Philanthropy Must Rebuild Local Journalism to Safeguard Our Democracy and Communities
By: Allison Domicone, Director
“The path to better journalism is clear: we must construct an industry that reflects the diversity of our nation, articulate and live by clear values, deploy diligent journalistic methods, and construct a financial model that can insulate those values and methods from the demands of capitalism.”
— Wesley Lowery, A Test of the News1
Unbiased and accurate local journalism is vital to a healthy democracy and thriving society. Communities rely on local news to establish a mutual understanding of the unique issues in their neighborhoods, build a sense of shared connection and place, promote public safety and health with resources like where to get vaccinated, and hold their elected officials accountable. Widespread access to fact-based local news is also a panacea to divisive and hyperpartisan national cable news; Americans, regardless of political party affiliation, hold local news in higher regard than national news.2
The backbone of local journalism—newspapers—has been steadily disappearing for decades at an average of two newspapers closing each week.3 Today one-fifth of Americans do not have a local newspaper or are at risk of losing theirs.4
The collapse of local news has been disastrous for democracy. Research shows that strong local journalism increases civic engagement, reduces bias when voters consider political candidates, and serves the public good by exposing corruption and monitoring government spending.5
To shore up its critical role as a guardrail for democracy and an underpinning of a thriving society, we are calling on private philanthropy to invest more in local journalism—not only with one-time grants but as long-term partners.
Reversing the decline of local news feels daunting but there is reason for hope. Bold and innovative organizations are advancing effective solutions and need philanthropic funding to scale. To encourage more investment in local journalism, we have outlined the sector’s most pressing needs with funding recommendations:
- Supplement the business model
The print newspaper business model that was built on advertising revenue and subscriber fees has been eviscerated as more than eight-in-ten Americans now get their news digitally.6 Local newspapers have struggled to transition to digital platforms, especially in less population-dense areas, creating “news deserts” throughout the country. Policy solutions that involve profit-sharing between Big Tech companies and local news outlets like this bill in California are being explored, but progress will likely be slow.
For the foreseeable future, philanthropy must be a significant part of the business model to stabilize and restore local news organizations, which is common for industries that serve the public benefit. For example, art museums are also integral to a thriving society and rely on philanthropy to fill an average 30% revenue gap.7 It is time to accept that local journalism needs similar support.
During numerous conversations with our team over the years, Hirsch’s journalism partners have discussed their efforts to identify and experiment with new revenue models. However, no miracle solution has emerged, nor do they realistically expect it to. The best way forward is for philanthropy to step up with long-term, flexible funding that enables local journalism organizations to meet vital community news and information needs. The following organizations are leading effective efforts to build financial sustainability in local media:
- American Journalism Project – Invests in local news by raising and re-granting $37M to thirty-three nonprofit news organizations across the U.S. while providing technical support to help them achieve financial sustainability.
- National Trust for Local News – Works with established local news organizations to help them adapt to the changing marketplace by raising new capital, exploring different ownership structures, transitioning to digital platforms, and transforming their business model. To date, they have helped save community news outlets in Colorado and are expanding to Texas, Kentucky, Georgia, Montana, and New Mexico.
- KQED – An NPR affiliate and longstanding cultural institution that provides news and information to the nine counties of the Bay Area. KQED and other NPR affiliates have a diversified revenue model that includes member contributions, foundation grants, corporate sponsorships, and more.
- Advance racial equity
Communities of color that need trustworthy information the most are often where it is the most difficult to support a local news publication or organization, an issue that philanthropy has not adequately addressed. Only 6% of U.S. grants for journalism and news have been awarded to organizations that specifically serve people of color.8 In addition, racial diversity is lacking in newsrooms, and 52% of journalists believe their news organizations do not have enough employee diversity.9
Despite over 40% of the U.S. population being people of color, today’s mainstream journalism is predominantly oriented towards white audiences.10 The following organizations have groundbreaking programs to advance racial equity in the media:
- Fund for Black Journalism – The Fund for Black Journalism supports Black owned and operated news media organizations in communities across North America. In 2021, the fund enabled the formation of Word in Black, a collaborative of ten leading Black publishers who have teamed up to collaborate on high-impact journalism projects and business transformation efforts.
- Radio Bilingüe – The leading Latino public radio network, owning and operating thirteen FM stations in CA and the Southwest and producing Spanish-language news and public affairs programming for Latino communities.
- City Bureau – A Chicago-based “journalism lab” working to make journalism more democratic from the ground up by centering racial equity. Among their many important programs, they run a Civic Reporting Fellowship for emerging and established journalists to promote more diversity in the field.
- Counter mis- and disinformation in the media
The impact of rampant, often partisan, mis- and disinformation in the media is weakening public confidence in the news. Only 34% of Americans trust the mass media to report the news “fully, accurately, and fairly”.11 Simultaneously, the rapid rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is presenting even greater challenges to ascertain fact from fiction, such as realistic AI-generated deepfake video, audio, and images. The viral fake image of the Pope wearing a trendy jacket that confused the media and the public is an innocuous recent example, but the same technology can be used to generate and spread mis- and disinformation in more harmful ways.12 Countering fabricated stories and content in the media will require responsive new tools to address emerging technologies like AI, and a deeper commitment to verifying the legitimacy of information before it is distributed.
