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A Local News Funder Talks Candidly About National and Local Funding
Molly de Aguiar on a key goal of plans like Press Forward
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
A few weeks ago, right after the Press Forward initiative was announced, I asked for reader reactions. My friend (and onetime client) Molly de Aguiar, president of the Independence Public Media Foundation, sent an email on the relationship between national and local funders.
I thought a conversation about her viewpoint might make an interesting column of its own. Here’s that conversation, edited for length and clarity. It’s also a bit of an experiment with what might be an occasional new format for Second Rough Draft. As always, your reactions are welcomed.
Q. I think we agree that the only way to really sustainably achieve the vision of reviving local journalism-- most recently of Press Forward-- is to draw in more local as well as national funding, right?
A: I agree with that.
A: We have to increase the overall pie for media funding. $500 million is a nice sounding number, but when you start doing the math, you realize that doesn't go very far. It's going to have to become a more collective effort that is embraced and valued by local and national funders (and public funding) -- long term work that is going to require a lot of investment from many different players who come together and believe collectively that local news and information is essential.
Q: Isn't a big part of the problem than national philanthropy in this country is not big enough to simply carry this mission even if it wanted to?
A: Right. Also, there are lots of obstacles to unlocking local dollars.
Q: Can you just give people at a very high level your own background and experience in local journalism funding, first in New Jersey, and now in Philadelphia?
A: I was the program director of the Informed and Engaged Communities program at the [Geraldine R.] Dodge Foundation in New Jersey, funded with Dodge money, Knight Foundation, Democracy Fund and a few other collaborative grants. We were able to establish some core work that continues to grow and thrive to this day, primarily through the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, along with a lot of community organizing work that Free Press has done throughout New Jersey. That work was really focused on how you build a statewide, connected and collaborative and thriving local news ecosystem that includes lots of different kinds of news and information entities, getting people to be more informed and active in their own communities.
Now at the Independence Public Media Foundation, which supports organizations and projects in the Philadelphia region, we focus on building up the infrastructure for community-owned media and internet so that people from all walks of life have the access to the tools and opportunities to do storytelling across a lot of different mediums, rather than the foundation being more narrowly focused on local journalism. So we fund local filmmakers, community history and archive projects, and community internet. We fund community-centered journalism, and also narrative change work, working with community organizers. We have invested nearly $50 million dollars in the region in four years.
Q: So tell me about your own experience so far, as an experienced local funder, in working with Press Forward.
A: I have not been involved at all in Press Forward.
Q: Why is that? Do you have any idea?
A: I think that's a good question, right? This conversation started at a national level and didn't seem to start with local funders already doing local media funding work. There are national funders who are doing important, collaborative local media funding work that are involved in the coalition. And I'm sure they are bringing the experiences of local funders to some degree into that conversation.
But there are lots of other funders out there supporting local media: There are all the NewsMatch funders, the Media Impact Funder members, that don't show up initially as part of the coalition, and given the “sign up for updates” form for “interested funders” on the website, I don’t think launching Press Forward with a broad coalition was their highest priority. But I am hopeful that it will eventually become a powerful group of partners big and small all around the country .
Q: What do you feel like you've learned about local funders working, and not working, with national funders to support journalism?
A: I think there's often a disconnect between national funders and local funders that has to do with national funders not understanding the constraints of local funders.
Q: Can you give me an example or two of the kinds of things you're talking about?
A: Let's just take community foundations. Their money is primarily made up of particular funds for specific causes that are provided, generally, by wealthy individuals who have specific things that they care about. Community foundations will raise money around those causes and then make grants based on the donors’ wishes. But community foundations have hardly any unrestricted dollars, little wiggle room from year to year to do new things, because they're committed to longer term, patient support for a range of other things. And they generally don't have media-specific funds.
So their hands are tied until they can figure out how they can create a fund for local journalism, raise money for it and then make grants from it. It's just going to take a lot of time, with even the most enthusiastic local funding partners, to build up the
Q: You think national funders simply don't understand this?
Maybe they understand it intellectually, but when a group of partners is coalescing around a particular idea and the momentum is building and people are eager to announce their partnership, it becomes inconvenient to slow way down in order to build a broader and more durable coalition of partners.
