As philanthropy looks to triage the limited resources available to address the burgeoning impact of the spread of Covid-19, let’s also see where philanthropy is already paying dividends.

Over the past decade, philanthropy has increased contributions to support journalism, in response to a deep downturn in a news industry marked by the loss of thousands of reporters and the shrinking and shuttering of hundreds of local newspapers. Now, in the face of a growing health crisis, it is becoming increasingly clear that support for local journalism is critical to the health and safety of Americans.

In a crisis, it’s common to call for more contributions to specific areas of need and opportunity. But it’s also important to take stock and recognize the value of philanthropic investments that are paying off now, when people are in desperate need of trusted information.

As each of us remains stuck in our homes, watching nonstop television coverage of the coronavirus crisis, it may not seem like there is a need or a role for philanthropy to fill a gap in coverage.

But with the disease spreading exponentially throughout the nation, more and more people are facing the need for local guidance on how to stay safe and get help if they need it. Local news organizations provide that critical component — and more and more of these outlets are nonprofit organizations that are supported by foundation grants and contributions from both major and everyday donors.

Leading newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as the major television networks, have provided around-the-clock coverage of the growing pandemic for weeks. And they have provided exhaustive attention to every utterance coming out of the White House and the U.S. Congress. But most of the direct provision of lifesaving medical services and governmental guidelines on daily life are coming from the nation’s mayors and governors. So it is equally important that there be a vigorous press functioning at the state and local levels.

Unfortunately, while many major commercial news outlets have thrived in recent years, across the nation hundreds of local newspapers have struggled, and many of them have gone out of business altogether. Just last month, the McClatchy Company, one of America’s largest newspaper chains, including the Miami Herald and the Sacramento Bee, filed for bankruptcy. And the strains on newspaper publishers will only grow more severe in the economic downturn that has quickly taken hold.

Nonprofit News Sources

While it remains true that the economic outlook for the local news industry remains precarious, private giving has helped to establish and preserve essential community information resources.

Public radio has become a growing bulwark of American journalism, with national news from National Public Radio, as well as a vast network of more than 2,200 journalists working in 265 NPR member stations. Relying on a mix of revenues, including contributions from viewers and listeners like you, as well as foundation grants and government contributions, public radio took in about $1.1 billion in revenue in 2018, the most recent year for which figures are available. And with this robust financial support, public radio has been positioned to grow its service as demand increases. In the past month, NPR audience figures have spiked sharply, with daily traffic to npr.org doubling, representing 67 million unique visitors, surpassing the previous high-water mark of 58 million visitors in November 2016.

And just as important, stations are tailoring their coverage to respond to the crisis. In Tacoma, Wash., public-radio station KNKX offers a mix of jazz and blues musical programming along with local and national news. Along with its normal schedule of national NPR programs and daily news reports, KNKX has provided extensive coverage of the disease in the region where Covid-19 first took root in a major way. One aspect of its focus on Covid-19 is a new podcast called Transmission. In a promotional blurb, KNKX says, “As the nation copes with the unfolding coronavirus pandemic, hear what it’s like in the Pacific Northwest, at the vanguard of the Covid-19 outbreak.”

Over the past decade or so, new nonprofit online news organizations have grown up in communities across the country, from leaders like the Texas Tribune with 63 staff members and $10 million in annual revenue to smaller but equally vital news organizations like the Colorado Independent in Denver, MinnPost in Minneapolis, and Public Source in Pittsburgh. All these organizations are members of the Institute for Nonprofit News. And while most of these organizations had substantial start-up support from foundations, online news organizations have gradually diversified their revenue to include more earnings from fees and donations from individuals. Last year, the INN Index, an annual tabulation of data from the organization’s 215 members, revealed that foundation support for its members dipped below 50 percent for the first time since it started keeping track. And most importantly, for the current moment, all of them have created strong streams of coverage of Covid-19.

Preserving For-Profit Journalism

Of course, it’s not just nonprofit news outlets that provide valuable news and information. For-profit newspapers also provide important news content, and many of them are facing an increasingly bleak future, compounded by the economic impact of efforts to slow the spread of Covid-19.

