Houston will get a $20m startup newsroom

A group of philanthropies is launching an independent nonprofit news organization in Houston with initial funding of more than $20 million, marking one of the biggest investments into local news in recent years. 

The investments—$7.5 million each from the Houston Endowment and the Kinder Foundation, $4 million from Arnold Ventures, $1.5 million from the American Journalism Project, and $250,000 from the Knight Foundation––are for an initial period of three years.

The endeavor follows a two-year research effort led by the American Journalism Project, a venture philanthropy dedicated to local journalism. The newsroom, which is as yet unnamed, will begin operating in late 2022 or early 2023, the group said.

While the AJP and other investors will assist in establishing the organization’s leadership team and operational budget, they will remain independent from its day-to-day work. The search for an editor in chief and other staff is expected to begin shortly.

“Local news is a public service—one that’s been in sharp decline,” Sarabeth Berman, chief executive of the American Journalism Project, told CJR. “This project demonstrates that local philanthropies can, and need to, play a transformative role in rebuilding and sustaining independent, original reporting in service of communities.”

In the past decade, the print journalism industry has cut more than half its jobs nationally, thrusting local newsrooms deeper into crisis as readership and revenue continue to dry up. More than sixty-five million Americans live in areas with only one local paper or none at all. Even in Texas, which is home to a number of robust nonprofit newsrooms like the Texas Tribune, nearly twenty-five local newsrooms were closed or bought out or had significant furloughs in the past two years alone. 

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But philanthropy has risen as a revenue source for journalism. Data from Candid, an organization dedicated to financial transparency in the nonprofit industry, shows that between 2009 and 2021, US community foundations gave more than $1.1 billion to media projects. 

Of this, less than 1 percent went specifically to journalism, but that number is increasing. In 2019, The City—an independent nonprofit publication in New York—was launched with an $8.5 million investment by a coalition of New York philanthropies. The Ohio Local News Initiative was similarly incubated by the AJP with $6 million in seed funding, as was the Baltimore Banner, with $15 million in startup capital from a single philanthropist. 

“An investment in independent local journalism is essential for all important issues, including civic engagement and participation,” Ann Stern, president and chief executive of the Houston Endowment, told CJR. “It is essential for democracy to flourish.”

The AJP’s research in Greater Houston, which included surveys, interviews, and multilingual focus groups, found that communities in the area wanted stronger accountability journalism as well as more diverse, nonpartisan, and accessible information. 

 

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Paroma Soni is a CJR fellow.

TOP IMAGE: HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 11: The Houston skyline appears above an intersection of freeways approaching from the east on April 11, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)