Giving Compass' Take:

• Josh Stearns highlights learnings for philanthropy in effectively supporting local news based on the success of the New Jersey Civic Information Bill.

• Are you ready to support local news in your community? 

• Read a success story in supporting local news

Local news and information is profoundly important for our democracy. When people have reliable access to local news and information, they vote more—according to a 2009 study, simply reading a newspaper can mobilize 13 percent of non-voters to vote. People with access to local news are also more likely to run for office and politicians work harder for their communities when local reporters are holding them accountable. Local news helps keep government waste and corporate pollution in check. Lastly, local news quite literally brings communities together, improving social bonds and reducing political polarization.

Local news is also a critical part of our public health system. In a 2018 piece for Stat News, journalist Helen Branswell looked at how “disease detectives” use local news to track the spread of illnesses like the flu. One epidemiologist called local news the “bedrock” of how they monitor disease spread across the country. In his book, Democracy’s Detectives, Stanford economist James T. Hamilton quantifies these kinds of social impacts and shows that every dollar spent on investigative local reporting produces hundreds of dollars of public benefit.

Unfortunately for our democracy (and our health), even before this most recent economic downturn, local news was in a precarious position. Between 2008 and 2018, newspapers in America lost nearly 50 percent of their newsroom employees, leaving 1,300 communities with no real source of local news.

However, there is a quiet, hopeful change taking shape. Across the nation, entrepreneurial journalists and concerned citizens are starting up a new generation of local news organizations. According to the Institute of Nonprofit News, new nonprofit newsrooms “have been launching at a pace of more than one a month in the US for almost 12 years.” And that number is even higher if you include small hyperlocal for-profits. Every day, their reporting helps people learn about their community, make decisions about their families, engage in their neighborhoods, and of course, participate in our democracy. But without bold ideas for community support and new revenue models, these start-ups struggle to fill the gaps of what has been lost.

That is why the New Jersey Civic Information Bill, which created and funded the Civic Information Consortium, is so remarkable: The funding will support a range of efforts and experiments from local news, to civic technology, to government transparency, with a focus on underserved communities, low-income communities and communities of color. And, because the bill was developed with journalist and community input around a core commitment to press freedom, it also sets up a series of checks and balances to ensure there are multiple firewalls between the government funding and the journalism it supports. None of this happened overnight—in fact, one of the most important lessons from this effort is the invaluable time spent laying the groundwork.

  1. Playing the Long Game Means You’re Ready to Seize Opportunities When They Arise
  2. Putting Innovative Philanthropic Structures in Place Makes You Flexible and Ready for Action
  3. A Focus on Building Relationships Will Continue to Build Trust and Expand Support Long After the Effort Is Over
  4. It’s Worth Taking Big Philanthropic Risks

Read the full article about supporting local news by Josh Stearns at Stanford Social Innovation Review.