No one disputes the need for more—and better—news coverage that helps us make sense of an increasingly complex world. We need local angles on national news, better statehouse reporting, and more explainers and in-depth coverage of local communities.
That’s why Lumina Foundation and 21 other donors formed Press Forward, an extraordinary $500 million-plus, five-year campaign for vibrant communities and a more robust democracy through better local news and information.
Lumina has pledged $10 million toward the Indiana Local News Initiative, enhanced local coverage of higher education and workforce issues, and additional newsroom resources. The American Journalism Project is incubating the Indiana effort, which includes Capital B, Public News Service, Franklin College’s The Statehouse File, and several colleges and universities.
We joined Press Forward as a national organization focused on helping more adults complete education and training after high school. Supporting local news isn’t our mission. However, ensuring public awareness and understanding of the myriad challenges facing college students today is the bedrock of our programmatic and policy efforts. For this reason, we support Press Forward to help attract national, regional, and local funders who do not yet fund local news.
Staggering declines in local news coverage are not just a U.S. concern. The Ditchley Foundation, a UK-registered charity building common ground for addressing societal changes, is exploring The New Fourth Estate. And at a democracy summit hosted by More Perfect and the McChrystal Group, participants argued for leveraging local charitable dollars, suggesting that other donors could double Press Forward’s initial $500 million. This money could support local matching funds to encourage donations, revenue teams in nonprofit newsrooms, strategic grantmaking that draws upon place-based foundations and encourages major gifts, and patient capital for newsrooms to take calculated risks, leading to better models for local news.
The steep decline of the newspaper business model has left news deserts in one-fifth of U.S. communities. The resulting lack of relevant, dependable reporting disempowers residents who want a say in local decisions, gives public officials unchecked power, and creates opportunities for misinformation to fuel political division and undermine thoughtful public policy. These effects are particularly acute in communities of color, low-income neighborhoods, and rural areas—all with stark consequences for Lumina and other foundations.
Over the past two decades, Lumina has supported independent reporting on colleges and job training to help people grasp the significance of earning college degrees and workforce credentials. Much of this journalism has centered on adults from low-income households, people who are Black, Hispanic/Latinx, or Native American, and students who are the first in their families to attend college. These individuals mostly attend community colleges, regional public universities, and minority-serving institutions such as historically Black colleges and universities.
Here’s what such coverage looks like:
- The Hechinger Report found that many public flagship universities don’t enroll students who reflect the racial diversity of high school graduates in their states.
- GBH News and Hechinger reported that colleges were withholding transcripts from millions of people over small debts, preventing them from confirming or continuing their education.
- Chalkbeat explored the challenges Hispanic/Latino men in Colorado encounter and how state officials, colleges, and advocates are trying to improve opportunities among the ethnic group least likely to enroll.
Without reporting like this, most coverage would distort public perceptions of who goes to college and leave unsaid how colleges must adapt to support them. The focus would instead be on elite universities with sizable endowments. Lumina’s grants and technical advice have helped reporters and producers highlight topics affecting older college students, who often care for relatives, work full-time, or experience housing, transportation, and childcare challenges—even difficulty affording groceries.
In Indiana, where most of Lumina’s staff lives, newspapers have disappeared or become ghost ships. Some communities never had enough original reporting. However, Indiana is already feeling the initial support from foundations and major donors for more local news and information. This fall, a new Indianapolis newsroom will add to local coverage and coordinate statewide partnerships, including a Documenters Network that pays residents to summarize happenings at government and school board meetings.
Public News Service has hired two journalists to produce a daily radio news roundup that smaller stations around Indiana air free of charge. The Statehouse File dropped its paywall for public policy coverage. Capital B hired two newsroom leaders for its new Gary operation. More recently, Lumina agreed to fund a higher education reporter through Open Campus.
To support efforts like this, Press Forward will work to persuade institutional philanthropy that independent journalism is essential to the success of their programs and initiatives. Press Forward will invest in communities that have been ignored in the past by philanthropy and local journalism. Lumina’s participation has included speaking with community-based funders about how local news can extend their effectiveness—and how to back news organizations while preserving their editorial freedom.
Philanthropy won’t be the answer to what ails local news, but the Press Forward coalition can lead. Researchers have found that areas with less coverage have fewer people running for office and voting, less public meeting participation, more costly (and corrupt) local governments, and a diminished sense of community and place.
More local news, informed by new and differing perspectives, can help foster the resolve to improve child welfare, housing, local government, public health, and public schools. It’s impossible to address problems people aren’t even aware of. For instance, a 2019 Pew Research survey found that 70 percent of Americans believed local news outlets were doing well financially.
News and information should be available in ways that enable everyone, regardless of background, education level, household income, or profession, to influence what happens. People should know how to join community groups, volunteer and give to charity, join public meetings and vote, and come to the aid of neighbors. They need a sense of confidence that things can change—that they can make a real difference. Press Forward is a start.
This article was originally published in Philanthropy News Digest.