A recent legal case has created a pivotal moment to increase the accountability of mainstream news publishers who knowingly spread mis- and disinformation. In April 2023, Fox News paid a $787.5 million settlement to Dominion Voting Systems for spreading false claims about voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.13 This historic settlement is an opportunity to thwart the use of mis- and disinformation in the media. The following organizations are leading critical long-term efforts to debunk conspiracy theories and race-based fearmongering in the media, advance civic education, and promote fact-based journalism:
- News Literacy Project – Equips young people with the tools to be discerning, thoughtful consumers of news and information so they can identify and navigate mis- and disinformation. They are building a movement to advance news literacy throughout American society.
- Disinfo Defense League – A distributed national network of organizers, researchers and experts disrupting the online disinformation infrastructure and campaigns that deliberately target Black, Latinx, Asian American/Pacific Islander and other communities of color.
- Strengthen hyperlocal publications
An often-overlooked type of local news are hyperlocal publications that serve specific racial, cultural, and identity groups. These publications are staffed by community members and have deep expertise on the issues and concerns that matter most to their audience. They are prominent platforms for community activism and events that build cohesion and power for groups whose voices are underrepresented in more mainstream media.
To illustrate the wide variety of important hyperlocal journalism organizations that need philanthropic support, we have provided recommendation in the San Francisco Bay Area:
- CatchLight – The CatchLight Local initiative provides visual journalists to local newsrooms in California, increasing community representation and audience engagement.
- Bay Area Reporter – America’s longest continuously-published and highest circulation LGBTQ newspaper that has been serving the San Francisco Bay Area since 1971.
- Mission Local – Reports on news and events in the Mission District of San Francisco—a highly diverse neighborhood that has been heavily affected by gentrification.
- Wind Newspaper – A Chinese/English bilingual weekly publication that serves the San Francisco Bay Area.
- Cityside – Publishes content from the East Bay on three local news platforms – Berkeleyside, The Oaklandside, and Nosh.
- El Tecolote – A Spanish/English bilingual newspaper serving San Francisco’s Latino community.
- San José Spotlight – The first nonprofit news organization dedicated to independent political and business reporting by and for the diverse communities of San José.
The challenges facing local journalism are formidable, but there are sources of inspiration from successful partnerships between philanthropists and organizations. The Borealis Philanthropy Racial Equity in Journalism Fund is building the capacity and sustainability of news organizations led by people of color. NewsMatch, a fundraising campaign launched by the Knight Foundation, has raised over $271 million for emerging newsrooms and independent media outlets. These are powerful examples that philanthropists can look to as they consider investing more deeply in local journalism, an issue fundamental to the vibrancy of our communities and the survival of our democracy.
1 Lowery, W. (2023, April 25). A Test of the News. Columbia Journalism Review. https://www.cjr.org/analysis/a-test-of-the-news-wesley-lowery-objectivity.php
2 Fioroni, S. (2022, May 19). Local News Most Trusted in Keeping Americans Informed About Their Communities. Knight Foundation. https://knightfoundation.org/articles/local-news-most-trusted-in-keeping-americans-informed-about-their-communities
3 Abernathy, P. (2022, June 29). The State of Local News. Local News Initiative. https://localnewsinitiative.northwestern.edu/research/state-of-local-news/report/
4 Karter, E. (2022, June 29). As newspapers close, struggling communities are hit hardest by the decline in local journalism. Northwestern Now. https://news.northwestern.edu/stories/2022/06/newspapers-close-decline-in-local-journalism/
5 Stearns, J., & Schmidt, C. (2022, September 15). How we know journalism is good for democracy. Democracy Fund. https://democracyfund.org/idea/how-we-know-journalism-is-good-for-democracy/
6 Shearer, E. (2021, January 12). More than eight-in-ten Americans get news from digital devices. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/01/12/more-than-eight-in-ten-americans-get-news-from-digital-devices/
7 Art Museums by the Numbers 2018. Association of Art Museum Directors. https://aamd.org/sites/default/files/document/Art%20Museums%20by%20the%20Numbers%202018.pdf
8 (n.d.). Building Support for New Organizations Led by And Serving Communities of Color. Borealis Philanthropy Racial Equity in Journalism Fund. https://borealisphilanthropy.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/REJ_Overview.pdf
9 Gottfried, J., Mitchell, A., Jurkowitz, M., & Lieke, J. (2022, June 14). Journalists give industry mixed reviews on newsroom diversity, lowest marks in racial and ethnic diversity. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/journalism/2022/06/14/journalists-give-industry-mixed-reviews-on-newsroom-diversity-lowest-marks-in-racial-and-ethnic-diversity/
10 Jones, N., Marks, R., Ramirez, R., & Ríos-Vargas, M. (2022, June 14). Improved Race and Ethnicity Measures Reveal U.S. Population Is Much More Multiracial. United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/08/improved-race-ethnicity-measures-reveal-united-states-population-much-more-multiracial.html
11 Brenan, M. (2022, October 18). Americans’ Trust in Media Remains Near Record Low. Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/poll/403166/americans-trust-media-remains-near-record-low.aspx
12 Vincent, J. (2023, March 27). The swagged-out pope is an AI fake — And an early glimpse of a new reality. The Verge. https://www.theverge.com/2023/3/27/23657927/ai-pope-image-fake-midjourney-computer-generated-aesthetic
13 Rutenberg, J., & Robertson, K. (2023, April 19). A $787.5 Million Settlement and Embarrassing Disclosures: The Costs of Airing a Lie. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/18/technology/fox-news-dominion-settlement.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare