The journalism industry has churned out some grim headlines lately, with job cuts at old-school newspaper groups Gannett and McClatchy and layoffs at younger players BuzzFeed and Vice Media. Locally, GateHouse booted more veteran journalists from its empire, and Cape Cod Magazine abruptly closed.
The bad news can feel relentless, one round after another, with disappointing ad sales largely to blame.
But the nonprofit world offers a kind of hope, a way forward through the expanding news deserts.
Take the $300 million announcement on Tuesday from the Knight Foundation. The Miami organization is stepping up its efforts to support local newsgathering efforts in a big way. The Boston beneficiaries: The GroundTruth Project receives $5 million over five years to help pay for reporters’ salaries through its Report for America initiative, and WGBH’s Frontline gets $3 million to establish regional hubs that will work with local newsrooms.
Like the Knight Foundation, GroundTruth is increasing its focus on local journalism. Charlie Sennott launched the nonprofit, which is based at WGBH but run separately, five years ago with international and national reporting on his mind, not local news. But the former Globe reporter spotted an increasing need due to a hollowing out of community journalism. So he teamed up with Steve Waldman to create Report for America.
Think Teach for America, but for reporters. The idea is to send aspiring journalists, at the start of their careers, into existing newsrooms to fill voids in coverage. The initiative started modestly last year, with 13 reporters. This year, it is adding 50 new reporters, alongside 10 returning from last year. The goal is to push that number to 250 in 2020. The Knight gift, GroundTruth’s largest so far, will help make that happen.
These are entry-level jobs, averaging about $40,000 a year in pay. But they’re still in high demand. GroundTruth is vetting nearly 950 applications that came in by the Feb. 8 deadline. In the first year, GroundTruth pays half of the reporter’s salary, with the newsroom and community fund-raising covering the other half.
Sennott and his team recently picked the nearly 40 news outlets around the country that will benefit this year. In New England, GroundTruth will support reporters who cover climate change at Cape Cod NPR station WCAI, state government at the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, and mental health and criminal justice at the Connecticut Mirror.
One reporter might not sound like much. But for a small operation like WCAI, with only one full-time reporter and a few part timers today, that extra journalist provides a critical boost to cover an important issue to many listeners.
Knight Foundation vice president Jennifer Preston says her group was impressed with the Report for America concept in part because it unites young journalists with experienced ones in their respective communities, rather than parachuting them in without much local awareness.
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with the Poynter Institute, says journalism is being buoyed by a new wave of nonprofit assistance as foundations and other philanthropies react to the magnitude of cutbacks in the industry. Some nonprofits are startup ventures that cover the news. (New York-based ProPublica, which also gets funding from the Knight Foundation, is among the most successful of these.) Others try to contribute to traditional for-profit operators. At the Globe, for example, three California organizations help pay for our classical music writer’s work.
The business model for community journalism continues to collapse, as ad revenue shrinks and shifts. More reporters and editors will lose their jobs. But nonprofits such as the Knight Foundation and GroundTruth are doing their part to fill the inevitable gaps, to help ensure people can still make informed decisions about their communities.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.