Press Forward is talking about public media — and you won’t like what they’re saying

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A few weeks ago, Duc Luu, a director of journalism giving at the Knight Foundation, was briefing a group of independent news publishers about Press Forward, the $500 million philanthropic effort to fund local news.

He hit the same talking points that people have been discussing for months: Press Forward will address the decline in local news because that decline threatens democracy. Press Forward seeks to redress the historical failings of legacy media to reflect diverse and underrepresented communities. And it will fund efforts to use digital distribution to reach people who no longer get their news via print or over-the-air broadcast.

When the Q&A started, the first question was less a query than a cri de coeur: Please, the questioner asked, don’t give money to legacy organizations that have ignored whole swaths of their localities, or serve only a tiny fraction of their potential audience, or are wedded to their traditional distribution platforms.

Luu’s one-word answer: “Done.”


Folks, that’s us they’re talking about. And it’s why I fear we’re botching a potentially transformative moment.

Public media may not be quite as myopic and hamstrung as hedge-fund–ravaged newspaper chains.

But make no mistake: These funders understand that our audiences are relatively small (typically 5–10% of the population of a given market), old (65+), white, suburban and upper–middle-class. In the view of these funders, we’re slow, wedded to broadcast formats that are in gradual decline, and unable to nimbly innovate.

We cement those perceptions with pitches that basically boil down to “Help me incrementally grow my small newsroom!” That’s hardly the game-changing approach Press Forward is designed to spark.

“Everyone keeps saying, ‘Don’t forget about us!’” said one Press Forward foundation leader. “Well, what do you want me to remember? What’s your idea?”

But that ill-developed, largely incremental approach is exactly what NPR’s white paper on Press Forward seems to call for.

That’s thin gruel — and many of our leaders know it. Several GMs have told me they were disappointed in the white paper but signed on because it would have looked bad if they didn’t. One went so far as to say, “It couldn’t have been more old-school if it had been delivered via postal mail in a tote bag.”

And don’t try to argue that the leaders of Press Forward just don’t understand what we do. They used to do it.

These are experienced, sophisticated journalists and thinkers about news and information, people who have launched startups and led the digital units of major publications; who were reporters, editors and foreign correspondents at renowned newspapers and public-media outlets; who ran some of the leading think tanks focused on digital issues; and who literally wrote dissertations about the future of public discourse.

They know what we do (often better than some of us do). They understand, intimately, the limitations of terrestrial radio, the relative timidity of most stations’ digital efforts, and our mediocre track record of meaningfully engaging with underserved portions of our communities.

The Press Forward coalition has given a clear roadmap of what they want, best expressed by MacArthur President John Palfrey’s “5 Ds”:

  • Serving democracy, not just “news”
  • Digital distribution, not simply expanding legacy models
  • Serving diverse communities, not just our traditional P1s
  • Developing sustainability — new financial models that engage local philanthropy, in other words
  • Driving demand for high-quality news — by actively working on audience development and outreach, not just relying on on-air promotion (which only reaches the people who already listen to us)

Fortunately, there are examples we can emulate.

First, nonprofit news organizations are having stunning success reaching underserved audiences in places as different as inland Central California, Vermont and the farmlands of southside Virginia. They’ve grafted our model — individual membership, major giving, local philanthropy and a smattering of underwriting — to digital distribution.

What, you say? That can’t work at a public-media organization? David McGowan at WJCT (and his $1 million+ in funding) begs to disagree. So would Rich Homberg at Detroit Public Television and the 25-station Great Lakes Now digital collaborative. You and your leadership team should be asking yourselves: How might our newsroom expand our digital efforts? What existing nonprofit newsrooms might benefit from collaborating with us?

Second, Press Forward leaders are seeking to expand their funding — and the long-term success of the project — by getting local funders to sign on. In northern California, KQED has played a catalytic role in convening Press Forward Bay Area. It also helped the League of California Community Foundations produce an excellent guidebook on how your organization can engage local philanthropies to support Press Forward.

Third, make sure you really understand the information needs of your communities — especially the traditionally underserved portions of them. That’s the approach nonprofits like the American Journalism Project have used to great effect — and the Press Forward team will be looking for that level of insight.

Those three steps align with what Press Forward’s leaders say they want — and just might lead to future funding. Pitches like “Help me grow my four-reporter newsroom to five!” stand no chance. 

Tom Davidson consults for news organizations and teaches about nonprofit news and public media at the 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. He can be reached at [email protected].

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