January 26, 2021

In contrast to the business wipeout for most legacy media last year, big nonprofit local initiatives are thriving and on track for healthy growth this year, too.

Consider:

Report for America is one of six finalists for the MacArthur Foundation’s second “100&Change” competition — a $100 million grant awarded for a big solution to a big problem. Even if Report for America’s initiative to eliminate news deserts is not the winner — against competition with proposals such as curing malaria or eliminating homelessness — being picked among 3,650 initial applicants and 475 accepted for review will boost the program’s visibility and funding.

ProPublica, a pioneer of nonprofit startups in 2007, has quietly moved to supplement its national investigative projects with a pair of big local efforts. It has launched state-based affiliates in Illinois and Texas and assisted in 45 projects there and elsewhere over the last three years by paying reporters’ salaries and providing editing and presentation help to established organizations. One of those, working with the Anchorage Daily News, won Pulitzer Prizes for Public Service and National Reporting last year. A budget of $6 million in 2020 for local efforts will rise to $10 million in 2021 (out of a total for ProPublica of $35 million).

Other initiatives are taking off. The American Journalism Project has staffed up a grants team to distribute $50 million over the next several years. A longstanding push by the Knight Foundation to interest community foundations in considering assistance for local journalism as part of their grants programs is taking root. For-profit newspapers and other local outlets are getting in the game, too, off to a fast start seeking contributions from readers and philanthropies earmarked for particular investigative and accountability projects or the capacity to create them.

In surveying five of the largest efforts (by no means a comprehensive list), I found several patterns emerging.

As is common in the foundation world, some of the same well-known outlets turn up over and over as recipients — The Texas Tribune, VTDigger, the new Mountain State Spotlight in West Virginia. Is it a case of the rich getting richer and true news deserts remaining deserts? Perhaps. A long-established practice among foundations is to put their money where they can be most confident of the desired result.

American media consumers finally seem to be getting the message that their local newspaper is not healthy financially — diminished already and facing a mortal threat before long. Not only are digital subscriptions up, but readers are starting to voluntarily send tax-deductible gifts.

In the philanthropic world, opinion is split on extending help to for-profit media. Some see the newspaper sector as too far gone and don’t want to send a penny to greedy hedge fund chain owners. They believe the nonprofit model is the better ownership structure and the future of ambitious local news. Others think established for-profit outlets (local broadcast included) retain needed scale, institutional knowledge of their communities and newsrooms that can pivot to cover a huge and complicated story like the pandemic.

Another issue, Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, told me, fits the old truism about giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish. Report for America mainly funds reporters, placing them where they can pursue stories that would otherwise not get done (but with the kicker that recipient organizations need to raise a match). The American Journalism Project and the newer Accelerate Local from the Local Media Association are all about building capacity in organizations to do their own fundraising and manage their business side.

To say that the nonprofit sector is prospering needs a qualifier — they too suffered from the pandemic advertising recession of 2020 and its continuation this year. Revenues from events and sponsorships took a hit, though virtual events and the continued strength of newsletters cushioned that.

The main event, though, is foundation support and getting the attention of wealthy individuals — that’s flourishing. Also success in producing impactful journalism, clearly on the rise, should breed more success.

Here are particulars of growth for five initiatives of note.

ProPublica

I spoke with reporter Kyle Hopkins the early May afternoon that he and the Anchorage Daily News won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Hopkins was understandably excited but not so excited to forget crediting Charles Ornstein, managing editor of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, for help with all the elements that make for a knockout project — data analysis, presentation and story editing.

ProPublica shared the honor for stories on sexual abuse and the lack of law enforcement in large swaths of rural Alaska — and it paid Hopkins’ salary. It was the nonprofit’s sixth Pulitzer and a high-water mark for the local network, but only one of dozens of such projects boosting the best kind of local journalism.

Ornstein, who has been with ProPublica since its launch in 2007 after an accomplished career (including a public service Pulitzer of his own at the Los Angeles Times), gave this account: “For the first decade, we were mainly focused on national investigations (though from the start those were shared with local outlets). But as we saw success, we also began seeing a role for us in local — the biggest gap to fill.”

ProPublica settled on a response to the local news crisis with two approaches. It first went regional in 2017, launching ProPublica Illinois with an editor and 12 reporters. Last year it added a six-person Texas investigative team housed at The Texas Tribune. This year, the Illinois unit will expand to cover other Midwest states, and units for the South and West regions are in the works, Ornstein said.

