Listen: Apply for Press Forward even if you think your chances are slim.

Here's why.

Listen: Apply for Press Forward even if you think your chances are slim.
Slide from the May 9, 2024, Press Forward informational webinar.

By Alice Dreger

Only 100 newsrooms will be funded at $100,000 each through Press Forward’s current open call. 

But having just watched the video of Press Forward’s May 9 informational event, I’m here to urge you to apply if you meet the most basic criteria: a local newsroom in the U.S. in serious production since at least September 2023 with an operating budget of under $1 million. (Both for-profit and nonprofit news operations are eligible to apply.)

Why am I pushing you even if your chances of being funded in this round are slim? 

Because even if you don’t get the funding from Press Forward, the application process puts your organization’s name and information into a system that is open to loads of funders who may be interested in themselves writing you a check!

Additionally, in connection with the application, you can get an hour of free, truly expert one-on-one coaching – the kind of coaching that could definitely help you hone your pitch to potential funders, potential advertisers, and audience members who might become donors.

Get your name in the JustFund system.

You may have heard of the “common application” for college applications. Well, Press Forward is electing to use a common app system aimed at connecting funders to operations they might want to support.

Press Forward is leaning on the Miami Foundation to manage the grants in this program, and they are accepting applications through a program called Just Fund.

At the May 9 event, Miami Foundation VP Lindsey Linzer explained that, once your application is in the JustFund system, it becomes “visible to hundreds of funders.” Linzer said the purpose of using this system is to “remove barriers” between grant-givers and organizations that need funding. 

Once you put in the information about your organization, it stays in the common app (you can update it whenever), and all kinds of grant-givers can read about your work and decide whether to reach out. Wowza. This means you could quickly increase your visibility to potential funders with just a single application!

[CORRECTION: You don't have to apply to Press Forward to establish a JustFund profile that is visible to funders. Read more here.]

How do you get into the JustFund system? 

First, go to the Press Forward open call site. Click “apply now,” which takes you here. At the bottom of the page, there’s a link to apply to get into Just Fund. 

Be warned, it may take up to 24 hours to be admitted to that system, so get that done now as your first step.

From there, you’ll be able to fill out the JustFund common application. After that, the Press Forward application process will require you to respond to three questions specific to Press Forward. More on those below.

The free coaching is also a big deal.

Press Forward is offering every applicant two half-hour sessions of one-on-one grant-writing coaching by experts in this area. I’ll let this slide from the webinar explain more:

Hurry up and sign up for this Lenfest-based program, because you want to get your coaching in time to use it. Note that Lenfest also offers free self-study learning modules for grant writing.

And seriously, the timeline is tight. Make space to get this done now.

The Press Forward open call application window is open now and closes on June 12. The first information webinar happened on May 9 (watch here), and there will be another on June 3. 

Who will be judging the Press Forward applications?

According to Press Forward Assistant Director Christina Shih, the plan is to use “a diverse panel of subject-matter experts” including people who come out of journalism and people who work for funders.

Shih said at the May 9 event that, in the interest of “evaluating you against your peers,” applications will be grouped into four buckets. First the pool will be split into for-profit and nonprofit. Then those two pools will be split into those operations with budgets under $500,000/year and those between $500,000 and $1,000,000.

How much money are we talking?

The grants are set to come in at $100,000 per organization, distributed over two years ($50,000/year). 

The best part: the money is unrestricted and intended for general operating expenses. In other words, you get to decide how to spend the money – unlike so many grants that want you to do special projects. 

Besides the common app, you’ll be asked to address three basic questions:

What kinds of operations are they looking to fund?

“Press Forward’s first open call is deliberately focusing on bridging gaps in local news coverage,” in Shih’s words. “We will invest in small, local newsrooms that are closing long-standing inequities by producing and providing original reporting to underserved communities.”

Shih gave as examples of “underserved communities” people in rural and/or low-wealth regions, communities of color, and “other groups in your region that are not being served, reached, or represented.” That last category might include, for example, immigrant populations, people living below the poverty line, and so on.

Shih said successful applicants will explain how they are “rising to fill the need” and also “demonstrate an ongoing commitment to editorial excellence, editorial independence, and transparency.”

[NOTE CORRECTION: You don't have to apply to Press Forward to establish a JustFund profile that is visible to funders. Read more here.]

Tell a good story. Resonate. Be memorable.

Over and over again at the May 9 webinar, the message was clear: Funders want to hear stories that move them. So, figure out what stories you can tell that will help the funders visualize what you do and why it matters. Got photos or videos? Even better for helping them visualize your world.

Don’t give an over-complicated pitch, and don’t be bland and nonspecific. Tell a heartfelt story of who you are serving, how you connect with them, and why your work matters.

Here are examples cited at the webinar of “good stories”: one; two; three. (For the last link, specifically read the section about Fresnoland’s reporting leading to a lawsuit.) 

They also want to hear how you’re going to survive.

The executive director of LION showed up at the webinar to push LION’s three pillars of sustainability: operational resilience, financial health, and journalistic impact. I’m telling you this because it’s pretty clear they want you to explain your future survival in those specific terms. So make sure you chant LION’s mantras. 

Same old, same old?

At the national level, Press Forward is looking like a big collaboration of the usual suspects. The May 9 webinar featured helpers from INN, LION, Lenfest, and the Miami Foundation.

If you’ve been around for a couple of years, you'll probably recognize almost all the faces and names. Really, the only new face on the Press Forward national scene is Director Dale Anglin  – of whom many of us have quickly become fans because of her transparent and realistic attitude.

That we’re seeing at Press Forward national’s webinar the same people and organizations we’ve always seen gives us good reason to believe that the folks who have already succeeded with funding through these operations are likely to get more. 

And, while for-profits are eligible for the open call, it’s hard not to imagine that nonprofits are going to be favored in this game, given the players and the history.

But look around you.

Remember that the national mothership is not the only version of Press Forward. On May 9, Anglin said that the campaign is now up to 22 local chapters. If there’s one in your area, push your way to those dinner parties asap. Here’s the map:

And here’s the page that explains who is leading campaigns in those areas.

You can watch the May 9 webinar here.

[CORRECTION: You don't have to apply to Press Forward to establish a JustFund profile that is visible to funders. Read more here.]

Just a reminder that you can find all Local News Blues’ reporting, commentary, and analysis on Press Forward here and you can sign up to get Local News Blues for free here.

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.