Since its founding in 2019 by Elizabeth Green and John Thornton (founders of Chalkbeat and The Texas Tribune, respectively), the American Journalism Project has awarded $55.3 million in grants to 44 partner organizations across 33 states. Launched with a $20 million, 5-year commitment from John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with additional support from Arnold Ventures, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, philanthropist Christopher Buck, Emerson Collective, and the Facebook Journalism Project, the Democracy Fund, and Erin and John Thornton, AJP has also launched four nonprofit news startups in areas severely affected by the disappearance of local news. With five years now under its belt, I sat down with AJP CEO Sarabeth Berman to talk about the wins and losses in the epic quest to build healthy information ecosystems in the U.S.—and what more needs to be done. 

Nina Sachdev, Director of Communications, Media Impact Funders: Let’s talk about your approach to building the future of local news. For the people reading this who might not yet be funding journalism at the local level, how would you describe what you do? What does it mean to be a venture philanthropy, and why might that be unique to journalism?

Sarabeth Berman, Chief Executive Officer, American Journalism Project

Sarabeth Berman: The American Journalism Project was established because of clear evidence that the market failure in local news is undermining the strength of our democracy and the health of communities. We believe that local news should be sustained as a public good, in the same way that we sustain other civic institutions that weave our society together. 

We are laser-focused on accelerating the growth and resiliency of the nonprofit local news sector. Our aim is to build future-proof models for local news. We do this by making grants to nonprofit news organizations, partnering with communities to launch new organizations, and coaching leaders as they grow and sustain their newsrooms. We focus on four areas to drive impact in the local news field: through providing growth investments and venture support; building partnerships with local funders to identify and address information gaps in communities; by launching new local news initiatives with local coalitions of funders; and by accelerating the progress of outstanding entrepreneurs through our local news incubator.

As the first venture philanthropy dedicated to local news, we provide our grantees with tailored support based on their needs and biggest strategic challenges; beyond making transformative capital investments, we also give our grantees significant capacity building and coaching support. Our venture support model is focused on helping our grantees advance key areas of expertise: growth planning, revenue generation, talent and hiring, and finance and operations. Last year, we also expanded this support to include audience development and product support, including the exploration of ways artificial intelligence can support local news.

Nina: One question I hear from funders who aren’t yet supporting journalism is how, exactly, they should go about doing it—especially for community foundations that might only have a small amount of discretionary funding. Should I pursue policy approaches to sustainability, such as Ad Boost? Should I fund my local paper? Should I fund fellowships? As an organization that conducts ecosystem research, invests in existing newsrooms and also helps build new ones, what advice would you give to a local funder who’s trying to understand which approach to pursue and how to start?

Sarabeth: The first thing I’d say is: we’re thrilled you are interested! As Timothy Snyder, Yale professor and author of “On Tyranny” has said, this is “the essential problem of our republic.” We need as many hands on deck, and philanthropy is an important part of the solution. I’d then suggest you start with understanding the information needs of your community, learning what journalistic resources still exist, and discovering where the gaps are. 

Our local philanthropy partnerships team works regularly with local funders, including community foundations, to do this: we work with civic leaders, place-based funders and news organizations to identify and address information gaps in communities. This team also designs solutions to address local information gaps by fostering collaboration, facilitating investments in existing local outlets, and in some markets, launching new startup nonprofit newsrooms through our Startups Studio.

Through this program, we conduct extensive market research on local trends and demographics, and assess the current state of local news, including through comprehensive community listening. By 2023, we heard from nearly 5,000 residents in eight local markets about their experience with journalism in their communities, and the kinds of local information that would be most useful to them. Across these markets, several key themes have emerged: people want the full stories of their communities to be told, they want a shared, trusted source of facts, and they want newsrooms to play a role in connecting and convening communities.

Nina: Relatedly, since activating local philanthropy is one important part of your work—especially if you’ve targeted a market that’s prime for the creation of a new newsroom—what is the clearest, most effective way to make the case for funding journalism?