Separately, the Local Reporting Network began in 2018 with seven pilot projects. It will grow to 20 projects in 2021, Ornstein said, and ProPublica will now extend support for up to three years for local teams led by especially strong reporters.

Part of what ProPublica provides is screening to identify ideas that have the most promise. Then it draws on its 125-person newsroom and long experience to give varied assistance along the way in their execution.

If there is a secret sauce to enhancing a local project, Ornstein said, it may be the exclamation point infographics and interactives they provide. He mentioned as examples a 2019 series by The Advocate/Times-Picayune in New Orleans on pollution by chemical processing plants, and a series with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on “the stunning effect of sea walls to protect mansions” at the expense of broader environmental and climate issues.

Some other projects of note, he said, have been MLK50’s exposé of hospitals profiteering on care for the poor in Memphis, led by Wendi C. Thomas and accompanied by a well-organized engagement effort; and Molly Parker’s coverage for ProPublica Illinois and Lee Enterprises’ Southern Illinoisan on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s failures to monitor safety in housing projects.

“We have more worthwhile ideas than we can fund,” Ornstein said, but he also has subtle criteria for picking. “We are looking for a distinct sense of place, not a story that could be told anywhere. So the questions (we ask) are why here and why now.” As an example, Ornstein said, he has received multiple proposals for localized coverage of the opioid crisis, absolutely a good story to localize but not a fit with the ProPublica model.

ProPublica’s local projects add up to a $6 million commitment in 2020 and $10 million in 2021 — a critical mass likely to keep the spigot of strong local investigations flowing for years to come.

Even with that 60%-plus growth spurt, Ornstein said, he is seeking “the right equilibrium — we are not growing as fast as Report for America.” The idea is to be sure the number of projects does not outstrip the capacity to support them. To keep pace, ProPublica promoted several editors last summer and hired three more for the local programs in December.

Report for America

When Steve Waldman and Charles Sennott founded Report for America in 2017, loosely modeled on Teach for America’s corps of nontraditional young teachers, they decided to come head-on at fixing the problem of declining newspaper staff and news deserts.

The design was to place young reporters, typically with three or four years of experience, at outlets around the country. Report for America screens both the reporters looking for a high impact assignment and the publications and broadcast outlets hoping to be hosts. Even in the first year, applications on both sides of the deal far exceeded what the organization could fund.

Waldman and Sennott had long experience in startups and the foundation world, and they built in two artful features into their strategy. They started small with 14 placements to learn and refine their idea and to show funders that the approach produced results.

Waldman likes to cite the reporter assigned to the Lexington Herald Leader’s reopened easten Kentucky bureau who found the lead for a story on a water system failure on his second day on the job.

Report for America also decided to require that local recipients, for-profit or nonprofit, provide a 50% match. Besides demonstrating a commitment rather than just taking the money, recipients have a powerful incentive to pull in community foundations or private philanthropists who may not have had journalism on their radar.

Should the audacious bid for MacArthur’s $100 million succeed, Waldman emailed me, “We can go bigger and faster. We’ll get to 1,000 reporters by 2024 and field 2,500 in the course of the five-year grant. We figure that would be about 600,000 pieces of journalism. Just as important, we figure that such an approach would leverage about $140 million (in) local donations to local newsrooms.”

Even absent the grant, Report for America is planning for fast growth and has introduced a twist — in December it announced that it will be recruiting a cohort of journalists with at least eight years’ experience who can coach and edit as well as report.

The effort will involve expanding from 160 newsrooms and 225 reporters this program year to 200 newspapers and 300 reporters for the year beginning June 1, according to Kim Kleman, Report for America’s national director, who now oversees the placements.

The new, more experienced group will probably number around 20, she said. Moving past early-career reporters follows input from recipients, Kleman said. “There’s a crying need for more seasoned reporters and editors in organizations everywhere.”

As Report for America grows and matures, Kleman told me, the volume and complexity of matchmaking grow, too. That could mean, for instance, ensuring that a public radio station gets someone with audio production and broadcast delivery skills.

Unless an outlet has a particular reporter in mind, “we give them a slate,” Kleman said, to minimize the chance of a bad fit. This year particularly, Report for America is redoubling efforts to be sure journalists of color — 42% of its core group to date — remain well represented.

