“It’s a Way to Make a Difference.” Behind a Campus Gift to Revitalize a Heartland News Desert


The “Trump Bump” in journalism giving has been driven, in part, by donors motivated by the proliferation of “fake news.”

Yet the existential challenges facing struggling media outlets—declining revenues, changing reader habits, the threat of “vulture capitalists”—haven’t gone away. In fact, increasingly, these challenges are conspiring to create “news deserts”—regions of the country where residents lack a local outlet.

A $6 million gift to the Media School at Indiana University by Michael I. Arnolt aims to address this problem.

The gift, the largest in the history of the century-old journalism program, will launch an independent investigative journalism center in fall 2019, dubbed the Michael I. Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism, and build reporting training and strength in a “heartland news desert,” according to James Shanahan, dean of the Media School at IU's Bloomington campus.

“The decision has been based on the importance of quality journalism as a watchdog of the government, of things social and education, and for the people,” Arnolt told Poynter. “None of this fake news, Trump, Russia, occurred to me as a rationale for doing it.” Rather, he underscored how meticulously reported accountability journalism—“the impact of what we do on everybody’s life”—can help democracy tremendously.

I’ll explore how Arnolt’s gift aims to bring “news deserts” back from the brink in moment. But first, I’d like to briefly delve into his intriguing backstory.

“Skills and Inquisitiveness”

Arnolt has deep roots in the journalism field. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from IU Bloomington in 1967 and spent the first five and a half years of his career as a reporter for the Indiana-based Elkhart Truth. Arnolt received two Indiana Associated Press Media Editors awards for feature and news writing, the latter of which was for an exposé on a rest home investment scam.

“The skills and inquisitiveness I acquired as a reporter/writer have benefited me throughout my professional life,” Arnolt said. “Fairness, accuracy and being thorough in reporting are the canons to which we subscribe.”

Arnolt made his fortune by co-founding Graston Technique, a physical therapy method adopted by clinicians, outpatient clinics, university advanced degree teaching programs and more than 450 amateur and professional sports organizations across the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

While he grew his business, he “never lost my interest in what I call the news game. I felt like I had the privilege and right to critique it and also the right to be the largest defender.”

News Deserts Proliferate

As nonprofit journalism organizations continue to welcome new donors to the fold, we’re beginning to see distinct strategic and operational approaches crystalize across the space.

Unsurprisingly, “creative disruptors” like Knight and social media giants like Facebook and Google are turning to technology to tame the spread of misinformation or help outlets effectively leverage online platforms like YouTube.

On the other end of the spectrum, a more traditional camp has emerged. These donors acknowledge the importance of technology, but primarily view the tried-and-true craft of hard-hitting investigative journalism as the most effective approach to drive revenue, educate the public, and generate compelling content—all key ingredients for re-populating news deserts.

While the NiemanLab argues that there’s little consensus on a universally accepted definition of a news desert, we’ll go with the Columbia Journalism Review’s take for our present purposes: A news desert is a region of the country lacking a daily local news outlet.

The issue has been on funders’ radars for quite some time. Back in 2015, for instance, Knight gave $3 million to the University of North Carolina to identify local communities that are at risk for becoming news deserts due to threats like shrinking ad revenues and ongoing media consolidation.

Civic-minded donors like Knight argued that news deserts are bad because, to quote Gar Alperovitz, author, political economist and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative, “as civic health fades, local economies suffer. Large enterprises take over politics and city funding; other programs lose out.”

The problem has reached epidemic proportions. According to Poynter, coverage of at least 900 communities across the nation has gone dry since 2004, preliminary new data shows. What’s more, recent evidence suggests that the seemingly “local” problem of news deserts can have profound national implications.

Filling the “News Vacuum”

As local outlets wither away, national outlets step in to fill what Vox calls a “new vacuum.” Consequently, consumers rely exclusively on national outlets like CNN or Fox News for their news.

This vacuum, Vox argues, also makes citizens more susceptible to misinformation, since, as recent evidence suggests, “fake news,” by design, affirms and reinforces previously held perceptions and political affiliations. Trusted local media outlets normally provide a counterweight to the nationalized narrative while acting as a check against fake news. But in news deserts, trusted local media outlets no longer exist.

To see this phenomenon play out in the practical sense, a Politico study found that Donald Trump outperformed Mitt Romney in areas “without robust local media” and underperformed in areas with heavier circulation. The results, according to Politico, “gives new force to the widely voiced concerns of news-industry professionals and academicians about Trump’s ability to make bold assertions about crime rates, unemployment and other verifiable facts without any independent checks.”

Now, at this point, it’s important to reiterate that issues like Trump, Russia, and fake news had nothing to do with Arnolt’s gift. That being said, few funding issues exist in a vacuum. I expect other civic-minded funders will find the link, however casual, between proliferating news deserts and the spread of fake news concerning enough to warrant further investigation. In recent years, as we’ve reported, most philanthropic support for nonprofit journalism has flowed to national media organizations. Local outlets have often struggled to raise money. A study published earlier this year by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and Northeastern University found that between 2010 and 2015, only $80.1 million—or about 5 percent of the $1.8 billion total—went to support state and local news nonprofits, despite widespread alarm about the demise of media at this level. And much of that funding came from just a few sources.

Related: "Elites Supporting Elites." What's Wrong (and Right) With Foundation Support of Journalism

The new Michael I. Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism will conduct multimedia investigative reporting on issues of importance to the residents of Indiana, including issues that reach beyond the state's borders. The center's work will also be available at no cost to local, regional and national news outlets.

By turning to a tried-and-true university journalism program to strengthen the field, Arnolt’s gift resembles Scripps-Howard Foundation’s recent $3 million in commitment to launch investigative reporting centers at Arizona State University and the University of Maryland, as well as Newmark’s give to CUNY.

Arnolt's gift counts toward the $3 billion campaign, For All: The Indiana University Bicentennial Campaign. A portion of the donation will be matched.

“I am very proud to be a part of the center,” Arnolt said. “It's a way to make a difference.”