The American Journalism Project has selected WyoFile as one of 11 civic news organizations to receive its inaugural round of grant funding in a $50 million nationwide initiative to combat the market-driven collapse of local news, organizers announced Tuesday.
AJP, a year-old nonprofit venture-philanthropy effort, selected news services from Puerto Rico to Vermont, Mississippi to Berkeley in its first $8.5-million grant cycle. WyoFile, with a virtual newsroom of two reporters and two editors, is among the smallest organizations selected. Others have up to 20 on their editorial teams.
The elect 11 have strong entrepreneurial leadership, community buy-in and seek to create new business models for local news, AJP co-founder Elizabeth Green wrote in a statement. “What’s been missing until now is the philanthropic capital to support them,” the CEO and editor-in-chief of Chalkbeat wrote.
American Journalism Project will invest $615,000 in, and work closely with, WyoFile over three years, WyoFile Chief Executive and Editor Matthew Copeland said. The funds will go toward executing a nonprofit business model that will “make community-supported nonpartisan public-interest journalism financially sustainable in Wyoming, and beyond,” he said.
Solidifying a financial footing for civic news organizations is the critical element of the initiative, said John Thornton, co-founder of AJP and founder of The Texas Tribune.
“The only way to get newsrooms growing again is get revenue growing again,” he said in a statement. “And like it or not, sustained philanthropy is the key ingredient. Local news is as civic as parks and arts organizations, and as philanthropists, we must act urgently to give these organizations the time, talent, and tools they need to be financially sustainable.”
The grant recognizes WyoFile as a leader in “this new approach to journalism,” said Loring Woodman, Chairman of the WyoFile board of directors. “WyoFile is doing something the rest of the country has picked up on,” he said. “WyoFile is enormously honored to be chosen.”
Fourth Estate in crisis
A “catastrophic market failure” among commercial newspapers across the country has caused a rapidly growing crisis in local communities, AJP said. To counter that the nonprofit “will help drive an order-of-magnitude increase in local journalism philanthropy and help communities learn to view local journalism as a public good, primarily civic rather than commercial in nature,” its announcement Tuesday read.
“WyoFile and small, independent journalism that covers local news clearly has a role to play in our country,” Woodman said. WyoFile, 10 years old, publishes its stories and photographs online, offers users free access and allows other outlets to republish its work without charge.
“The number of journalists employed by American newspapers fell by 47% between 2008 and 2018,” Copeland said. “One in five local papers has closed since 2004 and far more lost the ability to effectively cover their communities.
“There are certainly exceptions,” he said. “The exceptions do not alter the fundamental fact that there is a crisis of access to verifiable, factual information in American communities from coast to coast — basic information about what’s going on in town hall and the state capitol and other powerful institutions.”
In this first initiative, American Journalism Project focusing on development. A Knight Foundation and Gallup poll last month found that 86% of Americans think local news should be freely accessible. Only 20%, however, said they have supported local news financially in the last year.
AJP has seen “that WyoFile readers have invested in this enterprise, have demonstrated they want it, need it, use it and are willing to support it,” Copeland said. “This [AJP] investment is geared toward shoring that up and expanding those mechanisms of support.”
In the first year of the three-year grant program, WyoFile will hire two people “specifically focused on development” of the organization, Copeland said. A third employee will be added in the second year.
The goal is for the positions to generate at least an additional $513,000 in annual revenues. “That adds up to a lot of new, critical news-gathering capacity for Wyoming,” Copeland said. AJP will work closely with Copeland and WyoFile during the three-year grant cycle to ensure success.
A larger newsroom already
Already this year WyoFile has grown its newsroom with the addition of a managing editor, Katie Klingsporn, a Lander native. She directs two reporters, answers to Copeland and is supported by Guy Padgett, WyoFile’s operations manager, and a volunteer board of six.
Cultivated for years by its founders, the organization continued to mature since Woodman joined in 2016, he said. “Aside from this particular grant, our hiring of Matt in July of 2017 was probably the most significant development during the time I’ve been on the board,” he said. “He has the ability and energy to make this happen and the ambition to nurture WyoFile for the people of Wyoming in really extraordinary ways.”
Copeland, who directs the organization while spearheading fundraising and development and operating as editor, found juggling his responsibilities challenging. Before hiring a managing editor, he was often frustrated by “the good, important stories that went un-pursued because we had to make difficult resource decisions.
“Adding Katie to the team changes that calculus dramatically,” he said. “We can do more digging, bring more information to Wyoming.
“Beyond that, her unique set of skills, talents and perspective bring a new level of quality and nuance to our reporting,” he said. “I think our readers have started to recognize that and rely upon her work.”
The grant should not be interpreted as one that allows WyoFile supporters to put up their feet, he said.
“In many ways, this is a challenge to our readers and our community,” Copeland said. “The American Journalism Project is investing in the belief that Wyoming can and will support independent, nonpartisan journalism as a critical public service. Now it’s up to all of us us to prove them right.”
Wide-ranging news outlets
American Journalism Project has raised more than $46 million, including donations from the Knight Foundation, Arnold Ventures, Emerson Collective, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, Christopher Buck and Dr. Hara Schwartz, Facebook Journalism Project and John and Erin Thornton. The nonprofit has joined the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy to strengthen journalism in communities of color.
Here’s a synopsis of the news organizations chosen for the first round of grants, using information gathered largely from their mission statements.
VT Digger, Vermont
A statewide news website that publishes watchdog reports on state government, politics, consumer affairs, business and public policy.
Centro De Periodismo Investigativo, Puerto Rico
A Spanish and English site that most recently wrote an investigative story that brought down Puerto Rico’s governor.
A California B-corp in San Franscisco’s East Bay covering that progressive community.
Mississippi Today, Mississippi
A staff of 20 has “a forward-facing mission of civic engagement and public dialog through service journalism, live events and digital outreach.”
City Bureau, Chicago
A South-Side civic journalism lab bringing journalists and communities together to produce media that is impactful, equitable and responsive.
CT Mirror, Connecticut
Producing original, in-depth, nonpartisan journalism for the Constitution State.
Inewsource, San Diego
Dedicated to improving lives in the San Diego region and beyond through impactful, data-based investigative and accountability journalism.
Justice through journalism focused on poverty, power and public policy.
A community-led news initiative committed to strengthening information creation and distribution in North Omaha and across the city.
An Oregon service with a director, reporter and two advisors.