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Philanthropies pledge $500 million to tackle local news crisis

Many large philanthropic groups have increasingly focused their attention in recent years on helping struggling local newsrooms. Now they join forces.

On Thursday, more than 20 nonprofits will announce plans to invest a total of $500 million over the next five years in local media, one of the biggest efforts ever to address the crisis in local information.

The initiative, called Press Forward, is led by the MacArthur Foundation and supported by organizations including the Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Press Forward will use the $500 million to fund grants to existing local for-profit and non-profit newsrooms, help create shared tools, provide resources to diverse media and those in historically underserved areas, and invest in the development of non-partisan public policies that advance access to information and information.

John Palfrey, chairman of the MacArthur Foundation, said Press Forward aimed to help media outlets that did not have enough revenue to sustain their activities. The goal, he added, is to eventually raise and invest $1 billion for the effort.

“There is a tremendous opportunity,” Mr. Palfrey said in an interview. Many people are trying to find ways to improve local media coverage, he said, but “they just don’t have enough philanthropic capital to get it started, and we’re going to provide at least one down payment on this”.

Press Forward’s investment reflects concern over the rapid shrinking and disappearance of local news agencies across the United States — and what this lack of information means for democracy. More than 20 percent of Americans now live in what are known as information deserts—areas that have few or no independent sources of information on local issues, or communities that are on the verge of becoming one, according to a 2022 report by Northwestern University’s Medill. School.

Some 2,500 newspapers have closed since 2005 – and more continue to close. Falling revenue from print advertising and subscriptions has made it almost impossible for struggling newspapers to survive, and those that still exist have only a small fraction of the staff they once had. Digital media and nonprofit newsrooms have sprung up across the United States, but not in sufficient numbers to fill the void.

According to Northwestern’s report, most new outlets serve urban centers, leaving some rural and economically struggling communities in dire straits. Without an independent local source of information, the report says, residents lack the information they need to make informed decisions on civic and governance issues, setting the stage for misinformation and misinformation to spread. disinformation.

“People are really alarmed,” said Alberto Ibargüen, president of the Knight Foundation. “There’s a new understanding of the importance of information in managing community, in managing democracy in America, that I believe just didn’t exist 15 years ago.”

The MacArthur Foundation and the Knight Foundation are each contributing $150 million to the fund, with the rest coming from 20 other initial donors. The MacArthur Foundation will set aside an additional $25 million to invest in for-profit ventures, rather than giving out grants, Palfrey said.

Grants from the Pooled Funds will be coordinated and administered by the Miami Foundation, a nonprofit community foundation. Most grants will be awarded starting in 2024 and will focus on at least one of four areas: strengthening local newsrooms, scaling news infrastructure, reducing inequities in coverage and practice and the advancement of public policy.

Mr. Ibargüen said the advantage of Press Forward was that media organizations could apply for funding and gain access to a range of large national foundations, rather than having to approach each foundation.

“I hope this will be a much more effective way to share information about who is looking for funding and what models seem to be working,” he said.

Philanthropic organizations are increasingly investing their money in local news. A new study by NORC, a research institute at the University of Chicago, in partnership with Media Impact Funders and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, found that a third of donors surveyed had funded journalism for the first time during of the last five years. More than 70 percent of donors surveyed in the study said their top priority was funding local news.

One example is the American Journalism Project, which provides grants to existing nonprofit newsrooms. It has raised more than $150 million and helped create four news operations since it was launched in 2019 by Texas Tribune founder John Thornton and Chalkbeat and Votebeat co-founder Elizabeth Green.

The Tribune is one of the largest nonprofit newsrooms in the country and has helped spur new regional digital start-ups, but recently saw its first layoffs in its 14-year history. Chalkbeat and Votebeat are non-profit, topic-specific media, focusing on education reporting and coverage of elections and voting.

The Knight Foundation has invested more than $632 million in local news efforts since 2005, and Mr. Ibargüen said his investment in Press Forward is in addition to ongoing annual spending on journalism projects.

Mr Palfrey said Press Forward planned to attract new donors and raise more money, but “we know that even with the maximum we can do by pushing very hard, we won’t have enough” to solve the local information crisis.

“There have to be other sources of revenue, some of which of course comes from advertising and subscriptions, but I really believe that public policy has a role to play,” he said.