Waldman conceded in an earlier piece I did that even paying just half of a salary is an expensive undertaking, but it can capture the imagination of even the most sophisticated foundations like MacArthur and take newsrooms a big step forward with a project they likely otherwise would not be able to afford.

I have wondered whether the Report for America design or even Report for America itself could work as a template for a federal investment in local journalism — a buffer against politicizing such awards.

Waldman remains skeptical. Even with a third party choosing how to best spend the federal funding, Waldman told me late last year, political pressure could still seep in. That is doubly true since a diet entirely of investigative stories will be bound to ruffle politicians’ feathers.

ProPublica’s president, Richard Tofel, has a similar take. “We would only take public money if it were truly content-neutral, he said, “that is open to all publishers. So, postal rate subsidies, yes; any digital (Corporation for Public Broadcasting), no.”

American Journalism Project

Sarabeth Berman came on board the American Journalism Project as CEO in May after a career in international education philanthropy. Her appointment and the rest of a 14-member staff, with a strong representation of people of color, looks like a foundation, not a collection of editors and reporters.

That matches the mission described by founders Elizabeth Green of Chalkbeat and John Thornton (also a co-founder of The Texas Tribune) as they launched two years ago — AJP would be all about building capacity for sustainability rather than directly investing in newsgathering like Report for America.

With 16 organizations in the first of several years of support, Berman told me, she and AJP are already modifying what they first set out to do. The first wave of grant recipients was picked with an eye toward developing a variety of models — like Chalkbeat or The Texas Tribune, but not exact replicas — that would provide startups and young nonprofits a choice of business strategies to emulate.

However, as the pandemic has accelerated the decline of newspapers, Berman said, the criteria have changed slightly. “We are now particularly looking for organizations that can grow and scale … that have the talent and conditions to become anchors for their state or metro.”

Examples would include VTDigger, which now has the largest newsroom in the state, or The Oaklandside, spun out from the neighboring Berkeleyside, and serving a largely Black, Latino and Asian American community in Oakland (where the MediaNews Group-owned Oakland Tribune has been severely reduced in news resources).

Of comparatively less interest, she said, are more narrowly focused or boutique startups with two or three journalists, though “we do have a portfolio approach — some will be different.”

Along with other organizations, Berman and AJP look to energized community foundations to support a growing nonprofit with the potential to become the main news source in a particular place. The peril of the pandemic ad recession helps make the case.

Berman’s background has not been in journalism (though she is married to New Yorker reporter Evan Osnos), but rather in leadership roles at Teach for China and then Teach for All. In a half-hour interview, she seemed to project the same enthusiasm and focus that have made Green a prodigious fundraiser for her projects — most recently the $1 million “popup” newsroom Votebeat (just extended through 2022).

AJP has so far dispensed $12 million from its first venture philanthropy fund with assets of $40 million, and is starting on a second. The grants are in multi-year stages, but Green told me that the project will spend what it raises rather than creating an endowment as many foundations do and limiting grants to income earned.

Green believes nonprofit journalism, unencumbered with earning profits for shareholders and lenders, is the future. Its recipients are all nonprofits. She and Thronton have set a long-range goal of raising $1 billion to support that kind of local journalism.

Local Media Association — Project Accelerate

The newly launched Lab for Journalism Funding, a Google-funded initiative, not only accepts legacy newspapers getting in the fundraising game, but it is also partnering with The Seattle Times, which has 10 years of fundraising experience and a track record of success. 

One of several programs of the Local Media Association, it is strictly a capacity-building exercise, essentially a how-to on launching and succeeding in an effort to capture donations and foundation grants.

The nine-month crash course with an initial cohort of 16 organizations launched in the fall and continues into this year, Frank Mungeam, director of innovation at LMA, told me.

Mungeam said that the threshold qualification for picking participating organizations was “a demonstrated ability” to carry out investigations and “a commitment from publishers.”

The exercise also sparks a sharp focus on defining a mission and involves a community listening tour that may uncover needs that are missed by gaps in coverage.

Among the first out of the chute with fundraising campaigns are The Advocate/The Times-Picayune of New Orleans and The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina. Each has won a Pulitzer in recent years and produces a steady stream of ambitious investigations.

Both Gordon Russell, investigations editor of The Advocate, and P.J. Browning, president of The Post and Courier, told me it is too early to gauge the results of the campaign and what they can do with the money.

But The Advocate has defined a goal going in of doubling its four-person investigative team and has created an elegant website (similar to that of The Seattle Times) that can document fundraising and its results.

