As philanthropy spends big to fight news deserts, 3 frontline news outlets share what they need

These organizations are revolutionizing journalism at every level: how they are funded, how they write their stories and even how they find them.

June 18, 2024

Stop me if you’ve heard some variation of this statistic: More than half of U.S. counties have no or almost no access to a “reliable local news source.”

It’s factually true. As of November 2023, roughly 204 American counties did not have a designated news outlet. The U.S. has lost almost 2,900 newspapers and 43,000 newspaper journalists since 2005. Northeastern and coastal states tend to retain access to news, while swaths of the Midwest and central South have multiple counties with only one news outlet — or worse, none.

The problem with the constant drumbeat of these statistics is that we run the risk of continually focusing on the negative, becoming so keenly aware of the problem that we neglect to put equal focus on the solutions. In fact, there’s no need for the conditional there — some of these solutions already exist and are already in practice at news organizations across the country

The good news is that there is actually good news. A group of more than 25 funders titled Press Forward intends to invest more than $500 million into the local news industry, including those serving economically challenged news deserts and historically underserved communities. In the meantime, a number of local organizations are already doing the work now to meet those needs — in areas like West Virginia, Detroit and Ohio.

These organizations are revolutionizing journalism at every level: how they are funded, how they write their stories and even how they generate them. They have thrown out the “we’re doing it this way because that’s how we’ve always done it” mentality. And while that just might be the future of journalism, there are still some common necessities that emerge: more money, more time and, often, a reluctance to serve as journalism’s panacea in lieu of serving their community.

The startup phase

Longtime Charleston Gazette-Mail journalist Ken Ward Jr. just so happened to start the nonprofit news organization Mountain State Spotlight in the midst of the pandemic. It was not the easiest time to launch, when in-person interviews and working in an office were out of the question. But when people were desperately seeking information, as Ward put it, “what better time?”

After almost 30 years at the Pulitzer Prize-winning Charleston newspaper, Ward may have seemed an unlikely candidate to jump ship and start something completely new. But little by little, the nonprofit news bug infiltrated his brain. Maybe it found him: The Charleston Gazette-Mail was one of the first newspapers to welcome Report for America corps members in 2018. Around that time, he became a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, eventually leading to a series of stories on the natural gas industry in West Virginia. (He won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship — the so-called “genius grant” — in 2018 for his reporting on that project.)

“Those experiences gave me a lot of insight. I became very interested in the business model of nonprofit news and how that connects to the editorial strategy,” Ward said.

Mountain State Spotlight founding editor-in-chief Ken Ward Jr. speaks during an event with Mountain State Spotlight readers and staff. (Photo: Duncan Slade)

He hoped to make use of that insight at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. But in 2018, the paper’s owners filed for bankruptcy and sold the institution. Ward saw the writing on the wall and decided that it was time to try something new.

Thus, Mountain State Spotlight was born, a paean to what Ward calls “sustained outrage” journalism, exposing “abuses of power by government, business and other institutions.” A typical story might cover state lawmakers discussing the opioid crisis with a surprising lede: “Another legislative meeting and still no initiatives from the Legislature to deal with this problem.”

“We try to dig pretty deep, do investigative reporting and hold powerful interests accountable,” Ward said. “We also try to tell stories that make a point.”

The pandemic also served as a turning point for Detroit-based nonprofit Outlier Media. The outlet started in 2016 with a text message information line that focused on housing, said founder and editor-in-chief Sarah Alvarez. Detroit residents could text their address and discover whether it was at risk of tax foreclosure, who was listed as the owner and whether or not it passed a rental inspection.

“Our method then and now at Outlier has always been to put the most acute needs first and to serve people who are most harmed by information and accountability gaps first and then build from there,” Alvarez said.

But there were limits to what she could provide: Outlier started with only $75,000. Full-time staffers were minimal until 2021. By then, it was clear that the news ecosystem was only getting weaker, meaning a newsroom wasn’t necessarily going to absorb and grow Outlier, which had been Alvarez’s plan when she started the organization. At the same time, the pandemic crystallized how capably the Outlier model could meet the needs of a community. So instead of abandoning ship, Alvarez decided to go all in.

Other organizations launched with ambitious geographic and staffing goals. In 2022, Signal Ohio opened with the mission to cover Ohio through a patchwork of locally based bureaus in cities like Cleveland and Akron. The initiative was spurred in part by a study, launched by the Cleveland Foundation and the Knight Foundation on the news ecosystem in northeast Ohio, that evaluated where people were getting their news and whether they were getting it at all. Their big finding was not just a lack of access to news but a general community distrust of what was available. That led to efforts to fund what was formerly known as the Ohio Local News Initiative, which eventually raised more than $13 million.

Cities like Cleveland and Akron, both have newspapers based in their very centers, may not seem like news deserts. But many of Ohio’s largest cities are currently served by chain-owned newspapers that have decimated their staffs. Signal Cleveland already has 18 staffers, per Signal Ohio CEO Rita McNeil Danish.

