Guardian statue in Cleveland, Ohio. Allison Seib/shutterstock

A few years ago, Dale Anglin, the Cleveland Foundation’s vice president for programs, and her colleagues began attending conferences led by the Knight Foundation, focused on how community foundations can support local news.

Participants were asked to name a key priority, and foundation staff selected adult literacy. As Anglin and her team discussed the issue with Knight reps, the connections between that priority and a vibrant journalism ecosystem began to crystalize.

“For the people in our region who could read at the right level, we looked into what kind of information they had access to,” Anglin told me. “Was that information helpful? Could they access it when they needed it?” The answer, in most cases, was no, underscoring the region’s lack of outlets focused on “service journalism,” broadly defined as giving readers practical information to make their lives easier.

Thus began the foundation’s multi-year foray into journalism funding that includes the launch of a new nonprofit newsroom serving the greater Cleveland area. Developed with the American Journalism Project (AJP), Knight and a handful of other funders, the newsroom will provide investigative reporting and service journalism from experienced professionals and citizen-reporters known as Cleveland Documenters. The foundation and its partners have raised $5.8 million for the outlet, which will eventually be part of a larger network of nonprofit newsrooms across the state, dubbed the Ohio Local News Initiative.

Community foundations have emerged as natural allies for local news outlets over the past 18 months, and the Cleveland Foundation, which has $2.8 billion in assets, is an especially instructive case study of a funder growing its footprint to combat misinformation, advance related priorities, and heal the body politic. “Most people are supportive of this endeavor locally not because we are saving local journalism, but because of its contribution to civil society,” Anglin said.

Demand for service journalism

The Cleveland Foundation’s entry into the journalism space coincided with the federal government shutdown in late 2018. “We were looking at our newspapers,” Anglin said, “and there was nothing in them about how to fend for yourself when your checks were not coming to you.”

In other words, the region had a dearth of organizations providing service journalism, which can give readers useful information to make better decisions. Anglin’s observation was prescient. When the pandemic hit two years later, readers were starved for trusted local sources offering information about shelter-in-place orders, testing sites and infection rates. In many cases, news outlets—for-profit and otherwise—stepped up and provided a crucial counterweight to a flurry of bad actors intent on stirring up chaos and misinformation. 

Making the conceptual pivot to local journalism was relatively easy for Anglin. The big challenge involved accessing the requisite expertise to put together a viable and sustainable plan.

An incremental approach

There are many reasons why community foundations have traditionally had a light footprint in the journalism space. These institutions are designed to respond to urgent and unexpected challenges like homelessness, hunger, natural disasters, and, as we witnessed in the past two years or so, pandemics. Leaders are less inclined to allocate finite discretionary dollars to longer-term projects that may or may not pan out (although we have seen more community foundations engaging with climate change).

“You’ve got to convince that community that it’s something that everybody needs,” Anglin said. “And unfortunately, there’s just too much to do.”

Cognizant of its limitations, Cleveland Foundation leaders took an incremental approach, first making grants to small local papers and radio programs, and securing $100,000 from Solutions Journalism Network for the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Network Collaborative.

In the spring of 2020, the foundation began providing support for the Cleveland Documenters program, which recruits, trains and pays residents to document city government meetings. This was during the early stages of COVID, and Anglin wasn’t sure if the program would take off. Instead, 400 people signed up. “People are hungry to understand what’s happening in their community and help their fellow residents,” she said.

The foundation was expanding its journalism portfolio, but Anglin realized that her vision for the region still required a bigger lift. It was at this point that she reached out to reps at the American Journalism Project, whom she met at previous Knight-led conferences. The project, which helps outlets achieve sustainability through a revenue mix of earned income, public funding and philanthropy, has launched three nonprofit newsrooms and supported 26 others since its launch in 2019.

Reflecting on those early deliberations, Anglin said, “It wasn’t as if our staff said, ‘We’re going to do this.’ Instead, we said, ‘We think it’s a need in our region and we can’t fund it alone. Who do we have to convince to make it happen?’” The AJP, which committed an unspecified amount to the newsroom, didn’t need much convincing. The Cleveland Foundation’s board, on the other hand, would be a different story.

Making the case

We now turn to what is arguably the most pressing question facing journalism fundraisers: How do they make the case to decision-makers grappling with a complex set of urgent challenges? In the case of a community foundation, that means convincing both the foundation’s board and donors.

For Anglin, the formula is a mix of data and personalization. “What resonated probably the most is the data that shows when you don’t have proper local journalism, you don’t have the community involvement that you want and need,” she said.

In instances where civic health isn’t a board member or prospect’s top priority, organizations need to modify the pitch based on audience interest. Consider the issue of education. “It turns out at Cleveland, we have literally not one journalist who wakes up every day thinking about education,” Anglin said. “That’s a problem, and that’s one of the things that has attracted a number of our funders locally to this project.”

Anglin’s perspective recalls something that AJP CEO Sarabeth Berman told me last year. “Every philanthropist should invest in local media,” she said. “If you care about the environment, you should give to the media. If you care about healthcare, education and local issues, you should give to the media. We need to show that trusted news is essential to every goal a philanthropist has.”

The Cleveland Foundation approved an unspecified amount of funds for the newsroom in June. A month later, Media Impact Funders published a study examining community foundation support for local news. “While the bulk of giving across many media types is concentrated to just a handful of community foundations,” the report states, “the scope of giving today is an encouraging sign that community foundations are recognizing the importance of supporting media as part of a larger strategy to build and sustain healthy communities.”

Reimagining journalism

The Cleveland newsroom’s revenue model will consist of partnership, subscription and event income, plus philanthropy. More intriguingly, its leadership will work closely with the Cleveland Documenters anchored in the community to guide the editorial agenda. “Any coalition cannot just include journalists,” Anglin said. “It must include residents and people who care about their community.”

Anglin sits on the newsroom’s search committee, which is currently in the process of hiring a CEO and managing editor. After the hires are made, Anglin and her team will focus on keeping the fundraising machinery humming. The foundation will not have a seat on the newsroom’s board. Looking ahead, the AJP’s Berman told the Associated Press that her organization is in talks to establish other newsrooms across the state under the Ohio Local News Initiative banner.

The night before I spoke with Anglin, the AJP and the Cleveland Foundation hosted a community gathering to solicit feedback for the newsroom. It was a big and diverse crowd, featuring Cleveland Documenters, a healthy number of individuals under the age of 35, and parents with children in tow.

Participants talked about what they wanted the newsroom to look like and expressed an enthusiastic desire to contribute. A key theme was reinvention and giving the community a broader voice in shaping the news. “It was wonderful to hear people say, ‘We don’t have to start from where we end it,’” Anglin said. “‘Let’s reimagine what investigative journalism plus service journalism looks like in 2022.’”