Natural Disasters, Daily Disasters, and Philanthropy

How Funders Can Support News and Information Toward Stronger Communities

Seaside Heights, NJ after Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen/U.S. Air Force/New Jersey National Guard

After Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey, I wrote a blog post for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation about putting community news and information needs at the heart of disaster recovery. “There is nothing quite like a major natural disaster to reveal huge gaps in a community’s information needs and infrastructure,” I noted from my own personal experience in the hurricane aftermath. “When Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey in late 2012, leaving $68 billion in damage in its wake, people scrambled for information. Where and when to buy gas during the shortage? When will the electricity be restored? How to get help from the state to rebuild damaged homes?”

The post details examples and lessons learned from philanthropic support of news and information following Hurricane Sandy, including support for:

  • Ongoing coverage of the aftermath, so that the local community can continue to be informed, even when it feels like the rest of the world has already moved on to the next disaster;
  • Journalism that holds government, institutions, elected officials and others accountable, because communities are particularly vulnerable to exploitation after a disaster; and
  • Building up the infrastructure for the community’s news and information needs, knowing that future emergencies and crises are inevitable.

I wrote this blog post specifically to address opportunities for philanthropy in disaster recovery, but in the wake of the violence and hatred in Charlottesville, I’ve been thinking about life’s daily disasters — ICE raids, dismantling environmental protections in secret, police shootings, destroying net neutrality, the increase in hate incidents — and noting that philanthropy needs to urgently embrace the opportunities to build trust and empathy within communities by putting news and information at the heart of their funding strategies.

Community foundations, place-based foundations, and local family foundations are especially well-positioned to use their grantmaking and, perhaps more importantly, their convening power to build bridges between the public and local newsrooms, as well as support collaborative community storytelling projects. The same three suggestions from Hurricane Sandy still apply:

Support ongoing coverage

Now more than ever, the public needs easy access to abundant, high quality local news and information. Philanthropy can support this in a number of ways, including operating support for local nonprofit newsrooms; here’s a list of the members of the Institute for Nonprofit News to help find a nonprofit newsroom near you. Trusted information sources like libraries and other community organizations play central roles in the flow of community information too, and they need philanthropic support as well. Funders should also consider participatory art and storytelling projects that bring people from all backgrounds together have constructive community conversations.

Need inspiration?

Read about using postcards to report on gentrification with East Boston, Nuestra Casa, and the Neighborhood Postcard Project which encourages residents to write positive personal stories on postcards which are then mailed randomly to residents in different neighborhoods within the same city.

East Boston, Nuestra Casa Postcard Journalism Project. Photo via Jorge Caraballo

Support accountability journalism

Again, support for local newsrooms is a critical role for philanthropy to play, as well as support for collaborations between local newsrooms and national watchdogs like ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Additionally, there are other allies who can ensure accountability, including watchdog organizations and groups that provide media training to the public.

Need inspiration?

Smart Chicago developed an elegantly simple community “Documenters” project that pays the public to document local community meetings and forums, then publish their notes for all to read. City Bureau has since adopted and is expanding this program across Chicago.

Smart Chicago’s Documenters Program. Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil

Strengthen the local news and information infrastructure

What do I mean by “infrastructure”? In its simplest form, philanthropy can provide general operating support to a variety of news & information organizations, and empower them to connect to and collaborate with one another. In New Jersey, the Dodge Foundation, with support from Knight Foundation, helped establish the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, which acts as a central hub of support and services for all journalists, newsrooms and media related organizations throughout New Jersey. Increasingly CCM is serving and collaborating with nonprofits, community leaders, other universities and local government officials as well.

Need inspiration?

Free Press’ News Voices project (currently in New Jersey and North Carolina) promotes sustainable local journalism by building mutual trust and respect between newsrooms and the public through patient, facilitated community conversations and follow-up collaborations.

Fress Press’ News Voices New Jersey Project. Photo via Free Press

Resources for Funders New To “Media” Funding

For funders who haven’t seen themselves as “journalism” or “media” funders before now but feel the urgency and want to start somewhere, there are resources you can consult:

  1. An excellent starting place is the American Press Institute’s guide for philanthropic funding of media and news.
  2. Media Impact Funders is a network of media funders who have deep knowledge of the field, including pressing issues, gaps, and effective strategies, and are eager to lend a helping hand to funders new to the field
  3. The Knight Foundation has long been the lead cheerleader for putting community news and information at the heart of foundation funding strategies through its Community Information Challenge, Media Learning Seminar and publications like its Community Information Toolkit.
  4. And Democracy Fund’s Local News Lab is an ever-expanding repository of resources for both journalists and funders looking for inspiration, advice and know-how.

(*Disclosures: I am a Media Impact Funders board member and a Democracy Fund fellow)

Natural disasters and events like those that unfolded in Charlottesville, where a woman was murdered out of hatred and ignorance, often serve as jolts to remind us of the urgency of philanthropy to use its power and position to build community. Let us not lose sight of that urgency each day and philanthropy’s imperative to provide long term resources and support toward more informed and engaged communities.