Danish, whose background is in policy and law rather than journalism, sees Signal Ohio’s work as establishing an organization where journalists do journalism and designated staff handles the rest. There will likely be no Twitter call-outs from these journalists asking for funds. A central business team handles human resources, finance, development and operations, while newsrooms focus solely on what they set out to do—reporting.

What’s clear is that, from their very starts, these three organizations have had one thing in common: They were intentional about what they were doing and where they wanted to go.

Building trust and changing engagement

Serving a news desert — or any kind of underserved community — comes with innate challenges. Chief among them: How do you get people who have never heard of you to trust you?

When Ken Ward was beginning to report out his investigation on the growth of the state’s natural gas industry in 2018, he would travel to the northwestern corner of West Virginia and hear a common refrain: You work for what newspaper? Can we get that here? 

The problem, Ward said, was that the majority of the West Virginian media, mostly based in Charleston, had “lost touch with vast parts of the people we’re supposed to serve.” So he built community outreach into the structure of Mountain State Spotlight. The organization has already sent two reporters and an audience manager into the state’s eastern panhandle, not with a story in mind, but just in the hopes of learning more about the issues its residents face. The outlet also runs a text, email, phone call and letter tip line in an ongoing effort for story suggestions. Each member of the editorial team takes a shift checking those tips and responding.

“I don’t think West Virginians identify as being left behind by the news media,” Ward said. “But their indifference to us — it doesn’t matter whether we’re here or not — reflects that. A lot of places in West Virginia are used to The Washington Post or The New York Times parachuting in with the story mostly written. Here’s ‘insert the headline’ in Trump country, insert the rest of it, and you go to a diner and get a couple of quotes from somebody and you’re done.”

Ward sees it as a type of resigned apathy: Should residents even bother talking to the media when the only reason they generally come is because of a tragedy or to poke fun at West Virginians?

Mountain State Spotlight Reporter Sarah Elbeshbishi speaks with community members after a roundtable discussion in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Photo: Duncan Slade)

Mountain State Spotlight’s tagline may be “sustained outrage,” but it’s a sustained presence that readers seem to want to see most of all. Both the West Virginian nonprofit and Signal Ohio found real reader success with voter guides and election explainers. In August, Ohio voters had a rare statewide summer special election on the processes for citizen changes to the state constitution. Signal Cleveland ran an explainer on the issues at stake and the actual voting process. Those stories gave the outlet “the most tremendous boost,” Danish said.

“It’s all part of a growth process where we begin to identify what is important to our readers,” she said. “We make sure we survey our readers on what they like, what they don’t like and what’s important to them, so we can keep our pulse on those readers and meet them where they are.”

While some news organizations approach engagement as a means to boost audience and revenue, Outlier Media comes from a different perspective — an information needs rather than an engagement framework. The key, Alvarez said, is whether the initiative is additive to what the newsroom already does or an intrinsic part of its overall mission.

“We are engaging people throughout the entire system so that our products are more likely to fill a need for them. Our goal is to help improve material conditions in Detroit. Our goal is not to engage — period,” Alvarez said. “Engagement is necessary so that we can learn where our work can be most valuable and where people feel like there are information and accountability gaps so we can do our part to fill those for a healthier and more liberated city.”

Outlier uses a nearly annual information needs assessment that surveys readers over text message — and pays them for their responses — not about the information they need but the challenges they face. A sample question reads: “Think about the week ahead. What do you need this week that you don’t have now? Share as many details as possible.” In contrast, an engagement project might ask: What’s something you’re wondering about your community?

Since 2016, Alvarez said, the categories affected, like housing, haven’t substantively changed, though the dimensions have. If anything, since the pandemic, the number of people lacking connection and money to meet their basic needs has only gone up.


One thing remains a somewhat persistent worry for nonprofit news organizations: money.

Mountain State Spotlight, Outlier Media and Signal Ohio have each received a sizable amount of funding from national foundations. Mountain State Spotlight, for example, got $450,000 from the Ford Foundation, while Outlier Media brought in more than $500,000 from places like the American Journalism Project and Democracy Fund.
While philanthropic donors can be a major boon to news startups, the goal is often to have at least some funding come in from readers rather than foundations. At Mountain State Spotlight, for example, that divide is around 75-25, national foundations to reader revenue, Ward said, a percentage of grants he calls “too big a slice of the pie.” But there’s no magic number.

“What’s the right mix, I think, varies from place to place,” he said. “I don’t know what it’s going to end up being for us. We need national foundations to continue to help us, but the way to do that is to show them that West Virginians support us.”

At Signal Ohio, roughly 80 to 85% of funding comes from philanthropic organizations like the American Journalism Project, the Knight Foundation and local Cleveland-based nonprofits, Danish said. Down the road, Danish hopes that that 80% number will decrease to 40% with the growth of reader revenue.

