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May 20, 2024, 4:55 p.m.
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“Journalism moves fast…philanthropy moves slow.” Press Forward’s director wants to bring them together

“I see, every week, some example of where the two don’t understand each other. Each of them needs to shift a little bit.”

On April 30, Press Forward made the announcement many local news outlets had been waiting for since September: The philanthropic coalition launched its first national open call inviting eligible local news organizations to apply for grants.1

When that open call went live, Dale Anglin had been on the job less than two months. She officially assumed her role as inaugural Press Forward director on March 11, about six months after the philanthropic initiative to invest more than $500 million into local news over five years was first announced, and four months after the first local chapters were established (as of last week, there are about 21 chapters across the country). Anglin joined Press Forward from the Cleveland Foundation, where she’d helped support startup news outlet Signal Cleveland (she continues to serve on the board).

She’s spent much of her first couple of months on the job on the road, traveling to communities across the country to meet local journalists and funders. I caught her between trips and conferences earlier this month (when she was about to attend her youngest son’s graduation from Howard) to talk through what her job has entailed in these early days, and how she’s thinking about what Press Forward is and isn’t.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Sophie Culpepper: You come from a background of philanthropy beyond news. What perspective do you bring about how to build enduring philanthropy in a new field? And what do you see as uniquely challenging about applying that knowledge to news?

Dale Anglin: I’ve worked in a lot of different areas in philanthropy — education, out-of-school time, childcare, higher ed.

There are similar natural stages that many of our civic problems go through. You could consider childcare a newer philanthropic field. About 40 years ago, there wasn’t a lot of childcare philanthropy. It was something that was left up to parents; we didn’t have a lot of research about how important childcare was to child development and to the workforce. What’s the research that’s needed? How do you do campaign building? How do you do policy work? Do you need policy work? How do you convince funders that you should add this as a new field? Which groups do you fund, and which ways do you fund? What are the questions you are asking? How would you get to sustainability?

All those questions are similar questions to what we’re now dealing with in journalism philanthropy. I got asked in my interview — how will I, or how should Press Forward, focus on sustainability? And how do we think about that? And should that be the one thing that Press Forward should be focused on, mostly, if we can’t do everything?

Sustainability is a word that is used by every single nonprofit, not just journalism nonprofits. if you are a nonprofit, you worry about sustainability. So there might be some lessons we could learn from some of those [other] ecosystems about how they got to sustainability. By the way, it’s rare that you get to perfect sustainability, let’s put it that way, unless you find your own revenue source, which is hard. Sometimes it feels like we act like, in journalism, we are the only ones that this is happening to. That is not the case.

So when someone asks me, for example — and I’ve had this debate from the minute I started — “Should policy be one of our pillars?” I’ve stopped debating with people on whether it should be a pillar. There are very few civic problems in the U.S. — I’ll just stick to the U.S. — where there has not been policy as part of the solution. The government just has more money, period, than all of philanthropy put together. When I ran the COVID Fund in Cleveland, we raised $20 or $30 million. We put out one of our first big grants, like a million dollars, to the food bank, and we were really proud of that as a group of foundations. And yet on the side the state was working on a policy measure to address food insecurity and in the end the state gave $33 million. Policy is a pillar of Press Forward because we will need policy solutions to get to sustainability.

You need a diversity of thought, working on most civic problems — not just journalism. I thought that would be the case, and I think it was one of the reasons I was hired. I don’t come at journalism philanthropy saying, “Woe is just us” — it’s an issue that is common across the nonprofit sector. It is an issue that has been solved or is being addressed in other sectors; how can we learn from those sectors?

I get asked all the time why I wanted [to do this job], because I’m not a journalist. But you can love and appreciate journalism without being a journalist. One of my first interviews, I thanked the guy, and you could tell he was shocked. I was like, I know what you do is hard right now, and what you do is a public good. You are almost like a frontline worker. So thank you for your service. I think reporters aren’t used to thinking like that. [But] they are ridiculously important.

Culpepper: What are some of the things that are uniquely challenging to news philanthropy?

Anglin: There are two things that strike me. One is that the speed at which the conditions that affect journalism are changing is so quick. Change happens more quickly, you change your mind more quickly, technologies are quicker. I feel like in the past, when people were addressing problems, the conditions underlying that problem were not changing. Here we’re trying to address a problem, and the conditions underlying the problem are changing as we speak. Audiences, technology, pull-out politics, polarization. At a session yesterday, someone asked a really good question: “What do you do as a journalist when the person you’re interviewing lies to you in your face?” We didn’t have that as much 30 years ago. The operating systems and the conditions in which journalism is sitting are changing so rapidly. Even if we at Press Forward come up with some great sustainable solutions for the next couple of years, five years from now, there’s going to be another part of the problem.

