Anyone who cares about the future of newsrooms is on the lookout for omens. And there have been plenty of bad ones lately. Newspaper vital signs, for example, are pointing south—profit margins, stock prices, ad revenue, and valuations. Jack Shafer, drawing on the work of the astute Philip Meyer, noted in his Reuters column recently that owners are reacting to such declines by harvesting newspapers’ “goodwill”—their standing
in the community and the habits of readers and advertisers of giving them money—by reducing their value “bit by bit, month by month.”

Need a good omen? Here’s one: the Ford Foundation’s million-dollar grant to the Los Angeles Times. It’s a two-year deal, $1.04 million to be exact, and renewable, with no strings attached beyond the foundation’s larger goal of using journalism to address inequality and injustice. The Times will use the money to hire five beat reporters to cover prisons, immigrant communities, the Mexican borderlands, and Brazil.

The news drew predictable snark. The Times is now “a charity case,” wrote an LA Weekly columnist. It also suggested a legitimate worry about conflicts: “This raises a big question for Californians,” wrote a blogger on the website of the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles. “Who is going to cover the foundations?” On cjr.org, our own Michael Meyer pointed to the odd contours of this unprecedented grant to a for-profit corporation in transition: The Times’s owner, the Tribune Co., could soon emerge from bankruptcy at least temporarily in the hands of a group of creditors that includes JP Morgan—not exactly a household name when it comes to addressing inequality and injustice.

Nonetheless, this is a good portent. First, it means that the Ford Foundation has recognized that if what it wants is public-service journalism with a broad reach, a big daily still gives it the most bang for the buck. The Los Angeles Times is something less than it once was, but it remains the strongest newsroom in our most populous state. Ford Foundation spokesman Alfred Ironside said the grant is “definitely a vote for those established newsrooms. Everyone can see they are really suffering.”

Ford also is peering into the future: “This is an opportunity to think about hybrid models for supporting those newsrooms,” Ironside added, meaning the search for business models with income streams beyond just commercial ones. “Everyone is experimenting, and so are we.

“Our belief has been that this kind of deep, nuanced journalism is important for our democracy,” he said. “Is there a role for this kind of foundation to support that kind of journalism? What would that look like, and how would it work?”

The Ford initiative that the grant falls under will be giving out $10 million a year, mostly to public media, a traditional area of focus at Ford. But Ironside said that 15 percent of the money is earmarked for experiments with for-profit news outlets. Several conversations are under way, he said, but was unwilling to divulge specifics. “Definitely, more grants like this are coming.”

Indeed, while they search for longer-term solutions, more grant seeking should be part of the strategy for newspapers—at least as a weapon to help buy time, and to maintain precious goodwill, instead of harvesting it. Why not? Every business model has potential complications and conflicts, including the traditional advertising model, something the Times knows all too well (just Google “Los Angeles Times” and “Staples Center”). The Ford grant is a welcome vote for newsrooms, and an experiment worth watching.

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The Editors