June 1, 2020

Long before COVID-19 plunged the world into stifling economic stasis, local news organizations were watching their funding models crumble and come apart, with devastating consequences for the journalism that’s closest to people’s lives.

One in five newspapers has closed in the last decade and a half, and of those that remain, many have become emaciated shadows of their former selves, with less mass, girth and power to tell the most important stories.

We’ve known for a long time that we need new ways to gird and sustain local newsgathering. But for every great idea that develops — and there are many coming online in communities across the country — there needs to be a corresponding plan for financial stability and growth.

Far too often, especially among nonprofit ventures, financial surety is elusive, or short term, and the best hopes to fill the gaps in local news and information don’t get a real chance to succeed.

In Detroit, where I’ve been part of the journalism ecosystem three different times over the last 30 years, we’re onto something that will help light the way. A national and local investment partnership, led by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Center for Michigan, will propel the launch of BridgeDetroit — a multimedia, collaborative news and engagement organization focused intently on Detroit, and on the issues Detroiters themselves identify as critical to their understanding of civic life.

It’s inspired by the idea that Detroit’s 700,000 residents deserve a transparent, innovative and diversely staffed news organization focused on improving their relationship with information and truth.

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BridgeDetroit is partnered with Outlier Media, an existing local news organization that uses text messages to mine and respond to Detroiters’ needs, to build what we call a Community Priorities Model, which will continuously interact with Detroiters to determine what challenges exist in their lives. BridgeDetroit will produce journalism that’s responsive to that model, in collaboration with other local news outfits, and it will make its content available, for free, across the city’s journalism landscape.

Importantly, BridgeDetroit’s staff will reflect the city’s majority African American and Latinx population.

It’s a sprawling concept — like many of the others cropping up around the nation. But without solid financial footing and structure, it wouldn’t have a prayer in the current economic climate. To give the project a better chance, we designed a collaborative funding model that brings together national and local money, together with existing business infrastructure, to get the project going.

We took our idea to Knight Foundation, the nation’s largest funder of nonprofit journalism. Knight’s relationship with Detroit journalism dates back to its purchase of the Detroit Free Press in 1940. We used $2.25 million in support from Knight to leverage interest from other national and local foundations, paving a workable path to sustainability. (Disclosure: Knight is also a funder of Poynter’s work with local news.)

And, rather than start from scratch as a startup organization, we partnered with the Center for Michigan (publisher of Bridge Magazine) and built the business side of BridgeDetroit on the Center’s model. They’re experts in building a membership model, donations, and solid audience analytics, which help them make strategic and sustainable business decisions.

With the combination of Knight’s investment and the Center for Michigan’s partnership, we went to other national and local funders with a remarkably strong case for their support. The Center for Michigan’s existing funding relationships provided a road map for combined asks that gave potential funders a way to support local and statewide journalism together.

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The Ford Foundation made a significant commitment. And then came local foundations like the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation, Hudson Webber and McGregor. The Skillman Foundation — which has never made a general operating grant for journalism — extended one to BridgeDetroit, and has funded a $50,000 project that will examine how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Detroit youth. (See a complete list of BridgeDetroit’s funders).

The boosted financial start gives us some breathing room to develop our long-term sustainability strategy: sponsorship and membership models that displace some of the need for philanthropic support. But beyond the money, the national and local collaboration around BridgeDetroit gives it enormous editorial advantage. It draws off the local strength of our community, and proves the national interest in lifting up what’s falling in local journalism.

It’s a model that will make local news and information better in Detroit, for Detroiters. And it’s an example that is worth watching for its possibilities in other communities.

Stephen Henderson is project executive for BridgeDetroit.

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