Why pubmedia should plan for an upcoming boost to local news funding

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An explosion of new funding is coming for local news.

Public media isn’t ready for it.

That’s a threat — and a massive opportunity for organizations that want to fill gaps in their local news ecosystems.

The catastrophic decline in legacy local media — especially newspapers — has been written to death. We’ve seen notable efforts by public media organizations to fill the gaps — stations like Virginia’s VPM using spectrum-sale proceeds to dramatically grow its newsroom, mergers between digital startups like the St. Louis Beacon with St. Louis Public Radio, and content-sharing agreements like that between WYPR and the Baltimore Banner.

What’s received less notice is a new, half-billion–dollar effort to steer cash to local news organizations, particularly the exploding number of nonprofit and other independent newsrooms. 

First, the lay of the land: At some point next year, the number of independent digital-first news organizations (both nonprofit and for-profit) will likely surpass the remaining daily newspapers in the United States.

There are nearly 1,000 of those digital newsrooms today, and that number is growing by a couple hundred each year. Meantime, there are only about 1,100 daily print publications in the country. Many of those are reducing the number of print days per week or even eliminating print entirely to cut costs. The lines will almost certainly cross in 2024, or 2025 at the latest.

Now for the money: Against this backdrop, the MacArthur Foundation is leading Press Forward, a campaign of national and local funders to raise at least $500 million in philanthropic funding for local news over the next five years.

That campaign has been an open secret for months in nonprofit and digital-journalism circles. MacArthur and the Annenberg Foundation convened a meeting of key funders in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in late January. MacArthur President Jonathan Palfrey sketched the parameters in this essay and spoke openly at Media Impact Funders in early June.

“We have a crisis in our democracy,” he told the MIF audience. “And if we do not have reliable local news … we will not have a democracy. Period.”

That’s led to a flurry of planning among digital startups months before the program’s parameters are even announced. Indeed, you couldn’t wander the hallways or sit in the lobby at the Institute for Nonprofit News’ annual INN Days this month without overhearing the conversations: “If we can get some of that Press Forward money …” or “My local community foundation is talking with them.”

It similarly was part of the gossip at the Local Independent Online News publishers’ regional sustainability meetup in Mississippi in May.

Public media isn’t completely unaware — KQED’s Alexis Madrigal conducted the interview with Palfrey at Media Impact Funders.

But the level of chatter among public-media leaders is far less than among digital nonprofits. As of this writing, Current hasn’t published anything on the effort. Press Forward wasn’t on the agenda at the PBS Annual Meeting in May, nor (as of yet) is it on the agenda of the Public Media Development and Marketing Conference in July, or the Public Radio Content Conference scheduled for September.

It needs to be.

Palfrey and others talk optimistically about how public media can and must be part of the work to rebuild local journalism.

But too few stations produce meaningful amounts of local news — particularly the sort of distinct and differentiated coverage that actually fills gaps, versus simply chasing the stories already being covered by legacy print and broadcast outlets.

A Harvard study neatly captures the challenges most public media organizations face in producing meaningful amounts of local news: As an industry, public media organizations are slow to change, insular and wedded to program formats and broadcast practices that haven’t changed much since the 1970s. (Current featured a summary of that report, and retired ProPublica President Dick Tofel offered a take.

Indeed, in just over a decade, nonprofit newsrooms have essentially caught up with — and may soon surpass — the number of journalists employed in public media. The nonprofit sector has exploded from fewer than 100 journalists in 2008 to more than 2,700 today. Meanwhile, all of public radio (the dominant producer of local news in public media) has at best about 3,600 journalists.

And yet: Public media has assets and advantages that enable it to be a part of the local-news solution (and perhaps capture some of the philanthropic funding now flowing to nonprofits and other startups).

Public media brands have resonated for decades with our communities (well, parts of them, anyway). Many stations have sophisticated digital fundraising practices — and relationships with local philanthropies — that most digital startups struggle to match. Its funding models give the freedom to make different coverage decisions than commercial broadcasters, whose revenue streams — ads and carriage fees — force them to maximize ratings.

The MacArthur project will provide an infusion of badly needed cash. But that cash will likely flow to the prepared.

So GMs and their boards should be talking now about their strategies to grow local news.

News directors should be thinking about which beats they could add, communities they could cover and independent digital newsrooms they could collaborate with.

Audience- and donor-development teams should think through which local philanthropies might serve as catalysts for a local effort modeled on Press Forward — and how to engage different audience segments in a news-focused membership program.

The money will likely start to flow in 2024. The conversations need to start now.

Tom Davidson researches and teaches about nonprofit news, including public media, at the Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland. He led the team at PBS Digital that developed Passport, was chief of content at UNC-TV in North Carolina, and has served in senior newsroom, business and product-development roles at Tribune Co. and Gannett.

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