First Person

Journalism funders consider big swing on local news. We can’t afford a miss.

July 5, 2023

A group of philanthropy heavyweights including the MacArthur Foundation, the Knight Foundation, and others with enough collective spending power to put a dent in any global problem are considering whether to put a seriously large amount of money on the table to improve local news. The amount is rumored to be up to $500 million, to be spent over the course of five years. It could be announced as early as this summer. 

There are more than three thousand counties in the United States. If every one of them had an even share of $500 million, they would have around $165,000 to spend on better local news. That would be just enough to cover one reporting beat for one year (if we go by calculations the American Journalism Project uses in its grantmaking).   

And yet there is plenty of money in this country being spent on other things. In Detroit, where I live and work, the local government just handed over $748 million in public subsidies to billionaire developers for office space and high-rise apartments downtown. There was vocal and substantial opposition, because Detroiters want any number of things instead and the developers have a terrible track record of delivering on their promises. But only one “no” vote on the city council. Local news should be helping the public get the outcomes and accountability they’re asking for, but the money and power are stacked against us. 

I didn’t grow up in Detroit. When my parents moved away from the southwest they landed us in a rural stretch of Mid-Michigan between Lansing and Flint. There’s only one local news source, the 169-year-old Argus-Press, in Shiawassee County. People living there deserve good information and accountability as much as people in Detroit. How can these funders spend their money in a way that can help both our newsrooms, as different as they are, make a difference in our communities?

Tom Campbell is the Argus-Press’s publisher. His family has owned the paper for almost a century and a half, and Campbell has worked at the paper for forty-one years. He’s still printing and delivering it to subscribers every day.

The small towns the paper covers and the paper itself are toughing it out through lean economic times that aren’t yet looking up. Close to seventy thousand people live in Shiawassee County, fewer than when there were more family farms and more work in nearby Flint. “There’s no growth here,” said Campbell. “This is a steadily declining part of the state.” 

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Campbell hadn’t heard of projects that get a lot of philanthropic support already to help local news businesses: not Report for America, not Newspack, not a network like Local Independent Online News (LION). He hasn’t been in any of the places this philanthropic investment is getting talked about and hadn’t heard anything about it until I called him a few weeks ago. 

Local news is on page one of the paper and it ends with world news on page twelve. The local schools get a lot of coverage (Campbell also prints the local high school and middle school student newspapers), and the names and phone numbers of local officials are in a sidebar next to the editorials. 

The idea of more money coming into local news might be new to Campbell, but it didn’t take him long to come up with ways he would use it. “Expand the news operation,” he said, without hesitation. “The news department expands and contracts as the budget expands and contracts,” he explained. “We can’t afford investigative work.” 

He’d also finally tackle a true digital transformation and digital marketing. There is realistically no other option if Campbell wants to hang on for more than a few more years. Longer-term, he’d work to attract a younger audience. In the short term, he’d pay delivery drivers a little more. “If you put that kind of money in this market? It’s going to make a huge difference.”

Like many rural communities, Shiawassee County is divided. The county’s politics reflect a place trying to make a decision about which bet to make on the future. In the last general election, slightly more than half of its voters were eager to turn over the reins to politicians who use national and social media to deepen divisions and fear in order to get power. 

The Argus-Press has a budget of $2 million a year. If it served every person in its county, it would be spending about $30 a year to inform each of them. Its subscriber base is less than that.

The city we serve has ten times more people than live in Shiawassee County, and our poverty rate is four times higher. Our reporting helps Detroiters meet their basic needs; we run a Documenters program that trains and pays ordinary Detroiters to take notes at city and county meetings to help keep officials accountable, do investigative work, and a lot besides. Our annual budget is about $200,000 less than Campbell’s. 

Campbell’s news operation is going to need to look a lot more like ours, and our business side is going to need to look more like his to make it through the next decade. 

How can these philanthropic investments be made in a way that makes this more possible for local news organizations? A few ideas, in order of what might be most transformational for communities: 

  • Philanthropic funding should prioritize news organizations unapologetic in wanting their work to make people’s lives materially better. An increasing number of our local news colleagues across the country do just that, from Chicago’s Block Club, The Tribe, and City Bureau to  Minneapolis’s Sahan Journal to New York City’s Documented, Memphis’s MLK50, Connecta Arizona, and Capital B’s work in places from Atlanta to Gary, Indiana, and many more in between. There is little point in a local news that only covers suffering rather than helping a community to interrupt it. 
  • Help the newsrooms that don’t already assess community information needs to find the biggest information and accountability gaps in their communities and then hold all grantees accountable for filling these gaps. 
  • One way to spend philanthropic dollars but spread the love to news organizations not already on foundations’ radar is to carefully expand NewsMatch, a program that provides matching funds for small news organizations doing their own fundraising campaigns. It would be great to see the Argus-Press and community papers like it gets matching dollars for new subscriptions or advertisers they bring in during NewsMatch.
  • More networks should be supported to share tools and resources. There are networks out there already that have shown they know how to redistribute money and resources, from Tiny News Collective to the Future of Local News group—which spawned an entire road map for how to improve local news systems—to URL Media.
  • More money for startup nonprofit newsrooms is also a great idea. The American Journalism Project (one of our funders) is offering $400,000 for new community-serving news projects. I started our newsroom with a $75,000 grant. We would have been able to make an impact so much faster with that kind of money and support right off the bat. 
  • Fellowships that pay for recent MBA grads to work in service organizations aren’t uncommon, but I don’t know of any for nonprofit news. Subsidizing fiscal sponsorship for new nonprofits could also save those small organizations somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of their budgets and give them access to services like accountants and payroll services that are so necessary but can be expensive.
  • Philanthropy stepping up to pay journalism school loans for people who work in local nonprofit media would also help (great job to Columbia’s J-school, doing just that), but so would making journalism training more accessible in high school and within the community
  • It might not be transformational for communities, but programs that help existing news staff to level up, like CUNY’s program for newsroom entrepreneurs, or more opportunities like the JSK Fellowships can be transformational for individuals working in news and can subsidize the development of new ideas and organizations, as was the case both for myself and our executive director Candice Fortman.

The information and accountability gaps we live within this country were caused by a market failure that happened when the business of news got out of step with what the function of news should be, which is to make communities more informed and more equitable.

The market has demonstrated how incapable it is of fixing the problem it created. More money from philanthropy won’t be enough to help transition local news into the service it needs to be, and newsrooms like mine and the Argus-Press can’t rely on philanthropy alone to help us. We have to find ways to get memberships or subscriptions to create additional revenue. But right now philanthropy is a necessary bridge to help us build networks and models that can make local news a dependable community service. I hope the funders thinking about supporting local news are more generous, risk-tolerant, and inclusive with this money than they have ever been.

Candice Fortman contributed to this article.

Sarah Alvarez is the founder and editor in chief of Outlier Media.