The urgency of growth for nonprofit news
We started the American Journalism Project to help grow and sustain mission-driven local news organizations across the U.S. Last fall, we made our first 11 grants to an exemplary group of nonprofit newsrooms and joined the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund to support 16 news organizations serving communities of color across the country. Then in the spring, we became a founding supporter of Mountain State Spotlight, a civic news organization for West Virginia that will begin publishing regularly in September.
We asked this group of grantees — our learning cohort, as we think of them — to use our investment to fill in the gaps in their business and operating capacity in order to, within two or three years, significantly increase their revenue and impact. We’ve been there alongside them nearly every day with expertise, strategic coaching and encouragement. It hasn’t been the kind of year we expected, but we’re proud and excited by our grantees’ early achievements: the launch of The Oaklandside in Oakland, California; the hiring of exceptionally talented and experienced business staff (more on this in another post coming soon!); rigorous and ambitious financial and strategic planning; and of course, journalism that has been a lifeline to communities during a summer of pandemic, reckoning over racial justice, and lead-up to the 2020 election.
This time last year we were reviewing proposals from those organizations. Now we again are looking at where our next set of investments will be, informed by our learning cohort and responsive to a changed landscape for local news. Last year, we were excited about growth opportunities, and indeed our grantees are deepening and expanding the journalism they are doing with and for the communities they serve. Now we urgently insist on a vision for growth.
Why? Because our baseline assumption is that commercial newspapers will disappear or become ghost newspapers, with no meaningful civic reporting. They won’t, not everywhere. And we certainly will cheer those who persevere. But in many places, in fact in most places, we believe they will not. With traditional newspapers gone, replacement-level original reporting and accountability journalism, rooted in a deep understanding of a community’s information needs, is the new north star.
Consider this an invitation and a permission slip to nonprofit news leaders to start thinking bigger, whether it’s expanding to serve new communities or scaling coverage of a state or a region. In more and more places, nonprofit news organizations will soon be the primary source of original reporting and accountability journalism, if they aren’t already.
In the coming weeks, we will be sharing more about the work we are doing to support civic leadership in places where there is not yet a strong base of support for nonprofit news. We will be sharing what it looks like to conceive new civic news organizations built on a foundation of community listening, rigorous business planning, and social entrepreneurship. We will be introducing the new entrepreneurial leaders our grantees have hired with support from AJP. We will be talking about the need to invest in operational capacity that allows organizations to expand their reporting to new communities and the need to support key organizations with strong operating infrastructure that can be the hubs for state and regional nonprofit news. And we will be joining a conversation that is not ours alone, but is one that the Institute for Nonprofit News, LION Publishers, News Revenue Hub, Free Press, NewsMatch, the Rebuild Local News coalition, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, and others across the country have started: What does it mean for nonprofit news organizations to be the primary — or sole — source of journalism for a community? And what role do philanthropic organizations like AJP play in getting them there?
We will be acting urgently to learn and try out some answers.
Jason Alcorn is VP of Strategy and Operations at the American Journalism Project, a venture philanthropy organization that helps to grow and sustain civic news organizations. His email address is email@example.com and follow on Twitter at @jasonalcorn and @JournalismProj.