After an erosion of local journalism that has left vast news deserts across the country, the American philanthropic sector’s commitment of an initial $500 million to buoy local news is as welcome as spring rain. Yet funders need to radically rethink the way they find and fund news organizations, to avoid inadvertently recreating the inequitable systems of the past.
The Press Forward fund builds on a decade of experience by a handful of foundations that were early to journalism funding. What’s missing from that experience, though, is recognition of the wide range of new ways that people — especially people of color — are getting their news and information, including the multitude of small, hyperlocal news sites that many underserved communities trust to keep them informed.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these outlets across America, but many are small and rural, some publish only on social media, and few founders have connections to traditional journalism or philanthropy. As a result, most aren’t even blips on philanthropy’s radar screen. But they have one thing that money can’t buy — the trust of the people they serve.
Take Pasa La Voz, on the Georgia coast. The Pivot Fund asked Spanish-speaking immigrants in and around Savannah where they got their news and information, and they pointed us to a Facebook group run by Elizabeth Galarza, herself a child of migrant farmworkers. Local businesses and the county health department had already discovered it as a way to reach the area’s growing Spanish-speaking population, but it didn’t fit the mold of a traditional news outlet.
We trusted Elizabeth with a large enough investment to hire additional staffers. She used it to essentially acquire a Spanish-language outlet in Charleston, South Carolina, making its founder, Fernando Soto, editor of the merged publication, while she became publisher. Their combined Facebook following is now close to 45,000, three times where Pasa La Voz was a year ago, and their new website is already attracting 15,000 people a month. The outlet brought in $90,000 in new revenue from marketing and sponsorship of cultural events.
The benefits of local news are well-documented: Watchdog reporters save taxpayers money, informed citizens vote in greater numbers, disinformation is neutralized, and people identify with their communities rather than with polarized national tribes. But media trust in the U.S. is on shaky ground — particularly with Black communities who’ve historically been ignored, misrepresented or harmed by the news industry.
Outlets that have earned trust in communities of color show a way forward, but they need philanthropic support that is tailored to their needs. There is much room for improvement. Earlier this year, Meredith D. Clark, Ph.D., of Northeastern University, and I conducted a survey of digital news startups led by people of color. Of the 100 respondents, 87% said they believed BIPOC news outlets were not funded equitably with similar white-led outlets.
A common experience is to receive small grants predicated by attending a Silicon Valley-style boot camp or accelerator, followed by burdensome reporting requirements. Small publishers told us that these exercises, which may build trust with funders, take time away from informing the communities that already trust them. They want grants large enough to handle at least one additional staffer who can help them boost revenue or bring in new audiences.
Wraparound services such as business, tech and admin support are valuable when they are tailored to the unique needs of outlets that serve communities of color. For example, a top priority for an outlet like Pasa La Voz was to end its dependence on Facebook by deploying its own website — not launching a membership program that might work in a wealthy community like Berkeley, California, or Charlottesville, Virginia.
I launched The Pivot Fund in 2021 to fund BIPOC publishers the way they want to be funded, and our grantees have proven that we’re on the right track. The people of LaGrange, Georgia, led us to April Ross, whose breaking news reporting on Facebook Live attracted so many supporters that she was able to finance the purchase of the local Spectrum TV station.
It was groundbreaking because she brought her mostly Black Facebook audience to the traditionally white, evangelical cable outlet. With Pivot funding, she hired a local sports editor to serve a universal Central Georgia passion, further unifying the community. Ross hasn’t yet paid Nielsen’s fee to measure her TV audience growth, but BeeTV’s Facebook audience has grown from 35,000 to 57,000 followers across three pages since mid-2022, and she has attracted funding from the Google News Initiative.
Pasa La Voz and BeeTV are just two examples, but they deliver important lessons for funders:
- If you’re looking for journalistic and educational pedigrees, you’ll miss many people who are actually informing communities of color.
- Hyperlocal publishers know their communities and their business, and will exceed your expectations if you trust them with even a portion of the investments that routinely go to funder favorites.
- In this new era, funders must invest in news and information outlets that are firmly centered in and on their communities. Not ones pinpointed by philanthropists but identified by the people they serve.
Journalism philanthropy matters not only for the health of our communities but for the fabric of our multicultural democracy. Getting it right starts with asking communities who creates the news they trust – then supporting journalists such as Elizabeth Galarza, Fernando Soto and April Ross, who are helping to nurture our democracy’s future.