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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Heawood

Journalism Funders Assemble!

PINF’s Executive Director reflects on two days with Earth’s mightiest journalism philanthropists.

The Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice, venue for the Journalism Funders Gathering on 11-12 October 2023. Photograph: Jonathan Heawood.

Last week, I was in New York for the Journalism Funders Gathering – an annual get-together of US philanthropists. It was awe-inspiring to see how high a priority these funders consider journalism to be in the United States, and how much money they're putting into it.

The Press Forward coalition recently pledged more than $500m to revitalise local news in the US. By contrast, the International Fund for Public Interest Media (IFPIM) has so far raised less than $50m to save journalism in the rest of the world. Are US citizens really worth ten times more than everyone else combined?

I don’t believe these funders think that. But I was surprised by how many of them were unaware that the challenges facing local news in the US are also felt in other countries, not least the UK. In fact, Newsquest – the second largest regional newspaper publisher in the UK – is owned by the American chain Gannett, which recently cut 6% of its newsroom staff in the US whilst hiring a dedicated Taylor Swift reporter.

American journalism funders are familiar with the problem of so-called ‘Gannett towns’, where the publisher has stripped its local titles to the bone, whilst filling websites with syndicated content. That’s why these funders are injecting so much capital into a new generation of independent news organisations. They believe that communities need public interest journalism to survive and thrive. And if some companies are failing to provide that, then philanthropists need to step in, to help news leaders build sustainable models.

While I was in New York, Rhiannon Davies of Greater Govanhill and The Scottish Beacon was also in the US, sharing her insights via LinkedIn. I’d love to see more independent publishers from the US and UK comparing notes like this. We face similar challenges, and it would be great to share solutions.

At PINF, we’ll be working to open up more transatlantic dialogue over the coming years. In the meantime, here are ten insights I brought back on the red eye from JFK:

  1. Sarabeth Berman of the American Journalism Project (AJP) described how AJP is addressing the market failure in local news by ‘expanding the pie of philanthropic dollars for local news in the US’ whilst developing new revenue streams with newsrooms across the US. AJP has already committed $46m to 41 newsrooms and helped mobilise a further $56m in local journalism philanthropy. Sarabeth believes that philanthropists have a long-term role to play as part of a mix of revenue streams alongside readers and advertisers. In her words, ‘the mantra of sustainability is diversify, diversify, diversify.’

  2. Sue Cross of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) explained how INN creates an ‘ecosystem for success’ by working with both funders and newsrooms. She told funders to use their grants to help newsrooms build broad support from their communities – for example, through match-funding schemes; to support startups as well as established organisations; to provide core support rather than project grants; and to let communities set their own measures of success.

  3. Angelica Das of Democracy Fund quoted a newsroom leader as saying that ‘journalism philanthropy isn’t a rescue package for a business model; it’s a rescue package for democracy.’ She was one of the few speakers to look to the wider world, saying that ‘the challenges for journalism inside the US are starting to look more like the challenges we see outside the US.’ And she recommended that funders should create networks of newsrooms to share challenges and opportunities – something we are already doing at PINF.

  4. Tracie Powell of the Pivot Fund described travelling across Georgia, where she found ‘a quiet revolution in local news’. She said that outlets like ATL Scoop may not look like traditional news media, but, with almost 1m followers on Instagram, they are covering the issues that matter to their community – policing, housing, sports, and so on. And because they have the trust of their community, they can act as bulwarks against disinformation.

  5. Imara Jones of TransLash Media declared that ‘the only way to save democracy is by informing, educating and engaging people on the issues of gender identity.’ She argued that populists are using trans people to win elections ‘not only as a wedge issue but also as an experiment in how to isolate and demonise and disenfranchise groups of people.’ In response, TransLash Media aims to demystify trans issues and show how attacks on trans people are linked to wider attacks on democracy. ‘We have to fund the new,’ she concluded, ‘in order to have a legacy media of the future that is worthy of democracy.’

  6. Jennifer Preston, formerly of the Knight Foundation, presented her recent survey of 129 funders and 431 news organisations in the US which found that ‘addressing the local news crisis is a top priority motivating funding decisions; and that ‘half of community foundations say the quality of local reporting has deteriorated in the last five years.’

  7. On a related note, Lauren Pabst of the MacArthur Foundation said that the Press Forward coalition is aiming to galvanise ‘significant new philanthropic resources to support local news across US’, in part by encouraging place-based funders to see journalism as ‘at least their second priority.’

  8. Steve Waldman of the Rebuild Local News coalition set out his ambition to generate at least $1bn in new government support for local journalism within the next ten years – ‘not just to prop up existing journalism but to unlock the future’ – through a range of proposals, including tax credits for businesses that advertise in local news, vouchers for residents to subscribe to local news outlets and commitments from local authorities to spend at least 50% of their advertising budgets with local media.

  9. David Bornstein of the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) told delegates that he realised journalism had a problem’ when his dad, who spent late nights watching cable news, declared that human beings are worse than animals. SJN has since trained more than 47,000 journalists around the world in solutions journalism – an approach that does not shy away from the hard things in life but emphasises the potential for positive change. He gave the example of a Cleveland newspaper which struggled to cut through with a series of stories about lead poisoning, until it changed tack and published a story about how authorities in Rochester had tackled the same problem – leading to swift action from Cleveland lawmakers. In David’s words, solutions journalism can ‘sharpen the teeth of the watchdog by removing excuses for poor performance, and turn journalist watchdogs into bees, cross-pollinating ideas from one city to another.’

  10. Lizzy Hazeltine of the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund stressed the importance of building a news ecosystem as a whole and pulling in allies from across the local community. ‘Find a story of “us” that we might all contribute to,’ she urged.

These are just ten takeaways from just a few of the many fantastic organisations that are transforming journalism in the United States.

At PINF, we are trying to learn from as many of these organisations as possible, whilst operating on comparatively limited resources. With more support from philanthropists and policymakers in the UK, we could do so much more to ensure that everyone in this country benefits from journalism that speaks to them, for them and with them.

As ever, get in touch if you’d like to support our work or learn more.

Jonathan Heawood is Executive Director of PINF.


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