Art by Darrel Frost

Solutions Oriented

How foundation money is transforming local news

October 16, 2023

Until a few years ago, the Cleveland Foundation had never considered supporting local media. The organization—the oldest community foundation in the world, with $2.8 billion in assets—seeks to “enhance the lives of all residents of Greater Cleveland”; its grants tend to focus on job training, violence prevention, and education in majority-Black neighborhoods. The organization’s staff were well aware that the city’s flagship newspaper, the Plain Dealer, was being stripped for parts by Advance Local, its corporate owner, and that nothing was filling the vacuum. But their aim was to solve problems, not assign articles about them. Besides, even in a more robust age of local news, the neighborhoods targeted by community groups were rarely covered in the press—except, perhaps, in the case of a grisly crime.

So in 2020, when the Cleveland Foundation awarded money to an initiative called Cleveland Documenters, it wasn’t classified as a reporting project. Documenters, which started in Chicago and has since expanded into a network of eleven cities, mostly in the Midwest, pays small fees to about six hundred Clevelanders—not experienced reporters, just curious citizens from every zip code—to take notes at local government meetings and post them online. Dale Anglin, the Cleveland Foundation’s vice president for grantmaking and community impact, thought of Documenters primarily as a tool to improve low voting rates. “We don’t even call it journalism here,” she told me. “We call it information.”

Three years later, the idea that community foundations don’t fund journalism feels anachronistic. As media companies slash staffs in search of ever higher profits at a time of ever lower ad rates, household-name philanthropies—Ford, MacArthur, Knight—are steadily increasing their spending on local news, and their regional counterparts are joining in. The American Journalism Project—for which I’ve consulted on newsroom structure and management—requires that a new publication establish partnerships with local foundations before it will even consider awarding funds. In its first four years, AJP, as it’s known, has raised $134 million to back forty-one local media organizations. “It’s a paradigm shift in the world of philanthropy,” Loretta Chao, AJP’s vice president for strategy and startups, said. “What we’re suggesting is that, given that newsrooms are part of the fabric of society, it makes sense that they should be a thing that philanthropists who love their communities also care about.”

Yet even now, tens of millions in grants later, most local philanthropies—themselves funded by wealthy local patrons—don’t describe themselves as being in the media business. As Kevin Corcoran—a former investigative reporter, now the strategy director for the Lumina Foundation, a national institute based in Indianapolis—told me, “Nothing we do is about journalism for journalism’s sake; journalism is a means to an end.” 

Donors to AJP publications don’t weigh in on editorial decisions or interact directly with reporters. But what they choose to fund inevitably determines the output of a newsroom—and what they want is to disseminate basic facts about elections, public benefits, and enrichment opportunities. “In focus groups, people are like, ‘If my trash hasn’t been picked up in two months, who am I even supposed to call?’” Chao told me. It’s not that people want investigative reporting to disappear, “they just need so much other stuff.” Embracing that set of priorities has occasioned a noticeable shift across the country in what journalism startups strive to do. If, in the recent past, outlets such as ProPublica and the Marshall Project attracted money by promising big-swing investigations that could win Pulitzers, the up-and-comers are blending traditional journalism with grassroots community work.

Indiana will soon become home to one of the most ambitious local media startups to date, fueled by more than ten million dollars—including a $1.8 million Lumina investment and more from AJP and several other Indiana-based foundations. The project is known as the Indiana Local News Initiative, or ILNI. It will open a twenty-five-person newsroom in Indianapolis—where the Indianapolis Star, owned by Gannett, has lost nearly 60 percent of its staff over the past decade—and has established partnerships with other media outlets to provide coverage across the state. 

Before committing to ILNI, Lumina—which focused mainly on post-secondary education and vocational training—wanted to hear from Indiana residents. Corcoran participated in a listening project that consulted 1,137 people in seventy-nine of the state’s ninety counties. What came up most often was not a desire for in-depth reporting on the government’s misdeeds, but something more fundamental: a way to know what was happening locally. “When I do get news, it’s usually after any action can be taken,” an Indianapolis resident said in a focus group. “And when it might be something that you can take action on, the article I’m reading doesn’t necessarily give me the next steps.” Asked how to find out what’s going on in South Bend, a survey respondent answered simply: “I don’t.”

