Five Months In, Five Observations on Press Forward

Who's winning? Who's waiting? And why?

Five Months In, Five Observations on Press Forward
Chicago, home of the MacArthur Foundation. (Photo by Aron Sousa)

By Alice Dreger

In early September 2023, when the MacArthur Foundation announced Press Forward – a $500 million commitment “to revitalize Local News” – the general response among independent local news publishers seemed to be polite cynicism. 

Local news industry survivors had been through enough to know big philanthropic promises to help rarely amount to much for most of our operations. A few darling ops seem to hit the jackpots over and over while the rest of us scrape by, with many of our organizational leaders working for free. The endowment of the Knight Foundation – a major Press Forward partner – stands at $3 billion, but a lot of us can’t even score invitations to their bacon-wrapped-shrimp events. 

Most of us are the back-row poster children for these foundations’ charity, not the actual recipients. So, when the Press Forward balloons were launched to the sky in early September, no sane local news publishers took off their lifejackets.

Five months later, how’s Press Forward looking? Here are a few observations developed in conversation with colleagues in local news:

1. The number $500,000,000 has a lot of zeroes, but it’s kind of a drop in a bucket for what it’s gonna take.

And by the way, Press Forward has never made clear over how many years this half- billion is supposed cover. Five years? Ten? Truth is, even if it all dropped in one year, it’s not much for an industry so big and in so much trouble.

Of course, MacArthur President John Palfrey believes Press Forward’s financial impact is really going to double, reaching $1 billion, because he expects big and small philanthropists across the nation to step up and also pitch in. (Read his enthusiastic plea in a paywalled Atlantic op-ed.) 

But we’re not seeing signs that’s going to happen, and again, even if it did, it’s not clear how big a difference it will make nationally as the collapse of the traditional journalism economy continues. 

In case you were busy meeting deadlines, here’s your roundup of this past week’s industry headlines: CNN: “The Los Angeles Times plunges into ‘chaos’ as brutal layoffs loom and senior editors call it quits.” Politco: “Over 500 journalists were laid off in January 2024 alone.” The Atlantic: “Is American Journalism Headed Toward an ‘Extinction-Level Event’?”

2. Press Forward was rolled out with claims of having no ideology, but it quickly pivoted to centering BIPOC journalism.

The original Press Forward press release promised the project would remain “independent of ideology,” as if you can give away $500 million without having any politics. (You gotta wonder if these people took any social science classes in college.) Presumably this red, white, and blue rhetoric was offered in the hopes of getting right-of-center philanthropists to join with MacArthur in Press Forward.

Regardless, questions of how the money should be “invested” quickly and inevitably turned overtly political. Just  a couple of weeks after Press Forward became public, a coalition of journalism organizations coalesced and produced a letter “calling on funders of the Press Forward initiative to explicitly prioritize equity in their investments.” 

The coalition included the Asian American Journalists Association, the Indigenous Journalists Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and others. It also included the Online News Association (ONA), which immediately conveyed in this action the message that, in the increasingly stressful scrum, ONA’s leadership would be advocating for some of its members much more aggressively than others.

Notably, the original announcement of Press Forward did state as one of several goals to “close longstanding inequalities in journalism and practice.” The inaugural press release declared, “We must move resources to newsrooms and organizations that are improving diversity of experience and thought along with the availability of accurate and responsive news and information in historically underserved communities and economically challenged news deserts.”

But after the coalition’s letter, MacArthur and its committed Press Forward partners quickly prioritized that goal, assuring would-be critics of Press Forward that the money would absolutely go towards addressing racial inequities.

On November 17, MacArthur President John Palfrey joined Lolly Bowean from the Ford Foundation and Jim Brady from the Knight Foundation at a special webinar for the Press Forward leaders to meet with BIPOC journalism practitioners. Brady told those gathered that the group letter had properly “interrogated” Press Forward’s leadership, compelling them to put BIPOC media and journalists at the center of the project. 

Palfrey “wholeheartedly” agreed at the event with a participant’s suggestion that Press Forward could function as a kind of reparations fund, specifically moving philanthropic dollars from white-majority northern regions – which are, of course, relatively rich in left-leaning philanthropy – to operations serving historically disadvantaged African American communities in the south. In his remarks, Palfrey noted the “massive wealth inequality” in the U.S. that maps to “race and other intersectional dimensions.”

For her part, Bowean alluded to the obvious – that there aren’t enough funds to help everybody, and tough decisions have to be made. She also noted that the idea of funding news operations from marginalized communities led by people from underrepresented backgrounds was something Ford had already been doing for years and would keep doing via Press Forward. So, what did that point reveal? 

