Gregory Rodriguez Has a Plan to Reinvent Journalism and Foundations Are Paying Attention

We've written a lot in recent months about the big money going to major nonprofit journalism ventures like First Look, ProPublica, and the Marshall Project. But, of course, there's a lot of interesting nonprofit journalism going on at the local level. And these ventures can find strong philanthropic support, too—often from local funders. 

We were recently reminded of this when Gregory Rodriguez, the Executive Director and Publisher of Zócalo Public Square, won a Stanton Fellowship from the Durfee Foundation. Every year the foundation selects, celebrates, and invests in a handful of people who are making Los Angeles a better place. This year Gregory Rodriguez made the cut because he's working to develop a new form of journalism revolving around "attachment" and "place" in Los Angeles.

Zócalo Public Square is a nonprofit that blends live events with humanities journalism. Rodriguez and his staff organize free public events and conferences, while publishing daily journalism syndicated to over 100 media outlets across the country. Zócalo, which means "public square" in Spanish, hosted 70 events in 11 cities at 27 different venues in 2012, reaching as far as Shanghai and Berlin. Zócalo describes its spirit as broad-minded, accessible, nonpartisan, diverse, and energetic.

Over the years, Rodriguez has been an op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times and written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Time, and The Atlantic. He's also the author of Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America.

The Durfee Foundation decided to invest time and money into Rodriguez because he promises to uncover and develop a new form of journalism in America. According to Rodriguez, L.A.'s cultural landscape is still incredibly segregated despite all of the community organizations, cultural opportunities, and educational resources that exist. His vision is to use journalism to invigorate and integrate the city's public discourse.

Durfee is hardly the first foundation to invest in Rodriguez, and Zócalo has gotten support from a broad array of foundations, including the James Irvine Foundation, the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, the California Community Foundation, and others. Irvine's support adds up to just over $750,000 since 2006. 

One reason that Zócalo can bring in serious money is because its mission is wide enough to do things beyond just reporting, like convening dialogue or undertaking research. And therein lies a lesson for other nonprofit media entrepreneurs: Take a broad approach if you want broad support.