Many major philanthropic groups have increasingly focused their attention in recent years on helping struggling local newsrooms. Now they are joining forces.
On Thursday, more than 20 nonprofit organizations announced plans to invest a total of $500 million over the next five years in local media organizations, one of the biggest efforts yet to address the crisis in local news.
The initiative, called Press Forward, is spearheaded by the MacArthur Foundation and supported by organizations including the Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Press Forward will use the $500 million to fund grants for existing local for-profit and nonprofit newsrooms, help build shared tools, provide resources to diverse outlets and those in historically underserved areas, and invest in nonpartisan public policy development that advances access to news and information.
John Palfrey, the president of the MacArthur Foundation, said Press Forward aimed to help news outlets that did not have enough revenue to sustain their business. The goal, he added, is to eventually raise and invest $1 billion for the effort.
“There’s extraordinary opportunity,” Palfrey said in an interview. Many people are focused on finding ways to improve local news coverage, he said, but “they just simply don’t have enough philanthropic capital to get it going, and we’re going to provide at least a down payment on that.”
The investment by Press Forward reflects the concern over the rapid shrinking and disappearance of local news organizations across the United States — and what that information void means for democracy. More than 20% of Americans now live in what are called news deserts, which are areas that have little or no independent news sources on local issues, or communities that are on the verge of becoming one, according to a 2022 report by Northwestern University’s Medill School.
Some 2,500 newspapers have shut down since 2005 — and more continue to close. Declining revenue from print advertising and subscriptions has made it nearly impossible for struggling papers to survive, and those that are still around have a small fraction of the staff they once had. Digital news outlets and nonprofit newsrooms have sprung up across the United States, but not in numbers large enough to fill the gap.
According to the Northwestern report, most of the new outlets serve urban centers, leaving some economically struggling and rural communities at a loss. Without an independent local news source, the report said, residents don’t have the information they need to make informed decisions about civic issues and governance, and that provides an opening for the spread of misinformation and disinformation.
“People are really now alarmed,” said Alberto Ibargüen, the president of the Knight Foundation. “There is a new understanding of the importance of information in the management of community, in the management of democracy in America, that I believe simply wasn’t there 15 years ago.”
The MacArthur Foundation and the Knight Foundation are each contributing $150 million to the fund, with 20 other initial donors making up the rest. The MacArthur Foundation will set aside an additional $25 million to invest in for-profit businesses, rather than give grants, Palfrey said.
Grants from the pooled funds will be coordinated and managed by the Miami Foundation, a nonprofit community foundation. Most of the grants will be awarded beginning in 2024, and will focus on at least one of four areas: strengthening local newsrooms, scaling news infrastructure, closing inequalities in coverage and practice, and advancing public policies.
Ibargüen said the advantage of Press Forward was that media organizations could submit an application for funding and have access to a range of large national foundations, rather than have to apply to each foundation.
“This, I hope, will be a much more efficient way of both sharing information about people seeking funding and about what models appear to be working,” he said.
Philanthropies have increasingly been putting their money toward local news. A new study conducted by NORC, a research institution at the University of Chicago, in partnership with Media Impact Funders and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism found that one-third of the donors surveyed had funded journalism for the first time in the past five years. More than 70% of the donors in the study said their top priority was funding local news.
One example is the American Journalism Project, which gives grants to existing nonprofit newsrooms. It has raised more than $150 million and has supported 41 news organizations since it was started in 2019 by John Thornton, who founded The Texas Tribune, and Elizabeth Green, a co-founder of Chalkbeat and Votebeat.
The Tribune is one of the biggest nonprofit newsrooms in the country and has helped to usher in new regional digital startups, but it recently had its first layoffs in its 14-year history. Chalkbeat and Votebeat are topic-specific nonprofit outlets, focusing on education reporting and election and voting coverage.
The Knight Foundation has invested more than $632 million in local news efforts since 2005, and Ibargüen said its Press Forward investment was in addition to continuous annual spending on journalism projects.
Palfrey said Press Forward planned to bring in new donors and raise more money, but “we know that even with the maximum we can do pushing really hard, we’re not going to have enough” to solve the local news crisis.
“There has to be other sources of revenue, and some of that of course is advertising and subscriptions, but I actually believe that public policy has a role to play,” he said.