The erosion of public trust in media is not one problem but many. A complex array of systems and forces — including economics, technology, policy, politics, culture, and more — that have become bound-up and intertwined in ways that make it hard to define the problem, let alone imagine a solution. This is the definition of a wicked problem. In a recent blog post, Heather Chaplin, director of the Journalism + Design program at the New School, described a wicked problem as “a tangled knot that is changing and creating new knots all the time.”
At Democracy Fund we use systems mapping as a tool to understand wicked problems. We embrace the complicated and interdependent nature of these challenges and look for leverage points where a change in one part of the system can ripple out and make positive change elsewhere. We look for bright spots, places where we can invest time, energy and resources to interrupt negative feedback loops.
In the wicked problem that is trust in media, local news is a bright spot, and a new national campaign may offer clues about how we can invest in rebuilding the connection between newsrooms and communities while strengthening the resilience of local news.
Study after study after study has shown that as trust has plummeted across many parts of the media, local news has consistently been rated as more trusted. There are many reasons for this, including: Local news is viewed as more proximate, more relevant, more accountable, and more motivated by a shared sense of concern for the community. Local journalists are our neighbors. Indeed, the work of the Trust Project includes localism and local sourcing as one of eight core indicators of trust.
Local news is viewed as more proximate, more relevant, more accountable, and more motivated by a shared sense of concern for the community.
The challenge we face is that while local news holds some of the greatest promise for renewing the social contract between journalists and the public, it also faces the greatest threats. The economic and technological challenges buffeting local news are profound. If we are concerned about trust we also have to be concerned about sustainability and helping rebuild the infrastructure for local news around the country.
This insight inspired a coalition of foundations to come together in 2017 to launch an unprecedented effort to expand trust and financial sustainability in local news. The collaboration, called NewsMatch, paired an end-of-year fundraising campaign with a targeted capacity-building effort focused on equipping newsrooms with new tools, technology and training to better engage their communities and cultivate donors.
NewsMatch was established by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in 2016. Last year it expanded into a partnership between the Democracy Fund, Knight, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as a $3-million fund to match donations to nonprofit newsrooms. Over the course of last fall, the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the News Integrity Initiative, the Wyncote Foundation, The Gates Family Foundation, and the Rita Allen Foundation all joined NewsMatch as partners creating double and triple matches for some organizations. More than 100 nonprofit newsrooms participated, mostly local and investigative news organizations, and spent three months in dialogue with their communities about the value and impact of the work they do.
The results are a testament to the fact that people will put their money where their trust is:
- In three months, from October 1 to December 31, NewsMatch raised more than $4.8 million from individual donors and the coalition of foundations.
- Local newsrooms raised even more on top of NewsMatch. In total, between October and December, more than 202,000 donors contributed $33 million to local, nonprofit news.
- Of those 202,000 donors, 43,000 were new donors giving to an organization for the first time.
- Charitable giving to news is growing. Together, the 100+ NewsMatch newsrooms, local and national, received nearly 320,000 more donations from 77,000 more donors in 2017, compared to 2016.
NewsMatch 2017 was the largest-ever grassroots fundraising campaign to support local nonprofit and investigative news. It was also the first time a coordinated effort of this sort helped provide a platform for local newsrooms to tell their story directly to audiences.
“With the support of NewsMatch we had a record setting year, more than doubling the donations we received in past years,” said Lauren Fuhrmann of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. “NewsMatch provided the roadmap, tech support, and national exposure that we needed to have our most successful year-end fundraising drive ever.”
A campaign like NewsMatch is just one part of the puzzle of rebuilding trust. There is still work to do to improve how local news serves local people, builds trust, and reflects the diversity of its communities. “Journalism is famously cloistered,” tweeted Christopher Wink, founder of the local news start up Technically Philly. He went on to write that journalism’s long-standing financial independence insulated it from the community it was meant to serve. Newsrooms have never had to explain what they do, how they do it, or why it is of value. The result, Wink argues, is that “local news in particular is far more vulnerable than we tell our communities.”
Unless we open up to our communities and invite them into the process of journalism, engage them in how and why we do the work we do, we risk descending into a vicious cycle in which local newsrooms keep cutting back to stay afloat, eroding the quality of their coverage, and further withdrawing from their community. People feel poorly served, trust erodes, and attention and dollars go elsewhere. As early as 2013, the Pew Research Center found that one-third of people reported they had “deserted a particular news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to.”
That is the bad news. The good news is that local news is also where we can interrupt that cycle. Projects like Joy Mayer’s Trusting News Project embody this approach, working with nearly 40 newsrooms, mostly local, who are testing strategies to expand transparency, engagement, and accountability. We should see local news as a critical starting place, a laboratory, and a leverage point for rebuilding trust across other democratic institutions.
We need big ideas and bold efforts like NewsMatch, that can help strapped local newsrooms to grow instead of shrink, to listen to their communities and to put into practice the relationship building that will eventually rebuild trust. This isn’t to ignore the power of platforms or partisanship, or any other parts of the complex systems that shape trust and democracy. But while our politics so often feel top down, our democracy is truly built from the ground up. As we seek to strengthen trust between citizens and across society, we should begin on the ground. Local news can help us building a strong foundation for a more healthy and trusted democracy.
Josh Stearns is the Director of the Public Square Program at Democracy Fund and the founder of the Local News Lab and weekly Local Fix newsletter. The Democracy Fund is a bipartisan foundation established by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar to help ensure that the American people come first in our democracy. Follow him on Twitter: @jcsteanrs