As local news ecosystems struggle to attract and retain readers in an era of seemingly limitless digital-based choices, funders are encouraging outlets to better reflect the communities they serve.
The Knight Foundation, for example, has been active in addressing the underrepresentation of minority journalists in newsrooms. A consortium of funders including the News Integrity Initiative, the Democracy Fund and Knight are behind the Community Listening and Engagement Fund, designed to help newsrooms to "listen to and share power with the public before and during reporting."
Developments out of Chicago last month, meanwhile, point to a similar approach, courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
The foundation will invest a total of $2.4 million over three years to launch the Jack Fuller Legacy Initiative. Named after the former Chicago Tribune editor and publisher, the initiative aims to strengthen journalism and media in Chicago by investing in the "production and dissemination of accurate, just, and inclusive news and narratives."
"We wanted to see if we could support and strengthen and connect the journalism ecosystem here," Kathy Im, MacArthur’s director of journalism and media, told the Chicago Tribune. "Where more diverse experience and voices are represented ... you feel like your story, your lived experiences, are accurately represented in the news."
Im hits on a telling point. Media consolidation, funding cuts to existing outlets, and the distant and impersonal management of financial firms have diluted the vitality of local news ecosystems. Smaller outlets reflecting the views of diverse voices need support.
But such support has been in short supply. A recent study from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy on funding trends in nonprofit journalism found that foundations tilted toward established, nationally focused outlets or leading public media stations—a dynamic the study's authors described as "elites supporting elites." Local reporting outfits have struggled for support.
All of which makes MacArthur's Fuller Initiative so important. While the funder clearly has a large national footprint and works globally, as well, it remains deeply committed to its home city, as we've often reported. It's a stalwart funder of the arts in Chicago and has been active lately in tackling a range of local challenges, such as gun violence.
Its new journalism program focuses exclusively on bolstering Chicago's news ecosystem. The inaugural round of funding will go to four organizations: City Bureau ($1 million), Free Spirit Media ($650,000), Chicago Public Media ($650,000) and Field Foundation ($100,000).
"We felt like each of these groups not only embodied the values of the Fuller initiative, but also were at a moment in time where a significant infusion of funds made sense," Im said. To see how this infusion plays out from an operational perspective, let's briefly look at how City Bureau will allocate its $1 million windfall.
City Bureau is a textbook example of a locally focused outlet that is pushing back against an array of forces conspiring against local news. Based in Chicago’s South Side, it launched in 2015 with the mission of bringing journalists and community members together in a collaborative spirit to produce equitable media coverage, encourage civic participation, and hold powerful forces to account.
With five full-time employees and an annual budget of $860,000, City Bureau programs include a paid, 10-week reporting fellowship and a program where community members are trained and paid to cover government meetings.
"What we’re going to do with the money is ... make more room for people of color in journalism and better news and information for communities that have been historically left out of the conversation," said co-founder and editorial director Bettina Chang. "MacArthur's commitment gives us the runway we need to build a strong base of support within our communities," she said.
"All around the edges of Chicago’s journalism and media landscape, we see tremendous creativity and a sense of urgency around how news and narratives need to better represent a wider array of perspectives and voices," Im said.
"Our goal is to connect the dots among these activities and between established and younger media organizations to create a fuller, more connected media ecosystem in Chicago."