted by communities of color in the Midwest — starting with Minnesota, and later expanding to Michigan and Illinois. The funding coalition behind Pivot’s Midwest expansion is still growing; this month, the MacArthur Foundation, a key leading funder of Press Forward, confirmed to me that they are also directly investing in Pivot’s Midwest work.

As Press Forward’s local chapters multiply and the coalition prepares to ramp up national1 and local grantmaking, I wanted to better understand what it means to conduct a news landscape analysis and what role this work might play in finding, and ultimately funding, grantees in the news world. I spoke with Pivot Fund CEO Tracie Powell about her, and Pivot’s, work and approach, and how she sees her work as different from what other funders do. I also heard from representatives of the three foundations currently supporting Pivot’s Midwest work about how they see the role of a landscape analysis like Pivot’s as groundwork for impactfully supporting news.

What’s the Pivot Fund?

The Pivot Fund is fairly new. Established in 2021 by Powell as a BIPOC-led venture philanthropy, the organization has an ambitious big-picture goal reminiscent of Press Forward in scale, with an overlapping2, but more targeted focus in the outlets it wants to fund and champion: It aims to raise and invest “$500 million into independent BIPOC-led community news” across the U.S. So far, the organization has mostly focused on its own backyard (Powell was born and raised in Georgia, and lives in suburban Atlanta), where it has the goal of investing $6 million in Georgia news organizations over three years (though it has branched out as well, including by investing in the Baltimore Beat last month).

Since being established, Pivot has completed two Georgia news landscape analyses of different scales that involved interviewing hundreds of local community members about what information sources they rely on, from Facebook groups to podcasts to traditional news sources. Pivot used that community-focused market research to map which grassroots news organizations are already trusted by local communities of color. Its first analysis, a regional analysis of the state’s Black Belt (Middle and South Georgia), was “proprietary” and “initially funded by democracy funders,” Powell told me. It also helped Pivot identify and provide $2 million in grants and “consulting support” to “seven news organizations that had never previously appeared on philanthropy’s radar screens,” per its press releasemostly social media–native news sources, primarily based on Facebook. Pivot conducted a second statewide analysis in collaboration with the Georgia News Collaborative.

Powell has previous experience as both a journalist and a funder. In philanthropy, within the last several years, she worked for foundations like Democracy Fund and Borealis Philanthropy, where she was the founding program officer for the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund. She sees herself, and Pivot, as a world connector as well as a funder — raising the profile of grassroots news organizations within the “insular” journalism ecosystem so that they are seen by ecosystem insiders and can access more funding and support.

A lot of the news outlets Pivot maps and supports, Powell told me, are not members of journalism associations. “They’re not connected to the journalism ecosystem,” she said in January, when we first spoke. “They’re not members of LION. They’re not members of NABJ or NAHP or those things.”

These organizations also tend to be small — most of Pivot’s grantees have five or fewer employees, Powell added. Pivot tries to provide “transformational dollars” to these outlets, meaning enough money to hire “at least one” person. For instance, one of its first grants went to the Facebook page Pasa La Voz, which serves the immigrant community in the Savannah, GA area, helping the outlet hire an editor, add a website and WhatsApp alerts, and grow its audience. Similarly, BeeTV Network, which provides news to 11 South Georgia counties, streamed news on Facebook until buying a local TV station in 2021; the Pivot Fund’s investment helped it grow its audience and add a sports reporter.

When it comes to what such grassroots outlets actually need to be supported, some publishers argue for unrestricted operating funding above all else. Powell maintains that other support, like coaching, mentoring, and advice on how to use the money, matters too — something she said she learned from her time at Borealis Philanthropy. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a publisher be afraid to spend the money because they don’t want to mess up and they don’t know how to spend it, don’t know how to hire, who to hire,” she told me.

