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August 13, 2014

The Ann Arbor Chronicle and the Role of Philanthropy

Ann Arbor Chronicle

Photo of Dave Askins and Mary Morgan in 2012 by Michael Andersen
(via Nieman Lab)

Perhaps you heard the news that The Ann Arbor Chronicle announced it was closing its doors on September 2, which is six years to the day that it launched. Husband and wife team Dave Askins and Mary Morgan noted that despite making a living publishing The Chronicle, it consumed “nearly every waking moment” of their lives over the past six years.

It’s a story with familiar details. Any community publisher – any nonprofit leader, for that matter – understands the struggle to avoid burnout and the enduring pressure to make / raise money.

Much of the hand-wringing about the sustainability of news focuses on revenue, but The Chronicle’s decision to stop publishing is an important reminder about tending to our needs as humans too.“I’d like to stop before I am dead, because there’s more I’d like to do in life than add to The Chronicle’s archive,” Askins said in an interview with the Nieman Lab.

When we talk about “sustainability” here on the Local News Lab what we mean by it goes well beyond the business side of operating a news site. If your site makes enough money to pay your bills with some left over, but you are working 14 hour days every day and unable to take vacations, you are not sustainable.

Since reading the announcement, I’ve been pondering the role of philanthropy in supporting community journalism, both for-profit and non-profit, around these issues. What resources, tools and guidance can we offer, particularly given our familiarity with these same persistent issues in the non-profit sector?

In New Jersey, the Dodge Foundation supports the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University (MSU) and its NJ News Commons initiative to provide services and opportunities that address the challenges facing the news ecosystem. As the go-to resource for journalists and news organizations in this state, the Center is positioned to provide workshops, training and peer support on avoiding burnout, succession planning, and a variety of other topics that directly or indirectly contribute to more sustainable journalism. Not everyone has a Center for Cooperative Media to turn to though, so one role for philanthropy is to help establish more of these centers around the country. Admittedly, that’s a big undertaking.

A smaller, but equally valuable role philanthropy can play is simply listening to the needs and challenges of local journalism in our cities and states. By talking to journalists and publishers and gaining a deeper understanding and empathy for their day-to-day realities, those of us in philanthropy can help make connections to resources, whether they are our own resources (money, workshops, expertise) or someone else’s. Dodge, for example, offers capacity building workshops to help NJ non-profits with a range of issues, from executive and board leadership to financial management. Why not offer some of these workshops to for-profit news organizations, which face many of the same issues?

Other opportunities for philanthropy include: supporting training for citizen journalists who are important and valuable partners in the community; helping the community understand and value local journalism while also helping local journalism understand and value the community; and supporting the pipeline of the next generation of community journalists.

In other words, there are many different entry points for the philanthropic sector to support sustainable journalism. The more creative we are, the more impact we can have.

I have one lingering question about The Ann Arbor Chronicle which is whether they considered handing the site over to a successor – and if not, why not? We need more insight into their decision. When the founders of other sites decide they’ve had enough, we want them to have a viable option to hand over the reins to someone who will continue to serve the community. We can’t afford to keep losing valuable sites like The Chronicle.

For those of you thinking about what the end game for your site is, here’s a trusted resource for transition planning. It’s geared to non-profits, but much of the information applies to for-profits as well.