It’s been a week since Press Forward, a $500 million initiative to fund journalism, was announced by the 22 organizations that will contribute money. Because it’s not clear exactly how it’s supposed to work, I’ve said little about it. Now, is this a Good Thing? Yes. A half billion dollars is a lot of money, and, if applied properly, could accomplish quite a bit of good. Despite the rise of independent, community-based news organizations in recent years, the need remains great.
But a few cautions seem to be in order, too. For those, I refer you to Richard J. Tofel, who writes the Second Rough Draft newsletter and is the retired president of ProPublica — a large investigative nonprofit whose mission has been underwritten by large sums of donated money. Perhaps the most intriguing tidbit in Tofel’s piece about Press Forward is that the $500 million, to be spread out over five years, is not really $500 million. He explains:
The big press release claimed that the initiative commits “more than $500 million” to local journalism. But what it didn’t say is that not all of that funding is new. I know of at least four Press Forward funders out of the 22 announced who are in fact not making funding commitments beyond those they had already planned. To be fair, I have also confirmed that at least four other funders, including the two largest, are making incremental commitments.
Tofel does not offer any numbers on exactly how much of the $500 million isn’t new money, but it’s a little disheartening to think that the funders — which include some big names like the Knight Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the Lenfest Institute — decided that making a big splash was more important than laying out precisely how much money will raised.
Tofel offers a number of other cautions, including the hazards of top-down funding, the negative effect that the initiative has already had on other journalism fundraising efforts, and an announcement made with such haste that no one seemed to realize that there’s already a well-known organization in Canada called Press Forward that’s devoted to more or less the same mission. Let the confusion begin!
To Tofel’s concerns let me add a few of my own. My first worry is that a lot of money is going to be lost or wasted on local efforts that have not been well thought out and that were proposed mainly as a way of getting a piece of the pie. I’m not talking about corruption; I just mean that people are going to think that they’ll be able to do great things if they can land some of that money, and that they’ll sweat the details later.
My second worry is that, fundamentally, this is not the way to build a local news organization. It takes community-based planning and, ultimately, community-based funding from local institutions, members and advertisers. Big bucks from a national organization can be a godsend in supplementing that mission, but it has to be bottom-up, not top-down — and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. As Authentically Local, one of the early organizations of digital startups put it, “Local Doesn’t Scale.”
That said, Press Forward is welcome news, and I wish them all the best. We need more high-quality local journalism, and this seems like an ambitious effort to pay for some of it.