Why Funders See Bolstering Local News as a Key to Rebuilding Public Trust in the Media

Frances L Fruit/shutterstock

Frances L Fruit/shutterstock

Last month, the Knight Foundation announced that it would double its investment in strengthening local journalism to $300 million over five years to find a “different, collaborative, digital, local way to reliably inform Americans” by supporting national organizations working in partnership on the local level.

Knight went further, imploring individual and institutional funders to join its effort to “rebuild trust in democracy” starting in communities. The foundation timed its announcement to dovetail with February’s Knight Media Forum 2019, the yearly gathering where journalists, techies, and philanthropists explore new ways to strengthen local news.

Knight’s initial investments are in “scalable organizations committed to serving communities at the local level—all of which are seeking additional support.” The organizations, according to Knight’s press release, “are building new business models, strengthening investigative reporting, protecting press freedom, promoting news literacy, and connecting with audiences through civic engagement and technology.”

The idea that local news is democracy’s best hope against misinformation and the erosion of trust in the media and democracy isn’t new. Funders, Knight included, adhered to this belief even before the 2016 election put the issue of trust front and center. But Knight’s commitment is about more than symbolism; it’s about money, and lots of it. The investment represents a huge conceptual stake in the ground from what is arguably journalism’s most influential funder.

The announcement came a few weeks after Facebook’s own $300 million commitment to boost local news. Along with similar efforts like Pierre Omidyar’s Democracy Fund and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Knight’s investment points to a growing consensus across the funding community that a vibrant local news ecosystem is the best option available to “reverse years of declining trust” and “make democracy work,” according to Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation vice president for journalism.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with the details of the Knight announcement.

“It Isn’t Rocket Science”

Knight’s articulation of the larger challenges facing local news outlets should sound familiar.

“Newsrooms across the nation have been decimated by the collapse of traditional business models brought on by the impact of digital technology and social media,” its press release reads, “which have drawn readers and advertisers to other information sources on the internet. As a result, many communities have turned into news deserts, with little or no local reporting.”

“Without revenue, you can’t pay reporters. Without reporters, you can’t develop consistently reliable news reports about what’s happening in your town. Without that reliable news report, you can’t figure out how to run local government. It isn’t rocket science,” said Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation president.

A portion of the funding is being allocated to national organizations working to revive “vigorous, local, investigative reporting and accountability journalism” at the local level, including the American Journalism Project ($20 million), Report for America ($5 million), Frontline PBS ($3 million) and NewsMatch ($1.5 million). 

As part of its work to address the spread of misinformation, Knight is supporting organizations working on issues like news literacy and community engagement. Recipients here include the New Literacy Project ($5 million) and the Solutions Journalism Network ($5 million).

Knight gave $10 million to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to “help local newsrooms defend the First Amendment and hold decision-makers accountable,” and $10 million in support for the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, a partnership with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which established a fund for the digital transformation of local news organizations. 

Knight is also investing an additional $35 million in research to support the creation and expansion of research centers around the United States. This research will study the “changing nature of an informed society in America and will help build an emerging field of study to address pressing questions about the health of an informed society and citizenry in the digital age.”

Let’s Talk About Trust

As noted, Knight’s commitment aims to restore trust in journalism and democracy. But I think it’s important to step back and get a fuller picture of the “trust gap” and the extent to which funders can close it.

Conventional wisdom tells us funder concern about the erosion of “trust” in journalism surged during the run-up to and the aftermath of the 2016 election. Russian agents, bots and the spread of “fake news” on social media contributed to a particularly ugly campaign, while then-candidate Trump’s excoriations of the press (“enemy of the people”) further chipped away at the Fourth Estate’s legitimacy.

Funders sprang into action post-election with the goal of ensuring that the journalism that people consume—particularly on social media—is trustworthy. It’s a somewhat coherent narrative, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, as the public’s trust in “mainstream” outlets has been steadily declining since 1999. That distrust has further hardened within the last 24 months. For instance, two months before the 2016 presidential election, Gallup reported that only 32 percent of respondents had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media. A mere 14 percent of Republicans “expressed trust,” down from 32 percent in 2015.

As to why Americans distrust the media, a 2018 white paper by the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, cited four factors: an unwieldy proliferation of sources; “media disintermediation,” loosely defined as the lack of a reputable gatekeeper to moderate news, particularly on social media; the spread of misinformation and disinformation; and the “blurring of the line between news and opinion.”

To see the latter factor play out in the real world, a January Pew Research Center survey found that 73 percent of Republicans believe that the mainstream media does not understand their views, while 52 percent of all respondents said they thought news organizations don’t do well reporting political issues fairly.

