Thursday, May 23, 2019

Local foundations back $660K rural journalism collaborative in Mountain West, where Facebook rules the news

As lower advertising revenues force cuts in local news media, philanthropists are showing increasing interest in funding local journalism. "But media philanthropy, like most everything else about media, is still largely centered on the coasts and in major metropolitan area," Christine Schmidt reports for Harvard University's Nieman Lab. "A handful of local foundations (along with Report for America and Solutions Journalism Network) are now upping their commitment for a journalism collaboration across the Mountain West . . . especially on rural issues and Native American stories."

The group has committed $660,000 for a one-year initiative to expand SJN's local engagement training in newsrooms and hire seven journalists funded by Report for America. The collaboration began with a 2015 survey LOR and SJN conducted of Mountain West residents; only 20% of respondents deemed local news "consistently relevant and valuable," Schmidt reports. Nearly 80% "said they found most of their local news on Facebook; others named friends and even tavern hearsay as more useful sources than the local newspaper or TV station."

In 2016 LOR and SJN launched a pilot with seven New Mexico and Colorado newsrooms, and in 2017 shifted and expanded to 12 newsrooms each in New Mexico and Montana. The groups partnered with 50 newsrooms, but found there weren't enough reporters for in-depth local coverage. Other foundations got involved, culminating in this year's $660,000 commitment, Schmidt reports.

Some of the foundations are local, which SJN president Keith Hammonds says bodes well for the project and similar efforts. "I think it’s incredibly important that local and regional foundations see the importance of local media as part of the infrastructure of civic life in their communities and also see the indelible importance, the relationship between high quality local reporting and the rest of civic life they are funding," Hammonds told Schmidt. "Whatever a foundation’s local interests are, it cannot advance without the free flow of quality info that keeps businesses informed engaged and activated. I think that that piece of this may be the most critical of all."

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