Inside the Knight Foundation's Push to Give Nonprofit Journalism a Boost at a Critical Moment

The Knight Foundation doesn't immediately come to mind as one of the foundations likely to rise in strong opposition to Donald Trump's agenda. It doesn't have an explicit progressive profile and its main funding interests—media, arts and cities—might seem well removed from coming battles over issues like immigration, climate change and healthcare. 

But Knight actually does have a dog in the fight over Trumpism, and in a big way. Defending free speech and the First Amendment are core to its mission, along with ensuring "informed communities." All this ground is likely to be contested under a president-elect who's shown authoritarian tendencies and rose to power with the help of fake news and disinformation. Also, quite apart from who's in the White House, there's been a significant erosion lately in the status of objective reporting along with the very concept of the truth. In hindsight, Knight's historic $60 million gift earlier this year to create a First Amendment Institute at Columbia University was prescient. Now, in rolling out a $1.5 million initiative to support nonprofit news this week, the foundation has shown a readiness to step up quickly to the exigencies of a new moment. 

The idea for the new fund, which will match contributions to nonprofit news groups made through Jan. 19, came in response to the rising concern over fake news, along with a surge of goodwill toward news outlets that’s emerged in the aftermath of the 2016 election. A career spent working under deadline pressure came in handy for Jennifer Preston, vice president for journalism at the Knight Foundation, when she and her team pulled together the grant initiative in about a week. To seize on a fundraising opportunity, and a rare chance to publicize dozens of large and small outlets operating with tight budgets, Preston and the journalism team had to act fast to make their case to the $2.4 billion foundation’s board of trustees. 

“Normally it takes more than a few days to prepare a proposal for the board, I will tell you this. So we were working on newsroom, real-time news speed,” said Preston, who worked for almost 19 years as a journalist at the New York Times before coming to Knight.

Under the resulting Knight News Match, a group of 57 nonprofit news organizations across the country stand to gain up to $25,000 each, plus increased public awareness in a challenging time for the field. 

Similar to the flood of support that has hit nonprofits, newsrooms have seen subscriptions and donations spike following an election cycle that was plagued with misinformation, conspiracy theories, and repeated lies from candidate Trump. There's also been a rising concern over the spread of fake news across social media, which in particular influenced the Knight News Match, according to the foundation.

Knight does point out that the program is not a response to the election of Donald Trump. It's hard to say exactly what's driving individuals to support newsrooms right now—whether a specific desire to hold the incoming administration accountable, to counterbalance the spread of misinformation online, or just a hunger for trustworthy information in uncertain times. But regardless, there seems to be a heightened demand for quality journalism. 

“Many of the folks that we spoke to who are speaking to donors are hearing an appreciation for news organizations that are producing strong reporting and are committed to the values of journalism,” Preston said in an interview.

The timing of the initiative was tight, but in a way, it was perfect. On December 7, the New York Times ran an article about the uptick in donations to nonprofit news outlets, shortly before the Knight journalism team co-hosted its annual conference at Arizona State University called Newsgeist

The staff had an opportunity to talk with some of their journalism grantees about the increased interest, Preston said, prompting her to email a “wild idea” to Knight Foundation President and CEO Alberto Ibargüen. They wanted to propose a matching fund to the trustees at their next meeting—in a few days. But they had a good case for the benefits.

“It would not only give them a push, it would also give us an opportunity to tap into this growing public awareness about the need for great journalism and strong reporting,” Preston said. “It’s not just national nonprofits like ProPublica and the Marshall Project, but we were also hearing from our grantees from San Diego to New Jersey that they were seeing an increase in donations.”

The team, still at the conference, worked with attending grantees to develop the initiative. “We just sat there in the cafeteria and wrote the proposal,” Preston said. Knight’s board, which boasts journalism veterans like Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron, approved the fund. 

One way Knight was able to make the proposal work was by limiting the beneficiaries to organizations they already had relationships with, and providing communications and fundraising support to those that need it. Of course, it helps that the foundation already has an extensive network of journalism grantees large and small, meaning 57 nonprofits are able to benefit. 

The foundation comes from the wealth of sibling newspaper publishers John S. and James L. Knight, and one of its guiding principles is that a well-informed community is essential to a well-functioning democracy. Past initiatives include a fund for micro-grants to several small journalism outlets, making the News Match a natural extension.

That’s one impressive thing about this initiative—it doesn’t just support national nonprofit journalism outfits like ProPublica. There are tons of scrappy local news sites all over the country doing the tireless work of city hall, statehouse and other public interest reporting far from the spotlight. 

This program, Knight staff hope, will make more people aware of the impressive work that is happening at outfits like MinnPost, The Lens in New Orleans, VTDigger in Vermont, or The Voice of San Diego.

Another intended benefit is the building up of a small donor base for nonprofit news. As the digital age has strained media’s advertising business model, the nonprofit approach has seen success, with parallels to a membership-based advocacy or public radio model. A big challenge facing journalism philanthropy, however, is whether it’s sustainable or a good idea for outlets to survive on large foundation grants.

What's really powerful, Preston has found, is a network of supporters not only to fund, but also engage with the work. “Getting support from a national funder like Knight Foundation is really important in the beginning, but what’s really important and what really helps propel success is when the donors come from the community that you’re covering,” she said. 

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