This issue received renewed urgency in mid-February when Lara Logan, the former CBS News foreign correspondent, recently made the rounds, arguing that the mainstream media has an overwhelming bias. In a piece in The Hill titled “Lara Logan Is Right About Media Bias,” Carrie Sheffield, national editor of Accuracy in Media, wrote:

As a former journalist in the Washington press corps, I experienced this qualitatively. Many journalists in the elite Beltway milieu have spent their entire lives in liberal bubbles and do not have personal friends who are conservative. They do not have a deep understanding of conservative thought or our governing philosophy, which in turn leads to liberal bias.

Fair enough, you may say, but what does it have to do with journalism philanthropy? Quite a bit, in fact.

A “Separate Strata of Society”

If we’re to believe the data, it’s difficult to restore trust in the body politic if a large swath of news consumers feel as if the media “does not understand their views.” So are funders making headway on this issue? The answer is complicated.

Funders don’t seem particularly keen on addressing mainstream “media bias” for a whole host of reasons. They obviously lack influence over outlets’ editorial boards. The modern news media is so diffused and chaotic that they probably won’t get much bang for their buck, anyway. Wamar Wilner, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, argues that trying to establish a baseline for what constitutes bias is a fool’s errand.

That said, a recent study found that funders can do a much better job at venturing outside of their “liberal bubbles,” to quote Accuracy in Media’s Sheffield.

A 2018 study by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy and Northeastern University assessed 32,422 grants distributed by foundations supporting journalism and media-related activities between 2010 and 2015. The study found that funders’ priorities frequently reflected a phenomenon the authors described as “elites supporting elites,” with philanthropic dollars remaining within an echo chamber that proved clueless about the heartland trends that produced a Trump presidency. For example, eight of the 10 states (and D.C.) that received the most funding for public media voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

University of California Los Angeles Communication Professor Tim Groeling picked up on this theme, speaking to Wamar Wilner in the Columbia Journalism Review, arguing that “one legitimate concern that people who criticize the bias in the news right now have is… the fact that, increasingly, journalists are not living in [the] communities [they cover] and are from a somewhat separate strata of society.”

As it turns out, though, the public doesn’t view all news outlets equally. An August 2018 Poynter Media Trust Survey found that 76 percent of Americans across the political spectrum have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in their local television news, and 73 percent have confidence in local newspapers. That contrasts with 55 percent trust in national network news, 59 percent in national newspapers and 47 percent in online-only news outlets. The data is on par with the historical high water mark of 72 percent trust in all news media recorded in 1976 by Gallup.

Here, we see the nuances of the trust gap come into sharper focus. If we’re to believe the numbers, Americans don’t trust mainstream outlets. But they do trust their local news.

Poynter’s findings “really underscore that local and national news are different animals; people perceive them differently," said Joy Mayer, director of the Trusting News Project, an initiative that has worked with 53 news outlets to build trust by engaging communities and explaining how news gathering works.

The Logic of Backing Local News

The survey helps to explain why Knight, Facebook, the Democracy Fund and many others are going all-in on local news. They’re investing in trusted outlets with the hope that this trust will have a contagious effect across the body politic. Trust percolates and spreads—to quote Knight’s press release—“from local level up.” Local news also “disinfects corruption,” according to Lindsey Miller, writing on Knight’s blog in 2018.

While the logic of backing local news seems clearer than ever, foundations are still feeling their way forward on this front. In February, Jessica Clark of Dot Connector Studio and Molly de Aguiar, managing director of the News Integrity Initiative—a relatively new outfit funded by some of journalism’s heaviest hitters—laid out some advice for media funders in order to promote more effective and rewarding relationships between funders and grantees.

“Given that the media funding space is fairly new for many foundations, as well as to the nonprofit news organizations sprouting in the aftermath of the industry’s crash, writing grant proposals for journalism projects and outlets can be an exploratory process,” they wrote. “In other words, both funders and grantees are learning the ropes.”

This relative inexperience has real-world impacts on local news outlets. “Because foundations have limited dollars,” they wrote, “they may only provide short-term funding, or emphasize sustainability without fully understanding what that looks like (and what resources are required) for local news and information.” De Aguiar and Clark’s proposals include committing to pay grants within a certain quick timeframe, and more demanding commitments like assigning multi-year grants that would allow media professionals to do their jobs without the constant obsession of the next fundraising round.

Knight, of course, is far from inexperienced in the realm of journalism funding, so it should come as no surprise that Clark and de Aguiar’s suggestions match up quite nicely with the foundation’s five-year, $300 million commitment to support local news.

“We’re not funding one-offs,” Knight’s Ibargüen said. “We’re helping to rebuild a local news ecosystem, reliable and sustainable, and we’re doing it in a way that anyone who cares can participate.”