Facing the dire economics of the modern news economy, some innovative grant makers have found creative ways to preserve daily newspapers. In Philadelphia, the late philanthropist and civic leader Gerry Lenfest donated the Philadelphia Inquirer to the community, creating the Lenfest Institute, which runs the newspaper as a public-benefit enterprise owned by a nonprofit holding company operating within the local community foundation. Recently, Paul Huntsman engineered a transition of the Salt Lake Tribune to become a nonprofit organization, operated for the benefit of the community under special nonprofit status granted by the Internal Revenue Service.

And back in the Puget Sound region, the Seattle Times pioneered a partnership with local philanthropists to create a special investigative news fund through the community’s Seattle Foundation. A good and timely example of work enabled by this support system is Project Homeless, an effort to focus coverage on a large and persistent problem facing the region. One manifestation of that initiative is Outsiders, a podcast series that is a collaboration between KNKX and Project Homeless at the Seattle Times.

Covering the Coronavirus

All these efforts may seem like cold comfort to many local newspapers struggling to stay afloat in very rough seas resulting from the economic dislocation from the spread of Covid-19. Across town from the Seattle Times, the biweekly alternative newspaper the Stranger is struggling with a sharp drop in income from advertising and ticket sales, which made up a majority of its revenue. As a result, the Stranger has temporarily eliminated its print edition and laid off a majority of its staff. Fortunately, community support for the for-profit publisher is strong, and almost immediately it received donations from more than 3, 000 readers to help it keep its doors open. But it is still going to be a very challenging time for the publication, even with the generosity of its readership.

Last week, the Facebook Journalism Project, in collaboration with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Local Media Association, announced a special $1 million grant program for coverage of the coronavirus by news organizations in the United States and Canada. Grants of up to $5,000 apiece will go to organizations that focus on at-risk communities and are working to combat misinformation, among other aspects of eligibility.

While Facebook is a relative newcomer to funding journalism, the longtime leader has been the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Over the past decade, the Knight Foundation has provided leadership, both in being the largest single source of support for journalism and in gathering hundreds of foundation leaders, academics, and media professionals to highlight challenges and opportunities in the field. Last year, the foundation announced a $300 million grant commitment over five years in support of local journalism, including $20 million for the American Journalism Project; $5 million for Report for America, to expand the national program to place journalists in underserved newsrooms across the country; and $1.5 million for NewsMatch, an effort to spark donations from individuals through matching gifts to nonprofit news organizations.

National News

Although the impact of philanthropy on journalism may be most pronounced at the local level, there are also extremely important resources at the national level as well.

In periods of great interest in health and health policy, a critical resource is Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent service operated by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. With 60 journalists on its staff, Kaiser Health News is the largest newsroom in the nation focused exclusively on health and health policy. Kaiser Health News stories are available on its own robust news website and also in collaboration with other organizations, including major commercial news outlets, national public broadcasting partners like NPR and PBS, as well as local online news organizations.

Other important national news outlets are also providing valuable Covid-19 coverage, including the PBS investigative powerhouse Frontline and independent nonprofit investigative unit ProPublica.

At Frontline, famous for its long-form video documentaries, the organization last week started a new podcast series Covering Coronavirus, which will augment its documentary reporting with timely dispatches from the front lines of the battle against Covid-19, beginning with a report from Seattle.

And last week, ProPublica produced a story that made quite an impact, with the revelation through intensive financial reporting that North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sold a large portion of his stock portfolio after he learned troubling information about the oncoming spread of the coronavirus and before the stock market collapsed. Perhaps not surprisingly, a couple days later, ProPublica President Richard Tofel tweeted out, “As of midday on the 21st, this month has seen the most traffic ever to ProPublica.”

Taken together, philanthropy’s investment in journalism has provided important accountability reporting, ensuring scrutiny of government officials, as well as critical guidance in life-and-death matters for people in communities across the nation. And the need for continued and increasing support will be only that much greater as the economic impact of the health crisis continues.

About the Author
Vincent Stehle

Vincent Stehle

Executive Director

Before joining Media Impact Funders in 2011 as executive director, Vince was program director for Nonprofit Sector Support at the Surdna Foundation, a family foundation based in New York City. Prior to joining Surdna, Stehle worked for 10 years as a reporter for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where he covered a broad range of issues about the nonprofit sector. Stehle has served as chairperson of Philanthropy New York and on the governing boards of VolunteerMatch and the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN). Currently, he serves on the board of directors of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.