The Associated Press finds a new way to combat news deserts

June 25, 2024
An Associated Press teletype machine. (Courtesy rochelle hartman via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons.)

Nonprofit news organizations including ProPublica, The Marshall Project, and The 19th have transformed the American media landscape in the past decade. But the Associated Press has been at it far longer. Throughout its 178-year history, the AP has been run as a not-for-profit cooperative. And talk about impact. The AP has been the backbone of the American news industry, providing coverage of global and national events, feeding local stories to the national press, reporting on elections, and declaring the victors.

Unlike the current crop of nonprofits, the AP has been funded not by donations and grants, but by its members, news organizations across the country and around the world that license content. But that’s changing. The news deserts that have spread across the US are not only bad for democracy—they are bad for the AP’s business model. Fewer news organizations mean fewer AP members and therefore less revenue. Today, it’s national and international broadcasters who rely on the AP for content, especially video, that keeps the lights on. The AP has responded by seeking new funding to support coverage of key issues.

Donations and grants from philanthropic organizations have helped underwrite AP reporting on democracy, science, religion, climate, and health. Additional philanthropic support has come from foundations with a media focus, particularly the Knight Foundation. All told, the AP has raised more than $61 million in philanthropic funding in the past seven years.

While grants from foundations still represent a small percentage of the AP’s overall income, it’s a stream that is growing and, according to AP executive editor Julie Pace, could grow some more. Pace is particularly focused on attracting expanded support for coverage of state and local issues in the US. “There’s just a very clear need for more news, and I would say high-quality, nonpartisan, independent news,” Pace told me. “We’re going to try to raise money to address exactly this crisis.”

To achieve that goal, the AP plans to create a new sister organization—a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that Pace and others believe will make it easier to attract and manage an increasing flow of contributions. The new entity—whose structure and mandate are still being defined—would be a conduit to philanthropic investment in the AP and would support improvements to the local news and information ecosystem. The new entity will be governed by an independent board of directors and administered by the AP’s vice president of philanthropic development, who is being recruited.

That position was held until recently by Lisa Gibbs, who left the AP to take on a new role as chief executive of the Pulitzer Center, which supports independent journalism through grants and educational programming. In 2017, Gibbs helped secure the AP’s first foundation grants, which were used to support health and science reporting. She negotiated partnerships with the nonprofit Report for America, which allowed the AP to bring on seventeen new statehouse reporters, and with Frontline, which later produced with the AP the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Days in Mariupol.

In May 2020, at the outset of the COVID pandemic, Gibbs hosted a virtual summit that connected the AP with major foundations. Several agreed to fund coverage in areas of particular concern, including climate and education. According to Gibbs, they were drawn to the AP’s enormous global reach, as well as its nonpartisan approach to news. “I mean, Fox News uses AP and so does MSNBC,” Gibbs noted.

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With the focus now on attracting philanthropic funding to support local news, Pace said the strategy is to survey the national landscape and fill in the gaps. One area where Pace believes the AP can contribute is the “nuts and bolts of state government coverage,” particularly as it relates to accountability. 

In March, in anticipation of the upcoming presidential election, the AP announced new content sharing agreements with a range of local nonprofits, from Cal Matters and Honolulu Civil Beat to The Texas Tribune, allowing the AP to bring their reporting to a national audience. In states where there is a robust local news organization, Pace envisions building on such effort. In other states, where AP reporters are often “the only ones there,” Pace hopes to bolster the AP’s own reporting. Pace believes that local news organizations across the country can benefit from the AP’s data journalism and analysis, along with access to visual journalism and robust election coverage. 

There is an understandably deep concern about the future of local news in this country, and of the industry as a whole, beset with layoffs, consolidation, and scandals. But there is also reason for optimism. Nonprofit news outlets across the country are producing outstanding journalism, and some are finding a critical audience. The funders supporting this partial renaissance are understandably proud of their efforts. Via a new effort called Press Forward, a coalition of funders led by the MacArthur Foundation, they have pledged more than $500 million to support local media in the coming years. 

But the AP also has a role to play in strengthening state and local news. “It’s not easy, and it’s not going to be fast or simple,” Pace said. “But we see this as very much the next step and the continuation of that mission that we’ve had for so long.” 

Joel Simon is the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.