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

Tag: Press Forward

Nonprofit local news needs to move past the large funder/ large project paradigm

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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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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Priyanjana Bengani talks about ‘pink slime’ and her research on disinformation

Priyanjana Bengani

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen and I talk with Priyanjana Bengani, a fellow in computational journalism at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Her work focuses on using computational techniques to research issues in digital media.

Her most recent project, published in the Columbia Journalism Review, focused on uncovering networks of “pink slime” local news outlets. There have been several iterations of pink slime sites over the years, such as the North Boston News. Bengani has studied partisan political sites disguised as genuine community news organizations. (There’s no such place as “North Boston,” by the way.) They get their name from the pinkish beef paste that is added to hamburger meat.

In Quick Takes, I revisit Press Forward, the $500 million philanthropic effort aimed at revitalizing local news. When Press Forward was announced a few months ago, many observers were worried that a national, top-down effort might clash with local needs and local concerns. Fortunately, Press Forward is now getting involved in the grassroots in an attempt to leverage its funding and help a wide range of local and regional news projects.

Ellen delves into a piece in Racket, an alternative news site in Minneapolis. (The What Works podcast with editor and co-owner Em Cassel can be found here.) Racket takes a steely-eyed look at Steve Grove, the new CEO and publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Just before taking the journalism job, Grove settled a lawsuit alleging he withheld public records from the press when he was a state government official.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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Press Forward presses forward with local chapters

Press Forward, the recently announced initiative to raise $500 million for the support of local news, is establishing local chapters in Alaska; Chicago; Minnesota; Philadelphia; Springfield, Illinois; and Wichita, Kansas. According to the announcement, “Press Forward Local chapters are an opportunity for funders to create place-based initiatives for local news, driven by the specific needs of their communities.”

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Catherine Tumber tells us why reliable local news matters in fighting climate change

Catherine Tumber in Buffalo, New York. Photo by Chris Hawley. Used with permission.

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Catherine Tumber, who was a former colleague of mine at The Boston Phoenix, a longtime friend and a source for my 2013 book, “The Wired City.” These days she’s an independent scholar and journalist who’s affiliated with the Penn Institute for Urban Research. She’s also a fellow at the MassINC Gateway Cities Innovation Institute and a contributing editor for The Baffler.

Tumber is the author of “Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World.” She holds a Ph.D. and a master’s degree from the University of Rochester as well as a bachelor’s in social thought and political economy from UMass Amherst. Our conversation is about a recent report that she co-authored for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy called “Greening America’s Smaller Cities.” She, along with Joseph Schilling and Gabi Velasco, offer a wealth of suggestions about how industrial legacy cities can be part of the climate solution. Our question to Cathy: How does the lack of reliable news and information in many of these cities contribute to the challenges of turning that vision into a reality?

In our Quick Takes, Ellen is back on the Midwestern beat with good news about a startup weekly paper called The Denison Free Press in Iowa. It’s scrappy as hell. Or heck, as they might say in Iowa. I’ve got a rave for a new effort to inject $500 million into local news over the next five years — with a caveat. The initiative, known as Press Forward, brings together 22 different foundations in an effort to provide a significant amount of funding for community journalism. But there may be less to that effort than meets the eye.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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Press Forward, philanthropy and the inequities facing BIPOC news outlets

My Northeastern colleague Meredith Clark and her co-researcher, Tracie Powell, spoke with Nieman Lab about funding inequities for local news start-ups serving BIPOC communities and how that might play out following the Press Forward announcement, in which 22 philanthropic organizations have pledged to provide $500 million over the next five years.

Clark, who’s the director of Northeastern’s Center for Communication, Media Innovation and Social Change, spoke with Ellen Clegg and me on the “What Works” podcast last year and is featured in our forthcoming book, “What Works in Community News.” Clark tells Nieman Lab’s Hanaa’ Tameez:

Really well-meaning people with access to social structures and access to capital are jumping in and wanting to get involved, but they’re not addressing some of the root causes that got us here in the first place. Instead, they’re building out infrastructures that allow the money to move from one place to another — but as it goes through that movement, it gets siphoned off.

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A nonprofit news outlet issues a caution about Press Forward

The Marblehead Current, a nonprofit local news organization that was founded in 2022, has published an editorial about Press Forward, the initiative announced by 22 foundations to donate more than $500 million to support community journalism over the next five years. I think this is key:

But while we are excited about what Press Forward or a new law might mean for our industry as a whole, we have a nagging fear that news of such developments will create the funding equivalent of the “bystander effect” in Marblehead, fostering the assumption that the Current will be fine, its needs attended to by someone else, someone from “away.”

There is no substitute for a strong funding base at the local level. National efforts should be seen as a supplement.

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Questions and concerns about Press Forward’s plan to raise $500 million for local news

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.

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