Sarabeth: This is not abstract: political scientists have now measured the degree to which the hollowing out of daily newspapers has had profound consequences for the decline in local civic engagement. Americans have become less knowledgeable about their local governments, less interested in the actions of their local officials and less likely to participate on election day.

Many local funders care deeply about issues affecting their communities: criminal justice, climate issues, education, strong workforces – but without a reliable base of news and information, we stand no chance of mounting serious, informed responses to these challenges.

In addition to making the case for why local news matters, funders need to believe there are viable solutions to the local news crisis. It’s thrilling to see more and more successful and differentiated models — like VTDigger, Oaklandside and Berkeleyside, Deep South Today, and Outlier Media — that are growing their organizations and doing important journalism that is having an impact on communities. Showing the path to the solution is as much a part of activating philanthropy as explaining the scale of the problem.

Nina: Well … maybe we should address the $500 million elephant in the room. When you think about the work of AJP and the intended work of Press Forward, how are you making the distinction between what you’re doing and what they intend to do? Are they competitors or potential collaborators?

Sarabeth: We are absolutely collaborators. We applaud the funders that are part of the Press Forward coalition’s significant investment into the field. Over the last 5 years, it’s been thrilling to see the philanthropic community become more alert to the need to prioritize local news, and Press Forward is emblematic of that progress.

To your question about distinction: Press Forward is a donor collaborative, most of the funding is what they called “aligned;” meaning funders are making a commitment to give to local news from their own budgets and decision-making processes. Different funders in the collaborative will have different approaches to their work: for instance, some funders may be working on legal strategies for local news, or others may be focused on health-related reporting, all within the broad and important priorities they’ve outlined.  Many of our funders are also part of Press Forward, and their commitments to the American Journalism Project or our grantees could be part of their “aligned” commitment to Press Forward. American Journalism Project’s funding partners are investing in our strategy and approach and our results to-date

There are promising local models to accelerate, and there’s momentum to build up local news in communities across the country. We see huge potential to capitalize on this moment to increase the pace of progress. 

Nina: As you mark your 5th anniversary, I’m curious about the challenges you’ve encountered and how you’re addressing them.

Sarabeth: We see clear signs of hope: we’ve raised $170 million, including $60 million from local funders to support local news initiatives in their communities, and have a grantee portfolio of 44 local news organizations across 33 states. They are growing, diversifying their revenue and doing great journalism. I think about the challenges and opportunities across the areas: building awareness, strengthening presence and advancing knowledge.  

In terms of awareness: in the last five years, there has been an increased understanding of the scale of the local news problem, alongside an increase in philanthropic support for the field. However, the dominant narrative of the “media apocalypse” is still pervasive, rather than an emphasis on the generational shift in how we finance and sustain local news that is underway, or on the models that are working and that have the potential to grow and endure.

In terms of presence: The number of nonprofit local news organizations has grown tremendously — according to the Institute for Nonprofit News, local news outlets made up about one-fourth of its membership in 2017; now, 46 percent of its 425+ members are local in scope. But recent research shows that there are still 205 counties without local news, and 1,562 with only one local news source. We still need more journalists in the field, and we need the number of communities and audiences served to grow.

And finally, in terms of the knowledge we have about the solutions: In the time we’ve been operating, we’ve also gained more clarity and understanding on the types of organizational models that work well, and have many examples of nonprofit news organizations that are excelling. However, we still have areas to build more knowledge; as we focus on helping successful local news startups become enduring organizations, and develop tools for effectively sustaining local news in low-income or rural communities, we’ll also focus on smart ways to scale those learnings broadly.

Nina: I’m going to ask you the same question I asked one of AJP’s founders, Elizabeth Green, in a Q&A when AJP launched in 2019. This is a question about the demand side of news that I don’t think we talk about enough. For many people, it’s hard to remember what a vibrant local news environment looks like. How do you think a lack of news has affected individuals and communities? Do you fear that people have gotten comfortable with being disconnected?

