October 10, 2018; NiemanLab
The American Journalism Project (AJP) is a new initiative with the goal of scaling sustainable business models for nonprofit newsrooms. AJP pledges to provide growth capital and intensive coaching and eventually catalyze $1 billion in annual financial support for independent local news. AJP has raised $400,000 to date from two sources so far, a mere down-payment on its audacious goal to raise $50 million to support 25 to 35 local news outlets that will implement “sophisticated commercial media strategy and tactics supported by a step-function increase in journalism philanthropy.” Even that $50 million is a small step on the group’s longer-term goal to raise $1 billion in capital to support local journalism.
The need for local news to support and strengthen democracy is something regularly examined by NPQ (and here) and by many others. Access to local news is a public good that benefits all. This type of community-based information is at once the most at-risk and the most necessary to nurture an informed and engaged citizenry. Others, like the Lenfest Institute for Journalism (and here), are supporting local news in communities of interest, such as Philadelphia. In its funding, AJP is applying a “venture philanthropy” approach that comes high levels of funding with hands-on education and mentorship.
Elizabeth Green and John Thornton (an experienced venture capitalist), the founders of Chalkbeat and the Texas Tribune respectively have joined forces to create AJP. The group aims to scale existing efforts “to support the local news our democracy deserves.”
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After the 2016 election, Green told [reporter Christine Schmidt], “I asked myself what is the one thing I could do beyond what I’m already doing to stand up for democracy.” As a joke, she’d floated the idea of raising $1 billion to propel mission-driven local news to friends—but then she started to think about it more seriously. “You know when you’re trying to quit an addictive habit, you tell people, and then they hold you accountable?…I was like: My part can be using the skills I’ve used at Chalkbeat to take this clearly good idea and make sure someone accomplishes it. I had this side project of trying to organize people around it, like community organizing.”
AJP donors will be invited to support news projects AJP believes have long-term potential. A “venture philanthropy partner” will be attached to each AJP grantee. These experienced partners will help the grantees build their news organizations, source additional funding and business alliances, and help build the newsroom teams.
But there are many questions in our minds as we consider this model. Do we really want “patrons” of these new democratic entities to step in to remold the field we have fought so hard to create after turning loose the last set of capital holders? Is that better for democracy than just giving nonprofits healthy multiyear grants and pointing them towards their colleagues at the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN)?
The NiemanLab article opens with some of the ways local newsrooms have tried to survive financially over the past decade, and there are many. A venture capital approach does have its strengths, but it also can embed weaknesses. It will be interesting to watch the results—which, by the way, we will be able to do because of the excellent documentation of this emerging field now being performed by INN.—Jim Schaffer