The other thing I would say that is hard in journalism philanthropy is that compared to many other ecosystems — I mean, housing and economic development, and all of those things — those things kind of move along. Journalism moves fast. The whole ecosystem is competitive; it was built to be that way. Philanthropy is a field that moves slow. And yet we’re trying to bring them together. I see, every week, some example of where the two don’t understand each other.

Each of them needs to shift a little bit. Philanthropy probably needs to move a little faster with this particular body of work. And journalism needs to understand that you’re not changing philanthropy just because of your sense of urgency. Even though there’s a need. I know there’s a need, but let me be clear. I love my journalists and I have worked with poor kids and there’s a need there, too. I worked on child abuse. There’s a need there, too. There’s a sense of urgency in many different fields, not just in journalism. So I try to get people to understand how can we, within Press Forward, [find] a way for these two fields to talk to each other better than they do now.

Culpepper: I’ve heard this emphasis from Press Forward even since before you were hired — that we don’t have all the answers to these major challenges, we are trying to build a team effort in the world of philanthropy to think about the problems and start to find ways to address them. And we’re going to be learning as we go.

Anglin: Yes, and I know that’s frustrating for people who want the answers yesterday.

I know the people who worked on childcare issues in Ohio for the last 20 years. And I’ve heard their stories of how they built organizations, how they thought about policy solutions, how they targeted champions within the legislature. This took 15 years, this did not take a couple of years. There are ways to do this work where you can learn other ecosystems that could be helpful to your cause. How we do that in this field, I think, is going to be really important.

Culpepper: Earlier you talked about these stages of philanthropy and I was asking myself what stage or phase journalism philanthropy is at. This reminds me that Press Forward has talked about, and defined, three stages of development for local news ecosystems for the local chapters (nascent, expanding, and flourishing).

Anglin: A key part of developing an ecosystem is agreed-upon language. And we don’t have that in journalism.

Just the word “journalism” is not what some people are using for this work. Some people are using “civic media,” “storytelling,” “narrative change,” pick your word — to different people, they mean different things and they resonate with different types of people. I stopped using the term journalism when I was trying to create Signal in Cleveland and talking to residents because they were like, “We don’t need that, we got journalism, we got Fox 8, we got whatever.” When I said “news and information that you can use on a daily basis to make decisions,” they said, “Oh, no, we don’t have that. We talk to so-and-so to get that information.” I use different words depending on who I talk to right now.

Other fields have gone through this — “what’s the word that works with everybody?” In childcare it was “early childcare,” it was “daycare,” etc.

Culpepper: Can you just say a little bit more about why you think language is so important here? Is that mostly about getting people in news to understand people in philanthropy more, and vice versa?

Anglin: If I’m saying the word “journalism” and you are hearing something different, we are not agreeing on the same problem that we’re even trying to solve.

These days, when I’m talking to funders, I start with, “What are the issues you care about?” I don’t start with journalism; for many funders that I talk to, that’s not the first issue — it’s climate, or poverty, or housing, or pick your issue. And then I ask them, “As you are trying to address that issue, whatever strategies you have put in place with partners, without partners, where does information and news slash journalism slash storytelling slash narrative change come into that strategy?” And they almost always have an answer. Or the answer is, “We know for a fact that no one is covering that issue, and we need to figure out a way to get it covered in some way so that we can help.”

I need to figure out: At what point are you entering this issue? What do you see as the problem in your community — is it original investigative reporting? Is it “We need people of color to tell their own stories because it’s a way to engage them?” Is it, “We need civic media because we need more information about the art that’s happening in the community and the ways we’re bringing people together?” You might need one or all of those. But if you go to policy school, which I did, the first thing you do in policy school is you spend — and I thought this was crazy, but now I get it — you spend a lot of time, weeks and weeks and weeks, just talking about problem definition. I remember thinking, “I know how to define a problem. I’m good.” But I get it now. I tell people, you don’t want the first question, you want the tenth question. The tenth question is when you get to the meat of the issue. What are we trying to solve for?

I don’t think we have complete agreement on what that is. I think we’re going to struggle for the next few years — and that’s okay — as we help funders enter this space. I get asked all the time, just got asked an hour ago, “Some of these groups aren’t going to be sustainable in five years. Why would I give money now?” Philanthropy always wants to make sure their money is used well, and they don’t want to fund something that might not be here in five years. What I’ve started to say is, in those five years that outlet is here, it could be doing such incredible work. Even if it goes away in five years, it could have made an incredible difference. Do we want to ignore that completely because we only care about what happens 10 years from now? That’s a question philanthropy’s got to wrestle with.

Culpepper: Do you see that as a news-specific question or one that applies to other types of philanthropy, too?