3. Press Forward may look like $500 million in new money, but it appears to represent a good deal of rebranding of funds already committed to journalism. 

That said, because of the lack of transparency on the part of Press Forward, it’s extremely hard to tell how much new money we’re really looking at for the industry.

One might assume that all the ado about Press Forward will cause various philanthropies to pivot towards funding local journalism when they would not have done so otherwise. That would be good, assuming they’re not defunding other socially worthy projects. 

But you have to wonder if, with all the highly visible coverage of the collapse of journalism and the need to address racial disparities with serious economic “investment,” we wouldn’t have seen more philanthropies pivot to local news and racial disparities (and combos of the two) even without Press Forward.

You don’t have to be exceptionally perceptive to recognize there’s plenty of reasons to be concerned about historic inequalities and inequities in American journalism. The American white-majority (“mainstream”) press has a long history of contributing to racial oppression.

And centuries of economic racial disparities are now being amplified because white suburban communities have far more resources to rescue local news for themselves compared to others. (See Nikki Usher’s book on this issue.) If the news needs of marginalized communities are not specifically attended to, they’re going to get worse and worse. The loss of local news is not equal across all demographics.

But this leads us to observation #4:

4. Unfortunately, there will be plenty of worthy organizations that don’t benefit from Press Forward except indirectly, because the decision of who to fund seems to be so much based on who knows how to play the game correctly and who knows who

At the November webinar, Palfrey let drop that the MacArthur Foundation – which is located in Chicago – sometimes just writes checks to Chicago-area Black press operations with no applications required. Basically he was telling what we already know: money flows depending on who’s already managed to get “in.”

A month after the webinar, when MacArthur announced who had received the first $48 million from Press Forward, it was more of the same. Many of the groups funded had steady histories of successful funding from journalism philanthropy. As Corinne Colbert of the Athens Independent pointed out, there had been no grant proposal process, not even any guidelines announced. Winners were chosen from already-familiar organizations. 

So far with Press Forward, it looks like a lot of worthy organizations may be left out in the cold, including potentially many BIPOC operations.

By the way, if you’re feeling jealous of the folks being showered with cash, keep in mind the very real danger that news organizations receiving sudden, exceptional funding for general operating expenses will experience a tsunami effect: overwhelmed with the need to suddenly ramp up at the start and then swept under when the funding rolls away in a few years. I don’t see any sign Press Forward is considering setting up endowments for specific operations, an approach that would lead to more predictable funding and less internal administrative stress.

5. Expect to be assured that even your local news op will benefit through “support systems.” But don’t expect that to pan out.

Press Forward just gave $1 million to CatchLight, whose Local Visual Journalism Initiative  “is actively enabling local newsrooms to access the impactful tools of visual journalism, aiming to significantly increase their visual capacity at affordable rates with an eye on long-term sustainability.” The money “will allow CatchLight to aim to serve 90 newsrooms across the United States by 2027.” That’s right, ninety.

And did you catch the recent news that, as part of its commitment to Press Forward, the American Public Media Group will be making “an early-stage investment in Rolli, a minority owned and operated company based in Santa Monica that seeks to reshape the media landscape”? Rolli is intending to “empower journalists with AI newsgathering resources and a database of vetted experts and organizations.” 

Leave aside for the moment the question of whether Rolli’s idea is really going to help independent local news and focus on what these announcements about CatchLight and Rolli indirectly reveal: With Press Forward, we can expect more funding that could go to our general operating expenses to go instead towards operations that will supposedly teach us how to fish. (Brady in particular is convinced that the way to save news is with collaborations and cool new tech.) Never mind that, as one local news publisher who wants to remain anonymous observed to me, we’re being taught how to fish when all the revenue holes are going dry. 

Another example of this idea of “empowering” us by giving tons of money to operations that don’t produce any actual news: When the first $48 million from Press Forward was given out, INN received $3.5 million for NewsMatch to help out nonprofit local news. But do the math. INN has around 400 members. The NewsMatch cap for participating organizations was increased by $2,000 after the Press Forward gift. That only accounts for around $800,000 of the $3.5 million. Where did the rest go? Apparently to INN to support us with more fishing poles.

Or maybe it went to something else. Who knows? Because we’re still living with so little financial transparency from “member” groups like INN and now with even less from Press Forward.

So far, that’s perhaps the most significant thing we’ve learned about Press Forward, as Corinne noted to me: We’re looking at yet another major national initiative about saving journalism run in a way that circumvents the most basic value of journalism – transparency.

Note: This post was corrected on Feb. 9, 2024, to note that CatchLight received $1 million from Press Forward, not $7.5 million as previously stated. The $7.5 million total funding also includes money from the Knight Foundation and other philanthropies.

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.