Using Venture Philanthropy, American Journalism Project Seeks to Sustain Vital News Coverage

By: Gretchen A. Peck

It was 2015 when an idea first began to germinate for Elizabeth Green, the co-founder, CEO and editor-in-chief of Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization devoted to American education.

“I’d been thinking that the way philanthropy organizes in the education sector had lessons that could be applied to journalism philanthropy sector that was emerging slowly at the time—too slowly, I thought,” she said.

In the education sector, Green and her colleagues at Chalkbeat had begun to talk about how enriching it could be to create a network by which educational-publishing leaders might share and learn from one another. Green began speaking with philanthropists known to invest in journalism and suggested that they “steal from that playbook.”

Elizabeth Green

“Instead of being focused on a project or a cool new tool, these venture philanthropists are focused on developing the organization’s ability to sustain itself and grow its impact,” she said.

Simultaneous to Green’s efforts, John Thornton, venture capitalist and founder of the Texas Tribune, was working on a similar philanthropic model, and when the two were introduced to one another, the American Journalism Project (AJP) was born. With support from the Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund, the organization will focus on three core functions: investment, intensive support and movement-building.

The focus on local news was decided and purposeful.

“In 2016, Trump is elected, and like many Americans, I was concerned about the future of democracy, given some of the anti-democratic tendencies of the new president,” Green said. “I began thinking, ‘What is my role to play in standing up for democracy?’ There were calls for massive investment in journalism, but we needed to create the channels for those investments.”

John Thornton

Green and Thornton define local news as news organizations that cover state government all the way down to municipal coverage.

“There are two big reasons for that,” Green said. “First, those are the most threatened by economic trends. Second, they also happen to be extremely critical to democracy. The thing that is the most threatened is also essential.”

The AJP is very much still in a “fundraising mode,” with a goal of raising roughly $50 million, and will soon begin to form the team designed to offer “intensive support” to local news publishers, allowing them to “spend the money as effectively as they can,” Green said.

For more information, visit theajp.org.

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Published: December 6, 2018

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