News is a public good.
What does it mean to treat journalism as a public good? Without an informed citizenry able to access the news they need to navigate their lives, actively participate in the public square, and hold their local and national government officials accountable to their public duties, we are at risk of weakening democracy’s most vital participant and protector, the people. That is why NewsMatch has spent five years building a people powered campaign to support and strengthen nonprofit news.
Since 2004, nearly 1,800 communities in the United States have lost their newspapers. This is in addition to communities that have long existed with limited access to news and information that is relevant and useful to navigating local life. Not only are Americans losing their local newspapers, but local tv and radio news programs are also losing the original and substantive investigations these newspapers used to provide. While some news seekers turn toward social media, local tv and local newspapers remain the most utilized sources for news. The ongoing disappearance and deterioration of credible and comprehensive local news limits people’s ability to meet the critical information necessary to make important decisions that impact their everyday lives. It is not enough to simply save what has been lost, we need to rebuild stronger with serving the public as our foundation.
Mission versus money.
As traditional news models break down, there have been entrepreneurial efforts experimenting with business models to find new markets and new audiences. Many of these efforts utilize digital platforms and focus on attracting paying subscribers and advertisers. Yet, people most in need of quality and credible news are the least likely to be able to pay for it (and for what advertisers are trying to sell). They are also often part of communities whose stories and informational priorities need to be better reflected in the news already. Fortunately, there are emerging newsrooms who are increasingly committed to improving representation, inclusion and equity in their news content creation and seeking to transform the industry. But these newsrooms are forced to compete with the bottom-line need to be financially sustainable. NewsMatch seeks to level the playing field through philanthropic matching dollars and in-depth investment in capacity building around fundraising for nonprofit newsrooms.
News for all, not for some.
More and more, the philanthropic world is recognizing the opportunity to protect democracy by supporting rigorous and inclusive journalism. Finding ways to disentangle news generation from news revenue ensures that the media industry won’t just serve the interest and needs of those who can afford to pay for it or pay to influence it. Supporting news organizations committed to inclusive and fact-based news and information might also help to stymie the proliferation of media organizations with nefarious objectives that are filling the media gap in poor communities with news that is often free to the consumer, but also highly partisan, not credible and not independent from political or corporate interests. A public shift from seeing news as a service one pays for solo access to a collective good that benefits us all is an important step toward treating local news like the vital democractic resource it is.
NewsMatch is one strategy.
NewsMatch was created as a strategic way to support quality journalism. It aims to jumpstart small, emerging newsrooms, some serving communities that have been poorly served by mainstream or national media. News for the people, with the people, NewsMatch’s 2020 slogan captures the promise of what newsrooms can become when we recognize the public good it provides and act to protect it.
The NewsMatch annual campaign pools funds nationally to provide participating newsrooms with a matching incentive and tools and training to build its long-term fundraising capacity. Newsmatch is a powerful tool for donors, foundations, and corporations concerned about the future of local and investigative reporting. Since 2016, NewsMatch helped 200+ nonprofit newsrooms across the country raise more than $100 million from hundreds of thousands of people — many of whom were first-time donors to nonprofit news. In 2019, NewsMatch turned $3.7 million in philanthropic investments into $43.5 million in support for local news in just two months, a more than 1200 percent return on investment.
So, how is NewsMatch doing?
So far, so good. Last year, Democracy Fund partnered with the Knight Foundation to commission an evaluation of NewsMatch to see how the campaign was faring on three ambitious goals: 1) to dramatically increase giving to journalism, 2) to strengthen long term fundraising capacity in newsrooms; and 3) to build awareness about journalism’s impact in our democracy. There was ample evidence that the 2019 NewsMatch program met the first goal, with returning organizations securing more donors and donations then the previous year. The second and third goals, which were longer-term in nature, were not yet met, although there was indication of progress toward both goals. Related to the second goal by design, NewsMatch serves a diverse array of nonprofit news organizations ranging from small community-based start-up organizations to national public media outlets. That diversity makes it a necessity to tailor the training and support provided so that it is more relevant to the specific context and challenges each media organization faces. To better provide this added nuance, an investment toward additional administrative support was made to help newsrooms strengthen long-term fundraising capacity. As for the third goal, while this evaluation found some evidence that the general public may not yet be aware of news as something to donate to, part of NewsMatch approach is to help funders and the public begin to see news as vital to our democracy and thus cannot be left solely to market forces.
What can I do?
This post opened with the line local news is a public good. If after reading this you agree, well then, we’re a bit closer to it becoming one. Reimagining the role of the news as a collective good that strengthens and protects democracy moves us beyond futile attempts to patch and reinstitute a flawed industry with a history of neglecting and harming communities of color. There is an opportunity now to set the bar much higher by supporting local news organizations committed to the transformative change necessary to become a news industry that truly serves all people.
If you are an individual interested in donating to support news as a public good, you can find a local media organization by using the search engine NewsMatch provides on their site. If you are a grantmaker, consider becoming a partnering funder.
Lastly, while philanthropic giving is powerful, we recognize that it is just one strategy to treat local news like a public good. Newsrooms serving marginalized communities can struggle to compete for philanthropic dollars as well. While philanthropy is important, it is no replacement for sound local and federal policy. Democracy Fund is also supporting burgeoning media policy efforts to protect local news. We look forward to sharing more about this work in future posts.