In the winter of 2020, we received a call from longtime staff of the Charleston Gazette-Mail. After the West Virginia-based paper was sold following bankruptcy, jobs were eliminated and some staff departed. The future was far from certain, and they came together because they knew the current local news model was creating huge gaps in public service reporting in their state.
With the pandemic expected to impact West Virginians disproportionately, they came to the American Journalism Project knowing how important local news would be at this time. So, at a pivotal moment, we provided seed capital to what would become the Mountain State Spotlight, a nonprofit investigative newsroom for West Virginians. But our work didn’t end there – we collaborated alongside the team to help develop their business plan and pitch, provide fundraising and organizational infrastructure support and eventually launch their newsroom in September 2020. Since then, Mountain State Spotlight has become one of the state’s largest newsrooms.
Later that year, following the murder of George Floyd, two remarkable founders called us: Lauren Williams, then the senior vice president and editor-in-chief at Vox, and Akoto Ofori-Atta, who previously was managing editor at The Trace. They had long been thinking about the news industry and its inability to fully honor the perspectives of Black Americans with frustration. After the events of that summer and the racial justice protests, they were motivated to build a Black-led, nonprofit news organization. Using what we learned with Mountain State Spotlight, the American Journalism Project provided Williams and Ofori-Atta with seed capital to establish Capital B, a network of nonprofit newsrooms for Black communities across the country. They were able to raise more than $9 million in early capital from other funders and in February 2022 launched their first news organization in Atlanta.
Our investments in these organizations allowed for these founders to have the time and space to develop their editorial and fundraising plans, and raise significant early capital that enabled them to hire and lead with strong journalism right out of the gate. The success of these ambitious journalism entrepreneurs has proven that this new generation of local news organizations can inform communities and help to sustain our democracy.
For instance, Mountain State Spotlight’s recent journalism has revealed efforts to keep conditions in West Virginia’s deadly jails secret from the public, a little-noticed plan to divert opioid lawsuit settlements away from public health programs to end addiction, and the failure of lawmakers to provide help to struggling coalfield communities who have lost their major industry.
Meanwhile, a year after launching its first newsroom, Capital B is already planning to expand to additional cities to equip more Black Americans with accessible, accurate, and need-to-know local reporting. In October, they reported that recovery assistance from FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Ian was difficult to find in predominantly Black neighborhoods, prompting a direct reply from the agency, and they continue to produce reliable reporting on critical issues like climate, health, education and criminal justice.
Mountain State Spotlight and Capital B are examples of how outstanding talent can do incredible things when they have access to the seed capital, resources and support to make their visions a reality. Born out of our work with these two “pilot” news organizations, our newest investment vehicle, the Local News Incubator, will provide this opportunity to four new outstanding leaders (open to individuals and teams of two). The incubator will provide each participant with $400,000 in seed funding to pursue this work full-time. Participants will spend 18 months preparing to launch, and during this time they’ll have access to expert counsel for journalism business development.
We are in the midst of a fundamental transformation in how we finance and sustain local news, and with the help of programs like the Local News Incubator, we’ll continue to see this momentum build as a new generation of organizations lead the way. The American Journalism Project has built a portfolio of 36 organizations at all stages of development. We have had the opportunity to collaborate with some of the best talent and organizations across the country by investing in the sustainable growth of existing organizations, helping to build new newsrooms from the ground up through partnering with local philanthropy to initiate our startup studio, and providing seed capital and coaching to new founders so they can launch local news nonprofits that serve their communities.
Our goal is to establish and grow outstanding and sustainable news organizations that provide communities with the information they need to participate in our democracy. We’re calling on visionary leaders and promising entrepreneurs to apply for the Local News Incubator by February 15, 2023.