Local dollars aren’t enough to save local news in many places.

He who controls the money controls who gets local news.

Local dollars aren’t enough to save local news in many places.
(Photo by Alice Dreger)

By Corinne Colbert

“Nonprofit local news needs to move past the large funder/large project paradigm.” That’s the headline on Dan Kennedy’s Feb. 13 post on his blog, Media Nation. 

The post addresses a recent (and excellent) two-part story by Sophie Culpepper for NiemanLab about the Alliance of Nonprofit News Outlets. ANNO advocates for direct philanthropic funding to local newsrooms. (The Athens County Independent, which I co-run, is a member.) 

At first, Kennedy seems to be on the right track, noting Big Philanthropy’s attraction to Big Projects and calling for funders to instead support “tiny operations that are keeping people informed about their community and their neighborhood.”

But then he delivers the conclusion behind the headline:

“Ultimately, funding has to come from local sources, with national money used as a supplement. That requires an ongoing educational effort to convince local philanthropic organizations that reliable news is just as important to the health of a community as youth programs, educational initiatives and the arts.”


Warnings to us from journalism commentators against counting on national foundation money always remind me of that scene in “Mad Max: Fury Road” where Immortan Joe turns on, then shuts off, massive spigots of water. 

“Do not, my friends, become addicted to water,” he calls to the parched crowd below. “It will take hold of you, and you will resent its absence!” 

Easy for Joe to say. He controls the aquifer. Guess who’s never thirsty? 

Much of the discourse around “saving local news” comes from people who don’t actually work in local news. (The last time Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern, worked in a community newsroom, most papers were still doing manual paste-up.) Nor have the commentators asked those of us currently working in local news about our needs and concerns. 

Hell, they don’t even pay attention to those who do ask. 

Charity should begin at home, eh? According to the 2023 INN Index, nearly two-thirds of local outlets are already being supported by community or local foundations, with a median contribution of $50,000. Fifty thousand dollars counts as a lot of money for local foundations and for small local news operations; four in 10 local outlets said community foundations represented half or more of their total foundation revenue. 

There's room to grow local foundation support, but it already exists in many locales and it's not enough to keep the news coming sustainably.

I am glad to hear Kennedy supporting the idea of Big Philanthropy funding “tiny operations.” But the truth is, when commentators talk “local news,” it's often about outlets in places that are far from counting as deserts. 

To be fair, even INN defines “local news” as encompassing anything below the state level, “ranging from large metro areas to small neighborhoods.” And, if you look at where national philanthropic dollars are going for “local news,” it's typically the big cities.

But nearly half of the local outlets launched between 2017 and 2022 served audiences under 100,000 people. One in six of those outlets targeted a rural audience, and Northwestern’s Local News Initiative research shows that rural areas are most likely to be news deserts or served by ghost papers. They are also most at-risk for future losses of news.

Rural areas have the least local-philanthropic capacity. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating here: The Cleveland Foundation, which backed Signal Ohio in partnership with the American Journalism Project, has a $2.8 billion endowment. The Athens County Foundation, which supports the Athens County Independent (my operation), has $11 million in assets under management. 

Gonna repeat that: The Cleveland Foundation has the assets of 255 Athens County Foundations. 

And just to be clear, Signal Ohio is not supporting news in rural Ohio. Its coverage focuses on the big cities. Again.

When commentators say, “Don’t rely on big money” or “Local funding sources need to step up,” what I hear is, “You don’t count” and “Leave us alone.” Because to paraphrase another sci-fi franchise, He who controls the money controls who gets local news.

Corinne Colbert is cofounder and editor in chief of the Athens County Independent, a nonprofit digital news startup in southeastern Ohio. (Her opinions shared through Local News Blues are her own, not the Independent’s.) Read more at the Local News Blues contributors page.

Correction: When this article was published it mistakenly identified Dan Kennedy's institution. He works at Northeastern University, not Northwestern. The text has been corrected.