American Journalism Project CEO Talks Fundraising for Local News

"The decline of local news isn’t just another industry that was disrupted by the rise of the internet, but it is having very insidious implications on the state of our democracy."

Sarabeth Berman smiles while looking into the camera.
Sarabeth Berman is the CEO of the American Journalism Project. American Journalism Project

Local news is facing economic pressure, and the American Journalism Project (AJP) hopes philanthropy can help. A nonprofit organization that funds local, nonprofit newsrooms around the country, AJP pitches funding journalism as a civic institution, similar to how financiers donate to local theaters and ballets. From 2019 to 2021, AJP raised more than $50 million to support local news, according to the group’s nonprofit forms. The document for the 2022 year is not yet available.

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Over the last two decades, revenue for media publications has severely declined as advertisers have turned to social media and the internet, rather than newspapers, to market products. The U.S. has lost 2,500 local newspapers since 2005, a quarter of the industry, according to a report by Northwestern University. Having traditionally relied on advertising and subscriptions, news sites have had to find new sources of revenue, and the nonprofit model has become increasingly popular. More than 135 nonprofit news organizations have launched since 2017, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News.

Created in 2019, the AJP offers both financial assistance and advising to local news nonprofits. Newsrooms can apply to receive funds, but the organization also scouts publications to finance and launches new ones in news deserts.

Sarabeth Berman joined the organization as its first CEO in 2020. Previously, she spent a decade at Teach For All, an education nonprofit. She also managed a contemporary dance company in China. While she doesn’t come from the journalism world, “I sort of married into the values of journalism,” she told Observer. Her husband, Evan Osnos, is an author and journalist for The New Yorker covering politics and foreign affairs. 

What hurdles have you faced in convincing people that local journalism is necessary?

There’s increasing evidence that the academic community has led that really shows the decline of local news has contributed to the decline of civic engagement, the decline of voter participation and increasing polarization. There’s also evidence that the accountability function of journalism (actually works). When local news disappears, government waste increases and corporate crime increases. Armed with that data, there is a very compelling case to make that local journalism is essential to the ways communities function and the way democracies function.

We make the case for philanthropy: if you care about education in your community, you should be concerned about whether or not the school boards are covered. If you care about immigration, you should be concerned about whether or not our border is properly covered. The decline of local news isn’t just another industry that was disrupted by the rise of the internet, but it is having very insidious implications on the state of our democracy, and philanthropy is beginning to see its role in helping to rebuild it. 

Where is the main source of this philanthropy coming from? 

It’s coming in at two levels. The American Journalism Project is a national organization, so we’re fundraising from institutional and individual funders who are often concerned about the state of the information ecosystem in our country and believe that rebuilding local news is really important. 

A huge amount of philanthropy in the United States is tied to place, meaning people care about Tulsa or Cleveland or Houston, and they want to make sure Tulsa or Cleveland or Houston are thriving. We’ve been going to philanthropists like that and helping them see the role that local news plays in keeping their place informed and in stitching a community together. 

How much of the AJP’s time is spent looking for philanthropy versus working one-on-one with publications? 

We have teams focused on both, so we’re doing both all the time. We need to raise philanthropy, and then we need to support news organizations to become sustainable and strong. Philanthropy certainly isn’t the only source of revenue for news organizations—reader revenue, advertiser revenue, other earned revenue streams news organizations need to be tapping into. They need to be reaching where audiences are, which frankly isn’t at the kitchen table with a newspaper anymore. 

What have you done with specific news organizations to help them use new tech or reach new audiences?

We have a really diverse portfolio with 37 organizations we fund at the moment, everywhere from Puerto Rico to Mississippi to Montana to Detroit. We funded an organization in New York City called “Documented” that’s focused on serving immigrant communities. They started with the Spanish-speaking community and found that where most people were getting their information was on WhatsApp, so they started delivering news and information on WhatsApp. Our intervention was supporting them to build out their business operations so they could tap into more philanthropy, and then also how to use the product they developed and monetize it with advertising. 

We funded a news organization in Detroit called “Outlier Media,” which is focused on reaching low-income audiences and found the best way to reach them was via text message. They now have thousands of phone numbers of Detroiters, and they’re having this two-way interaction with Detroiters, to both give them news and information but also receive their questions to inform their reporting. We supported this small team—there were two people at the time—to build out their business operations that let them merge with another news organization to grow. 

When you say you’re supporting them in these cases, is it purely financial?

In those situations, our team was providing the funding to a team that already had a really good idea about how to reach those audiences. In other situations, we have done our own market assessments. In Cleveland, we spent several years doing an information needs assessment of Cleveland, trying to really understand the market needs there. We ultimately raised about $6 million in local philanthropy to launch a new news organization. About 60 percent of Cleveland is deemed functionally illiterate, so we had to figure out how to reach Clevelanders when the reality is that many aren’t able to read long-form journalism. The concept for this new organization was to build products that will actually reach audiences. Those products are everything from a commitment from the newsroom to have 20 hours of open office hours where they are available for community members to come in and talk, to partnering with local radio, to more video-forward and social media news. 

Are you seeing any trend across publications of what’s working and what’s challenging?

Generally, we are seeing philanthropy wake up to the importance of original reporting in communities. The other trend we are seeing is that news organizations are really digitally-forward. They are working to get the news where people are. Another clear trend is that these organizations are building more two-way relationships with audiences than local news used to have. Trust is so important. As we know, trust in the media is at an all-time low, but the data is clear that local news is more trusted than national news. These news orgs have found that engaging with audiences, either digitally or live, helps in building trust. 

There’s certainly no silver bullet to the financial difficulties of the industry. Across the country, it’s challenging to bring in new philanthropy and new supporters and change mindsets, though I’m seeing a lot of progress. Also, continuing to reach and grow audiences at a time when there’s so much competing for attention is a challenge. 

What does the local news environment and economy look like in the next five to ten years?

I think we are going to see that nonprofit news is a much larger portion of the original reporting happening in the country. Already in some of the places we support, the largest news organizations in those markets are nonprofits. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

American Journalism Project CEO Talks Fundraising for Local News