The Knight Foundation said it will invest $300 million in local journalism over the next five years, seeding several programs designed to kick-start an industry decimated by layoffs and newspaper closures over the last 15 years.
The plans, announced Tuesday, will double the amount of spending the foundation started by newspaper publisher brothers John S. and James L. Knight has been making in this area over the past few years.
Among the beneficiaries are the American Journalism Project, which provides grants to local nonprofit news organizations; the investigative site ProPublica; Report for America, a service organization that pays for the hiring of local journalists; and PBS’ “Frontline,” the documentary program that’s making its first foray into local news.
“What this initiative aims to do is really help build a future for local news,” Jennifer Preston, the vice president for journalism at the Knight Foundation, said.
A spate of philanthropic efforts, including a $300 million initiative announced by Facebook last month, has drawn attention to how declining profits and readership has bled local journalism. Nearly 1,800 weekly and daily newspapers have closed since 2004, and the number of working journalists has been cut in half during that period, according to a University of North Carolina study.
Until 2005, Knight had focused much of its journalism philanthropy on education. But it began focusing on helping news organizations weather the technological changes to the industry and, since 2015, has funded more local projects. They include supporting an effort by 17 news organizations in the Philadelphia area for a report on the impact of mass incarceration.
Preston said Knight hoped its commitment would spur other funding sources to join in support of local news.
While PBS’ “Frontline” primarily reports on national and international topics, it frequently works with local journalists to bolster its understanding of issues, Raney Aronson-Rath, the show’s executive producer said. Preston cited the work of New Orleans-based reporters for a story about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
With what is happening in the industry, it’s getting harder to find those knowledgeable journalists, Preston said.
With a $3 million grant from Knight, “Frontline” will hire an editor and reporters in up to five communities to work specifically on agreed-upon topics like housing, education, law enforcement and access to voting. Some of the work may result in a “Frontline” story, but the primary purpose is local reporting on those issues that will appear within the affected communities, Preston said.
Many believe that a breakdown in trust about journalism, for all the time that it is fanned by national politicians, begins at the local level when people realize what they are missing by not having reporters seeking out news and holding officials accountable.
“This is a democracy problem,” Aronson-Rath said.
The American Journalism Project, which is getting $20 million from Knight, is a venture philanthropy firm started by the founders of two successful news sites, the Texas Tribune and Chalkbeat. Their idea is to raise money to start as many similar local journalism projects as they can.
Knight has also supported the Documenters Program, started by the City Bureau in Chicago, where citizens are trained by journalists and dispatched to cover local government meetings. The project is expanding to other cities.
That effort, however, illustrates the challenges faced by philanthropists. Funding specific investigative projects has its worth, but the impact of cutbacks is seen — or, more accurately, not seen — in the thousands of state, city and town government organizations whose meetings are no longer attended by reporters on a regular basis.
Recovering what has been lost by the thousands of journalists no longer on the beat requires fundamental changes in the business of local journalism. Preston said Knight recognizes this and is funding efforts designed to develop more sustainable business models.
“We are at a critical juncture at this moment in time to make these investments at a local level to help rebuild trust in journalism, one community at a time,” Preston said.