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May 27, 2020

4 ways funders can support local news in COVID-19

Sarah Alvarez of Outlier Media shares her model of service journalism at the Knight Media Forum in 2019.
Sarah Alvarez of Outlier Media shares her model of service journalism at the Knight Media Forum in 2019.

By Khaetlyn Grindell

Like grocery store workers, delivery drivers, custodians, and nurses, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal how local reporters are frontline workers who provide an essential community service. Whether it’s combating the spread of misinformation, relaying announcements from local government leaders, or letting residents know how to access relief services, local journalism makes communities safer, stronger, and more informed

States and localities across the country recognize the necessity of reliable information for local communities, which is why reporters are exempt from many stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders. After all, people tend to trust local news, viewing local reporters as more caring and unbiased compared to national media. It’s clear that in times of uncertainty when communities need trustworthy local news the most, local reporters are best positioned to provide it

The essential work of local journalists — the creation and dissemination of reliable news across the country — is nothing less than critical infrastructure that keeps communities informed, connected, and resilient, especially in times of crisis. Funders, similarly, have essential roles to play to ensure that our democracy and our communities are responsive to issues year-round. It’s up to grantmakers everywhere, of every size, to see what must be done right now and in the months to come.

So how can funders support community newsrooms and local journalists providing this essential service? Inspired by how some funders are already responding, here’s how your organization can consider getting started:

Not sure where to start? Ask. 

Funders who are unfamiliar with what it looks like to support journalism can find inspiration in the efforts of The Center for Community Media, which is surveying local media with a brief questionnaire about the work and needs of local newsrooms right now. This short survey has given them a clearer picture of exactly what kind of support these kinds of organizations might need, which might range from increasing individual subscriptions or donations, establishing new advertising relationships among organizations, involving them in messaging around COVID relief, or even just speaking up for them on social media.

Surveys aren’t the only tool, however; you may need to take a broader approach to ensure you’re considering all the voices who should be part of the conversation. Consider this guide to assessing your local news ecosystem for a more holistic approach, or this tipsheet for journalists to identify info needs in their communities. Finding ways to open up a dialogue between local grantmakers and media is a great first step for funders who want to learn more about what roles they can play.

Support local news organizations and collaboratives. 

If reporters are essential frontline workers, the newsrooms, publishers, and platforms that disseminate their information are critical community infrastructure. The Kentucky-based Institute for Rural and Community Issues, for example, has offered to help rural newspapers and print publications pay for printing and postal costs for sample-copies of their papers to distribute to entire communities. The North Carolina Local News Lab Fund has announced it will support newsrooms in the state with general operating (for nonprofits) and project-specific (for for-profits) funds. By supporting collaboratives — see the Center for Cooperative Media’s database for examples — funders have the chance to encourage more impactful journalism than a race by competitors. In times like these, getting the story right and getting it to more people matters more than getting it first. 

Also, maintaining local news infrastructure now ensures accountability and a stronger recovery in the months to come. Following this pandemic, communities will continue to look to local, state, and federal governments for relief and they’ll need dedicated reporters to hold them accountable. The need for both immediate support for newsroom organizations and an eye toward longer term sustainability for the field is what has inspired the creation of NewsMatch. This major end-of-year fundraising campaign and year-round capacity-building program brings together philanthropic partners, industry trainers, and individual donors to raise more than $14 million for local and investigative nonprofit news in five years. The foundation laid by NewsMatch led to more than $1.1 million raised by nonprofit news outlets from readers in three days through the the COVID-19-induced pop-up Giving Tuesday Now fundraising campaign in May.

Bolster the associations that build local community and capacity.

The industry has an opportunity to transform, not just survive, in this moment. And trade associations are often the ones helping to make those changes at scale, drawing on their relationships with communities of practice and the voices they bring to the table. Many may have chapters in your local area. Drawing from the vetted databases and community-building these associations provide, The New York Times published a tool for readers to look up — and support — their local newsrooms, recognizing the collective power of the industry groups. Consider sponsoring one or more of the national and local meetups these associations use to filter and amplify ideas across the industry.

Here are some groups who have had to pivot their national conferences this year and drive the connections and conversation in the industry all year long:

Provide direct aid for freelancers. 

Newsrooms often rely on freelance writers and photographers to fill gaps in coverage, and as more layoffs and furloughs shift the newsroom workforce, that reliance grows stronger and the number of freelancers grows too. Still, many may not have access to the protective equipment they need to do their jobs safely. Further, freelancers who have long supported local outlets may face harsh economic circumstances if, like many workers, they have found other sources of their income have slowed or disappeared completely.

In response to this reality, the New Mexico Local News Fund has established an emergency response fund for journalists, including journalism students. The Colorado Trust commissioned journalists to report on local health inequity during the pandemic, like grocery store workers’ safety and the threat to incarcerated people, which can then be shared in other local outlets. The nonprofit Association of Independents in Radio (AIR), has organized the Freelance Audio Fund to provide emergency relief that prioritizes independent freelance audio professionals and Getty Images announced $40,000 in grants to support photographers documenting the impact of COVID-19 on their communities.

The services that local reporters provide after a crisis begins to subside is just as critical as their work at the peak of an emergency. While national news outlets can only cover so many stories across the country, local news organizations can shine a spotlight on smaller-scale recovery efforts that deserve recognition as well as hold government agencies accountable for the relief their communities are owed. Funders who support newsrooms right now ensure there are dedicated reporters during the recovery who are invested in accountability for the families, schools, and small businesses for all of our communities. 

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