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Helping Community News Startups
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Ch. 1: Funding Fit
Ch. 2: Impact
Ch. 3: Success
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Chapter 1: Finding the Funding Fit

After longtime New Haven journalist Paul Bass finished a book in 2005, he didn’t want to return to his newspaper. Instead he embarked on exploring some new kinds of local Web sites just cropping up around the country.

Tips for Funding Community News and Information Projects

  • First, analyze the information needs of your community and your capacity to meet those needs.
  • Zero in on the best platform to deliver information in your town or region.
  • Look for a sharply defined focus to start.
  • Scout out prospective grantees who are not for sale but interested in collaboration.
  • Be comfortable with the organization and its leader.
  • Look for broad inclusivity of participants.
  • Check for tech, marketing, business and fundraising skills in a project’s governing or advisory board.
  • Consider offering nonmonetary support, such as subsidized office space or back-office support.
  • Know what you’re trying to accomplish and think about what a public-interest journalism project might do for you.
  • If you want advocacy, go to advocates.
  • If you want a credible source of information for people, understand what journalism really is.
  • Ask: Have you got the stomach for this? Can you stand the heat that might come from publishing truth or opinion?

Before long he had a good idea of what he wanted to do. It wasn’t a blog. Rather, he wanted to publish a Web site that would return to real community reporting. It would cover neighborhoods, government meetings, criminal justice and public schools.

He launched the not-for-profit New Haven Independent in 2005 with $80,000, including his first grant, $50,000 from The Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut to bolster the site’s coverage of health care reform.

The funding was a first for the foundation, too. It had never given a grant for journalism before.

A key part of Bass’ business plan was to solicit grants from foundations like Universal to support specific kinds of reporting. Now Universal has funded the New Haven Independent for four years. It’s one of five foundations that provide most of the support for the site.

Very few foundations fund journalism per se – with the exception of grants for public broadcasting. Journalism, after all, has typically been a for-profit business. But that is beginning to change as foundations across the nation realize that shrinking news coverage of local and national issues threatens not only the topics they care about, it also handicaps communities and threatens democracy itself.

Indeed, J-Lab has discovered that since 2005, 180 foundations, large and small, have contributed nearly $128 million to U.S. news and information projects. These numbers don’t include the many generous grants to public radio and television or for the production of documentaries. They also don’t include funding for student news services or support for journalism training. It’s likely we will discover even more grants that have supported newsgathering over the last four years and we will add them to our online database.

Funding news about their areas of key concern is just one way that philanthropies are matching their missions with new media makers.

Other funders are investing in new media for different reasons. Some believe journalism is critical to organizing and building community. Some fund one-shot projects that have a beginning and an end. And others are determinedly funding experiments and innovations to pioneer ways in which communities will get their news and information in the digital future.

Experimentation Grants

A leader in paving the way for funding news experiments that serve community and democracy is the Knight Foundation. It used to fund journalism training projects.

“When the world turned upside down in this digital revolution, we decided we couldn’t really continue to teach best practices for a world we couldn’t foresee,” said Alberto Ibargüen, the foundation’s president and CEO. “We thought we needed to start experimenting, since we were admitting that we weren’t sure where things were going.”

The foundation changed its priorities to fund innovations in media with the five-year, $25 million Knight News Challenge. More recently, it is addressing the “information needs” of communities with a five-year, $24 million matching-grant program, the Knight Community Information Challenge, to jump-start participation by community foundations in local news and information projects.

“We do not mean for this to be Knight Foundation’s area of exclusivity,” Ibargüen said. “The more people we have engaged in this, the happier I’ll be.”

Deciding What to Fund

How does a foundation decide what to fund? A good place to start is to map out the information needs of its community.

“It boils down to, ‘What is the community lacking?’ ” said Gary Kebbel, Knight Foundation’s journalism program director. “What is specific to that community where a community foundation can make a difference?”