ANGLIN: I’m just applying it right now to journalism in particular, because what you guys accomplish [can be] so immediate. I’ll give an example: I was just in Kansas talking with people from several different outlets — one was [Planeta Venus], the first Spanish-only outlet in Kansas; another [The Voice] is led by a Black woman who’s been doing it for 20 years; and then the newer, larger one, the Beacon. They gave an example where in one particular neighborhood, because they now were there — nobody had been there for a while — they started covering school board elections and school board issues again, and in the next school board election, there was a 20% increase [in] people who voted.

It might be that the Beacon is not here five years from now. Now let me be clear, I need them to be here for more than five years, because they are fantastic! But just that series of articles on the school board race could have changed that school board’s trajectory. They may not be there, but the work they did, and the work they implemented and catalyzed, is still there.

So how are we thinking about that in philanthropy? What is the actual impact of that journalism? Is it that the outlet remains [in business] for the next 20 years? Or is the work that the outlet has produced, and the changes on the ground, what we really end up caring about, even if [the outlet] doesn’t last 20 years?

I ask people: Are we trying to just create a journalism workforce through Press Forward — just hire more journalists? Is that our goal over the next five years? Or/and, is it also to make sure that with that journalism workforce we have incredible changes on the ground? The [second] one is what resonates [more] with most people.

Culpepper: I want to jump to this first open call you announced on April 30 — how much interest are you seeing so far?

ANGLIN: A number of the newsrooms that registered [for our first virtual info session] say this is their first time applying for a grant. [About 750 people signed up for Press Forward’s May 9 webinar, and more than 500 people attended; about half reported being first-time grant seekers, Press Forward spokesperson Marika Lynch told me in a follow-up email.] This open call is for groups [with 2024 annual operating budgets] under a million dollars [to receive] $100,000 over two years as [unrestricted] general operating support, and we’ll hopefully do a minimum of 100 grants. We’re looking for groups that are thinking about collaboration; if they get this money, we would ask them to join something. We’re not going to be too prescriptive, but what we know right now is small doesn’t survive very well alone.

We’re hoping to model with these minimum 100 grantees what we would love to see the field do in general, and that is think about and be open to change. Be open to understanding that audience is everything. Be open to understanding that we have to think about how people get their news — video, texting, all those things that maybe you didn’t do 15 years ago. And we want to be able to share what we’re learning through those 100 grantees out with others. We know we can’t fund everybody, but philanthropy does a really good job of finding models and sharing that with others, so we hope people will replicate.

We’re hiring fundraising coaches to help people apply. They won’t write their grants, but will help them frame their stories. We know some people aren’t used to doing this, so we’re trying, as much as we can, to apply good philanthropic practices to this work.

Culpepper: You’re offering anyone who wants or needs it two 30-minute sessions (for “strategy planning” and “application review”) that are complimentary through Lenfest. I had seen an earlier report from Local News Blues that there would be some “grant writers” fluent in Spanish; is that the same as the fundraising coaches? [Press Forward’s info session, which took place after our conversation, includes more detail about these free sessions.]

ANGLIN: At least one or two of our eight fundraising coaches are also fluent in Spanish. We want to make this opportunity as accessible to as many different types of groups as possible. We’re just doing Spanish, we don’t have other languages, [but] if we see others are coming in, we’ll try to accommodate as best we can.

CULPEPPER: I’m interested in how you decided to include student outlets in this first open call.

ANGLIN: Before I got to Press Forward, a thread through all of the work I have done is working with young people, or kids, or kids and families. And the one thing I know from doing that work is you never leave them out of a conversation.

In some of the towns where there are no longer news outlets, there is a college there. And in some places, and this is documented too, that college, either a class or full program, or full school, is doing original reporting and getting that reporting out to the community. You see that right now with what’s happening on some of these college campuses — those student reporters are doing amazing work. So I didn’t want to leave them out of the first open call. I don’t know how many we’re going to fund. But every industry, always, should think about pipeline…

The other thing is, if you want well-adjusted adults, you work with them when they’re young. To me, journalism is an incredible training mechanism for youth development — the same way you may not become an artist but art can teach you so many things about your eye, and color, and persistence, and failure. Journalism does the same thing. It teaches critical thinking, it teaches you how to look at the world in different ways, How to speak to different types of people? Do you know how incredible that is for youth development? I want every kid I know to go through a journalism program, whether they become a journalist or not.

CULPEPPER: I was on the student newspaper for four years, or eight if you count my high school student paper, so you’re preaching to the choir.

