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Local funders push for investment in local news


Local news outlets and the reporters who work for them are declining sharply, with a Northwestern University study reporting newspapers closing at a rate of 2.5 weekly during 2023, an increase over the previous year, worsening the problem of “news deserts,” such as in small or rural communities with few reliable news sources.

The Northwestern study also reported that philanthropists committed $500 million to support local news organizations last year, while state lawmakers considered measures to address communities in danger of losing independent news reporting. Local journalism is also attracting foundation support, and a new venture in New Mexico aims to support local reporting across the state.

Press Forward New Mexico is an initiative bringing the Thornburg Foundation together with the New Mexico Local News Fund under the Santa Fe Community Foundation, along with the McCune Charitable Foundation and Albuquerque Community Foundation. The partners have set a goal of raising $3 million over five years from local foundations and donors and then seeking a matching grant from the national Press Forward mission, launched last year.

Press Forward’s initial list of chapters, announced last fall, were based in Alaska, Illinois, Minnesota, Kansas and Philadelphia. Last week, it announced new chapters in 11 more states and major cities, including New Mexico along with Colorado, Mississippi, New Jersey, Wyoming, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Lancaster, Penn., San Antonio, Florida’s Miami area and Lexington, Ky.

In a written statement, Thornburg’s executive director, Allan Oliver, said, “We are a big believer in the power of local journalism to be a key watchdog of the government, helping keep elected officials honest and our democracy stronger.”

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Lead funders

Based in Santa Fe, the Thornburg Foundation addresses systemic problems such as water resilience in New Mexico, homelessness throughout the state, sustainable agriculture and reforms in education and governance.

The New Mexico Local News Fund, established in 2018, is a project of the Santa Fe Community Foundation and has offered assistance to newsrooms around the state. Among its projects are fellowship programs placing recent graduates into nine-month full-time reporting positions at newsrooms that apply, with the support of foundations as well as the state Workforce Solutions department. Locally, the Las Cruces Sun-News and Deming Headlight both welcomed Local News Fund fellows to their reporting teams last year.

The program is separate from another nonprofit project, Report for America, that helps pay salaries for emerging journalists who make a two-year commitment to a newsroom accepted by the program, and may or may not be hired on permanently afterward.

The LNF also supports a local news collaborative bringing together local newsrooms, grant programs and matching campaigns and an incubator funding startup news organizations, including one based in Las Cruces: an online news source named Organ Mountain News, whose launch is pending.

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Role of foundations

Public media organizations, organized under the nonprofit model, have frequently received support from foundations and trusts, and the number of nonprofit startups has expanded. Some focus on investigative reporting or covering communities of color while others address gaps in local government reporting. Newsrooms often collaborate to share stories and build local news “ecosystems.”

The expansion of charitable and community foundations’ role in supporting news organizations including for-profit enterprises is a recent and growing development as the state of local news has continued to deteriorate. Allan Oliver, the Thornburg Foundation’s executive director, said Thornburg began its support of local news in 2017, and sees the public interest in journalism in alignment with the foundation’s other areas of concern.

“The vital stories that news organizations can bring to the public critically elevate the public discussion and public understanding,” Oliver told the Bulletin.

The reason it matters for communities, Local News Fund executive director Rashad Mahmood explained, is shown in data: “Without access to high quality local journalism, studies show that voter participation is lower, political polarization is higher, trust in government is lower, people are less informed about important policy issues, city governments have higher borrowing costs, neighbors feel more disconnected from each other, and much more.”

Although LNF programs suggest strategies assisting newsrooms in areas such as distribution of content, boosting revenue and management, he said editorial control remains squarely with the local newsrooms themselves.

Press Forward’s funding decisions are made by a steering committee, Mahmood explained, based on multiple criteria. “We’ll do our best to publicly communicate those criteria to ensure the public and news organizations seeking support will understand the process,” he continued. “Interested members of the public and journalists will play a critical role in shaping Press Forward New Mexico’s work through our advisory committee.”

Oliver added, “We also recognize it is vital for news organizations to maintain their independence. That is why we offer grants to nonprofit news organizations for news projects focused on an issue area, but never for any story.”

Newspapers, news deserts, Thornburg Foundation, funding