“Has the local newspaper just laid off an investigative reporter? Maybe there’s a way to fund an investigative chair at that newspaper. Has the local newspaper just laid off the arts critic? Maybe there’s an arts blog that you ought to be funding. Has education reporting in the community always been weak? Maybe now’s the time to try to strengthen that.” Needs will be different from community to community, Kebbel said, so it’s best to ask, “What’s missing and what niche could I fill?”

Maybe it’s a one-time project around an election or the Olympics that doesn’t have to extend beyond the event. Maybe it’s an innovative or experimental project. It’s difficult to know how long to support an innovative project. Typical timelines of two-, three- or five-year grants may be off the mark. “It might need just one or two more years beyond your initial set of funding,” Kebbel said.

If a project is addressing a need that nobody else is filling, he advised, “then I’d say keep at it.”

Knight Foundation’s Alberto Ibargüen said funders need to realize they will be making some bets. “Fund the things you’re interested in,” he said. “I think it’s really important not to fund castor oil – that is, stuff you don’t like but you kind of think is good for you.”

J-Lab has learned some lessons from funding 46 community news start-ups culled from 1,249 proposals since 2005. Among them:

  • Stable and strong leadership is critical.
  • Project leaders must have a precise focus and clearheaded vision of what they want to accomplish.
  • Site founders must have enough civic capital in their communities to attract both contributions of content and financial support.
  • Projects must act with both journalistic and business sensibilities.
  • Year-round frequency of content is necessary to build momentum and recognition.
  • The community recognizes and rewards ethical stewardship of community news and information.

Old media used to think that new media would threaten it, challenge it or put it out of business, Kebbel said, but old media are starting to realize that the two can live side by side: “As they both work together and supplement one another, I think that we can come out with a greater and stronger media ecosystem.”

A total of 170 foundations applied in the Information Challenge’s first request for proposals. Twenty-one winners were announced in February 2009, with Knight investing $5 million and the community foundations anteing up an additional $4.1 million for various local news and information projects.

The community foundations’ support runs the gamut from a $488,500 grant from the San Antonio Area Foundation to improve communications in diverse communities to $90,000 from the Berks County Community Foundation to create online community information hubs.

“With the media landscape in upheaval and old models failing, we need to figure out how to replace them and with what,” said Gary Kebbel, Knight’s journalism program director. “We don’t have the answer for that. … Therefore, we’re looking to the widest variety of people to give us the widest variety of possible solutions.

“What you have is the ability for everybody to commit an act of journalism.”

Topic-Based Grants

As the New Haven Independent has discovered, foundations are increasingly open to funding journalism about topics that reflect their core issues.

When site founder Paul Bass approached The Universal Health Care Foundation, he tapped into its board’s concern that health care “was getting short shrift” in mainstream media, said Kate Gervais, the foundation’s senior development officer. It helped too, she said, that Bass was respected “and his ethics are well known.”

“The topic was oversimplified, so problems seem minimized and solutions seem easy,” Gervais said of health care coverage. “We thought many more people needed to get informed.”

With $185,000 in grants from the foundation, the New Haven Independent has reported many health care stories, including articles on how small businesses navigate the insurance market and why insurers in many states charge women higher premiums for care.

“The fact that we’ve continued to fund them shows how happy we are,” Gervais said.

Promoting more effective state governance was the issue that motivated California’s James Irvine Foundation to give the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley $1.31 million over three years. Most of that funding will support the launch of CIR/California, a Sacramento news bureau that will partner with existing news outlets to produce and disseminate in-depth coverage of state issues.

Amy Dominguez-Arms, Irvine’s California Democracy program director, sees the grant as addressing the “diminished capacity of news organizations to conduct in-depth reporting to illustrate what’s going on in our [state] government.” That fits with the foundation’s California Perspectives mission to improve decision-making on significant state issues.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has anted up an additional $1.2 million for CIR’s Sacramento reporting project.

Investigative Journalism Grants

Indeed, investigative journalism ventures are the leaders in securing grant support. Of the nearly $128 million granted to news and information projects since 2005, more than $56 million has gone to fund three investigative projects, with most of that going to ProPublica ($30.8 million), the Center for Public Integrity ($18.1 million) and the Center for Investigative Reporting ($7.3 million).

