Press Forward, a coalition of foundations and philanthropists, announced, two weeks ago, an initiative that would pool 500 million dollars to address the crisis of disappearing local news and information, and accelerate promising trends to reverse the decline. At this scale of funding, there is a major opportunity for a deeper conversation on two things. Impact, for, of and through local news in America on the quality of our democracy, and trust communities place in journalism.
The narrative that local news is dying and that threatens democracy may not be news to you. Press Forward has rightly called out the harm to civic participation and the civic information gaps. Of particular concern is America’s news deserts problem – many regions with no local and independent news outlets to watch the government, counter disinformation, and tell accurate stories on local realities. Given the size of the corpus, their announcement generated an expected amount of buzz, optimism, and coverage.
But this week a significant number of professional associations of American journalists and others, led by the Oakland, California-based Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, wrote a response letter of concern. The signatories were Asian American Journalists Association, Indigenous Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Online News Association, OpenNews, in addition to the Maynard Institute itself.
Why? The Maynard letter asks Press Forward’s funders to avoid history repeating itself. “It is no secret that BIPOC-led organizations are awarded less grant money and are less trusted with how to spend that money when compared to white-led institutions,” they point out. “If philanthropy is not intentional about addressing historical funding inequities and the processes by which they persist, it is complicit in the harm they inflict,” they write.
But Press Forward and its members are not flying blind. Two of the coalition’s four funding priorities, they say, are “Strengthening local newsrooms that have the trust of local communities” and “Closing longstanding inequalities in journalism coverage and practice.” And one of the coalition members, Democracy Fund notes that it is energized by Press Forward’s shared commitment to pursue collective impact. Let’s take impact and trust.
Impact: A Real Opportunity
Surprisingly, despite Democracy Fund’s calling out of a shared commitment to pursue impact, Press Forward’s announcement pages do not carry the word “impact” at all. An odd omission, indeed.
But what is impact? How are the funders, the funded, and ultimately people served by local news on the ground going to talk about it? I would start by moving from the singular word impact to the plural impacts.
People at the grassroots whose lives, agency, and voices have experienced real change because of local reporting and publishing have a way of offering examples of impact. Ask and you shall receive. It may not be in spreadsheets and slide decks. It will be stories that line up the narratives of real power shifts and change. And we must anticipate the massive heterogeneity in how people – especially people of color – receive local news and information, because understanding impact requires meeting people where they are.
“There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these outlets across America, but many are small and rural, some publish only on social media, and few founders have connections to traditional journalism or philanthropy,” wrote Tracie Powell, CEO of The Pivot Fund, a funder of BIPOC-led local newsrooms, responding to Press Forward earlier this month. And while it is fair for funders to seek impact reporting for their grants, the gathering of impact stories must not itself become a net-negative burden on the resources of already stretched local newsrooms.
Cataloging stories from the grassroots of real impact will show another kind of pressing forward. A society pressing forward to make democracy work, and in doing so help reimagine local journalism itself.
Unshackling The Conversation On Trust
As noted earlier, Press Forward notes that one of its priorities is to strengthen local newsrooms that have the trust of local communities. When grants roll out and impacts happen, how will we know communities trust local newsrooms? Can we tell the difference between trust, and the willingness in people to cooperate or collaborate?
If there is one word most misunderstood, not clearly defined, and yet overused in our worry-laden discourse about the free press and democracy, it is trust. Even the most recent, well-researched effort from the Reuters Institute, released this week on strategies for building trust in news, does not define the word. The definitional discord on this has been clear for a while. While the conversation among elites in America has been one of panic over the decline of expected trust, journalism’s reformers are centering the idea of earning trust as a byproduct of ethical journalistic work.
We need a definition that explains when and how trust is relevant, and that can be relied upon by everyone from journalists to local news outlets to researchers to funders.
Here’s a start. Nearly thirty years ago, in 1995, a management sciences paper defined the word. Authors Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman, in their heavily cited paper in the Academy of Management Review, defined trust for organizational settings, in the context of increasing diversity, thus: “The willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party.”
Simply stated, they say in the same paper later: Trust is the willingness to take a risk in the relationship and to be vulnerable. Furthermore, they separated the meaning of trust from cooperation, confidence, and predictability. Their paper instead connected it to risk and vulnerability.
This definition is illuminating for settings where people, journalists, and news organizations are involved. If people are to trust journalists when interacting with them, it means they are willing to take a risk and become vulnerable. The vulnerability exists because of journalistic independence. We do not control the story journalists create, or how your or my social, geographic, or occupational groups may be portrayed.
Critically, risks and vulnerability are greater for people and communities who face greater threats to their rights, dignity, and democratic aspirations. Their stakes in trusting journalists are thus higher. Journalists have the power to exclude, as much as include. When people feel that stories show their communities or groups in poor or diminished worth, mischaracterize or criminalize them as a group, treat them as inconsequential, or just plain center the voices and frames of more powerful actors, they know their trust was misplaced. When the opposite happens, those local newsrooms will have “the thing that money can’t buy — the trust of the people they serve,” says Powell.
Questions about impact and trust are going to test the priorities, principles, and purpose of the Press Forward coalition and its members, together. But opening up discourse on them is the real opportunity as Press Forward rolls out. Let a pressing forward happen from the bottom-up, from communities and local newsrooms, particularly BIPOC-led ones, on the earning of trust and impacts of expanding local journalism.