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Yes, Press Forward, But With Eyes Open
Early thoughts on the new philanthropic push for local news
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces. After a family celebration last week, this week’s edition is being sent out early in light of news.
The long-awaited Press Forward philanthropic initiative for local news has finally been announced, to some fanfare. What to make of it? I asked last week for your candid thoughts, got quite a few, and deeply value them. They are reflected here.
Because I have issued a couple of cautions since Press Forward began emerging, one of its leaders told me this Spring that he had heard I was “against it.” As I said to him then, and want to repeat now: that’s not true. My own favorite philanthropic cause is journalism, and this represents a good bit more money for that cause. To the extent that Press Forward has attracted new funders to journalism, or will do so in the future, that’s especially great news. Ditto if it raises the profile of journalism as a compelling option for philanthropists generally.
So I’m happy, pleased some funders have stepped up, and wish them only the best in deploying their welcome resources.
But that, I would submit, should be the beginning of the discussion, not the end of it. Here are a number of questions and concerns that I hope will garner some attention as Press Forward unfolds.
Is it all that it’s cracked up to be?
The big press release claimed that the initiative commits “more than $500 million” to local journalism. But what it didn’t say is that not all of that funding is new. I know of at least four Press Forward funders out of the 22 announced who are in fact not making funding commitments beyond those they had already planned. To be fair, I have also confirmed that at least four other funders, including the two largest, are making incremental commitments.
At least a couple of respected observers have estimated that the need for philanthropy to fund local journalism across the country costs out at about one billion dollars per year. If we spread the announced $500 million across the five years planned for the initiative, this is perhaps 10% of the total need over that period. That’s significant, but you might want to think of it like two more meals a week for people who are starving—probably enough to keep them alive for a time pending other help, but not nearly enough to make them healthy. To again give them their due, the Press Forward organizers know this, which is why they continue to fundraise.
Now, let’s be careful out there
A few of the Press Forward funders have decided to contribute to a pooled fund which will make joint funding decisions under a governance rubric to which enormous amounts of time and attention were devoted in recent months. Fine for them—it’s their money. But I do want to caution them again against the perils of groupthink, something to which institutional philanthropy, which tends to be both insular and insulated from criticism, is particularly vulnerable.
A second risk for which I will be watching out will be the temptation, when deploying this much money fairly quickly, to scale up models which remain unproven. Relatedly, it’s critical to bear in mind, as with Press Forward itself, that raising a lot of money changes nothing by itself; results in journalism need to come from publishing and what happens after that. “Scale” is an admirable objective, particularly with respect to audience, but super-sizing initiatives which may already be under-performing is a great way to waste money. In retrospect, this was likely one of the signal failures of much of the well-intentioned Great Society of the 1960s.
Having said that, the more of the new money that ends up in the coffers of newsrooms, the better. We really need to make sure we don’t end up with flush intermediaries and a robust public policy program while newsrooms stagnate or even wither.
One thing I was very pleased to see as Press Forward was shaped was the avoidance of creating a significant new organization, another potential leak in the journalism philanthropy bucket. As I understand it, no new nonprofit is being launched, and only a few staff hired. This is a very encouraging sign, and I hope the organizers will resist any impetus, from the initial staff or otherwise, to backslide on this wise approach.
A bit more humility, perhaps
I have been struck throughout this year how few of those engaged in crafting Press Forward have wanted to hear from or engage with skeptics. When rumblings began that the long wait to unveil Press Forward was freezing grantmaking by a significant range of non-participating funders, the larger players involved seemed unconcerned, or at least unmoved. Even now, after more than eight months of planning, they say grant making guidelines won’t be published until next year, which strikes me as lacking the urgency in action they profess rhetorically. None of that augurs well for continued learning as they undertake their work. With the announcement behind them, perhaps this attitude will shift.
Even more concerning, it is remarkable how much of this initiative was built from the top down—focused much more on “how much can we raise?” than on “where is money needed most?” or “where can it be most effectively deployed?” For a field that constantly champions community leadership, this was disappointing. It’s almost as if a potential grantee submitted a large proposal for a program grant, but then said, “we have a number of needs; just give us the money and we’ll tell you later how we will spend it.” That wouldn’t fly, and shouldn’t.
Last, a small thing, but possibly telling, I am afraid. It turns out that there has been an initiative called Press Forward for a couple of years now in Canada. It has a website at pressforward.ca (the new initiative is at pressforward.news). The Canadian version also has eponymous homes on Twitter and Facebook. It describes itself as “dedicated to ensuring people in Canada have strong independent and community-focused journalism. We unify, elevate and advocate for independent media organizations and work to strengthen innovation, inclusivity and diversity in media across the country.” Sounds familiar.
I mention this because when I learned in July of the existence of Press Forward (Canada), I tagged the institutional leaders of the US embryo on both Twitter and LinkedIn and suggested they change its name, given that they were still months from announcement. At least one other person in our industry told me they also mentioned this to a Press Forward leader this past Summer. The American leaders seem to have made no effort to reach out to their Canadian opposite numbers to seek to minimize confusion, or even to return a call the Canadian entity placed after I inquired of the Canadians recently. That is not the spirit in which we should be pressing forward.
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