This is especially true of Pivot’s grantees because they tend not to come from traditional or mainstream journalism backgrounds. “The folks that we are investing in now, they’re not former executives of The New York Times, they’re not former audience people of the LA Times,” Powell said. “These are folks who are embedded in their communities, grassroots organizations. They may or may not be business people; they may or may not be journalists. It’s very rare that we have both.” Sometimes, Pivot’s work entails matching news startup founders with the resources and expertise they’re missing. In Columbus, Georgia, where Wane Hailes, the founder of The Courier/Eco Latino, had a deep advertising sales background but lacked robust journalism experience, Pivot helped him recruit an editor-in-chief nearly a year after the outlet received a grant from the fund. “That’s adding the right kinds of capacity,” Powell said.

Landscape analyses like the ones Pivot conducted in Georgia, and its expanded mapping in the Midwest, are the kind of work foundations typically don’t have time or capacity for, Powell told me. They allow Pivot to find, elevate, and fund grassroots organizations that can otherwise get overlooked. “What we’re doing is pretty unique in that…we’re identifying these organizations that aren’t on anybody’s radar, and trying to drive philanthropic support, and business strategy, and capacity-building to these organizations so that they can increase their influence and reach, especially because they are trusted” by community members, she said.

In cases where regional or national funders or journalism support organizations do conduct landscape analyses, Powell said these “might be scans or, in some cases, glimpses,” especially in cases where they consult local community foundations instead of doing deep community listening.

“​​Members of a community foundation, to me, have a whole lot more in common with some of the funders,” Powell said. “They’re well-off, they’re well-connected, they’re educated. And so what Pivot chooses to do is to go out in the community and not necessarily start with the community foundation first.” Pivot is interested in having community foundations as a partner, but “we want to talk to the community members first. That’s who we center and that’s where we start. And that differentiates us from other folks.”

Why Press Forward funders support “mapping” the Midwest

Between the McKnight, Joyce, and MacArthur foundations, Pivot is receiving close to $1 million in funding for its Midwest mapping expansion, which Powell said will help the organization expand its capacity to meet the increased demand for its news ecosystem research.

Tim Murphy, the McKnight program officer who oversees the foundation’s Press Forward work, told me McKnight is contributing $165,000 over 12 months to Pivot’s mapping work in Minnesota. Hugh Dellios, the Joyce Foundation’s senior program officer for journalism, specified that it’s supporting Pivot with $300,000 to expand its work to other states like Michigan and Illinois. And MacArthur is making a one-year grant of $500,000 that is project funding supporting Pivot’s work with a focus on those three states, senior communications officer Sean Harder told me. (Separately, pre–Press Forward, Pivot already had received some funding from MacArthur.)

At least one to two other funders are currently in conversation with Pivot about potentially adding their support, Powell told me. She said the organization’s operating budget is about $2.5 million.

For McKnight and Joyce, this partnership is the outcome of a couple of years of conversations that dovetailed with both foundations’ growing interest in learning how to fund local news, even preceding Press Forward, Murphy and Dellios told me separately. “About two years ago, McKnight came to the realization from some internal conversations and external conversations that we needed to be a bit more strategic and thoughtful around our media and journalism grantmaking,” Murphy recalled. (Communications director Jacques Hebert added that some of McKnight’s biggest programs focus on climate and energy and strengthening economic opportunity and equity. Like other community foundations starting to explore or increase funding of news, McKnight sees strengthening democratic participation as key to making progress in many of its other focus areas; since news is so vital to a strong democracy, “that’s kind of our entry point into a lot of this work,” Hebert said.)

To rethink and deepen McKnight’s media funding strategy, Murphy was looking to talk to people about what was possible, which meant attending conventions such as the Media Impact Funders. That’s how Murphy first learned about Powell and the Pivot Fund’s work, which led to him and Powell discussing possibilities for an expansion of Pivot’s work to Minnesota. (Murphy and Dellios met around the same time, Murphy recalled.) Powell’s work aligned with the foundation’s increased interest in journalism, Murphy told me, but also with its “racial equity commitment [and]…commitment to funding across the whole state and not just in the Twin Cities metro” area. Murphy and Hebert also pointed to the growth in Minnesota’s immigrant population as pushing McKnight to think about how to support news sources (like the Sahan Journal) connecting and informing those communities across the state.

