By Lindsay Green-Barber | Founder & CEO, Impact Architects

In 2013, the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy, and local media organizations struggled to stay afloat. In this turmoil, residents did not have access to high-quality journalism to meet their information needs, and the strain on journalism organizations made it difficult for them to make financial investment necessary for long-term investigative and accountability reporting. In response to the situation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funded the creation of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC)—a collaborative reporting project that includes Detroit Public Television (DPTV), Detroit Public Radio (WDET), Michigan Radio, New Michigan Media, the Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine, and Chalkbeat Detroit—to report on “the city’s future after bankruptcy with stories that have never been told before—on-air, online and in the community.”

From 2013 to 2017, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan (CFSEM)—which, at the time, did not fund journalism—observed the DJC’s reporting in Detroit and recognized the value of innovative journalism in the community. So, in an effort to contribute to the work, in 2017 CFSEM established the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, in partnership with the Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

The first round of $322,000 in grants was completed in December 2017 and included six projects with 13 southeast Michigan organizations. And, beyond funding organizations and projects, the fund supports regular workshops and convenings of media partners. The goal of CFSEM’s network building initiatives is to support a strong journalism community in Detroit to exchange best practices and learn about other successful journalism and engagement models that might be replicated in Detroit.

“The Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund attempts to reconcile the need for greater equity in news coverage, diversity in newsrooms, and engagement between journalists and their audiences to build trust,” said Lenzi Abma, CFSEM program officer. “The Fund widens the circle of media coverage by supporting partnerships between DJC members and other community or smaller media organizations, while also supporting some newer media organizations that are trying to innovative ways of reaching Detroit’s citizens and making sure their voices are heard.”

The Detroit Journalism Cooperative and the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund initiatives are still both quite young, and while there is evidence of a strengthened local ecosystem and examples of phenomenal, innovative journalism happening (see Outlier Media, WDET and City Bureau, Riverwise, Tostada Magazine, and more), it will take time to understand the full impact of these initiatives. The success for the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund will be determined in the long term by how much more equitable Detroit’s news coverage is of its residents, especially in elevating community members’ voices through new tools and platforms, and the working relationships between and among media outlets through co-reporting and cross publishing.

But, in the short term, Abma says that CFSEM has identified at least three key learnings:

Trust, relationships, and mutual understanding are necessary for successful media partnership.
CFSEM based its engagement fund strategy on a journalism landscape scan they commissioned, conducted by Debra Adams Simmons, a veteran journalist with a history in Detroit. The scan identified media outlets, coverage areas, audiences, and gaps in information.

“The scan was important because it helped us in figuring out the key issues, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to equitable, representative, trustworthy journalists,” Abma says. With this information, CFSEM could then determine where their resources would have the most impact on the ecosystem, leading to the development of the Engagement Fund to support innovative media organizations experimenting with new forms of community engagement, such as Outlier Media’s use of SMS and City Bureau’s documenter’s program. Abma said the inclusive scan process also helped to build trust among the journalism organizations with which they wanted to work.

Create space for connection and collaboration.

Second, Abma says: “The foundation has learned the value “of simply making space for journalists and news organizations that otherwise would not cross paths to connect and collaborate. One of my favorite examples is Riverwise Magazine and Tostada Magazine, two newer journalism outlets with different focuses and audiences […]. They have now collaborated to produce a story [about community food and culture] following the Allied Media Conference. One month they were meeting and talking about it, and the next it happened!”

Engaged journalism has an impact, but the change happens long-term.

For CFSEM, success for the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund will be determined in the long term by how much more equitable Detroit’s news coverage is of its residents, especially in elevating community members’ voices through new tools and platforms, and the working relationships between and among media outlets through co-reporting and cross publishing. To that end, CFSEM hosts monthly cohort meetings to encourage knowledge sharing and build relationships. “We hope that building this forum for knowledge sharing might result in more creative solutions to bigger issues, like how common technology is used in uncommon ways to improve and fill the gaps of the region’s journalism landscape,” Abma said. And, while this is a long-term strategic plan, she says that “already, the midterm reports of the first round of grants show exciting activity.”

CFSEM had the benefit of observing and learning from the Detroit Journalism Cooperative before developing a full-fledged journalism initiative. And there are ways for other place-based and community foundations to take first, small steps toward supporting local news and information ecosystems without having to make a big bet.

NewsMatch: Creating incentives for local news

For place-based and community foundations not ready to create full-fledged journalism initiatives, NewsMatch is an innovative program that provides a pathway to support trustworthy, ethical, high-impact local news and investigative reporting, while also creating an incentive for residents to donate to vetted news organizations producing quality information.

In 2016, the Knight Foundation created NewsMatch as a the low-risk, light-touch “national matching-gift campaign to grow fundraising capacity in nonprofit newsrooms and promote giving to journalism among U.S. donors.” In the first year, the Knight Foundation matched $1.2 million in donations to 57 newsrooms. And, in 2017, NewsMatch raised over $4.8 million for 109 participating newsrooms, including $3 million in funding from Knight, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Democracy Fund. In 2018, NewsMatch has continued to pool funds from national and local funders to match small-dollar donations to nonprofit newsrooms across the US, and the number of participating news organizations has increased to more than 150 in 45 states.

The continued goal of the NewsMatch program is to create dual incentives for local news nonprofits to engage with their communities, and for residents to support this journalism, financially. Josh Stearns, director of public square at Democracy Fund says, “NewsMatch gives [funders] a simple and streamlined way to support newsrooms at scale beyond the regions where we are focused.”

And, while NewsMatch has been successful in engaging local residents to support local media, the Knight Foundation and other partners see continued opportunity for place-based and community foundations to join NewsMatch. NewsMatch helps these foundations choose to support local nonprofit journalism for the simple reason of increasing the amount of and access to high-quality information in local communities or decide to support topically specific journalism that is in line with other programmatic goals, such as education, indigenous communities, or race and culture. And rather than add place-based and community foundations donations to the general funding pool, these funds will be used to match donations to their nonprofit news organization(s) of choice, on top of the NewsMatch general match. So, for news organizations being supported by place-based and community foundations, every donation is essentially tripled.

As commercial and nonprofit news organizations alike continue to experiment with new revenue models to support their journalistic endeavors, consensus is emerging that, at the end of the day, any solution will involve individuals paying for an information product—or relationship—they trust and value. In the meantime, there is opportunity, and perhaps even a responsibility, for place-based and community foundations to help support local news in order to meet community information needs.

Lindsay Green-Barber is a consultant with Media Impact Funders.

In September 2018, Media Impact Funders received a $200,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to identify and expand the number of community foundations, place-based foundations and other funders interested in supporting local news and information. Interested in talking with us? Let us know.