Philanthropic support for journalism grows, but challenges remain

Missy Nester, owner of The Welch News, sits in front of the closed office in Welch, W.Va., on May 31, 2023. The weekly publication became another casualty of the national newspaper crisis. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Missy Nester, owner of The Welch News, sits in front of the closed office in Welch, W.Va., on May 31, 2023. The weekly publication became another casualty of the national newspaper crisis. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Philanthropic support is growing for both nonprofit and for-profit news organizations, according to a new study.

Co-author Jennifer Preston said it provides data “so we can make a better case to communities around the country” to support local news organizations.

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The study, led by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, surveyed 129 philanthropic entities and 431 news organizations.

I think the report also tees up an announcement expected next month by foundations working to raise more than $500 million for local journalism.

Both the study and the fundraising are intended to catalyze broader and more sustained support for local news that’s essential to democracy.

That is terrific for a news industry gutted by economic disruption and the small but growing number of independent news startups.

But even if $1 billion is raised that’s only part of what’s needed to sustain and grow a robust local-news ecosystem.

Federal interventions, including a policy mandating fair compensation by tech giants profiting from local news content, are still necessary.

National support is especially needed for rural and suburban areas that are most affected by the news industry’s collapse and have less philanthropic support available.

Newspapers, which continue to provide the vast majority of civic news coverage, are failing at the rate of two per week and lost 70% of their staff and $30 billion in yearly revenue since 2005, according to research by Northwestern University’s Medill School.

Medill’s 2022 tally found 6,380 remaining papers and 545 digital-only news sites. Among the latter, 90% are in urban centers or state capitals.

In the NORC survey, 69% of funders said addressing the crisis in trusted local news is an extremely or very important factor in their funding decision. It also found that 64% would prefer to fund nonprofit news outlets.

More than half the funders said they increased journalism support over the last five years and a third made their first journalism grants during that period.

Funders may support multiple areas, the study found, with 74% funding “journalism that addresses a specific topic or problem” and 71% making investments “to increase local journalism.”

It found 68% of funders believe ensuring racial equity and inclusion in news production is extremely or very important. About half the ethnic media organizations surveyed saw increased grant funding over the last five years.

NORC’s report was done in partnership with the nonprofits Media Impact Funders and Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

Preston, a former New York Times editor and Knight Foundation vice president, proposed the study last fall.

The study also concluded that news organizations need to more consistently disclose grant funding, and have policies to protect the independence of their reporting from donors’ influence.

Nearly half of nonprofit outlets have written guidelines about accepting grants but only 28% of for-profit outlets have written policies, “perhaps because most are new to philanthropic funding,” the study states.

(The Seattle Times, which has used grants to fund public-service reporting initiatives since 2013, discloses donors in the newspaper and on its website.)

Whatever form journalism takes, Preston said, “the one thing that needs to remain unchanged to ensure editorial independence and ensure we are building public trust in journalism, not dismantling it … is to make sure there’s public disclosure of donors, and that funders and newsrooms carefully and respectively navigate the boundaries to ensure editorial independence and public trust.”

Preserving independence, and resisting pressure to approach topics from a particular side, may be harder for outlets dependent on a few donors, noted Tom Rosenstiel, a NORC senior fellow and University of Maryland journalism professor who worked on the study.

Newspapers and TV stations with numerous advertisers could shrug it off if coverage irked one of them.

“It’s a lot harder if you have four key donors to say to them ‘keep your nose out of this.’ It’s a much more subtle dance,” he said.

While philanthropic support is growing, most news grants are relatively small and a small percentage of foundations’ giving, the study found.

That may change soon.

The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation and others are raising $500 million for a five-year, local news funding initiative dubbed Press Forward.

John Palfrey, the foundation’s president, outlined the plan at the Media Impact Forum conference in June.

“We have a crisis in our democracy,” Palfrey said. “And if we do not have reliable local news, we do not have reliable discussion shows or drive time radio or newspapers, we will not have a democracy, period.”

Palfrey said his organization is working with others to raise $500 million for grants that could begin at the end of this year. Recipients could include newsrooms, new models for local journalism and national organizations providing local news “infrastructure.”

The foundation shared more details in recent job postings, saying its board approved the local-news program — “a broader multi-funder collaborative initiative” — for at least five years.

“The goal of this portfolio is to help catalyze a local news renaissance that will reshape the local news landscape and re-center local journalism as a force for community cohesion, civic participation, and government accountability,” one posting said.

Goals include scaling “innovations and interventions that have limited reach today” so they reach more parts of the country.

Palfrey was not made available for an interview before deadline. But in June, he said a larger objective is to “increase the number of people who see themselves as donors toward local news across the country,” including other foundations, local donors and the public.

“We need to be paying for local news, no two ways about it — as individuals, as journalists themselves, as families, as foundations, and see it as something we all have to support,” he said.

The NORC study suggests that momentum has begun. But much more will be needed to enable the local-news renaissance and make sure it benefits places that need it most.

Brier Dudley on Twitter: @BrierDudley is editor of The Seattle Times Save the Free Press Initiative. Its weekly newsletter: Reach him at


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