By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Why large foundations need to step up for smaller local news projects

Postcard of Athens, Ohio, via Wikimedia Commons

In the course of our reporting for “What Works in Community News,” Ellen Clegg and I were confronted with a reality that cuts against our usual optimism: that though news startups across the country are helping to fill the gap created by the decline of legacy newspapers, the new media landscape is unevenly distributed.

Large regional and statewide nonprofits like The Texas Tribune and NJ Spotlight News are doing reasonably well, though the Tribune has recently hit a few bumps and Spotlight has never been a fundraising behemoth. Smaller projects serving affluent suburbs, like a number of startups in Eastern Massachusetts, are doing well. But there are few independent news outlets serving low-population rural areas and urban communities of color, and those that do exist are often overlooked by the larger philanthropic organizations.

Corinne Colbert writes about that reality for a newsletter called Local News Blues, which I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of until my friend and teacher Howard Owens of The Batavian pointed me to it a few days ago. Colbert is cofounder and editor-in-chief of the Athens County Independent, a nonprofit digital startup that in southeastern Ohio. Late last week she wrote a commentary headlined “Does big philanthropy really care about our smaller news markets?” Now, you know the rule about question headlines: the answer is almost always “no.” She observes:

Nearly 60% of foundation grants go to national and global nonprofit outlets, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News. Local outlets — which INN defines as those serving audiences at the county, city or town level or having a specific focus — represent almost one-fourth of nonprofit news jobs, but we get less than 20% of foundation funding. That gap represents millions and millions of dollars.

Recently the Houston Landing, a well-funded nonprofit with strong backing from the American Journalism Project, imploded when the publisher fired the highly regarded editor and the top investigative reporter without offering any logical explanation. The Landing may recover, but there’s been a serious lack of transparency. Meanwhile, projects that Ellen and I have written about such as MLK50 in Memphis and the New Haven Independent have never been able to attract much in the way of national funding, even though both are performing vitally important work.

Nonprofits are bringing news and information to communities in ways that for-profits often no longer can. But it’s time for major foundations — including Press Forward, a $500 million effort comprising 22 philanthropies — to bring renewed efforts to helping not just large, sexy projects but more quotidian efforts as well. Fortunately there are signs that Press Forward gets it.

“Small markets … present business challenges that corporations are often unwilling to face,” writes Colbert, “and those challenges make launching or growing a local news operation especially difficult. National funders could ease those burdens, but first they have to acknowledge our existence — and our importance.”

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  1. This is self-interested, but I would like to point out that the negative answer to “Does big philanthropy really care about our smaller news markets?” is even more devastating when it comes to the dearth (or would that be death?) of local coverage of the arts, which is condescended to by everyone — including those who run the newspapers. (It is also rarely talked about by commentators, though the recent absorption of Pitchfork into GQ has made the fade out a momentary matter of concern. Media that is cutting back on or dumbing down their arts coverage post editorials lamenting what is going on. The throttling continues.) Small outlets, like The Arts Fuse (which I edit) rarely receive support from big philanthropy: the decision has been made to help individual artists or organizations rather than nurture the future of arts journalism. And that is a shame, because serious public discussion of the arts (like the news) deserves to be nurtured — it contributes to the health of culture and society. America has a strong tradition of first-rate arts coverage, which is being forsaken.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. All I can see from the trenches (the Ipswich Local News) is a lot of large organizations talking to each other above our heads and funding esoteric projects.

    As for Press Forward, I can see that initiative doing more harm than good by leaving the impression there is a vast pot of money for local news.

    This will discourage smaller donors if they believe their contributions will make more difference elsewhere.

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