Sarabeth: Through our community listening work, we’ve heard from thousands of people in markets across the country. It’s clear to us that people do want more local news; people recognize that without local news, they don’t know what’s happening in their communities. They want to see themselves in the news, in the newsroom, and they want information they can act on.

We don’t fear that people have gotten comfortable with being disconnected, but we do know that it’s vital to find ways to stitch communities together. Local news is one way to foster connection across communities, by ensuring that people have access to the information that matters most to their daily lives. 

Nina: Not to be a Debbie Downer, but I’ve heard the phrase “save local news” so much that it’s starting to lose its meaning. When will we know if and when we’ve saved it? How are you defining it? 

Sarabeth: Conventional wisdom is that the problem is too big to solve. We disagree. Our best estimate is that local journalism can be sustained as a public good for $1-3 billion annually, and other estimates in the sector support this. The reason why this number is so heartening is…it’s not very much! To put it in perspective, philanthropy spends $2.5 billion annually on the performing arts.

As far as when we’ll know we’ve succeeded, I think it’s important we take the long-view here (a luxury that philanthropic capital has!). It took a generation for local news to unravel, and it will take a generation to rebuild it but we’ve outlined a clear vision: that by 2040, 20 years after we’ve started this work, an independent, resilient, and ubiquitous civic press will represent, inform, and engage every member of the diverse public it serves. 

Nina: How are you measuring the success of your investments, and of your grantees? What do you see as the biggest impact AJP has had in the last 5 years?

Sarabeth: To date, we’ve built a grantee portfolio of 44 organizations across 33 states; the organizations in our portfolio represent a diversity of business models, stages, editorial approaches, geographies and leadership. It’s been a really thrilling five years: we’ve found incredible leadership across the country to support, who are doing important work in their communities; our portfolio is growing, diversifying its revenue, and adding journalists to the field.

We measure success by evaluating areas we’ve identified as the conditions necessary for the success of nonprofit local news organizations. We examine if the grantees can raise and deploy catalytic funding to grow and sustain a diverse set of revenue streams; if our grantees are building strong organizations with the talent, culture, strategy and systems to endure; and if they’re meeting local information needs and strengthening their communities.
The data we’ve shared from our first cohort of 11 grantees is encouraging; they saw inspiring growth across different revenue streams. Over three years, they grew their combined revenue by $15 million, resulting in a 4.9x return on our investments. We set a goal for each organization in this cohort to see a 3-to-1 return on our grant, meaning that their incoming revenue apart from our financial support would be three times our initial annual investment. The results we saw exceeded our expectations. Additionally, together, this cohort of grantees saw a 2.8x increase in membership revenue, 2.4x increase in foundation revenue, 2.2x increase in earned revenue and 1.3x increase in major gifts revenue.

Nina: In looking ahead, what are the key priorities and initiatives that AJP is focusing on in the coming years?

Sarabeth: Moving forward, we have a huge opportunity to accelerate the progress underway, ensure the organizations that have emerged are resilient, and replicate the models that are working. A key focus for us will be ensuring nonprofit local news is expanding into more and more communities and that we are building the learnings infrastructure necessary for the field to flourish.

About the Author
Nina Sachdev

Nina Sachdev

Director of Communications

Nina Sachdev brings more than 20 years of journalism, news editing and marketing experience to her role as a communications director for Media Impact Funders (MIF). Nina served as MIF’s communications director for more than five years before joining the Rita Allen Foundation to lead communications there. After a brief stint, Nina re-joined MIF in February 2022. Nina cut her teeth in journalism at The Dallas Morning News, where—as an intern on the copy desk—she was tasked with editing the obituaries of famous people who hadn’t yet died. Since then, Nina has worked at The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, The Philadelphia Daily News and The Philadelphia Weekly in almost every editorial capacity imaginable, including senior editor, A1 editor (when that used to be a thing) and slot (does anyone remember that being a thing?). Nina is the creator and editor of the award-winning The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse, which exposes the reality of healing from the effects of sexual abuse. Nina holds an M.A. in journalism from Temple University. She lives in Philadelphia with her family.