Don’t Forget About Funding for Journalism Nationally
Nonprofits are essential to filling the reporting gap there as well.
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
It’s increasingly clear that sometime in the next few months, a group of national funders, apparently led by the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, will announce a major new infusion of cash for local journalism. That’s truly great, and the next installment in a trend I have cheered for a long time (although I do have thoughts about how the money should be deployed, and will likely have more to say—probably as soon as next week).
But this week I want to remind us all how important it continues to be that philanthropic support expand for journalism at the national level as well.
I’m heartened that a number of the leaders of the new effort seem to understand this, and are saying that their national support will continue unabated. Even still, it may be worth taking a moment to remind ourselves why nonprofit journalism is filling important gaps nationally as well as locally.
What we’ve lost— and gained
The effective disappearance of most newspapers, while it is hitting their cities hardest, is also leaving gaps in coverage nationally. Just in this century, by my count, seven local newspapers won nine Pulitzer Prizes for national or international reporting—the latest in 2018-- that they would almost certainly not even attempt today. (The same is true also of two prizes won by two once-ambitious for-profit digital news organizations that have since slashed their reporting efforts.)
Into this breach have stepped national or international nonprofits, seven of which have won or shared in 10 Pulitzers for national or international reporting. (Happy disclosure: five of those were won by ProPublica, where I then worked, and for which I still do a small bit of consulting.)
The national coverage gap is widening even as deep trends in our society, especially social media, cable television and political polarization, are helping tip the balance of people’s interest in news notably (although by no means exclusively) toward national news. It is national news that you can share with your wider social network, national news that seems so perilous and unprecedented. While local concerns remain important, there is a trend I think we all see toward nationalizing issues from schools to health care to crime that cannot be denied or wished away.
Whether this trend toward nationalizing news is driven by a greater demand for it or is, at least in part, a function of the shrinking supply of local news—and I believe it is both—the result is the same. (This fascinating book, which just won a Goldsmith Prize, argues that the problem is heavily on the local supply side.)
Unless we sustain the new entrants, we risk a national news ecosystem in which there are only a very few newsrooms with both the capacity and the determination to tackle the most important stories of the greatest applicability. I admire the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post as much as anybody, but I don’t want to live in a country in which they are doing almost all of the enterprise reporting on national issues.
The importance of verticals
Some of the nonprofit national (and international) outlets that have, I think, made a persuasive case for support are broad in scope. Others have taken advantage of digital publishing to create strong vertical offerings in areas ranging from criminal justice to environment and climate, from education to gender to guns, from technology to science to health care. In these communities of interest, many have quickly become leading voices, and a great deal would be lost if their continued growth and progress were stifled by a headlong philanthropic fad.
Part of the answer here is for different groups of funders to join the movement for new and better journalism in different ways. Local community foundations and longtime civic boosters should, of course, focus locally. Philanthropists with strong interests in particular issue areas should increasingly recognize, as some already have, that stronger reporting is a critical component of advancing the fields on which they focus.
But for funders—whether institutional or personal—who consider a broader canvas, local journalism deserves more money, yes, but so do newsrooms whose vision extends to the country, and the world, as a whole.
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I am spending my time and career focused largely on advancing local journalism and am a primary supporter of initiatives to increase local journalism funding. At the same time, I agree wholeheartedly with Dick Tofel that national nonprofits deserve meaningful new support and have been extraordinarily deserving and
high impact recipients of philanthropic support. All the more reason to bring in more funders to the field of journalism and to seek ways in which all of us as existing funders can do more.