Leaders at Mountain State Spotlight, Signal Ohio and Outlier Media said their next few years are a bit like trial and error, shuffling around in the dark for a hopeful foothold.

“We’re in this period where a lot of the old models are dying and newer models are emerging — navigating that space is difficult,” Alvarez said. “Coming up with a really good idea of how things could be better and proving that it works is one thing. Then making that a long-term, more sustainable endeavor is a whole other ball of wax.”

Outlier Media managing editor Erin Perry (Photo: Nick Hagen)

Alvarez compares Outlier to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — at the very bottom are physiological and safety needs, things like food, shelter, and, eventually, employment and resources. Those needs must be met to even start thinking about self-actualization. Outlier’s goal is to “fill information, accountability and connection gaps in Detroit,” Alvarez said. Her philosophy is about replication over scale, and so she still spends part of her time “trying to support people and organizations in news.” But at the end of the day, Alvarez said, serving the community trumps all.

Finding that audience has been an unexpected challenge. She assumed something like the “Field of Dreams” line — if you build it, they will come. Yet even though Outlier Media has hundreds of thousands of people in its system, the news organization doesn’t have a way to serve the text message line’s entire audience “in an integrated way,” Alvarez said. They’re in the process of building a way to do that, and it should be done sometime next year. But it’s one piece of advice she now has for aspiring nonprofit newsrooms: Be aggressive around building an audience and have a strategy to grow that number.

“Most of us start out really small and our ambitions for our audience are all so small,” she said. “While we can start small, our ambitions for our audience need to be big.”

What we can learn

To some degree, Signal Ohio, Mountain State Spotlight and Outlier Media are all in a state of experimentation. How can they reach their readers most effectively?

At Signal Ohio, “the big, hairy, audacious goal” is to have a newsroom in every urban city in Ohio — Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, for starters — as well as a statehouse newsroom that will get news to rural communities.

Danish recognizes that not everyone is going to access Signal Cleveland’s website or read an email newsletter. There may be more direct ways of reaching the public, through text messages, flyers, community meetings or even library hours. As part of that promise, Signal Ohio has a close partnership with the Documenters program, an organization that pays community members to take notes at public meetings. These notes are more like minutes and less like a journalistic report, meant to be a resource for reporters rather than a directly publishable piece — that is, with one key difference. Documenters often leave questions at the end of their dispatches, noting what more they’d like to know.

For Signal Ohio, that approach has already generated story ideas. After more than 10 years of legalized casino gambling in the state, Documenters wondered where the millions in casino taxes received by the city of Cleveland were actually going. That prompted a look by an editor at Signal Cleveland, who assigned the piece to some reporters, leading them to dig in. Ultimately, they found the money was headed largely toward neighborhood improvement projects, like vacant-lot cleanup and new park trails, as well as economic development initiatives, including storefront renovations and business expansions. The story was an important example of explanatory journalism — the end result wasn’t necessarily a “gotcha” moment so much as a way to educate readers about a funding source they likely knew about and an outcome they likely didn’t.

Meeting readers where they are also means covering stories that may not seem glamorous on their surface. When editors first proposed a voter guide at Mountain State Spotlight, Ward was skeptical. We’re a new publication, he thought. Who is going to look to us for this?

But the straightforward product had surprising results: A number equivalent to one-fifth of the West Virginians who voted in the midterm election read the voter guide. Readers came from every one of the state’s 55 counties.

“That’s part of the special sauce that a lot of nonprofit newsrooms have,” Ward said. “We’re trying to be more focused on the stories that people want us to tell rather than the stories that maybe we as journalists want to tell.”

Alvarez prefers to call Detroit a news donut rather than a news desert — the news organizations that exist in the city tend to serve its suburbs over the people who live in the actual city. The audience inside Detroit is “chronically undervalued,” she said.

“We’re really here in part to be reparative but also to demonstrate that news is a public utility,” she said. “It doesn’t need to be a market-driven approach exclusively.”

It’s a stark shift from what she first noticed when she came to journalism as a second career. She was “dismayed” — which she said was “not too strong of a word” — by how story ideas were determined. She assumed that community needs would be considered when generating coverage. Instead, it most often came down to the individual interests of reporters and what was already in the news cycle.

In the more than seven years since Alvarez first started Outlier, she’s noticed the conversation around news start to change. When she first mentioned information gaps and needs, no one really understood what she was talking about. Now, she hears those terms from reporters independent of her.

To create something completely new takes a certain amount of courage. It’s why leaders like Ward say there isn’t a new road map that nonprofit news organizations can share. To assume otherwise just makes everyone’s work more difficult.

“One of the tensions that unnecessarily makes startup nonprofit newsrooms harder is this feeling that we have to have all of the answers,” Ward said. “Anyone who says, ‘Here’s the cookbook on how to do this,’ — they’re charlatans. No one knows for sure how to make this work and we ought to embrace that rather than being scared of it.”

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Elizabeth Djinis is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Follow her on Twitter at @djinisinabottle or email her at
Elizabeth Djinis

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