Improving Local Journalism

This morning I attended a Philanthropy New York program, “Improving Local Journalism: Three Approaches”. The event, presented with Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media (GFEM), focused on new grant-making initiatives designed to strengthen reporting by pubic radio stations and networks, as well as discussed new experimental and entrepreneurial approaches to carrying out the news-gathering function. The following are highlights from the discussion, which was moderated by Vincent Stehle, consultant to the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation.

Julie Sandorf, the President of the Charles H. Revson Foundation Foundation began the discussion by explaining how the Foundation’s foray into this work chose to focus specifically on local New York journalism. According to Sandorf, the Foundation looked for opportunities to fill the gap in local reporting. They looked for a few key elements including finding credible voice for new content, finding organization that had a record building an audience, and one that already had clearly defined mission to engage the public. They found that WNYC Public Radio was best suited for the challenge and awarded them a $1 million grant for its work to increase local media coverage. Dean Cappello, Chief Content Officer and Senior Vice President for New York Public Radio joined the conversation as well detailing some of the projects they’d been working one. One of the things that stood out was Cappello’s statement that WNYC recognized that it must “find ways to meet people where they are.”

Next, Lori McGlinchey, senior program officer with the Open Society Foundations discussed its efforts to find opportunities to fill gaps in accountability journalism at the state and local level, and specifically investigating the role that media plays in affecting public policy. McGlinchey gave examples of several grants awarded in the investigative journalism sphere, notably ProPublica and Voice of San Diego. She also discussed the importance of the role of ethnic media in bringing new and diverse voices into the fold, exemplified by grants to New America Media for example. Overall the Foundation’s strategy was to build a stronger non-commercial news sector, both by supporting traditional noncommercial media like National Public Radio, and by finding newer more entrepreneurial news models.

As an example of a new academic and entrepreneurial news project, Emily Tow Jackson, Executive Director and Trustee of the Tow Foundation discussed several projects that were partnerships between they had supported. Some of these included support to academic institutions, notably the City University of New York and New York University. For example, a partnership between The New York Times and NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute led to The Local, an online news collaboration that covers the neighborhoods of the East Village and Fort Greene & Clinton Hill. These kinds of projects focus on innovation and new models for local journalism reporting. Other projects were mentioned, including funding fellowships for emerging and mid-career journalists, mentioning such projects as Ugandans Abroad.

I noticed a few running themes emerge from the conversation. First, was the key question about how to maintain financial sustainability in many of these new journalism models. It was widely acknowledged that Foundation funding is not a long-term solution to sustaining many of the institutions and projects mentioned. Also related was the importance of having a diversification of resources for these projects. Second, was the importance of establishing and maintaining partnerships and/or collaborations amongst projects. It was discussed that these relationships can bring expertise and voices to the table that might otherwise not be available. Third, was the key theme of engagement; an examination of the question of how can local journalism models can bring members of the communities they serve into the conversation. WNYC’s The Jerome L. Greene Performance Space is one example of what this can look like. To read more about that example specifically, click here.Lastly, there was a discussion about many of the challenges that arise with the transition to digital, notable a lack of access of many communities to broadband.

Overall it was an excellent program that brought together several examples of the how public media, and new grant-making initiatives can improve local journalism.Thanks to everyone who attended and participated!