Q: If you were going to build a successful national-local coalition, I'd love to lay out some key do's and don'ts. Let's start with some “do's”. What would be important?
Whenever you think about coalition building, you have to listen, remain humble, and also be willing to bring something to the table based on what the other partners say they need. You can’t just try to convince potential partners to do everything your way. I feel really strongly that a coalition like Press Forward actually has to incentivize local funders, which is probably not something that local news orgs want to hear, but is absolutely essential to increasing funding for local journalism.
I would prioritize those who aren't now funding local media, but you may also have to incentivize, in some ways, those who are already funding media to join that coalition. You could provide money, but also coaching and other kinds of non-monetary support, like convenings and consultants.
Q: Let's break those two things down a little bit. When you say money, do you mean matching funds?
A: This is something I've been thinking about for IPMF and how we might actually be in this role locally for funders in the counties surrounding Philadelphia. The message could be, we are going to offer you money for five years. I think it has to be a minimum of three years; five years is better. We're going to bring X amount to you every year. And our hope is that by the third year, the fourth year or the fifth year, you are also adding money to this endeavor, such that it can stand on its own two feet eventually. We would be playing the role of catalyzing that.
I think [immediate] matching funding can be kind of an oppressive for local funders. I would say if you're coming out of the gate with a one to one matching requirement for local funders, I think that's probably a mistake. And again, not very understanding of the constraints and resources local funders have available. We definitely experienced that at Dodge in a way that was a challenge.
Q: Recognizing the time delay in local funding, is that the key?
A: I think so. Support local funders with resources and several years of runway, in a bid to help them build up their own locally-sourced media fund. Eventually the local funder has to have some skin in the game
Q: When you're talking about coaching, what would that be?
A: When I think back to when I was a Dodge, and we got a Knight Community Information Challenge grant, Dodge was just starting to build out this Informed and Engaged Communities program. We knew we wanted to start with the Center for Cooperative Media as a central hub of network and support for news organizations. But we also had a lot of questions generally about how to support really impactful work. If you have not funded media before, you really would want to reach out to someone who has been doing it for a while to get ongoing encouragement and advice, and to help guide you through avoidable pitfalls.
Knight actually had two people that they called “circuit riders,” and, as a foundation you could reach out to them, and they were helpful, but it was just two people for the entire country. And it wasn't hands-on enough. If I had had a more regular and frequent partner, maybe we could have accomplished even more in the time that I was there.
Q: What would be an example of the kind of advice local funders might seek?
A: There is a strong temptation by funders to think that funding journalism means getting coverage of a particular issue that they want to see covered. Local funders who aren't currently funding media sometimes don't know the do's and don'ts of the editorial firewall. Maybe a funder decides that they're going to reach out to their grantee , and starts tossing out a whole bunch of ideas-- “Maybe you should write about this”-- which can create this very tense relationship with their grantee that could have been avoided had they gotten some training from other media funders.
Q: What about “don’ts” for national funders?
Anything that smacks of a top-down relationship, in which national funders are imposing their vision and rules on local funders. We need to have local funders be the real experts about what they're seeing and hearing from their communities, and national funders need to genuinely listen and value local expertise, and also practice patience.
Also, national funders should not assume that scaling up ideas that are showing promise is some kind of panacea, so don’t apply pressure about scale on local funders and their communities.
If the national funders are planning on doing some kind of a road show where they hope to simply convince local funders with their logic and their charm and their goodwill without offering any kind of resources, I think that's naive.
I have been making the case for local media funding, and the importance of it, for a long time, and it's just not enough to make a persuasive argument. You have to offer your help and advice; you have to offer money if you can.
Q: I've got one more question which worries me a lot. What do we do about funding for places where there just isn't very much money?
I don't have a good answer to that. I think those places need to be a real priority in where the national funding goes first. And there has to be a commitment to a sustained effort in those places.
But I don't think it's true, or fair, to say that there are places where people simply won't contribute to their local journalism. There's a lot of research about people's philanthropic giving, and we know that people who don’t have a lot of money to give are often the ones who give a higher proportion of their income to causes they care about. Whether it's enough to sustain even a small newsroom in some places, I don't know.
I’ll be traveling the next two weeks. Second Rough Draft should return October 26.
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