LMA contracted with The Times to provide the meat of the training and has veteran public media executive Joaquin Alvarado in that role. Mungeam told me the group has already raised $600,000 in this preliminary phase. He quotes Alvarado as estimating that newspapers should eventually be able to get a third of their revenue from donations.

Money is not yet in hand for a second cohort, Mungeam said, but he and LMA are very interested given the undeniable swing from advertiser to audience support as a business model. “Never in my career have I seen when there is wider appreciation of what local journalists do and what they add to a community.”

Knight Foundation

Jennifer Preston wraps up six years this month heading journalism programs at Knight — the premier funder of news and news education for decades. In that post, she has had a 360-degree view of the evolution of nonprofit local news and likes what she sees.

“It’s more important than ever before,” she told me. “I’m deeply concerned about websites masquerading as local news. … They have an impact on highly uninformed (but) highly engaged (news consumers).”

It is critical “to fight disinformation with accurate information,” she continued, and that means “independent nonpartisan reporting … local, original reporting.” Calling out fake local news sites posing with newspaper-like names is also part of what legitimate local news organizations can do.

As an index of the nonprofit sector’s progress, Preston cited NewsMatch, one of Knight’s signature programs with other national foundations in partnership with the Institute of Nonprofit News. In 2020, the 4-year-old program expanded to 260 participants. Dollars raised are still being tabulated but will well exceed the $43 million from 2019.

NewsMatch directly supports outlets and is also an incentive for community foundations, whose contributions are matched, to do the same. Knight was trying well before Preston arrived to get these locally focused foundations to broaden their scope beyond traditional grants for health and the arts and consider journalism philanthropy as well.

The persistence has paid off; now both nonprofit startups as well as the investigative projects of legacy newspapers get progressively more support from such foundations and individual donors.

Preston came to Knight after years as a digital editor and newsroom administrator at The New York Times. In a note announcing her departure, the foundation’s president and CEO Alberto Ibargüen wrote: “When Jennifer joined Knight Foundation, we had just gone through a significant period of tech innovation and experimentation. She directed that focus back to local newsrooms.”

Besides Knight’s longtime support of endowed professorships at universities across the country, the foundation created the so-called Table Stakes program, a very detailed roadmap for established organizations to create digital change with measurable revenue results. (Some of that training is done at Poynter).

Many but not all of the participating organizations are metro or mid-sized newspapers, which at times earlier in the last two decades seemed to have fallen out of favor with Knight.

Knight supports both Report for America and the American Journalism Project. It has included those in a sweeping long-term $300 million Journalism and Democracy Initiative.

I asked Preston whether there was any danger of too many big projects going after a finite pot of foundation money. “I don’t see them competing with each other,” she replied. “I do see them collaborating with each other and solving different parts of the problem.”

Where the sector stands and where it is going

Quantifying local nonprofit (and for-profit local startups, as well) is literally a work in progress, a multi-year project of INN’s. It also has become harder through the years to say how much reporting punch has vanished as local newspapers, magazines and alt-weeklies struggle. The industries quit their own reporting on those statistics, citing them as bad public relations.

However, absent definitive information, I doubt that the most enthusiastic advocates and practitioners could make a case that the new is growing faster than the old is declining.

That’s more than a quibble, but no longer a reason to pigeonhole the nonprofit sector as worthwhile small experiments dwarfed by the declines in legacy news.

API’s Rosenstiel describes himself as an “enthusiastic realist” about the growth of the sector believes that “scale is still an issue.” He also disputes “the idea that nonprofit is (intrinsically) better and more ethical. That is empirically false.”

For one thing, the sector needs to negotiate the thicket of donor intent. Can they take the money without buying into the results the funder wants (versus going where the reporting leads)? And as The Texas Tribune found a few years back, how big sponsors of events and newsletters get treated in news reports becomes a sensitive question.

For all that, Rosenstiel said that the initiatives have become “valuable and additive.” Putting reporters on the street is expensive. Report for America and ProPublica are taking that on, Rosenstiel said, with the added kick of training younger journalists to do work with depth and impact.

In putting this piece together, I found more of a steady upward trajectory in funding and notable results than I had expected. Now with newspapers jumping onboard to seek philanthropic funding for their investigative units, I can see the equivalent of a merger of purpose between old and new models as a possibility. The sum of the two could add up to healthy news systems for many communities.

This article was originally published on Jan. 25, 2021.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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