Local News

Journalism’s New Patrons: Newspapers deepen embrace of philanthropy

February 8, 2018
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Within the span of a few weeks, the award-winning staff of the Charleston Gazette-Mail has witnessed both the dismal reality of newspapers’ finances, and a possible hope for the future.

On January 30, the newspaper announced it was ending more than a century of family ownership and heading into Chapter 11 bankruptcy court, awaiting purchase by a new buyer. But in the weeks preceding that shocker, the Charleston staff learned it would receive philanthropic support for two news-side reporters in 2018.

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While that may seem modest compared to a looming sale, the money, from Report for America and ProPublica, will cover about 15 percent of the Gazette-Mail’s news reporting salaries (excluding features and sports reporters). And it becomes the latest example of how philanthropy is becoming an ever-larger part of the revenue streams of newspapers and other for-profit news companies.

The West Virginia paper is one of seven news organizations being subsidized by ProPublica to intensify investigative reporting over the next year. Separately, it’s one of three participants in a Report for America pilot program that will shine a spotlight on life in Appalachia. Report for America, run by the nonprofit GroundTruth Project, has big aspirations: By 2022, it hopes to field 1,000 reporters at newspapers, broadcast outlets, and digital-native news shops across the country.

In an interview with Report for America co-founder Steven Waldman, I suggested that the 1,000-reporter number might be the equivalent of 10 percent or more of all news reporters (excluding sports, entertainment, lifestyle) working at newspapers today.

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“We will be serving more than just newspapers,” said Waldman, “but if in a given community 10 to 20 percent of the news is coming from the nonprofit sector, it seems perfectly plausible and reasonable.… It does require a shift in mindset in communities and philanthropists, but the nonprofit sector is going to have to play a bigger role in local journalism.”


UNTIL RECENTLY, IT WAS unthinkable that newspapers would become major recipients of charitable subsidies. But as newsroom layoffs continue with no apparent end, increasingly they are seeking philanthropic support, and the nonprofit world is delivering. Eight of the 10 initial reporters funded by ProPublica and Report for America are at newspapers.

“If we can help the sustainability of local newspapers, well, that’s our hope,” says Susan Boe, executive director of the investigative news nonprofit Searchlight New Mexico. The idea of supporting the local newspaper was a core principle when Searchlight New Mexico was co-founded by Ray Rivera, then editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican.

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To some degree, subsidies of this kind have been flowing to for-profit news for a long time. Nearly 40 years ago, the Center for Investigative Reporting partnered with ABC’s 20/20 on a story about gun running and drug dealing by a fundraising group affiliated with a United Nations program.

But the volume of partnerships like this has grown rapidly. These days, providing in-depth reporting for newspapers and TV news is a staple for nearly all of the 100-plus nonprofits focusing on local, national, or international news.

And in recent months, the nonprofit sector has grown even more aggressive in providing firepower for traditional media, including newspapers.

  • As in the case of ProPublica and Report for America, several have launched programs to pay reporters’ salaries. The Nieman Foundation will extend three of its fellowships to cover nine months of investigative work. Even the tiny Foothills Forum in rural Virginia is considering paying for a reporter at the Rappahannock News, which would virtually double the newspaper’s reporting staff.
  • A growing number of journalism-oriented foundations, including the Democracy Fund, the News Integrity Initiative, and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, are putting millions of new dollars into news projects. For example, those three have joined the Knight Foundation in subsidizing news organizations’ purchase of Hearken and Ground Source engagement tools.
  • The Guardian is demonstrating how philanthropy can make a beeline from community philanthropy to the local newspaper. The Guardian’s new partner, guardian.org, is a fundraising model that many newspapers could replicate.

Nationally, though, the biggest splash could come from Report for America, which aims to enrich coverage of underserved communities. Today it’s announcing additional reporters in 2018 at nine news organizations ranging from digital native Mississippi Today to the Dallas Morning News.

And in the next few years, it projects rapid growth: 250 reporters by 2020, and 1,000 by 2022. (Disclosure: My wife, Geneva Overholser, is on the group’s advisory board.)

