How Philadelphia is helping lead a national movement to support local journalism and democracy

A coalition of 22 foundations will invest a half billion dollars to support local news. It is a national movement that Philadelphia helped inspire and that we should embrace.

By Jim Friedlich

September 7, 2023

On Thursday morning, a nonpartisan group of 22 foundations announced a nationwide coalition called Press Forward, backed by a commitment of more than $500 million over five years to help transform the local news industry in America.

Local news, including the once-thriving newspaper business, has been in decline for at least two decades. Since 2005, more than 2,200 American newspapers have closed. Roughly 20% of Americans now live in “news deserts” with no reliable, independent coverage of local government, schools, or current events.

Into this void have stepped an array of forces that threaten to destroy not only high-quality local journalism, but the American democracy that it supports. Just last week, the Washington Post reported that the world’s largest digital information providers — including Twitter, Facebook, and Google — “are receding from their role as watchdogs against conspiracy theories ahead of the 2024 presidential election.”

Press Forward, including The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the nonprofit owner of The Inquirer, will embark on a coordinated effort to help address this problem at scale. Press Forward will invest directly in local news enterprises, support policy initiatives, and fund business and technology solutions that support multiple newsrooms serving diverse communities nationwide.

With close to two dozen funders, Press Forward is by far the largest ever coordinated philanthropic effort to support local news. It is especially encouraging that several Press Forward funders told me that this is their first foray into journalism funding; their capital is intended to help ensure a healthy American democracy secured by a strong, independent local press.

The launch of Press Forward is both worth celebrating and keeping in perspective. A half-billion dollars for local news sounds like a lot of money. It is not — at least not relative to the scope of the problem or the powerful forces arrayed against independent journalism. If wisely deployed, the new funding will have a multiplier effect, attracting additional dollars and building solutions that scale.

Press Forward is a national movement that Philadelphia helped inspire and that we should embrace. Philadelphia’s media ecosystem is now a flourishing tree with many branches. Comcast is the nation’s largest cable and residential internet provider, the owner of NBC News, and deeply committed to digital equity and public service. The Philadelphia Tribune is the oldest continuously operated Black newspaper in the nation. WHYY is among the leading public media outlets in the country. Philadelphia is home to a vital group of community news organizations serving our diverse city.

And Philadelphia has become a national leader in the business innovation required to reinvent local news. The Inquirer is now the largest American newspaper owned by a nonprofit and dedicated to public service. The Lenfest Institute is joined by thousands of individual donors in supporting investigative journalism, diversity, and product innovation at The Inquirer. The Lenfest business model of nonprofit ownership of major local news organizations has been mirrored in various forms from Baltimore to Salt Lake City, Chicago to Lancaster.

Philanthropy has become a vital part of Philadelphia’s news media landscape, and this trend deserves greater support. The Lenfest Institute has partnered with a broad coalition of foundations committed to a healthy Philadelphia democracy.

We are working now on an initiative to engage and inform Philadelphia voters. Led by the William Penn Foundation, the “Every Voice, Every Vote” coalition supports news coverage by over 25 local media outlets in collaboration with more than 50 community groups. Funders include William Penn, the Lenfest Institute, Comcast, the Wyncote Foundation, and the Knight Foundation, a leader of Press Forward and a national funder for whom Philadelphia is a key priority.

The “Every Voice” initiative helped drive issues-oriented, community-centered local news coverage, level the playing field for a diverse slate of candidates, and create a public record for use in accountability reporting postelection.

Local news collaboration in Philadelphia is one of several examples that give us faith that Press Forward can and will succeed. It is our fervent hope that the spirit of Press Forward will continue to take root here in Philadelphia, and that new funding and new funders will help us serve as a lasting beacon for independent journalism and a healthy democracy for the nation.

This op-ed was originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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