Why I’m placing my bets on the American Journalism Project

My inbox is accustomed to cold pitches. I’ve been a reporter and editor for more than a decade. But starting a few years ago — and increasingly each and every month — I’ve been getting a new genre of email solicitation: the request for business coaching, from my fellow journalists.

There was the longtime newspaper editor in a rural town who thought there must be a better way to serve his community than the newspaper that is now forcing him to lay off reporters. There was the award-winning reporter dreaming of a news outfit covering racial justice in the rust belt. And then there was the West Coast editor who wants to serve not just his affluent neighborhood niche, but more vulnerable communities, too.

I love these emails. They add an invigorating balance to my daily diet of news about the decline of civic engagement, or about the latest newspaper to lay off journalists or get acquired by a hedge fund. The emailers are all groping through the same challenging journalism landscape, but with a commitment to reinvention and growth against the odds. They give me hope.

They are the reason that, today, an incredible team of colleagues and I are officially launching a new project aimed at answering the call that those email solicitations represent. A project that will offer far more dedicated business coaching than I can provide, and that can supplement it with what these ambitious journalists need most: investment. Real cash money.

We’re calling it AJP, the American Journalism Project. Step one for AJP was to raise the kind of money that hasn’t yet been invested in local journalists with big dreams, much less in local, public-interest journalism businesses that put the public interest first and can sustain and grow their reporting for years into the future. We picked the number, $50 million, carefully — enough to make a difference, to provoke the boldness this moment in history requires, but not so much that we couldn’t invest it responsibly. (For more on how we did the math, read this.) Incredibly, we’re now $42 million of the way toward our goal.

Step two will be giving meaningful grants to the most promising local news institutions, both those that are already emerging and some that don’t yet exist. We are aiming these grants at the long term.

I know from my own experience building Chalkbeat — now one of the fastest-growing local news organizations in the country, with a team of more than 50 — that what is most needed is not one-year grants to support individual reporting projects, though those are nice. What is most needed is investment in organizations’ capacity to sustain themselves, and to grow.

We need expert teams whose sole focus is raising diverse revenue for news. We need product and technology talent to keep our work as high-impact as possible. We need strategic leadership and operational capacity to turn newsrooms with modest footprints into scaled institutions. And we need the real dollars required to build truly diverse teams of journalists, serving diverse readers, with diverse leadership, founding teams, and governing bodies.

There’s no guarantee we’ll succeed, crazy to think every news organization we support will meet its goals, and easy to think of reasons we might fail. But I’m much more comfortable taking the risk than not. Like so many journalists all across America have already done by starting new local news outfits, we need to set our fears to the side and take every step we can toward what we know our democracy needs. I have invested my own time and efforts in AJP, as co-founder and board chair, because I truly believe that making substantive investments in some of the hardest-working, biggest-dreaming journalists is the best shot we have at realizing a very important vision.

And anyway, my inbox needs someplace better to steer people to.

PS — About that: Here’s how to stay in touch. Sign up here to stay posted via email as we move forward. The team expects to make information about its grant process available in early summer. And if you want to talk more, write to Alice Rhee, managing director of strategy and growth, for more information. Her email is alice@theajp.org.