Needed: Local Funding for Local News

There has been an explosion in funding for local news, but most of it is national.

Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.

One of the most promising developments in serious news in this country in the last few years has been something of an explosion in large-scale nonprofit funding for local news. Among the standout developments: ProPublica’s regional hubs, Local Reporting Network and initiative with the Texas Tribune, the American Journalism Project and Report for America, each of them now well over $20 million in funds committed, with the aggregate of these three, including forward-year commitments, easily exceeding $100 million. That’s great news in the sector of the news business which is suffering most, and where the gaps between the need for news and the provision of it are widening fastest.

The Money is National

But here’s the problem: most of this money is coming from national rather than local funders. Report for America, through 2020, says it raised a total of $5 million locally. For ProPublica it was about $4.5 million, although the pace has picked up somewhat this year. For the American Journalism Project, which had raised the most of these three overall for local work through the end of last year, all of the major funders listed to date were national.

There have been a few local nonprofit organizations funded mostly locally at something approaching scale, but very few. The Texas Tribune and the Lenfest Institute in Philadelphia may be the only ones, with The City in New York and the Salt Lake Tribune among a few others now making credible bids to join their ranks.

The consequences of this were on stark display as the sale of the Tribune newspapers to cost-cutting hedge fund Alden Global Capital reached its denouement last week. In the course of efforts to abort this tragic outcome, credible local funders for Tribune papers emerged only in Baltimore, Orlando and perhaps one or two other cities, and, most notably, not in either of Tribune’s largest markets, Chicago and New York.

We can only hope now that responsible local players either still gain control of these papers, or have the courage and sustained commitment to undertake competition with them. If the potential local buyers remain willing to put their money behind their professions of civic commitment— as Stewart Bainum in Baltimore has said he is— the sale of Tribune could still prove a turning point, at least in some places.

To be sure, there are many smaller efforts to revive and reinvent local journalism, some of them quite promising. (One will likely be the subject of next week’s newsletter.) But those initiatives cannot really hope to fully replace what we are losing.

In addition, the barriers to growing local nonprofit news aren’t confined to local funding. One of the great trends over the last fifty or sixty years has been the nationalization of our economy. If you heeded the injunction of various advertising campaigns during the first three-quarters of the Twentieth Century to “See America First,” what you saw, including in the built environment, varied enormously from region to region. McDonald’s, it should be remembered, was first a local and then a regional operation.

But that is no longer true. When you get back to travel you’ll be reminded that while the natural environment across the country still varies, the mark left by humans has been considerably homogenized; online, it’s even more true, as national and global brands dominate.

Social media, as my ProPublica colleague Celeste LeCompte pointed out a couple of years ago, has accelerated a similar nationalizing effect on the news. This should not be all that surprising: the news conversation you and your high school and college friends can have on Facebook, for instance, needs to be about shared experience, and as people move around, what you share when it comes to news is mostly national. The result is that truly local news is simply less salient for many people than it was. If former Speaker Tip O’Neill was ever right to say “all politics is local,” it surely is no longer.

Yet, with all of that said, local news still plays a critical role in people’s lives, and in democratic governance. You don’t need to take my word for it: there’s this study, and this one, and this one. So the stakes in trying to save, or revive, local news remain considerable. And while national funding can lead the way in this effort, success at scale is only going to be possible if local funders play their part.

Now is a critical time for them to step up.

Leave a comment