Joshua Topolsky/shutterstock
Joshua Topolsky/shutterstock

Here in Central California, our local alt-newsweekly, the Monterey County Weekly, has been my go-to source for COVID-19 coverage. I follow its COVID-19 tracker. I forward articles to friends and family members. I turn to it for guidance around what evolving “shelter-in-place” orders entail.

Monterey County mandated the first “shelter-in-place” order on March 18. The same day, the paper’s management announced the company would lay off one-third of its staff. “People in the community rely on us,” publisher Erik Cushman said. “The Weekly will persevere in its journalistic and business mission because the alternative is that people get their information from Facebook and NextDoor, and that is not the remedy from what ails us all.”

The Weekly’s plight reflects a cruel irony facing a news industry that never recovered from the one-two punch of the Great Recession and the punishing effects of the ever-expanding Facebook/Google advertising duopoly. During this time of uncertainty, when social media misinformation can sow further chaos and confusion, citizens need trusted local outlets more than ever. Yet the coronavirus has eviscerated outlets’ revenue streams. Local brick and mortar businesses, the advertising lifeblood of alt-newsweeklies and print dailies, are shuttered. Revenue-generating events evaporated overnight.

Meanwhile, buyers are blocking digital advertisements from showing on content or web pages related to COVID-19. Outlets are providing free COVID-19-related coverage and enjoying record-breaking traffic while simultaneously bleeding cash.

Philanthropy has stepped up by establishing emergency funds for outlets and journalists. But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that the crisis has magnified pre-existing challenges across an already fragile sector. “The revenue model for local news has been broken for a long time,” Report America co-founder Steve Waldman told me. “When COVID-19 struck, the bottom really fell out for some outlets across the country that were hanging by a thread.”

As a result, funders face two critical challenges. First, they must help keep outlets running and journalists working so they can continue to serve communities during this uncertain time. And second, funders need to ensure their support helps outlets create sustainable business models for what will be an incredibly challenging post-COVID-19 era. Let’s look at how some funders have stepped up to provide critical emergency relief.

Facebook Goes Big

The biggest supporter of beleaguered local outlets during this critical period happens to be one of the companies most responsible for the sector’s pre-coronavirus ills.

On March 17, the Facebook Journalism Project announced that it had partnered with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Local Media Association to offer a total of $1 million in grants to local news organizations to cover unexpected costs associated with coronavirus reporting.

Mi-Ai Parrish, the former president and publisher of the Arizona Republic and the Kansas City Star, was unimpressed. “A million dollars from Facebook? Gimme a break,” he told NPR’s David Folkenflik. “I think a million dollars is a lot of money personally, but a million dollars to them? It’s nothing. It’s a drop in the bucket. And it’s not enough to support anything of substance.”

But then, on March 30, Facebook announced a new $100 million investment. A majority of this amount—$75 million—is being funneled to global news organizations through Facebook marketing and ad space Facebook is purchasing to market itself through those outlets. The remaining $25 million will flow to hundreds of local outlets in the form of emergency grant funding through the Facebook Journalism Project. The new initiative is in addition to Facebook’s previous $300 million investment in local news.

Tacitly acknowledging her employer’s role in decimating local news outlets, Campbell Brown, Facebook’s vice president for Global News Partnerships, said, “You can’t uninvent the internet. And we have to adapt. We understand the shift better than most, because we benefited from it. So it is up to us, I think, to help news organizations figure that out, as well.”

Familiar Funders Step Up

The Knight Foundation, which has provided roughly $17 million in emergency support across the 26 communities where it operates, joined the Independence Public Media Foundation (IPMF) and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism in providing support for the $2.5 million Philadelphia COVID-19 Community Information Fund. The fund will support Philadelphia-area media and other community organizations as they work “tirelessly to meet the information needs of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable communities at this time of acute need.”

In Chicago, MacArthur, the McCormick Foundation, Driehaus Foundation, Polk Bros Foundation, Field Foundation, and the Chicago Community Trust established a Chicago COVID-19 Journalism Fund to support the city’s media organizations who provide information about COVID-19 to residents.

The International Women’s Media Foundation’s (IWMF) Journalism Relief Fund supports women-identifying journalists who have faced “significant financial hardship, lost work, were recently laid off or who urgently need assistance to avoid severe, irreversible outcomes.”

