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Press Forward Alaska: Philanthropic Support for Local Journalism

by | Apr 24, 2024 | Featured, Media & Arts, News, Nonprofits

John Palfrey, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, attends the launch of Press Forward Alaska with Julia O’Malley, board president of the Alaska Press Club.

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To see how local journalism has changed over the years, follow the money.

John Palfrey, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, observes, “A generation ago, the local news business was a good business. It was a business that made the fortunes of families like the Atwoods and the Rasmusons.” Those prominent Alaskan families struck it rich thanks to oil investments on the Kenai Peninsula, using wealth earned from banking, in the case of Elmer Rasmuson, and from the Anchorage Times newspaper, in the case of Bob Atwood.

News is unlikely to make anyone as rich as Atwood these days. Palfrey says, “It is now a lousy business. It is either a very low-profit business or a nonprofit enterprise.”

To help fill those thin margins, philanthropy is stepping in. A new fundraising source, Press Forward Alaska, has the potential to connect newsrooms and journalism startups to much-needed cash.

Statewide Framework

Press Forward Alaska is the first statewide chapter of a nationwide initiative launched last November by the MacArthur Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Other local chapters have been established in Chicago and Philadelphia. In Alaska, the local philanthropic partner is the Atwood Foundation, a charity endowed by the newspaper publisher in 1962.

Ira Perman, executive director of the Atwood Foundation, says Alaska had a head start in organizing a framework for Press Forward to work within. Four years ago, the foundation helped establish the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism (ACEJ), a project fund administered by the Alaska Community Foundation. While the Atwood Foundation has long awarded grants to nonprofit arts and culture organizations and endowed a journalism professorship at UAA, ACEJ has the further latitude to distribute funds to for-profit companies and projects. Perman adds that the ACEJ advisory board keeps donors at arm’s reach from grantees, ensuring independence in their content.

However, Perman says, “As much as the Atwood Foundation wants to do more, we are still a modest-sized foundation,” compared to the Rasmuson Foundation, not to mention the MacArthur or Knight foundations. “Along comes Press Forward, which is a national initiative to get others to join supporting journalism, and we’re all for it.”

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Press Forward Alaska, launched formally last weekend during the Alaska Press Club annual conference, plugs ACEJ into a larger philanthropic pool.

“Our goal is to raise the next $500 million at the local level,” Palfrey says of the initiative’s nationwide goal. “In order for local news to be sustainable over the long term, communities will need to stand up and support their local news providers. We will need to invest in local news the same way that we invest in arts and culture, hospitals, or our alma maters. We are building a movement.”

Nonprofit partnerships are already amplifying local reporting efforts. For example, the Alaska Beacon website reports on state and local politics thanks to support from The States Newsroom. Also, ProPublica has teamed up with Anchorage Daily News reporters for investigative pieces. Still, the newspaper’s editor David Hulen says there is a problem that needs solving.

“The whole thing is really in trouble. We’ve got to find ways for there to be more journalists working in Alaska,” Hulen says.

Press Forward could be that solution, according to Jim Brady, vice president of journalism at the Knight Foundation. Grants could catalyze more startups, he believes, and some fraction of those have a chance to stick around.

Brady sees a need for hyper-local outlets. “A lot of them tell you why that restaurant closed and what’s going to be there next week. Why the local high school team won or lost their game,” he says. “For a long time, people went to newspapers to find out ‘who won’ and ‘who died.’ A lot of those features that we don’t consider ‘Big J’ journalism are crucial to the fabric of the community.”

That focus is especially important in Alaska. “Of Alaska’s 351 towns and villages, over 300 are isolated: not connected to any road system,” says Perman. “Reporting the news, particularly local news, is an immense and ongoing challenge.”

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A Revenue Stream, not a Business Model

Jim Brady, vice president of journalism for the John D. and James L. Knight Foundation, attends the launch of Press Forward Alaska with Lori Townsend, news director of Alaska Public Media.

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Press Forward just announced that grants are being made available April 30 to applicants nationwide, bypassing local chapters. Meanwhile, Press Forward Alaska is applying for a “catalyst” grant that could boost ACEJ’s funding pool by $250,000 over two years. Details are still being finalized before the first open call for Press Forward Alaska applicants.

Lori Townsend, news director of Alaska Public Media and chair of the ACEJ advisory board, suggests the funds could pay to train journalists. “We’re learning what newsrooms need, providing local journalists with training and growth opportunities, and funding reporting projects that local outlets couldn’t afford to produce without help,” she says. “This partnership will help increase our capacity to help journalists report time-intensive, important stories for their communities.”

Brady suggests that funds could also pay for community assessments to find out what the audience needs and wants. Grants could also help newsrooms with back-office efficiency. Press Forward doesn’t pay for ongoing operations, he emphasizes; organizations must be sustainable.

Or, as Palfrey puts it, “Nonprofit is a tax status, not a business model. Philanthropy is a revenue stream, not a business model.”

The days of journalism creating fortunes are gone, Palfrey believes, but a new model is in sight. “For most, it’s going to look more like an arts and culture organization,” he says.

There, the Atwood Foundation is instructive. The Anchorage Symphony Orchestra plays in a concert hall named for Bob Atwood’s wife, Evangeline, who was the sister of Elmer Rasmuson. At her behest, the foundation supports arts organizations in Anchorage, and journalism may be transitioning to a similar model.

Palfrey says, “I think about it [local journalism] as a public good; we have to have it. We have to pay for it like you pay for roads or electricity. Now, there are revenue streams; it’s not without revenue streams. But so, too, does the symphony have revenue streams.”

Of all the causes the MacArthur Foundation could support, Palfrey says it has chosen to direct funds toward journalism. Even the largest charity can’t pay every reporter’s salary or keep presses running in every small town, but he says Press Forward can help newsrooms become more sustainable.

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Delivering Anchorage's Promise
June 2024
Welcome to the June 2024 issue, which features our annual Transportation Special Section. We've paired it this year with a focus on the Pacific Northwest and Hawai'i, as Alaska has close ties to both that reach far beyond lines of transportation. Even further out past our Pacific Ocean compatriots and our Canadian neighbors to the east, Alaska's reach extends to India and Singapore. Enjoy this issue that explores many of Alaska's far-flung business dealings.
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