Knight Foundation Aims to Strengthen Nonprofit Media
Grants Support "News You Can Trust"
Like many other publications, Voice of San Diego, a nonprofit news organization, benefited from a “Trump Bump” after last year’s presidential election, says CEO Mary Walter-Brown. That is, readers stepped up their giving.
One of its funders, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, was poised to help it capitalize further. Voice of San Diego (VOSD) was one of 57 nonprofit news outlets that won grants in December from the $1.5 million Knight News Match. The program, billed as an effort to counter “fake news” and support “accountability” journalism, offered to match up to $25,000 raised from individual donors by mid-January.
The News Match offers a window into Knight’s longtime work to strengthen the news media as a way to preserve a healthy democracy. Created by two newspaper-publisher brothers, Knight has awarded an average of $30 million annually in journalism and media-innovation grants over the past 10 years.
Much of its giving aims to help journalism thrive in a landscape that has been radically transformed, in ways both good and bad, by the digital revolution. The current political climate has created new challenges: First, how to help readers distinguish between legitimate news and the proliferation of made-up stories that circulate on the Internet. Second, how to protect the news media from President Trump’s attacks, including charges that they are the ones propagating “fake news.”
Luckily, readers are coming to the rescue. Knight hatched the News Match quickly after it held its annual Newsgeist conference in Arizona in December. Many nonprofit outlets reported “an uptick in donations,” says Jennifer Preston, vice president for journalism. “They were seeing trends that were similar to what some large organizations like the New York Times and Washington Post were seeing in an increase in subscriptions.”
Nonprofit news organizations are using fundraising pitches like “Fight fake news, support news you can trust, support reporting you can trust,” Walter-Brown says.
Reflecting the breadth of Knight’s giving, all 57 News Match organizations were prior grantees, including local and national online publications, investigative-reporting centers,and broadcasting outlets. They raised almost $2.4 million from 11,925 donors, matched by $1.2 million from Knight. Most reported that donors, dollars, and number of donations were up over the prior year, says Luz Gomez, Knight’s director of research.
The Match helped amplify the impact of year-end campaigns, she says. membership revenue grew 42 percent over 2015, with the biggest jumps in November and December, Walter-Brown says. Her oganization won the full $25,000 from the New Match in one week, benefiting from work it has done to strengthen its fund-raising capacity.
In 2014, VOSD won a $1.2 million Knight grant that it shared with MinnPost, a Minnesota publication, to develop tools to dramatically increase membership -- for example, by using the customer-relation-management system Salesforce. Now VOSD heads the News Revenue Hub, a pilot project that, with money from the Democracy Fund, is helping 11 other nonprofit news organization develop comprehensive membership and crowdfunding programs.
Knight and the Democracy Fund are exploring ways to expand the News Match program, Preston says. And Knight is exploring additional ways to improve the flow of accurate information. Along with the Democracy Fund and Rita Allen Foundation, in March it issued an open call for ideas to address concerns about the spread of misinformation and produce ways to build trust in journalism.
It plans to award up to $1 million in $50,000 grants through its prototype fund. Preston says more than 800 ideas have been submitted and winners will be announced in June.
Going forward, she says, “we are definitely looking at grants in the areas of trust and fact checking.” She notes that Knight’s 2016 strategic plan outlines a two-pronged appoach to journalism grant-making: supporting First Amendment rights and fostering innovation as a way “to ensure the future for journalism.”
Action steps you can take today
Subscribe or donate to a nonprofit news organization. The list of Knight grantees includes local outlets like: