The decades-long decimation of local news—and the dangers that the trend poses for public oversight, an informed citizenry, and democracy itself—remains very much underway.
Since 2005, some 2,200 local newspapers have closed, according to a press release by the MacArthur Foundation.
In an effort to turn this trend around, the MacArthur Foundation unveiled in September 2023 the Press Forward initiative, a coalition of 22 founding donors set on “strengthening communities and democracy by supporting local news.” The MacArthur Foundation itself pledged $150 million to the new fund.
Since 2005, some 2,200 local newspapers have closed.Press Forward represents the most significant philanthropic investment into local journalism to date, with the MacArthur Foundation leading and coordinating the effort to contribute a combined $500 million to local news operations across the country over the next five years.
The new initiative is being championed by MacArthur Foundation President John Palfrey, who has also served as chair of the Knight Foundation, which funds various journalistic activities around the United States.
“We have a moment to support the reimagination, revitalization and rapid development of local news,” Palfrey said in the press release announcing the new fund. “The philanthropic sector recognizes the need to strengthen American democracy and is beginning to see that progress on every other issue, from education and healthcare to criminal justice reform and climate change, is dependent on the public’s understanding of the facts.”
“It’s a call to action for philanthropy to step up.”
The idea is to both directly pool and contribute $500 million toward local journalism and, in doing so, spark wider and sustained investment in local journalism in the years to come, says Kathy Im, director of journalism and media for the MacArthur Foundation.
Im tells NPQ that “one of the main goals of this is to bring attention to the need for philanthropic support of journalism.”
“It’s a call to action for philanthropy to step up in this moment….We have a crisis in our country,” Im adds. “And while there are lots of entry points and interventions we can pursue, one of them is revitalizing and rebuilding the local news ecosystem in communities across the country.”
The message to donors, Im says, is: “If you care about the climate, and you care about healthcare, and you care about education, you probably want to care about the provision of accurate news and information about those topics. And the way to do that is through journalism.”
A New Effort to Boost Local Journalism
The new call by the MacArthur Foundation for philanthropic investment is hardly the first of its kind: numerous initiatives over the past 10 years have sought, in one way or another, to bolster the faltering American news industry.
One thing that is different is the size of the investment: $500 million is an initial figure. “$500 million is the starting number, it’s not the end goal,” affirms Im. “We’re ready to continue to fundraise to elevate that number and elevate this issue.”
But beyond the monetary investment are the types of funding available. While the grantmaking guidelines are still in the works, slated for release in early 2024, Press Forward did share the four areas of focus for funding:
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- Supporting local newsrooms that have the trust of communities
- Growing the infrastructure of local news by supporting efforts to help publishers with scalable technology and shared services
- Supporting diverse newsrooms in underserved communities and news deserts
- Exploring public policy options to expand access to local news
Newsrooms will be able to apply, for example, not just for special, project-based funding but for broadly defined funding pools to support newsroom operations.
“I am a huge proponent of [supporting] general operating, and we will continue to model that,” Im says.
Other grants will likely go to intermediary organizations that support local news, either by making grants themselves or providing support like training, legal support, and technical infrastructure.
Im acknowledges that one of the challenges is many funders operate within the constraints of their own specific missions and priorities—ones that might intersect only partially with the broad-based mandate of a general local newsroom.
“You will inevitably have some funders who say, ‘We’re a climate funder, that is our mission.…To the extent we can join Press Forward, which we want to do, we want to see better climate journalism, so we are going to have to make our grant restricted,’” says Im. “So, we have to honor that, too.”
Still, Im says that a big part of the project is outreach to funders to try and convince them not just to support local journalism but to consider doing so with fewer restrictions.
“It’s really hard to build sustainable, solid newsrooms with permanent staff when you’re patching that together,” adds Im.
“The main question will boil down to: ‘Did we make a difference?’”
Among the metrics MacArthur will follow in this project is the impact these grants have on the local news ecosystem around the country and whether the grants are able to arrest the downward spiral of local news.
“There are lots of different ways we’re going to be looking at that,” says Im. But the main question will boil down to: “Did we make a difference? Are there more local newsrooms than there were? Did we slow or stop the demise of local news, the creation and expansion of news deserts?”
A perhaps more ambitious metric, and certainly one more difficult to measure, will be the impact of local journalism grants on democracy and civic life itself in the United States. While researchers can look back on how the loss of local news impacted their communities through decreased voter participation, increased corruption (in government and businesses), and the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation, it’s a Herculean effort that requires a concerted, coordinated effort to track.
“Did civic engagement increase? Are people more resilient against mis- and disinformation? Are more people voting?” Im offers these as examples of the kinds of questions MacArthur hopes to be asking of the grantmaking program.
“I think that’s going to be tricky for us to figure that out,” Im acknowledges. “But it’s definitely one of the ways that we’re going to be looking at impact.”