The Evolving Role Of Citizen-Funded Journalism

May 2, 2019

I’ve been thinking a lot about citizen-funded journalism recently.  Likely, it’s because we’re in the midst of our Spring Fund Drive making the case to our listeners for our public service mission.  

At JPR, we're considering how we can play a constructive role in creating a better informed public and a stronger journalism ecosystem in the region we serve.

But, deeper than that, I’ve been observing momentum within a broader segment of institutions supporting the idea that citizen-funded journalism, stewarded by non-profit organizations, should become a more prominent and important part of our journalism ecosystem.

In February, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced that it would invest $300 million over five years, mostly through grants to non-profit news organizations, to strengthen journalism by focusing on “building the future of local news and information, which are essential for democracy to function.”  In making its announcement, The Knight Foundation laid out its case:  “Newsrooms across the nation have been decimated by the collapse of traditional business models brought on by the impact of digital technology and social media, which have drawn readers and advertisers to other information sources on the internet. As a result, many communities have turned into news deserts, with little or no local reporting … Without revenue, you can’t pay reporters. Without reporters, you can’t develop consistently reliable news reports about what’s happening in your town. Without that reliable news report, you can’t figure out how to run local government.”

A 2018 report called “Funding the News: Foundations and Nonprofit Media” by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and Northeastern University’s School of Journalism put a sharper point on the troubling trends in journalism revealed by the 2016 election: “In most regions of the country, because of the decline of local newspapers, the information needs of voters were frequently not being met. In these communities, people too often lacked a trusted local source of news that could explain, contextualize, and vet conflicting claims and interpretations. Absent quality local sources of news to rely on, it became that much easier for news consumers to turn to their ideologically preferred outlet, whether a cable news network, a talk radio show, an online site, or a fake news story circulated by way of their social media feeds.”  The report provides extensive detail of approximately $1.8 billion in funding awarded to nonprofit organizations by philanthropic foundations between 2010 and 2015 designed to fill gaps in newspaper reporting.

The Institute for Nonprofit News, established in 2009 by journalists from 27 nonpartisan, nonprofit news organizations, now boasts nearly 200 member organizations.  Many of these organizations are dedicated to strengthening the depth of local news in their communities.   Some public radio organizations are also building on their existing citizen-funded news gathering capabilities to create distinct online content news platforms.  Colorado Public Radio recently announced acquiring the Denverite, a member-supported local news website from Spirited Media. And, last year local news sites Gothamist, LAist and DCist were acquired, respectively by public radio organizations WNYC in New York; KPCC in Pasadena; and WAMU in Washington, D.C.

At JPR, we’re considering how we can play a constructive role in creating a better informed public and a stronger journalism ecosystem in the region we serve.  In the coming months we’ll be expanding our newsroom in significant ways, adding a full-time news director and a regional reporter.  Established partnerships with our public radio colleagues in Oregon, California and the Northwest have also matured and are yielding better journalism, including work done by a team of three reporters covering Oregon politics based at Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) and a full-time science/environment reporter based at JPR.  Following our expansion, the JPR newsroom will have the news gathering resources of at least ten professional journalists.

As we embark on our 50th year of service to the region, we look forward to advancing our local, citizen-funded journalism in the near future.  With your continued support, we’ll be able to leverage this new organizational capacity to create deeper journalism and compelling stories that foster better informed and more civically engaged communities.