When ILNI made its first hire, in May, it was Ariana Beedie, a thirty-two-year-old Indianapolis native, named the community journalism director. Beedie was tasked with overseeing a new branch of Documenters and soliciting residents’ input—not just to inform individual stories, but to shape the publication. She spent the summer holding office hours in neighborhoods around town and dreaming up an advisory council of teenagers to tell her what kind of media they want. “I never felt like I found a place in traditional journalism,” said Beedie—who, like 30 percent of Indianapolis residents, is Black and, in previous newsrooms she’d worked in, was often the only non-white person. “I just felt like this is something that’s lacking in our city. How can I create this?” In August, ILNI hired its editor in chief: Oseye Boyd, a veteran of outlets such as the Indianapolis Star—where, most recently, she oversaw efforts to solicit feedback and story ideas from the community. 

One story line on Beedie’s mind is the fact that more evictions take place in Indianapolis than in any community in the United States except New York City. Rather than assign a feature-length investigation, she wants to send Documenters to take notes at eviction-court hearings. That approach may sound unsatisfying to those worried about local politicians getting away with corruption absent in-depth reporting, as Gannett seems all but guaranteed to make more cuts at the Star. Yet Gerry Lanosga, the director of journalism at Indiana University and an expert in the evolution of investigative reporting, sees the virtue of civilian coverage. “One way you can avoid needing investigative stories on corruption in government is having regular reporting,” he told me. “Public meetings aren’t really public unless someone shows up. Journalists have usually been the proxy for the public, but community members stepping up is a different way of bringing accountability to politicians.”

From a reporter’s perspective, reading Documenters’ summaries can feel unsatisfying; by design, there is little analysis or investigation, which often leaves unanswered questions. In a write-up of a Cleveland Board of Control meeting from early August, a Documenter recapped a vote to approve a $1.2 million contract for armed security guards to patrol recreation centers and public pools. Under the heading “Follow-Up Questions,” the Documenter wrote, “Why are we ramping up the armed police presence in the parks and recreation areas, where families and kids play in the summer months? And if it is related to an emergency ordinance, why would it take effect next year? What evidence shows that this tactic will help anyone? How will it help?” No answers were provided; no follow-up appeared.

But there’s a decent chance reporting might fill in the blanks: In Cleveland, Documenters has recently grown into a full-fledged newsroom, now called Signal Cleveland. Signal employs about twenty-five journalists as well as four “community listeners” collecting story ideas in Central—a neighborhood east of downtown, the childhood home of Langston Hughes, where more than two-thirds of residents live in poverty. Since making its first investment, the Cleveland Foundation has given more than a million dollars to Signal, and the newsroom has raised more than $7.5 million in total from funders including AJP, the Knight Foundation, and other local philanthropies. Its motto is “Local news and resources for Clevelanders by Clevelanders.” 

For journalists, Signal may present a best-case scenario, combining funders’ interest in community involvement with more traditional coverage, such as an analysis of how the city council spends revenue generated from casino taxes; a partnership with the Marshall Project provides some investigative pieces. Still, Anglin said that, from her organization’s perspective, the most impactful work has been service oriented—for instance, a series of how-tos on applying for help with utility bills. In the view of local philanthropies, investigating what led to the presence of armed guards at swimming pools would be nice, but knowing that guards will be there at all—which requires a Documenter being paid sixteen dollars an hour, not a reporter earning a full salary and benefits—is essential. 

To explain Signal’s role in the Cleveland Foundation portfolio, Anglin points to research showing that rates of voting and other forms of civic engagement decline when people feel they’re not getting enough information. “To be honest, we’ve had enough newspapers in the world that we could have solved some of these issues. They clearly weren’t enough,” she said. “I tell people we need third ways. This is a third way.”

Megan Greenwell is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. She is writing a narrative nonfiction book about how private equity affects workers and communities.