Other investigative outlets include three newcomers that launched in 2008-2009 and have found willing funders. They include the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, a Madison-based nonprofit that plans to work with traditional news outlets in the state.

Community-Building Grants

Collaboration with alternative news outlets – local ethnic and community newspapers and Web sites – is what prompted the McKnight Foundation to fund the Twin Cities Daily Planet, a 2005 start-up in Minneapolis and St. Paul.


The Twin Cities Daily Planet launched in 2005 with a $17,000 J-Lab/New Voices grant.

Communication is a huge issue in community organization, said Neal Cuthbert, interim program director for McKnight, which focuses on grants to strengthen Minnesota communities. “There is a pretty long tradition of community newspapers in Minneapolis,” he said. “The Daily Planet seemed like an effective tool.” launched with a $17,000 J-Lab grant to aggregate news from the Twin Cities’ ethnic and community newspapers. The Web site now reports news and information from more than 80 ethnic and community news outlets and neighborhood groups and it has developed a network of contributing bloggers.

McKnight began supporting the site with a $30,000 grant in 2006 and since has provided an additional $105,000. It is one of six funders that have supported the news site with more than $480,000 in grants since it launched.

“It’s one of a cluster of things we do to support neighborhood organizations,” Cuthbert said.

“The whole collapse of journalism as a civic structure, in the marketplace, has been the most concerning thing for us and a lot of folks,” he added. “We’re watching that happen in our community. That’s the scariest thing.”

Cuthbert said foundations miss valuable community-building opportunities when they ignore media projects just because they don’t fit traditional funding silos. A proposal for a news site may straddle a couple of program areas but might not “hit the sweet spot” in either, he said.

In the view of Knight’s Kebbel, new media projects, news and information, and community building are all tied together. “I think it’s harder and harder to disengage news, information and journalism from what we hope result from news, information and journalism – which is, people coming together … to use that news and information to solve problems or to create communities.”

Discretionary Grants

At the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, community information initiatives fall under its discretionary grant-making program.

In a departure from supporting programming for public radio, Joyce has funded three neighborhood news desks run by Chicago Public Radio/WBEZ with $325,000 in grants over three years. The enterprise is designed for “people who don’t feel they have a voice in the community and don’t know what’s going on,” said Charles Boesel, Joyce’s communications director. Providing residents with a platform is one way the foundation makes public policy debates more inclusive, he said.

Without an informed citizenry there is no good policy, Boesel said: “You always [want] the public [to have] access to as much information as possible.”

Innovation Grants

At the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids, Minn., grants director Wade Fauth says funders should embrace innovation in media and not wait for a critical mass of new media start-ups – or for wide cultural acceptance of the new media makers.

Blandin has given a three-year, $225,000 grant to, a Web site led by Joel Kramer, a former editor and publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, even though Fauth labels it a “high risk” project. “It’s an intentional risk-reward assessment,” he said, explaining that fewer than 10 percent of Blandin’s projects are considered risky. “We’re looking for coverage that’s going to help leaders grapple with fundamental economic, educational and civic issues across the board.”

In New York, Ruth Ann Harnisch, president of The Harnisch Foundation, has given grants for pioneering news initiatives as well as for journalism centers. “Right now, what I’m interested in funding is the kind of journalism that helps produce responsible citizens and a healthy society,” she said.

As the head of a small family foundation, she’s comfortable funding journalism start-ups. One of her grants has gone to Representative Journalism, a crowd-sourced and community-financed project for Northfield, Minn.

“Every foundation that cares about democracy owes something to help create new information systems,” Harnisch said.

“This is not a cycle, it’s a reset,” she said of the evolving media environment. “And it’s your opportunity to be part of creating a free-flowing connection of important information that will help citizens make intelligent, informed decisions about our individual and collective future.”

Harnisch echoes Knight’s Ibargüen. Bottom line, what most interests him, he said, is this: “What is going to be the next way that we as citizens inform ourselves?”

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