American Journalism Project makes good on a promise to fund nonprofit local news

One recipient, Block Club Chicago, hopes to “supercharge” operations with the funding


In December 2018, E&P published the story: "Using Venture Philanthropy, American Journalism Project (AJP) Seeks to Sustain Vital News Coverage," where Elizabeth Green AJP co-founder, stated that the organization had a goal to raise $50 million in its first round of venture fundraising; it surpassed that figure by $3 million, according to AJP’s CEO, Sarabeth Berman.

“We need to really take this burgeoning field of nonprofit newsrooms — that are figuring out a new way to finance and sustain local news — and we need to play a role in trying to catalyze that, so that’s what we’re doing,” Berman said during this 120th episode of E&P Reports. 

Berman and AJP’s Vice President for Portfolio Success Anna Nirmala joined E&P's publisher and host Mike Blinder and E&P contributor Gretchen Peck to talk about several AJP grants, including one given to Block Club Chicago, a nonprofit, local news source.

Shamus Toomey is the publisher and co-founder of Block Club Chicago, and Stephanie Lulay is a co-founder and co-executive editor. They joined the panel to talk about their approach to local news and how they’ll be putting the $1.6 million to work.

“Block Club really started with an end,” Lulay said. “We all lost our jobs when our former newsroom, DNAInfo, was shuttered, seemingly overnight. It put 115 people out of work in New York and Chicago.” A group of those unemployed reporters banded together in Chicago, rededicating themselves to the people of Chicago.

“At the time, admittedly, we didn’t know a lot about nonprofit news,” Lulay said during the vodcast. “But we’re journalists, so we dug in and did a lot of research … and decided that launching a new newsroom as a nonprofit was really the way to go.” The initial launch was funded through Kickstarter donations — many from former DNAInfo readers.

“We had this huge audience that loved us. They loved what we covered, and all of a sudden, we went away,” Toomey said. “So, when we made a point to get back as fast as possible, they were still there waiting for us. (They) knew us and trusted us already.”

Block Club Chicago also received the support of other Chicago media outlets, who welcomed the team to talk about their mission during TV and radio spots.

Block Club Chicago takes a hyper-local approach to reporting. Its reporters are experts on the communities they cover because they live in or very near their assignments. They are also generalists in that they cover an array of topics of interest to the communities they serve — dozens of neighborhoods across Chicago. They’ve also broken some stories of national consequence. Reporter Kelly Bauer uncovered a story about fraudulent pop-up COVID-19 testing centers, and now attorneys general around the country are investigating, he offered as an example. Bauer was named Chicago’s “Journalist of the Year” in 2021 by the Chicago Journalists Association.

“It's like a small-town paper in 25 different parts of the city,” Toomey said. “They go to the school board meetings. They go to the development meetings. They call the aldermen a couple of days a week to try to get information out of them. They know the local people. They work out of coffee shops. We had a reporter in the Wicker Park neighborhood who literally worked out of a desk at a furniture shop. It was for sale, and we were hoping no one ever came in and bought it!”

It was an unconventional office, to be sure, but it proved efficient, nonetheless. Locals became accustomed to seeing her there, and they'd come in with information, questions, even scoops. Toomey referred to their reporting as “authentic,” and it builds reader trust and loyalty. 

In her role, AJP’s Anna Nirmala currently supports ten grant recipients across the country — including the team at Block Club Chicago — to help create and deploy a more sustainable nonprofit model.

Nirmala said that Block Club Chicago earned the AJP grant for several reasons. The founders and newsroom are innovative and entrepreneurial. They have a huge, loyal readership. They’re committed to creating a new nonprofit and sustainable model, and they’re doing solid, important journalism.

Block Club Chicago received several EPPYs in late 2021, awarded by Editor & Publisher. The EPPYs recognize exemplary reporting for digital audiences and digital design.

Lulay said that the AJP grant will enable Block Club Chicago to “supercharge” operations and make strategic hires to help manage and grow the business. Ultimately, the goal is to bring more revenue in so they can also hire more reporters and expand their coverage, especially investigative journalism.

“There are real-life implications of the decline of local news across the country and very, very difficult market conditions for local newspapers, in particular,” AJP's Berman said. “And we're coming at this from the perspective that it is having very dire implications on the state of health of our communities, on the state of our democracy, and then we have to figure out a new way to continue to finance the growth of nonprofit news, to grow local news. We think the nonprofit business model is a really smart business model that we should be investing in, so that’s what we’re focused on.”

On January 19, 2022, news came out of Houston, Texas — home to the Texas Tribune (a nonprofit founded by venture capitalist John Thornton, who is also AJP’s co-founder) and the Houston Chronicle, published by Hearst Newspapers — that there was new news source coming to town, nonprofit and local ("Local coalition to launch nonprofit newsroom in Houston, Texas"). Based on the data, AJP has recommended a new startup unfold in Houston, a nonprofit local news source that would supplement or complement, rather than compete with, the existing news sources there. AJP will be one of five venture philanthropy organizations to provide $20 million in seed money.

In this 120th episode of “E&P Reports” American Journalism Project (AJP) CEO Sarabeth Berman and AJP’s Vice President for Portfolio Success Anna Nirmala talk about several AJP grants they recently awarded including $1.6 million given to Block Club Chicago and their contribution to the 20 million in seed being given to a new, nonprofit, Houston based local news outlet. Joining in on the discussion is Block Club Chicago’s Publisher and Co-Founder Shamus Toomey and Co-Executive Editor and Co-Founder Stephanie Lulay.


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