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April 6, 2020

Fund local news like the critical infrastructure it is, and start now

This post by Lizzy Hazeltine, North Carolina Local News Lab Fund coordinator, was originally posted at Medium. It has been republished here with permission.

Dogwoods bloom during the second week of the COVID-19 crisis in North Carolina. Photo by Hazeltine.

As we think about what we need in North Carolina to get through the coronavirus crisis, individually and collectively, we need to include our local news providers in our thinking and our immediate relief efforts. These organizations are critical infrastructure for healthy communities. Their lives and business have been upended even as our need for their service intensifies.

Craig SilvermanBuzzFeed’s media reporter, outlined in a piece in March that “while journalists may be performing an essential business, the business of journalism is facing an extinction-level threat.” Based on cratering local ad revenue, he surmises that the pandemic may be worse for the availability of local news than the 2008 recession.

And that’s awful news for us.

A growing body of research confirms that quality, accessible local news helps prevent corruption, encourage voting, running for office and volunteering, and shore up a sense of belonging, as rounded up by our partners at Democracy Fund and substantiated by Phil Napoli and Jessica Mahone’s research at Duke University’s Dewitt Wallace Center.

Funding news organizations is an essential part of the immediate response to the challenges that we face, both in this acute moment and the ones which will follow. Knowing what we’re up against is essential to each of us making thoughtful decisions. That’s why the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund at the North Carolina Community Foundation and our partners fund news like the infrastructure it is, like the service it provides. This moment calls for more investment in news because we need them to inform us during this pandemic and on the other side of it.

Right now, we’re supporting organizations and people who are covering a pandemic on the local level while facing danger of financial disaster themselves. In deploying just shy of $1 million since 2017, we’ve seen exactly how precarious the sustainability of news organizations are across the state.

A look at the Mountain Express’s or The Independent Weekly’s layoffs confirms that tanking ad sales are already kneecapping publications who rely on event and entertainment dollars to fund their reporting. Smaller publications across the state are sharpening their pencils, and Gannett announced rolling furloughs for staff this week that impact a dozen newsrooms across the state. And yet they’re all still publishing COVID-19 news for free or in front of their paywalls.

Others are reconstructing North Carolina’s public square in our now-socially distanced world. UNC-TV broadcasts and streams the specifics of endlessly updated restrictions and state-level briefings. The News & Observer turns dense public records into readable stories with a clear application for the reader’s life. NC Health News distills public health recommendations and case counts while asking questions informed by decades in healthcare. WUNC launched a call-in storyline and a daily podcast to answer questions and share the latest. Carolina Public Press shuffled their teams to launch a nimble new on-demand investigative unit. Enlace Latino NC ensures our Spanish-speaking neighbors have the same reliable information. Others update lists of where we can get take out to support local restaurants and provide explainers on who qualifies under newly loosened unemployment criteria hundreds of furloughed and laid-off workers, some of whom are journalists themselves.

We have a new challenge and renewed urgency. We’re looking for more partners to join us in funding reliable, accessible reporting for North Carolina residents in and beyond this crisis. With the North Carolina Community Foundation, Prentice Foundation, Educational Foundation of America, and Democracy Fund, we are ready to support a connected, sustainable, resilient news ecosystem that serves all North Carolina residents.

What’s more valuable now than reliable information? Simple: reliable information for the long term.

Here are four ways you can support local news right now:

  1. Give general operating support or other funding to local news organizations or buy COVID-19 related PSA space if you’re a funder or control grant money.
  2. Give to NC Local News Lab Fund or join our pooled fund: my email address is lizzy@localnewslab.org.
  3. Advocate for the inclusion of local news in future small business relief and non-profit support.
  4. Subscribe to your local news organization and give to public media and non-profit news organizations.

In the meantime, we’ll continue our grantmaking, programs, and sharing resources for newsrooms in the weekly NC Local newsletter.

Lizzy Hazeltine is the Fund Coordinator for the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund at the North Carolina Community Foundation. She also coaches teams in the Knight-Lenfest Table Stakes program at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media and consults on revenue and audience growth topics in news and beyond.

About the Fund:

The North Carolina Local News Lab Fund was established at the North Carolina Community Foundation in 2017 by a group of local and national funders who believe in the power of local journalism, local stories, and local people to strengthen our democracy. The mission of the fund is to ensure that all North Carolinians have access to the news and information they need to make their communities thrive.

The fund pursues that mission with an ecosystem strategy that combines grantmaking with programming to build resilience and sustainability in the news and information network while encouraging deep service to local communities. The model also seeks to advance the effectiveness of philanthropy in this sector by aligning grantmaking with the pooled fund and creating opportunities for funders to learn about the importance of local news and information for vibrant civic life.