New position paper argues for including public media in upcoming wave of foundation support

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A coalition of public media organizations released a paper Thursday making a case for public media as a worthy recipient of additional philanthropic support, responding to an announcement last week that foundations plan to direct more than $500 million toward local journalism in coming years.

NPR and leaders throughout public media created the paper, titled “Public Media and the Future of Local Journalism.” More than 120 leaders throughout the system endorsed it. It was published on a dedicated website.

“As philanthropists, community organizations and others seek to revitalize local journalism in America, public media offers a powerful foundation to build a stronger, more sustainable and more equitable model than what came before,” the paper says. “With strategic philanthropic investment, we can rapidly increase the breadth and depth of public media’s local journalism, while providing a stable base to help strong, local news ecosystems to thrive.”

The paper notes public media’s expansion of local news in recent years, its growing emphasis on collaborative efforts, and the “strong and flexible framework” it offers to build on. To further expand these assets, the paper proposes “focused investment in local public media organizations and in the infrastructure to support and connect them.” Such support would also help public media organizations engage with local and regional funders, the paper says.

At an NPR board meeting Tuesday, Board Chair Jeff Sine said the paper “will help kickstart the conversation with funders of local news. Nobody is as well positioned to provide a combination of deeply reported local and national news as the NPR Network is. This position paper makes that very clear.”

The paper’s release comes a week after the unveiling of Press Forward, an initiative among 22 donors spearheaded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The coalition intends to funnel more than $500 million into local journalism starting next year. Participants include the Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Democracy Fund, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Glen Nelson Center at American Public Media Group.

Press Forward’s fiscal sponsor, the Miami Foundation, will manage a pooled fund and coordinate grantmaking.

The paper released Thursday advocates for “bold investment in local public media organizations, allowing them to grow in ways that are responsive to the needs of their communities.” Philanthropic support will help outlets become “anchor institutions,” the paper argues, connecting “a diverse array of news providers and hyper-local creators.” It highlights the opportunity for investment in NPR’s Collaborative Journalism Network, which aims to launch more regional newsrooms.

Furthermore, investment in digital infrastructure would help organizations share information and coordinate coverage, the paper says. “These investments will be a force multiplier, allowing local newsrooms to focus limited resources on creating impactful local content and developing new ways to reach and serve their communities,” it says.

The organizations also note the need for increased fundraising among public media’s digital audience. “Today, fewer than one percent of NPR’s 27 million digital weekly users donates—a dramatic difference when compared with the 10 percent of broadcast listeners who support their local outlet,” the paper says.

A press release accompanying the paper included comments from more than a dozen leaders of public media stations and organizations. “The number one comment we get is ‘I love how you’ve stepped up. You’ve become THE reliable local news source. But I wish you did more,’” said R.C. McBride, GM of WCBU and WGLT in Illinois. “So do we, but doing so is going to require more funding.” 

Current Reporter Tyler Falk contributed to this article.

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