Dellios also recalled having his first conversation with Powell around two years ago, when she had expressed interest in expanding Pivot’s work from Georgia to the Midwest. “Initially, it didn’t align with our strategy,” Dellios told me. But as Joyce has made funding local news more of a priority, and when it decided to become a founding funder of Press Forward last year, that changed.

Once Press Forward was announced last fall, and McKnight took a leadership role in establishing one of the first six local chapters, “we realized we didn’t have a really strong baseline understanding of audiences, and how folks here in Minnesota are consuming their information,” Murphy told me. He and Dellios gained approval from their respective foundations to support the Pivot Fund’s work so that they could start to understand the answers to those questions, both in Minnesota and in the broader Midwest.

Of his experience with Press Forward so far, Murphy said, “in terms of philanthropic collaboratives, I’ve never been in so many rooms with so many different funders who seemingly, on paper, work on different issue areas and have different strategic priorities, but yet are sitting around the table thinking about these core issues of democracy, information, and news.”

It’s too early to say exactly how Pivot’s analysis will inform Press Forward Minnesota’s actual grantmaking and strategy, Murphy told me. As Murphy outlined in Press Forward’s guide for local funders, McKnight envisions a larger advisory committee “focused on determining the chapter’s goals and strategies” and a steering committee that is smaller “focused on decisions related to the pooled fund.” The landscape analysis, Murphy said, will be “one input into the broader initiative of Press Forward Minnesota.”

As a funder looking to support journalism through Press Forward, “we’ve got a lot to learn,” Dellios told me. “We want to make sure we know [the region] as well as we can before making a lot of investments.”

What does a landscape analysis actually mean?

On a logistical level, the Pivot Fund’s mapping work in Georgia involved hiring a phone banking company that “specialized in hard-to-reach communities” (including younger community members) to do a media consumption poll, Powell told me. Community members were asked questions like “Who do you get your information from?”, “Who do you trust?,” “how and where do you access information?,” and “what do you do with that information once you have it?” (According to Pivot’s report to the Georgia News Collaborative, in the fall of 2021, “a media consumption poll of registered voters, age 18-39, was conducted across southwestern Georgia on behalf of the Pivot Fund.”) Then, the Pivot Fund sent a research team in “to have some more strategic conversations” based on initial market research, and to determine what kind of support would be most viable and useful to trusted organizations. The Pivot Fund’s work also includes a vetting component: “making sure that [these organizations] are producing fact-based, credible news or information that is useful to their community — not harmful, but useful,” Powell said. (For Pivot’s second landscape analysis, for the Georgia News Collaborative, research also included surveying members of the Georgia Press Association.) The entire mapping process on the state level takes about six months, she added.

Pivot started as just a two-person team, though it has now expanded to a team of eight. As a small organization, “we don’t have the capacity to knock on every single door,” Powell said (which is why they hired another company to do the initial phone banking poll), “but we do have the capacity to screen folks and invite them in for focus groups to learn more about where they get their news and information.” Jean Marie Brown, Pivot’s director of research, learning and evaluation and an associate professor of practice at Texas Christian University, led Pivot’s second Georgia landscape analysis and is leading the Midwest research as well. Brown is hiring an associate research director to support Pivot’s expanded work, Powell said.

In Minnesota, Pivot has hired the market research company FieldWorks to do a combination of in-person and virtual focus groups instead of starting with a phone poll, Powell told me.

Brown added in a follow-up email that as of this month, Pivot has prepared a screener for FieldWorks to use in Minnesota, “and they are putting together a cross section of Minnesotans for an in-person focus group and another for a virtual group.” The virtual group will bring together community members outside the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, which will make it easier for community members to meet in more rural where they’re more spread out, Powell and Brown told me.

Brown specified that some challenges on her mind right now in Pivot’s Minnesota work are assessing “the media ecosystem that serves the state’s Native American population, in particular those living in Indian Country.” She said previous research suggests these communities tend to rely on radio for news and information, especially because they don’t always have reliable broadband or newspaper access. Getting a sense of rural communities’ needs is also a priority for Pivot, Brown noted. “We also need to listen carefully to the nuances in conversations with African immigrants and black Americans who are descendants of enslaved Africans,” she added, “as well as Hispanic and Asian American populations that we don’t want to leave on mute.”