Twitter announced that it will donate $1 million equally between two organizations, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the IWMF to advance work specifically related to supporting those reporting on COVID-19. “Journalism is core to our service, and we have a deep and enduring responsibility to protect that work,” said Twitter’s Vijaya Gadde.

Pulitzer Center launched the Coronavirus News Collaboration Challenge to uncover “innovative approaches to reporting on the novel coronavirus crisis using collaboration among journalists and newsrooms across state lines or national borders.” The opportunity is available to all newsroom and independent journalists in the U.S. and abroad. Click here for a list of additional COVID-19 emergency journalism funds.

In early April, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy awarded $2.3 million in grants to 16 news organizations serving communities of color across the country. While Borealis launched the fund last September, its focus has taken on greater urgency since communities of color and other underserved people have been most impacted by the pandemic. “Those communities have the greatest need to quality information—COVID-19 or otherwise,” Program Director Tracie Powell said.

“A Little Can Go a Long Way”

Borealis Philanthopies’ Powell told me that local outlets’ needs are so great that it can be “overwhelming for funders to make a dent.” But even a small amount can have a substantial impact. Powell applauded Facebook’s $25 million investment in direct support, telling me that the emergency fund’s $5,000 payout per local outlet “can pay for one or two freelancers. It gives outlets the hope to keep pushing.”

Report for America’s Waldman offered similar thoughts. Funders don’t need to make “a giant grant to make an immediate impact. A little can go a long way.” For example, for $20,000, a funder can bankroll half the salary of a full-time Report for America reporter covering COVID-19 for a full year.

Echoing a familiar refrain from non-journalism organizations seeking emergency funding, Waldman told me that “flexibility is hugely helpful to local news organizations who are moving fast and responding to on-the-ground needs. So it almost goes without saying that unrestricted/general operating support is the most impactful way you can give.”

In a similar vein, journalists and funders have set up emergency funds for furloughed journalists. Examples include the Journalists Furlough Fund set up by Seattle Times reporter Paige Cornwell and Virginia is For Journalists Relief Fund.

We’re also seeing organizations ramp up information sharing. The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University in New Jersey, in a partnership with NJ Spotlight, is making all of its COVID-19 statewide reporting available for local news organizations to republish. “This should help some smaller sites tremendously, letting them focus entirely on local coverage of the pandemic,” said the center’s Associate Director Joe Amditis.

Meanwhile, NeimanLab’s Sarah Scrie recently reported that outlets are getting creative in their efforts to plug revenue gaps. Outlets are providing free coronavirus coverage while encouraging readers to commit to a paid subscription, while others are partnering with local organizations to provide paid sponsor access.

Calls for Further Action

Funder response comes as news advocates press our representatives in D.C. for something akin to a “Marshall Plan” for the ailing sector.

Craig Aaron, the president and co-CEO of Free Press, an independent, nonprofit advocacy organization, penned a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review calling for a $5 billion stimulus from Congress to stabilize the journalism industry and sustain it over the long term. (On April 8, Democratic senators issued a similar request.)

Aaron calls for funding to “support local journalism in all forms, to hire reporters, editors and producers who will cover COVID-19 and everything that follows… Any nonprofit, public-minded entity doing journalism should be made eligible.” A recovery package “should include at least $2 billion over the next two years to fund newsroom jobs at commercial outlets committed to local coverage. Just $625 million would help retain 25,000 newsroom jobs.” Aaron also calls for “grants to meet civic information needs, create jobs dedicated to newsgathering and community engagement, and prioritize places and populations that the mainstream outlets have never served well.”

Given the fact that American cultural organizations received less than 5% of what they requested from Congress’s $2 trillion aid package, it’s unlikely that Congress will meet all of Aaron’s demands. The good news is that journalism funders stepped up to support many of the kinds of initiatives recommended by Aaron long before COVID-19 hit.

The pressure points across the journalism ecosystem will be even more acute once the crisis subsides, leaving philanthropy, once again, to fill the gap and develop those ever-elusive “sustainable business models” to strengthen all kinds of outlets, whether local dailies, alt-weeklies, or digital-only ventures.

A follow-up post will explore how funders are starting to think about this challenge.

Share with cohorts