Local News Blues: Big Philanthropy Is Infuriating Local News Publishers

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The Knight Media Forum fanned the flames of discontent this week. (Photo by Aron Sousa)

How out of touch can they be?

By Alice Dreger

Just when you thought big philanthropy couldn’t piss off local news publishers any more than they already have, the Knight Media Forum happened in Miami this week.

The KMF has always been a towel-slapping, country club locker room with waiters coming by to offer bacon-wrapped shrimp, but this year was particularly troubling. As local news publishers are desperately trying to keep from laying off staff and closing up shop, representatives of the Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and their joint Press Forward venture got up on stage to assure the world they’re going to save us.

“We are in it with you, and together we will crack the code of sustainability,” said Maribel Pérez Wadsworth, the president of the Knight Foundation. You know, the Knight Foundation – the behemoth sitting comfortably on a multi-billion-dollar endowment.

Psst, Maribel! Look under your seat!

But no. Big philanthropy isn’t interested in bending over to engage in direct-giving with the poor sops who are actually producing and delivering news. Heaven forbid they write big checks to nonprofit local news outlets and trust them to know how best to spend funds in the service of their community’s reporting needs.

Instead, it became clear in Miami this week, while a few (chiefly BIPOC) darlings are going to keep getting actual cash to pay reporters, editors, and marketers, the rest will be “supported” with widgets, apps, and bots. It’s no coincidence the metaphor being used for survival is “cracking the code,” as if we’re going to code our way out of this mess.

Did you hear about the latest “investment” scheme? Millions are going into AI that will make it possible to feed in a press release and get out a bot-composed “news” article that threads together the press release’s claims with quotes from a couple of national “experts.” Uh huh.

AI has awesome local editorial judgment! And you can totally see how this will help with all the things they always tell us local journalism is most important for: keeping governments transparent and accountable; independent reporting that informs voters; connecting voiceless community members to resources they need. Wait, you can’t see it?

Acknowledging that this has all made her paranoid, Nancy West of InDepthNH wondered to me whether this is ultimately just a scheme for feeding us like nutritional supplements to the AI army of bots that will be taking over “news.”

Nevertheless, Jim Brady of Knight has apparently convinced his posse that fancy tech is what’s going to keep us alive. So, they push Newspack for websites and BlueLena for marketing and they think that’s the kind of “shared resources” we need. Never mind that what we really need is free and fast help with basic necessities: HR including payroll management; bookkeeping and accounting; graphic design and data analysis; website, server, and archive maintenance and updates; donation databasing.

“Newspack, BlueLena – that is what they are selling to Press Forward,” said one local news publisher we’re not naming in the hopes his operation might eventually get some actual cash out of the beKnighted.

“Issues abound [with these ‘fixes’]: they don’t deliver, their fees are exhaustive, they trap you into dependency. If you go with Newspack or BlueLena, you are committing to their proprietary software.” Try leaving.

“But most of all,” he concluded, “they turn around, sell themselves as providing their service, and then take a good chunk of the money they get in our name to build their own bureaucracies.”

And if the Press Forward people seriously think – as they seem to – that they’re going to mollify unfunded local news publishers by assuring them that big philanthropy is supporting umbrella organizations like INN and LION, they are really out of touch.

In the interviews I’ve been doing with independent local news veterans, I’m hearing them all say the same thing: They see themselves as now being in active competition with INN and LION for big philanthropic dollars, and they’re losing the game.

I’m not surprised that this week’s balloon-adorned announcement that LION’s 2024 “Sustainability Summit” is happening collaboratively with INN and AJP caused many local news providers to decide not to attend.

These local news vets are not being petulant. They’re simply recognizing what’s happening here: INN, LION, AJP, et al. are adding staff with dollars garnered through claims they’re helping us while in fact they’re playing favorites, taking money we could use to produce actual news, and making us jump through hoops for what little money does trickle down.

The whole scene has turned into a case of Chinese water torture. Want to get your $15,000 in NewsMatch money from INN? Take two days you don’t have to fill out the INN Index. Want to get your $20,000 Google News Initiative funds from INN? Sit in endless webinars so you can be told how much Google cares about local news.

These days going to INN for help feels like going to a celebrity dermatologist’s office when you need your cancerous mole removed and you’ve got no insurance. At least we don’t have to sit in the Zoom waiting rooms wearing nothing but a thin hospital gown?

It’s not that none of these programs help. I’ve heard from a number of publishers that the one-on-one sustainability coaching available through LION has provided meaningful aid. And there’s no question that, even at its current small size, NewsMatch helps with our pathetically small operating budgets.

But it’s crazy-making to know that what went down at the KMF this week bodes more money for intermediaries, “helpers,” academics, and gee-whiz tech we don’t need, all so people who aren’t journalists can supposedly figure out how to keep us alive doing the Actual Freaking Work of journalism.

“Philanthropy is not a revenue model,” the needful were told at KMF this week.

That’s for sure.

Alice Dreger is a journalist, historian, and the publisher of Local News Blues. She founded East Lansing Info, a nonprofit digital investigative news service, and ran the operation for about ten years. Read more at the Local News Blues contributors page.

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