Expanding what’s defined as news

In the process of mapping trusted community information sources, Pivot has often zeroed in on non-traditional forms of media — in many cases, social-native outlets that might lack the prestige and respect of legacy media, but have more of a personal connection and utility to communities. Powell doesn’t believe high-quality journalism needs to fit a certain mold or formal format. “I am not trying to remake journalism as we know it,” Powell said. “Pivot is more focused on the future of journalism. So I’m not trying to go in and say, ‘I want you to look a certain way or sound a certain way.’” (She noted that some research suggests radio DJs are a highly trusted source of news.)

Powell added that she sees more of these types of news sources getting recognition and respect from the mainstream news world today. “They were off the radar, and now they’re no longer completely off the radar,” she told me.

Murphy sees Press Forward, nationally, as “a really unique moment in time for the collective ‘we’ to think about what we mean by news and information.” He praised Powell’s work in Georgia for helping expand the definition of what high-quality news is and can look like. “She was finding trusted messengers in [communities] who were reputable, who were doing really good, verified work. But it wasn’t a traditional newsroom, in a sense,” Murphy said. “There’s a mindset shift too that’s going to happen, I think, with Press Forward national [and] Press Forward Minnesota as we think about expanding our understanding of how people are getting their information, from whom, and what does it look like — and how does that challenge our, philanthropy’s, perception of what news and information is?”

From her own Atlanta, Powell pointed to an example of ATLScoop, an Instagram-based news source with more than 850,000 followers (she noted that’s a lot more followers than the local paper of record, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has subscribers or followers). Shortly before we spoke in January, ATLScoop had broken news about a murder of a mother of four in a McDonald’s in historic southwest Atlanta (Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard).

Powell highlighted the feedback-loop nature of ATLScoop as an advantage for trust and relationship to the community. Comments on Instagram posts included valuable news tips, helping inform the outlet’s work and allowing it to be directly responsive to its audience. That was true in the case of the McDonald’s murder: “You had people commenting on the story who had been inside the McDonald’s when it happened,” she said.

The big picture of Press Forward

Last fall, Powell and Dr. Meredith Clark spoke with my colleague Hanaa’ Tameez about some of their research detailing how BIPOC-led news outlets are overlooked and underfunded by philanthropy. At the time, Powell said of Press Forward, “I am always hopeful” and encouraged funders to be community-oriented in the style of the Pivot Fund. She also cautioned that given Pivot’s own $500 million goal for BIPOC-led community outlets alone, $500 million for all local news is “not enough money” (something Press Forward funders have themselves repeatedly acknowledged, and something Murphy emphasized, too).

Today, Powell told me, she’s excited and grateful for the partnership with McKnight, Joyce, and MacArthur through Press Forward. But as for the bigger Press Forward picture, “there’s so many moving parts…and I’m not completely clear about all of them,” she said. “All I can say is that this is a real opportunity here. It’s a real opportunity for philanthropy to reach the folks who they say they need to reach, to have real impact on the issues that they say they are concerned about.” In the past, attempting to support news, philanthropy has “wasted some time and wasted some money,” she said. In moment when many grassroots, small publishers are extremely close to the edge, “we can’t afford to make these kinds of mistakes again.”

At the core of Pivot’s work is a determination to reimagine journalism, and encourage other journalism funders to shift their expectations around what journalism can and should be. “If we really want to serve communities that are increasingly tuning us out, increasingly unsubscribing, increasingly looking the other way — my God, we’ve got to go to the communities directly,” she said. “And we have to find out from them how we can do journalism better, how we can do it differently.”

Photo of Welcome to Minnesota road sign by Jimmy Emerson, DVM on Flickr.

  1. Press Forward leaders are “challenging ourselves” to open grant applications for the national pooled fund by the end of April, MacArthur president John Palfrey recently told the Knight Media Forum, which would be less than two months after inaugural director Dale Anglin begins her role in earnest. ↩︎
  2. “Closing longstanding inequalities in journalism coverage and practice” is one of Press Forward’s four stated funding priorities↩︎
Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     March 5, 2024, 1:59 p.m.
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