American Journalism Project Boosts Independent Journalism to Bolster Democracy

Apr 01, 2019

Article ImageOn July 1, 1980, the world changed forever and no one noticed. The American Journalism Project aims to change the world again, regaining some of the ground lost to independent, civic journalism when The Columbus Dispatch became the first newspaper to go online, on the CompuServe computer network.

By the turn of the 21st-century publishers and news consumers would go into a full-blown panic about the threat to independent media outlets from the Internet. That panic was still far in the future, however, on March 30, 1980, when Knight News Service suggested that “It’s Not that Farfetched: Electronic Newspapers.”

The American Journalism Project is a venture philanthropy organization trying to boost local journalism and increase the visibility and understanding of civic journalism as a public good.

Jason Alcorn, chief operating officer of the American Journalism Project, explains that the organization was created to serve as a catalyst to support the civic news organizations that our democracy deserves. That may sound like a bold claim, but concern about journalism and its effects on democracy are widespread.

In 2018 British Prime Minister Theresa May addressed the problems facing independent news outlets. While “Good quality journalism provides us with the information and analysis we need to inform our viewpoints and conduct a genuine discussion,” May said, “in recent years, especially in local journalism, we have seen falling circulations, a hollowing-out of local newsrooms and fears for the future sustainability of high-quality journalism.”

Alcorn says that when civic journalism is recognized as a public good and encouraged and supported, those news organizations don’t just survive but thrive, and people are more engaged in the news and in democracy.

"Local news coverage on topics of civic interest is a public good: vital to informed decision-making in a democracy, but no longer supported by the private market,” said Elizabeth Green, CEO, and editor-in-chief of Chalkbeat and Board Chair of the American Journalism Project. “Plenty of journalists are ready to take on this challenge by developing creative new business models in the public interest. What’s been missing is the philanthropic capital to truly support them.”

The American Journalism Project will support new and existing news organizations financially with grants and organizationally with hands-on support. The goal is to improve these news organizations’ sustainability through financial support and modern technology. The goal is to eventually turn these organizations from grant-funded operations into more robust nonprofit organizations, which in turn will improve funding and support for more civic news organizations.

"News at the local level–the shortest distance between the news and the people–is where there is the most opportunity to rebuild the trust that has gone missing from our community dialogue. It’s where the American Journalism Project is focusing its efforts to restore local news availability, promote an expectation of reliability, and experiment both with uses of evolving technology and a range of revenue streams new to digital journalism,” said Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation President, in a statement.

Funding for The American Journalism Project comes from a variety of sources dedicated to building a philanthropic foundation for local news. These sources include community foundations, place-based foundations, institutional funders, and individual donors. Joining Knight Foundation as American Journalism Project lead supporters are: Arnold Ventures, Emerson Collective, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Facebook Journalism Project, and philanthropist Christopher Buck. The Democracy Fund and Erin and John Thornton provided initial seed support in 2018. The Institute for Nonprofit News and News Revenue Hub are providing additional strategic and operational guidance.

The ultimate goal for The American Journalism Project and its funders is to create and support civic news organizations by combining best practices from both news organizations and the nonprofit environment, create widespread support for civic news organizations, and develop a network of funding and hands-on assistance for civic news organizations.

Alcorn says, "We plan to share more about our process and criteria in the next month or so, and we will make our first investments by the end of the year."

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