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Rawpixel.com/shutterstock

Recent IP coverage has focused on how a growing number of funders such the MacArthur and Knight foundations, Google, Facebook, the Democracy Fund, and the American Journalism Project all believe that vibrant local news represents democracy’s best hope against misinformation and the erosion of trust. In Philadelphia, a new funder supporting “community-led media” is also taking up this challenge.

The story begins in 2016, when the Federal Communications Commission commenced its first-ever “incentive auction” designed to “realign” the use of broadcast airwaves for in-demand video and broadband services to lay the groundwork for 5G wireless services. Outlets relinquished their broadcast licenses in exchange for “additional revenues that they can invest into programming and services to the communities they serve.”

Independence Public Media, the organization that operated WYBE Channel 35 in the Philadelphia market received a one-time payment of $131.5 million in exchange for relinquishing its license. In June of 2017, its board decided that the organization would invest the funds in a permanent endowment and transition to a philanthropic foundation, the Independence Public Media Foundation.

The launch of the foundation is an interesting case study because we’re seeing, in real-time, how to construct a journalism-focused foundation with a $5-6 million annual grantmaking budget from scratch. What should its mission be? Where should it direct its grantmaking? How can it measure progress? Answers to these questions can tell us a lot about the state of journalism funding, whose players, as frequently noted, often have difficulty reaching consensus around some of the sector’s big-ticket challenges.

A Seamless Transition

IPM’s board hired outside consultants to guide the development of the foundation’s strategic framework. It discovered that Independence Public Media had already established a powerful brand and a strong connection with the Philadelphia market. WYBE welcomed and represented low-income people, women, and people of color as staff, curators, and audiences, and their stories formed the core of WYBE’s content.

Individuals interviewed by the consultants expressed hope that IPM would continue its work in “seeking out and supporting new voices, engaging with under-represented audiences and communities, exploring new uses and forms of media, and supporting new work in experimental forms.” Stakeholders and the board ultimately came up with the following mission statement:

The Independence Public Media Foundation funds and supports media and related programs that strengthen and connect diverse voices and foster greater understanding across communities in Greater Philadelphia.

The foundation’s four goals are to ensure that community media organizations have the tools to collaborate, provide residents with opportunities to master digital media skills, support Philadelphia media organizations so that they serve and reflect the region’s diverse demographics, and position the city as a hotbed for creative media makers.

The framework also links “anticipated three-year results” with each goal. For the latter goal, for instance, the framework calls for the creation of “specific grant making program(s) developed and implemented to benefit individual makers and the organizations they rely on for support for production, travel and research, distribution, or audience engagement.”

In February, IPM named Molly de Aguiar, the former managing director of the News Integrity Initiative (INN) at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at City University of New York, as its president. “IPMF has a truly extraordinary opportunity to invest deeply in creative, community-led media,” said de Aguiar. “Grant making for news, information and storytelling can lift up unheard voices, help build resilient communities and shift public understanding of the positive narratives to be found in every corner of the region. I am excited to lead the foundation in a city I love and to honor WYBE’s original vision.”

Inaugural Grantmaking Cycle

Earlier this month, the foundation announced its inaugural round of grantmaking, totaling $5.3 million to 11 organizations.

Support went to established institutional players like WHYY ($250,000), the Philadelphia region’s largest public media provider, to expand its work with freelancers and reporters from racially and ethnically diverse media outlets, and Temple University’s Klein College of Media & Communication ($850,000) to strengthen two journalism projects in nearby Germantown and Kensington.

Smaller organizations were big winners as well. These included the city’s Digital Literacy Alliance ($500,000) to provide grants to local immigrant-servicing organizations for digital literacy training and the Bread & Roses Community Fund ($800,000) to support “grassroots media and media making across the region.” As we’ve previously reported, Bread & Roses is unusual for the way it’s embraced participatory grantmaking, putting community members in the funding driver’s seat.

Recipients also included the African American Museum of Philadelphia ($300,000) for the upgrade and reinstallation of the museum’s exhibition Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia 1776–1876, Doc Society, Inc., ($307,500) to expand its Good Pitch Local Philly program, which connects social justice filmmakers with members of the community, and Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition ($250,000) to help immigrants and refugees tell and share their stories.

By supporting museums, filmmakers, and social services organizations, IPM clearly believes there are other ways to “connect diverse voices and foster greater understanding across communities” than solely funding conventional journalism outlets. This expansive approach resembles Knight’s Communities program work, which aims to attract and nurture talent, enhance opportunity, and foster civic engagement in the cities it serves, including Philadelphia.

The grant cycle also finds IPM addressing a timely challenge facing journalism funders—how to support established institutions while also nurturing promising start-ups and smaller organizations embedded in communities of color.

A January piece by Monash University’s Bill Birnbauer in The Conversation laid out the scope of this challenge. Birnbauer found that the vast majority of the $469.5 million that 60 digital nonprofit news media websites raised between 2009 and 2015 supported the 20 biggest outlets, while the 20 smallest squeaked by on just $8.6 million. If smaller organizations can’t secure sufficient support from foundations and wealthy philanthropists, Birnhauer writes, “nonprofit journalism will not reach its potential, no matter how valuable its coverage, nor will it abate the spread of ‘news deserts’ across the United States.”

Causes for Optimism

Despite the pervasive doom-and-gloom surrounding the fate of local news, developments in Philadelphia offer grounds for cautious optimism. IPM is joining a robust journalism funding ecosystem in the city. The big player here is the Lenfest Institute of Journalism, whose primary focus is developing sustainable business models for Philadelphia’s journalism outlets. IPM awarded the Lenfest Institute $1.3 million in its inaugural round to further the institute’s efforts by supporting cultural competency training, professional development, entrepreneurial skills, and other competencies for journalists and managers of color at local outlets.

Last year, the Knight Foundation announced it would match a $10 million contribution from the Lenfest Institute to create a Philadelphia-based local news accelerator that will “position Philadelphia as a testing ground for journalism innovation by supporting new business models and new digital acumen throughout the Philadelphia news marketplace.” The institute’s presence should help IPM in its efforts to “position the city as a hotbed for creative media makers.”

Second, the foundation’s president, Molly de Aguiar, comes to the job with an impressive resume, particularly given her role as the former managing director of the INN. The initiative launched in 2017 with the goal of “helping people make informed judgments about the news they read and share online.” Funders included Facebook, the Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund, Ford Foundation, Democracy Fund, the Knight Foundation, the Tow Foundation, and others.

Later that year, de Aguair presented a roadmap for the project moving forward. The initiative narrowed its focus to supporting activities that, among other things, “build enduring trust and mutual respect between newsrooms and the public through sustained listening, collaboration and transparency” and “demonstrate ways to improve community conversations and increase understanding and empathy among opposing viewpoints and experiences.”

In other words, de Aguair helped develop one of the key ideas that’s increasingly driving the journalism philanthrosphere: Trust must be earned, and the best way for grantmakers to build it is by supporting organizations, both within and outside the journalism sector, closely aligned with the diverse communities they serve. IPM infused this idea throughout its inaugural round of grantmaking.

“Our work is just beginning,” de Aguiar said upon announcing the foundation’s first cycle. “We look forward to learning from local leaders and organizations who understand the transformative power of media and media making to improve people’s lives.”

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