Local News Publishers React to Press Forward’s Latest Plan

"Like a gut punch."

Local News Publishers React to Press Forward’s Latest Plan
From left: Amos Gelb, Emily Sachar, Joanna Detz, Brian Zayatz, and Regina Clarkin.

Last week, Local News Blues brought news from Dale Anglin, the newly-appointed inaugural director of Press Forward about that national campaign. This included most centrally that $13 million in “Catalyst Funding” being made available to those who organize Press Forward Local Chapters is expected to go to such endeavors as research into local news ecosystems and the establishment of local philanthropic infrastructure to support local journalism – not to local news outlets themselves.

We’ve previously reported on local news publishers’ frustration with the lack of direct general operating expense funding while millions in philanthropic dollars are going to journalism-adjacent organizations meant to help news publishers. Actual local publishers are struggling mightily to stay afloat while waiting for the help we keep hearing is on the way. 

In his most recent newsletter, Dick Tofel explored the reasons for the collapse of the Center for Public Integrity, a national nonprofit investigative journalism outlet founded in 1989 to hold public officials accountable. In a line that resonated with nonprofit local news publishers trying to make ends meet, Tofel wrote that a “recurrent theme of my conversations [with ex-CPI staffers] was how much and how often CPI had permitted limited-purpose program funding to dictate its editorial priorities, resulting in loss of focus, distinctiveness and sense of mission. At one point, restricted program funding may have been as much as 90% of the total.”

While some see the call to create local news collaborations through Press Forward Local chapters as a real opportunity, few are happy to hear they won’t be seeing general operating support from Press Forward anytime soon, if ever. Today, we bring you a sampling of reactions to the latest Press Forward news from local news publishers. - Alice Dreger, Publisher of Local News Blues

What we desperately need: general operating expenses.

From Joanna Detz, Publisher and Co-Founder of ecoRI News

I never had much hope my small Rhode Island newsroom would ever see even a penny of the millions on offer from Press Forward. But new information about how Press Forward is rolling out makes me think most of my peers who run local and hyperlocal newsrooms will also miss out.

We are now learning that we should wait for funders in our geographic regions to establish Press Forward Locals, which will be eligible for catalyst funding to support local philanthropic infrastructure. 

I’m not sure what philanthropic infrastructure is, but it doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with what my newsroom and so many others like mine desperately need to keep doing the work of delivering local news — work Press Forward was purportedly established to save. 

Fund even the “unprepared” if it means saving local news.

From Brian Zayatz, Editor at The Shoestring in Western Massachusetts

If "the purpose of a system is what it does," as the maxim goes, then what is the purpose of Press Forward? So far, it seems to be shoring up the class of journalism-adjacent professionals who might earn in a year many times more than what the typical reporter or editor at a local nonprofit outlet makes.

Thankfully, this maxim allows for a simple remedy. If Press Forward does not want to be perceived this way, they can do something different. If they want us to think that its purpose is to "reinvigorate" or "revitalize" local news, they can give money directly to people and organizations who produce local news.

I can only speculate why they have not (with a few exceptions) done that. My best guess is that it stems from the same distrust of poor people that causes the political class to means test just about every form of aid a poor individual could access. (This is not to say that everyone who produces local news is poor; in fact, quite the opposite is true in many cases. But far too many of our organizations are, comparatively.) 

As a recipient of both government aid and, hopefully someday, a general operating grant other than NewsMatch, let me say: just as I would like to see means testing — which requires significant investments of time and money — abolished to prevent potential recipients of government aid from falling through the cracks, I would much prefer to see a widespread infusion of cash into our industry with a minimum of intermediary steps. 

It's entirely possible, in this scenario, that some outlets that are not prepared to receive a large grant will not use it wisely. But the risk of delaying action, adding intermediaries, and trying to evaluate who is worthy and who is not, is that publications providing needed news to their communities will go under in the meantime – and will not come back. I do not think that is a risk anyone seriously interested in saving local news can afford to take. We've been operating on shoestrings for years. Most of us know how to spend wisely.

Press Forward’s rollout has been confusing and worrisome.

From Emily Sachar, Founder and Editor of The Daily Catch, serving Red Hook and Rhinebeck, New York

Nothing makes the founding editor of a hyperlocal newspaper happier than hearing of a national initiative to value our work. We endeavor through a plethora of efforts to achieve sustainability on our own through local grants and donations. That said, we at The Daily Catch in New York's Hudson Valley are also working to develop replicable models for hiring, for covering meetings, and for developing quality local news.

The confusing rollout of Press Forward to date is worrisome to me and my colleagues. We wonder if there are steps we should be taking now to prove our worth to Press Forward leadership. We wonder if we will be deemed unworthy because we do not qualify as a minority community (merely rural). We wonder if we will be left behind because we don't have some unwritten model to which Press Forward wishes we aspire.

We hope these issues will be addressed transparently in the months to come.

“Like a gut punch.”