Waldman likened this potential to the emergence of public broadcasting in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the just-launched pilot program, a contribution from the Galloway Family Foundation entirely funded the three new reporters. But with the new round, funding for reporters’ salaries, expected to average $40,000 annually, will be split evenly between Report for America and local news organizations. Although they are not required to do so, Report for America is suggesting that news organizations raise half of their portion from community contributions.

This is one of Report for America’s big hopes—that the program can help unlock philanthropy at the local level. “As people in communities become awakened to the threats to local journalism, but they don’t know what to do about it, well for $10,000 you can make a reporter happen,” says Waldman. “This seems doable.”

Report for America is developing a crowdsourcing toolkit that may provide one way for local news organizations to raise the community portion.

At the Lexington Herald-Leader, Report for America reporter Will Wright has gotten off to a fast start, landing a front page story on water quality and supply problems in the eastern Kentucky hills. Wright has re-opened the newspaper’s bureau in nearby Pikeville.

Editor Peter Baniak says he’s heard nothing but positive comments about the idea of having additional reporting resources paid for by philanthropy. “We think it’s a marvelous idea and want to do our part to show this initial project works very well,” he says.

Baniak hopes the reporting position might be extended for a second year, which is allowed but must be approved by Report for America. In a second year, the news organization would bear two-thirds of the costs.

A few miles across the border from Pikeville, new Report for America writer Caity Coyne has been focusing on education issues in southern West Virginia for the Gazette-Mail. One of her recent stories, focusing on a dispute over public funding of a private religious school, was datelined Williamson, West Virginia.

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Williamson is one of the focal points of the new project, and happens to be where the third Report for America reporter, Molly Born of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, will be based. While reporting directly to each of their news organizations, the three reporters are also expected to work on joint Appalachia projects.

Rob Byers, editor of the Gazette-Mail, was there at the birth of the pilot project, through his newspaper’s association with funder Tom Galloway of the Galloway Family Foundation. The pilot project first emerged under Charles Sennott, executive director at the GroundTruth Project, and then was made part of the Report for America Initiative.

Byers says he’s already had talks with Galloway about extending the reporting position, either through Report for America or directly with the Galloway Family Foundation.

“This is where journalism is pointed in many ways,” he says. “There’s certainly a need to be filled.”

But can journalism attract the kind of philanthropic dollars required to make even a small contribution to that need? It would take $20 million in national fundraising to make the 1,000-reporter goal.

The answer is yes, Waldman says, in part because Americans are likely to see their local news continue to be diminished by the kind of disruption just experienced by the Gazette-Mail. He’s also hoping that Report for America’s explicit call to public service will resonate.

“In some sense this call to serve is really not new,” he says. “People have been going into journalism as a calling for a long time. But this is something that wants to burn brighter. People understand this is where trust gets built.”

Where is all this going? After following news business models for 10 years, I’m not discounting the possibility that nonprofit news will grow a good deal more–not after seeing Anne Galloway build a $1.5 million-a-year news nonprofit in Vermont, not after watching Evan Smith show what a Texas-sized nonprofit can do ($7 million annually), not after seeing Gerry Lenfest remake the Philadelphia newspapers into a nonprofit giant.

David Boardman, who chairs the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, says philanthropy will be one of four pillars supporting local news in the future, along with subscriptions, events, and locally focused advertising.

GroundTruth’s Sennott has little doubt about that. Noting his own career start in public radio more than 30 years ago, Sennott says he has come “full circle back to this realization: the nonprofit model is the best way to do mission-driven, in-depth journalism at all levels: foreign, national, and now local.”

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Editor’s Note: This article concludes a series of stories running in CJR about the growth of philanthropy in funding the news, both in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors.  It is a project of the University of Southern California’s Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, located at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Its director, Geoffrey Cowan, has been focusing on nonprofit news since 2008.

David Westphal is a senior fellow at the Center on Communication Leadership and Policy at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He also is an adjunct instructor in the Studio 20 program at New York University. Previously, he was a longtime newspaper reporter and editor.