Microsoft grants aid journalism in public media newsrooms

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A new pilot program spearheaded by Microsoft is providing funds and technological support for local journalism at several public media stations, including a boost for data and investigative reporting.

Public broadcasters in four locations will receive the funds through community foundations. They are Mississippi Public Broadcasting; KETP in El Paso, Texas; Radio KDNA in Yakima, Wash.; and Valley Public Radio and Radio Bilingüe in Fresno, Calif. Commercial and nonprofit newsrooms in each region are also part of the program.

The project builds on work done by Microsoft’s “Defending Democracy” team. Among other goals, the team aims to curtail disinformation and promote democratic strongholds, including journalism. Microsoft will not have an editorial role in the newsrooms’ content, with funds channeled through community foundations to provide a firewall.

A Microsoft spokesperson said that the company will also help participating organizations reach new audiences through the Microsoft news app and MSN to reach new audiences.

“Local news is not particularly healthy right now, and we know that we’re losing local newspapers and newsrooms and journalists just because of the economic circumstances and the disruption in the entire news business,” said Microsoft VP of Strategic Initiatives Mary Snapp. “We know that democracies can only survive as long as people are informed and have access to high-quality information.”

Funding for El Paso’s KTEP, which is licensed to the University of Texas-El Paso, could help the public radio station bring more student interns into public media, said Richard Pineda, chair of the school’s Department of Communications.

KTEP’s team has struggled to give financial support to student interns who want to work with multimedia and investigative journalism, Pineda said, and the station is considering paying interns with some of the Microsoft funds. KTEP also hopes to expand its lab equipment for interns to check out, including laptops, cameras and multimedia equipment.

Valley Public Radio also expects to allocate funds for data journalism. Microsoft is providing software programs like Power BI to help newsrooms crunch and analyze data, and its employees will train public media staffers to use the tools.

Valley Public Radio will use funds to cover the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color in the San Joaquin Valley, said CEO Joe Moore. The station will also expand on-the-ground coverage in agricultural areas far from the station where the pandemic and wildfires have hit workers hard.

Microsoft’s $300,000 for the Fresno area will be divided among Valley Public Radio, Radio Bilingüe, the Fresno Bee and Vida en el Valle, a bilingual newspaper. Organizations are finalizing exact figures.

Radio Bilingüe expects to receive around $60,000, according to co-founder Hugo Morales, who said the support for additional reporting on COVID-19 could help to save lives. The death rate of the Latino population in the San Joaquin Valley from the coronavirus is 60%–70%.

Radio Bilingüe has provided information on testing, prevention protocols, resources for self-isolation, economic assistance and renters’ rights. Reporters will use Microsoft’s data journalism training and resources to help analyze who is contracting the virus and why they’re at risk.

“In addition to our listeners, this also helps the region’s policymakers,” Morales said. “This data capacity that Microsoft is offering will be life-changing.” The support for Spanish-language news enables “a substantial reach,” Morales said, “particularly when we have a very diverse community here in terms of language and ethnicity.”

Mississippi Public Broadcasting has increasingly employed solutions-based journalism to report on the state’s health care and criminal justice systems. Microsoft is initially putting $150,000 into the Community Foundation for Mississippi, to be shared among five organizations in the state.

Microsoft called MPB “out of nowhere,” said Executive Director Ronnie Agnew.

“This data capacity that Microsoft is offering will be life-changing.”

Hugo Morales, Radio Bilingüe

“It’s not going to make us rich … but it’s something,” Agnew said. “They’re going to offer training on data and AI-based journalism. There could be equipment and software help. This is a very fluid situation, but anything that’s going to help us do better journalism, I’m all for it.”

Agnew also said that he’s happy some funding will support journalism programs at Jackson State University, a historically black institution.

“There was a time when Jackson State University graduated African-American journalists that worked in newsrooms all over this country,” Agnew said. “And it is my desire to see that happen again.”

Though the pilot is in its early stages, leaders at each organization envision long-term growth from the partnership and are optimistic that this will strengthen their organizations without compromising any editorial control. Microsoft also plans to expand the funding to other areas.

KTEP’s Pineda said he thinks that Microsoft sees potential in the partnership.

“I would love the idea that this pilot shows that we can take those funds and be efficient with them,” he said.

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