From Regina Clarkin, Editor and Publisher of the Peekskill Herald in New York’s Hudson River Valley

The recent email from the funder for NewsMatch telling me of the actual dollar amount I will be seeing in my bank account before the month ended was welcome news. 

I had already been planning where the money was going. I’ll now be able to pay the yearly premium for media liability insurance at my nearly three-year-old digital nonprofit news site. I’ll be cutting a check for the annual fee to the content management system that keeps the site on the internet. And, since last year was the first time my organization exceeded the $50,000 threshold, I’ll be paying an accountant to create the 990-EZ for my paper. I’ll also be paying the fee to the post office for the box my publication maintains. And I’ll have money to pay the institution from which I’m getting a summer intern. 

However, what gives me the most satisfaction is the ability to pay for the transportation, hotel and registration to our state’s annual Press Association convention where we have entered stories in the award competition for the first time. I’m using the dollars for myself and our 19-year-old reporter who covers city hall, does our social media posting, and attends a community college while holding down a job at a fast food restaurant.

He tells me he wants to make his living from journalism. I want to encourage those aspirations as much as possible, which is why he’s going to the state convention. It’s important for him to experience the camaraderie and sense of community that comes from being with other people who are doing the same work.  

What I don’t share with him is my doubt that he could actually make a living to support his family from this profession, at least as he knows it –  a hyperlocal digital news site. 

My doubts come from my own experience of starting this desperately needed news website in my city of 28,000 people on the banks of the Hudson River an hour north of New York City. I’m not paying myself regularly and we barely report on all the areas that need coverage. I manage to make it a credible news site because of the freelancers who live here. They believe it’s important to have a local source of accurate news and they are willing to take a pittance for the professional work they produce.

I’m in the middle of a shifting ecosystem around news that’s transitioning from various models that are no longer relevant. When I learn that I’m getting some grant dollars, I’m elated for a while. Then I realize that it’s not enough to make this very lean operation sustainable. 

All those things I’m relieved to be paying are basic costs of doing business and they are the areas I sweat about when there isn’t enough revenue from my readers to support the infrastructure of providing a news site. 

When I read the column in Local News Blue about how Press Forward money is going to trickle down through local Press Forward local chapters, it felt like a gut punch. 

In the last few months, I’ve managed to get on the radar of a local community foundation and learned that they don’t have a specific fund earmarked for journalism. But they believe in what we’re doing so they awarded my outlet a small grant for coverage of the environment. I’m happy to get it, but again, it’s a fraction of what we really need to become sustainable. 

We hyperlocal journalists are on the front lines, using smoke and mirrors to make what we do happen. After a while, the magician act gets exhausting. It becomes more so when we see so many dollars never finding their way to our bank accounts. 

“Press Forward is messy. It will get messier.”

From Amos Gelb, Founder and Publisher of DC Witness and Baltimore Witness

When I was in B-school, there was a discussion during one class on living wages. My young classmates heading to corporate America debated how the concept of “living wage” was not good for companies, and in their contorted thinking. not good for workers either. 

So, after all had their say, I chimed in. “So, you all went to the bar last night, right?” ”Yes.” “So, you had a bar bill of around $500-$600, right?” “About that.” “Great, now imagine feeding a family of four including two small children and paying rent on that $600 a week.” There was silence. 

And that is how I am feeling about Press Forward today. They mean well, but they really don’t get what “it” is for most of us. The well-intentioned noble souls are determined to save us without having the faintest idea what we need to survive. They are so busy finding ways to save journalism, they somehow missed that there needs to be journalism left to be saved. (Hacks/Hackers doesn’t actually do journalism, but it sure talks a good game.) Tech innovation is nice – my life would be more comfortable with air conditioning, but at the moment I am working on securing that sheet as my door. Clips would be more useful right now. 

But here is why I am actually positive about what is happening, especially when I get to see the conversation at ANNO. It is the embodiment of my belief that journalism is not a career path but a psychosis. Maybe one or two of us are media tycoons, or empire-builders like Elizabeth Greene of ChalkBeat, or get lucky and become the chosen one like Sahan Journal. Good on both of those. But most of us won’t get there, and many won’t survive. We will scrap and scrape along. Because we can’t help ourselves. Because it is who we are. 

But as I read these notes from my colleagues (above), I feel honored and lucky to walk among heroes. 

The First Amendment codified American journalism. But all it did was put into words the footfalls of the people I get to call Local News Blues brethren. 

Press Forward is messy. It will get messier. The news-adjacent parasites will get fatter. INN will continue to siphon-off money in the name of our collective best interest. We will be told over and over what we need to survive by people who have no idea what we do to survive. 

But they are not American journalism today. You are. 

To put it another way - the vast majority of us were never going to get this money before Press Forward, and now, for some reason, we are getting all bent out of shape as if we had been. 

I’ll end it here. My door sheet just came unclipped. 

Read about today's contributors here. Find all our posts on Press Forward here. Have a perspective from your shop that you want to share in the form of a Local News Blues post? Contact us. And remember, you can comment on these posts at the Local News Blues website if you subscribe (free of charge).