A nonpartisan group of 22 foundations today announced the launch of Press Forward, a nationwide coalition committing more than $500 million over five years to help reinvigorate local news in America.
Local news, including the once-thriving newspaper business, has been in decline for at least two decades. Since 2005, over 2,200 American newspapers have closed, and one-in-five Americans live in a news desert with no reliable, independent coverage of local government, schools, or current events.
Into this void have stepped an array of forces that threaten to destroy not only high-quality local journalism, but the American democracy that it supports. Just last week, The Washington Post reported that the world’s largest digital information providers including Meta, Google, and X, formerly known as Twitter, “are easing standards on political untruths, fueling fears about the 2024 election.”
Press Forward today announced a coordinated effort to help address this problem at scale with four stated grantmaking priorities. The initiative will invest directly in individual newsrooms that are trusted and valued by local communities, but also support business and enabling technology solutions that help multiple news enterprises at once. Press Forward will seek to advance public policies that expand access to local news and civic information, and it will place a premium on addressing longstanding inequities in how local news is covered and by whom.
With close to two dozen funders — including The Lenfest Institute for Journalism of which I am CEO — Press Forward is by far the largest coordinated philanthropic effort to support local news. It is especially encouraging that many of the organizations are new to supporting the journalism field. Several told me that this is their first foray into journalism funding; their capital is intended to help ensure a healthy American democracy secured by a strong, independent local press.
The launch of Press Forward is both worth celebrating and keeping in perspective. A half-billion dollars for local news sounds like a lot of money, but it is not — at least not relative to the scope of the problem or the powerful forces arrayed against independent journalism. If wisely deployed, however, the new funding will have a multiplier effect, attracting meaningful additional dollars to the cause of local news, and building solutions that scale.
The creation of what is now called “Press Forward” was a marathon not a sprint, and we are better off for having run the race. The earliest discussions took place at The Lenfest Institute and Aspen Digital Local News Summit in Oceanside, CA, in March 2022, followed by a key funder meeting in Miami prior to the most recent Knight Media Forum. We revisited the topic in an open forum among both funders and prospective grantees at our Summit in Nashville earlier this year. Media Impact Funders convened San Francisco a meeting that built added traction and inclusivity later in the spring.
Auspiciously, one key gathering took place in January of 2023 at Sunnylands, the former Palm Springs home of Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper mogul Walter Annenberg, including roughly two dozen current and prospective journalism funders and practitioners, led by MacArthur Foundation President John Palfrey. The process both exposed and helped address meaningful rifts within the world of local journalism philanthropy:
A “Roadmap for Local News” was published to provoke conversation in advance of this gathering. The “Roadmap” was widely read and widely critiqued:
Ken Doctor, who owns and operates a promising for-profit local news start-up called Lookout Local, headquartered in Santa Cruz, California, argued that the roadmap was too narrow, largely excluding for-profit media that make up the vast majority of the local news business and much of its future promise.
In a similar spirit, but with a different solution set, Rebuild Local News CEO Steven Waldman made the case for public policy interventions to transform the economics of legacy local news organizations rather than abandon them.
To some, Sunnylands was noteworthy for who wasn’t there. Tracie Powell, CEO of The Pivot Fund, called the news philanthropy field out for lack of inclusivity.
These conversations have been extraordinarily healthy for our field. In the end, the Sunnylands gathering agreed to move forward under a “Big Tent,” with room for a broad and diverse array of business models, communities served, and approaches to deploying capital. This spirit is reflected deeply in Press Forward’s target investment themes announced today.
Now to fill the big tent with big money. Today’s announcement is the result of a nearly year-long whistle-stop tour to attract new funding to local journalism. Led by the MacArthur Foundation, The Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Democracy Fund, and others, this work had at times the feel of an IPO roadshow. And, of course, the “I” in IPO stands for “initial.” It is vital to recognize that initial funding for Press Forward is exactly that — the first investment tranche of what we all hope and intend to be a much larger ongoing fund raise.
As with any financial investment of scale, we now need to show a demonstrable return or multiplier effect from initial capital deployed. Here are some examples:
Last year, an underfunded public policy coalition created by Steven Waldman called Rebuild Local News led the news industry in advocating for The Local News Sustainability Act, a proposal to provide payroll tax credits to local news organizations for hiring and retaining journalists. The Act, tied to the much larger “Build Back Better” spending bill, came within one Senate vote of delivering $1.7 billion to American local news organizations, according to official estimates. New legislation has now been introduced with bipartisan support at both the state and federal levels with similar if not larger potential financial benefits.
Press Forward explicitly prioritizes funding the support of First Amendment-friendly policy initiatives that help local news. This work could take the form of lobbying, advocacy, or public awareness campaigns in support of new legislation. These kinds of investments could prove one of the coalition’s most productive returns on invested capital.
Building Infrastructure for Scale
Press Forward includes a timely commitment to help fund shared services and enabling technology, a rising tide designed to lift many boats. The Knight Foundation’s Jim Brady, a news executive with a largely commercial career background, talks about philanthropy not picking winners or losers, but investing in local news infrastructure that enables the market to determine success. Press Forward will allow this effort to multiply. For example, Newspack, a content management software package developed on WordPress and now in use by 200 small-to-medium sized newsrooms, could with sufficient philanthropic capital serve 2,000 or more.
Mobilizing Local Press Forward Efforts
Local news is local, and so too should be much of its funding. Today’s announcement includes primarily national funders who wish to support local news. There’s evidence of meaningful upside in tapping into local and regional funders as well. When Chicago Public Media sought to acquire The Chicago Sun-Times, The MacArthur Foundation was the lead investor in a reported $61 million coalition that included 11 funders. The speed and scale with which this capital raise came together was impressive and instructive to other communities in need of local news investment. Imagine if local Press Forward efforts could take root around the country. This is what The Lenfest Institute intends to continue to do in Philadelphia.
Locally funded Press Forward initiatives, supported as well by the resources of the national organization, could be equally vital to efforts in rural and smaller city news markets. There has already been regional funding progress in such markets as New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, the Carolinas, and the Deep South. The recent funding of the National Trust for Local News acquisition of newspapers in Maine is a case in point.
We are eager to continue to grow the Big Tent and invite in new funders, innovators, and entrepreneurs to join the cause to support local journalism — nonprofit, public media, and for-profit — in service of our democracy and communities.
If the Press Forward initiative tops out at $500 million, arguably we will have failed. But the energy, creativity, and spirit of Press Forward so far is almost certain to create a much larger movement.
Update: The passage that explains the development of Press Forward was updated to include more details about the process.