Investing in public media – checking in on our pilot grants
For decades, public media has played a meaningful role in communities around the country. As we consider how we ensure local news is sustainable and replenishes original reporting, the American Journalism Project wants to better understand where public media organizations fit in the industry’s future — and how they can evolve to meet the current moment.
About our public media grants and pilot
The American Journalism Project made its first philanthropic investments in public media with the goal of examining the role public media could play in rebuilding local news. These pilot investments were made with the support of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and the Wyncote Foundation.
The intent of this pilot program, which is now about halfway through its duration, is to explore how investments in new business and revenue capacity can accelerate local public radio organizations’ transition into primary local news providers capable of addressing the growing news and information needs in their communities. As such, we considered a number of essential criteria when selecting our grantees: we chose organizations that had already begun this work and were well-positioned to leverage this type of investment. It was important for the organizations to already be committed to this work – meaning they were producing high-impact civic journalism and meeting the needs of traditionally underserved communities, while also ensuring that the newsrooms had innovative programming and revenue strategies.
In April 2021, we made three-year philanthropic investments in Louisville Public Media (LPM) and WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina. These investments are supporting each organization’s journey in becoming their respective communities’ primary local news provider by funding new business capacity. Both of these organizations fit our foundational criteria, are consistent with our core values, and have the opportunity to provide the critical learning objectives for both us and them.
LPM and WFAE’s goals
Despite working in very different markets, the two organizations have a number of shared goals that our investments support. Each organization is focusing on increasing local philanthropic support for local news, decreasing their reliance on broadcast-driven revenue, and building new revenue streams to support their local programming. Both organizations are also using this as an opportunity to sharpen their strategies toward becoming a primary local news provider for their communities.
In addition, LPM aimed to unite its three existing stations and news products under one brand to further position itself as the go-to digital source for local news. WFAE also aimed to undergo a comprehensive strategic planning process.
Pathways to success
Midway through these grants, we took a deep-dive look at the progress being made during the pilot, and learned more about the internal and external factors that are essential to advancing public media organizations as the primary local news providers for their communities. To examine progress, we looked at each organization’s revenue and content, including examining whether each organization was producing more original content than at the beginning of their grants.
This deep dive, which began at the end of 2022, revealed many pathways to success, which are outlined below and in a full learnings report, released today. Our examination also underscored that the success behind philanthropic investments goes beyond the dollars, and requires organizations to have strong leadership, the willingness and ability to shift organizational culture, a strong sense of priorities, and digital savviness. This examination highlighted actions can take — and where philanthropy can continue to experiment.
The pathways to success include:
In response to external market conditions, we found that public media offers a unique advantage in stepping in to fill the gap left by traditional and legacy newspapers that are downsizing or folding. This is due in part to their accessible, free-of-charge products, which lower the barrier to entry for audiences.
WFAE and LPM are not only reporting on the news, but they are also contextualizing and making sense of it for their readers. By producing more stories of a higher quality and with deeper analysis, public media are establishing themselves as a trustworthy institution of information that helps the community to better engage in civic life.
Strong leadership and commitment from the board of directors in their senior management that oversee the day-to-day operations of the newsroom and business are critical.
Since Stephen George joined LPM as president and general manager after leadership positions at Nashville City Paper and Insider Louisville, he increased the organization’s commitment to public-service journalism through a $1.5 million expansion campaign to bring on more editorial staff and shifting to become a true multimedia, 24/7 news operation.
Ju-Don Marshall, who was named CEO of WFAE in April 2023, brought more than 30 years of experience as a media executive and journalist when she joined the organization in 2017 as chief content officer. She was a key architect of WFAE’s current vision and mission, which included raising $1.2 million to fund their recently-launched Race and Equity team for another three years.
Other Internal Conditions for Success
The internal structure of public media organizations is essential for their pathway to success when navigating these strategic pivots. Preparing for cultural shifts and developing a digital and local brand image are two other areas that build on the work of their leadership to support their transitions into primary news providers for their communities.
Key learnings and what’s next
Halfway through these investments, there are some key findings and initial recommendations on how philanthropy can successfully partner with public media organizations. There is also more work to be done to support these public media organizations in their work to become their communities’ primary local news provider.
We have seen an increase in both depth and breadth of local reporting from Louisville Public Media, while WFAE is undergoing a substantial transformation that may bear fruit in the future.
Ultimately, we do not yet have definitive evidence that our investments can meaningfully increase the amount of local reporting for public media organizations, but we are committed to supporting these organizations during this second half of the grant period and continuing to learn both to inform our own future grantmaking strategy and to inform the broader philanthropic field about both the potential and the challenges associated with supporting local public radio stations to fill local news voids.
As we move ahead with the second half of this pilot program, we will continue to explore:
- Where will public media solve the local news problem? The right combination of internal and external factors are necessary for a public media newsroom to successfully transition into a trusted institution of local information – existing in a mid-sized market that can support a newsroom, reporting on real issues that are pertinent to the local residents, and a paying constituency. Only then can an independent station led by an entrepreneurial team, meet the information demands in the face of decline in local news.
- How can public media organizations prepare themselves for the pivot to local news? As newsrooms continue to face challenges posed by the external conditions surrounding their transformation into local-first institutions through fundraising and audience engagement, it is equally important to make sure that the internal cultural shifts are setting them up for success.
- How can stations unlock the next level of support? Public media newsrooms are competing for a finite amount of funding against other important social issues. By making explicit the connection between their local reporting and the attention and accountability that come with the spotlight that media coverage shines on these issues, public media organizations can more effectively substantiate the vital importance of local news to a thriving community and translate that to memberships, donations and gifts.
- How can philanthropy contribute to public media’s pivot to local news? Philanthropy can and does play an important role is subsidizing and accelerating public media’s turn to local: infusion of capital and critical capacities on the revenue side give stations the runway to do the hard, time-consuming work of making strategic shifts, and the vote of confidence implied by philanthropic investment also helps validate the stations’ effort, thereby attracting great leadership and talent.
Funders who are interested in strengthening the fabric of our democracy and rebuilding the infrastructure of local news should continue to invest and experiment in this space, learn from our guidelines when looking for investable opportunities, and explore the same learning questions to support the transformation of public media to primary local news providers.
To learn more in depth about our public radio investments pilot, you can read our report on these public radio investments. We look forward to sharing more about our progress and learnings as this work continues.