Nieman Lab now has a reporter devoted to covering developments in local news. Sophie Culpepper previously worked at The Lexington Observer, one of a number of nonprofit news startups in the Boston suburbs, and her Nieman beat is evidence that the local news crisis has moved to the forefront of issues that media innovators care about.
Last week Culpepper published an in-depth, two-part story on concerns raised by small startups that they are overlooked by the major foundations that are seeding new organizations, such as the Knight Foundation and the American Journalism Project. It’s something that Ellen Clegg and I have heard from some of the entrepreneurs we’ve included in our book, “What Works in Community News.”
Among the people Culpepper interviews is Jason Pramas, who has his hand in many projects but who at the moment is focused mainly on his work with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and HorizonMass, the latter a nonprofit that showcases paid student labor. Pramas is a founder of the Alliance of Nonprofit News Outlets, or ANNO, a group of smaller outlets that tend to be overlooked by the major players. (Pramas was a guest on our “What Works” podcast recently.) Pramas tells Culpepper: “I’m basically saying, there are haves and have-nots in the nonprofit journalism space. And this isn’t right.”
What worries Ellen and me is that the large funders tend to support what they regard as sure bets — big regional projects rather than the tiny operations that are covering one small town or a rural county. Not that those sure bets always pay off. After all, the high-profile Houston Chronicle was recently shaken by the unexplained firings of its editor and top investigative reporter. The large-funder, large-projects paradigm may become even more entrenched with the rise of Press Forward, an effort by more than 20 nonprofit foundations to provide $500 million to help fund local news over the next five years.
Regional and statewide nonprofits — including two that Ellen and I wrote about, The Texas Tribune and NJ Spotlight News — are doing great work and need to be supported. But that support shouldn’t come at the expense of tiny operations that are keeping people informed about their community and their neighborhood.
Ultimately, funding has to come from local sources, with national money used as a supplement. That requires an ongoing educational effort to convince local philanthropic organizations that reliable news is just as important to the health of a community as youth programs, educational initiatives and the arts.
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