ANGLIN: And I know, because I have met, in the last two months since I got this role, so many people who are not current journalists, but who were journalism majors, or who worked on their student newspapers — you can tell it brings back such great memories for them. It was such great training for them, even though they’re going off to do something else. So how can we at Press Forward just shine a light on that? Make them feel like they’re as important as the ultimate news outlet, because they are.

CULPEPPER: You’ve been on the conference circuit, and you, MacArthur president John Palfrey and others have been traveling to communities all over the country. In your first Press Forward Q&A, you talked about the importance of “radical listening.” So what are you learning in these early conversations?

ANGLIN: I’m loving being in community, I will just say that. I’m not bemoaning the travel at all. Communities are so different. And people really appreciate it when you come to them.

I was learning, for example, recently in West Virginia and Charleston, from a couple of publishers about their daily issues in dealing with tech. And we’re all pushing tech — help with audience development, and help with maximizing your website, and help with revenue tracking, and all sorts of stuff. Sometimes it turns out some group or cohort gives them access to a certain type of tech, or teaches them about a certain type of tech, but that tech may not be around three years from now. It’s a problem.

I’m learning about how important and complicated the policy world is going to be. We want policy solutions, but we all have different opinions about the best way. Should it be market-driven and as neutral as possible? Which legislatures should we go after? Are we being responsive or proactive? We’re going to form a policy working group so that we can try to come up with some best practices or things to try.

I’m learning how much a range of people see this issue. It doesn’t matter what your politics are, it doesn’t matter your age. I’ve talked to young people, and I’ve talked to older people, and there certain things [they] thought were always going to be around. I think we thought local news was just always going to be around. And now that it’s not always around, you go, “Wait a minute, I did like that. We did need that.” To me, it’s a unifying issue, one of the few we probably have left. A wide range of communities see this as an issue. So how can we help those communities think through what would work best in their communities?

Culpepper: In the op-ed that you wrote announcing the first open call, you had this line about, “We are looking for news outlets, new and enduring, that go beyond providing information to act as community builders willing to serve the public in new ways.” And that was a theme, I think, in what you and others talked about at ISOJ, and I’m sure you’ve brought up this ‘local news as community builder’ idea in other contexts as well. I want to ask you, not only coming from a background of philanthropy beyond news, but coming from a background beyond news — you’re a consumer of news who’s not a journalist — what does that teach you about what news needs to be today?

ANGLIN: Our world has changed dramatically in the last 10 years on multiple levels, and the change is accelerating. I know we had wonderful news outlets that prided themselves on neutrality in the past and were seen as slightly separate from the community, because you can’t study the community and be in the community. They often didn’t even register to vote because they didn’t want to be seen as having a party. They sometimes didn’t even put their own bylines, because they wanted to be seen as completely neutral, not in the fray whatsoever, so they could study the fray and report on the fray.

Well, the nature of the problem has changed. Bottom line is — and it’s not just journalism, art fills this too, music fills this — we need community builders. We need them desperately at the local level. We are just too far apart. The nature of the society has shifted. Everybody’s got to do something different to get us to where we would like to be. I don’t think we want to be where we are now. I hear that from so many people — “We don’t like what’s happening.” No matter what side you’re on, “we don’t like it.” It doesn’t feel good.

So then, how do each of us as personal people and residents, and how do organizations or particular ecosystems, try to help fix that problem? It turns out local news reporting is an incredible way to fix it.

Now, I know reporters weren’t [always] trained to do that, I understand. But we see places where when they are willing to shift just a little bit — they do their reporting, and they think about community building — they get into the community a little bit more than what they might have done 20 years ago; they build the coffee shop in Texas; they do the spelling bee in Cleveland; someone calls in, they actually help the person figure out about their immigration status as opposed to sending them off to somebody else — it turns out that’s an incredible role.

CULPEPPER: Is there any final thought that we haven’t talked about related to Press Forward that you want to bring up?

ANGLIN: I think the thing about Press Forward is you could keep going on and on and on — you keep finding more problems. And the one thing we’re going to have to wrestle with over the next six months to a year is what’s in Press Forward, and what’s not in Press Forward. We can’t solve the whole journalism ecosystem problem. But can we shine a light on best practices? Can we bring more money into the field? Can we help journalists understand that you’ve got to diversify your revenue, and we’re going to help you do that. That’s one of the things I think that we’re going to be wrestling with and talking through for the next few months.

Photo of a snail on a road by Grifmo on Flickr.

  1. Both for-profit and nonprofit local outlets in existence since September 2023 that have operating budgets under $1 million can apply to receive $100,000 in general operating funding. The coalition ultimately expects to fund around 100 outlets, drawing from its pooled fund. Applications are due at 11:59 p.m. ET on June 12. You can watch the first info session about applying here, or sign up for another info session next month here). []
Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     May 20, 2024, 4:55 p.m.
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