Major Philanthropies Announce $500m Investment in Local News

By A Correspondent
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The struggling local news ecosystems across the United States are set to receive the much-needed support in the days, weeks and months to come, thanks to a major investment by 20 philanthropies.

On Thursday, the MacArthur Foundation announced the launch of Press Forward, a philanthropy-led, field-influenced initiative to invest $500 million in local journalism, including support for civic media and public-policy development. The amount will be spent over the next five years.

Dozens of philanthropic institutions led by MacArthur have united to support this work. Other participants include the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Democracy Fund, the Ford Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the Knight Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the foundation said in a statement. The longer-term goal, according to MacArthur Foundation President John Palfrey, is to raise and invest $1 billion in the field.
Press Forward will use the fund for grants to existing local for-profit and nonprofit newsrooms, help build shared tools, provide resources to diverse outlets and those in historically underserved areas, and invest in nonpartisan public policy development that advances access to news and information.

The investment reflects the concern over the rapid shrinking and disappearance of local news organizations across the United States. According to a 2022 report by Northwestern University’s Medill School, more than 20 percent of Americans now live in what are commonly known as news deserts. The news deserts areas that have little or no independent news sources on local issues, or communities that are on the verge of becoming one.

According to New York Times, some 2,500 newspapers have shut down since 2005 — and more continue to close. Declining revenue from print advertising and subscriptions has made it nearly impossible for struggling papers to survive, and those that are still around have a small fraction of the staff they once had. Digital news outlets and nonprofit newsrooms have sprung up across the United States, but not in numbers large enough to fill the gap.

According to the Northwestern report, most of the new outlets serve urban centers, leaving some economically struggling and rural communities at a loss. Without an independent local news source, the report said, residents don’t have the information they need to make informed decisions about civic issues and governance, and that provides an opening for the spread of misinformation and disinformation.

In February, a group of local-news experts and practitioners published The Roadmap for Local News: An Emergent Approach to Meeting Civic Information Needs. The outcome of a year-long research effort, The Roadmap sets forth a visionary and actionable plan to ensure that every U.S. community has access to necessary civic news and information. Free Press’ Mike Rispoli coauthored The Roadmap alongside Elizabeth Green of Civic News Company and Darryl Holliday, formerly of City Bureau.

The Roadmap’s principal goals are to expand the nation’s civic-information ecosystem, invest in shared infrastructure for news outlets and support public policy that will strengthen local news, which is in line with the priorities of this newly announced philanthropic effort.

In 2024, Press Forward will begin awarding grants concentrated in four similar areas: strengthening local newsrooms, scaling news infrastructure, closing inequalities in coverage and practice, and advancing public policies.

The MacArthur Foundation press release quoted Mike Rispoli, Free Press’ senior director of journalism and civic information, as saying: “Press Forward represents a major opportunity to reimagine and revitalize local news and information. While there is much more work ahead, this major mobilization of philanthropic resources shows the strength of the growing civic-media field in response to the shrinking local-news landscape.

“This new investment in civic media comes at a time when the collapse of traditional news markets has resulted in the closure of more than 2,000 local newspapers over the past two decades. This is not just a local-news crisis, it’s a crisis of civic health. Combined with increased lawmaker attention on local-news policy, the decisions made in the next few years could reshape our media system for generations. This announcement and investment represent a bright spot of hope to create a media system that serves the public interest.

“We’re especially pleased that Press Forward’s vision for this work aligns so well with the findings in The Roadmap for Local News — an effort that listened to leaders across the journalism space and put forward some of their biggest ideas. The success and impact of this organizing has brought us to a moment where an experimental field can dramatically expand to serve more communities.

“This commitment from philanthropic leaders shows that there are extraordinary opportunities to invest in a local-news ecosystem that engages with local communities and bolsters their participation in democracy. Now it’s up to the field of media practitioners, pro-democracy advocates, funders and government leaders to unite around a shared set of principles about what we need to build. Those principles must prioritize underserved communities, center their information needs, and focus on expanding public and noncommercial media.

“This is an opportunity to ensure that local communities have access to reliable information and can make informed decisions, leading to a stronger democracy for all. Our nation’s most powerful media institutions and government policies have too often worked to undermine democracy and harm communities of color. To fully realize a true multiracial democracy, we have to reconcile and repair the role that powerful U.S. media institutions and media policies have played.

“This is a time to do big things and break away from a backward-looking approach on what local news used to be, instead investing in the future and focusing on practices and policies that support community news and information. Exciting new programs such as the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium and the California Local News Fellowship show the vital role of public investment.

“As more philanthropic support comes to the field, it’s crucial to mobilize behind public policies to support the emerging civic-media space and accountability journalism at the local, state and national levels. Free Press stands ready with its allies to learn from communities most impacted by the lack of local news, collaborate on solutions and work together to implement them,” the statement concluded.

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