From the CEO: Philanthropy’s role in supporting local journalism is critical
Knight Foundation's new president and CEO Maribel Pérez Wadsworth appears on stage at the Knight Media Forum in Miami. Photo courtesy of Knight Foundation.

Every February, the most brilliant minds in journalism, philanthropy and media gather in sunny Miami to discuss the future of local news — and how the business must evolve to support the vital public service newsrooms provide.

For the second year, my co-founder Josh Barousse and I were among those national thought leaders at the Knight Media Forum and shared how the work we’re doing in San Jose is shaping and impacting our community. San José Spotlight is part of a larger ecosystem of nonprofit newsrooms at the forefront of a movement to build sustainable business models for local news.

San José Spotlight co-founders Ramona Giwargis and Josh Barousse are pictured with Rob Lloyd, the deputy city manager in San Jose, at the Knight Media Forum in Miami.

Over the years newspapers across the country have faced devastating layoffs — and even here at home. It isn’t all bad news: There’s more philanthropic support for local news today than I’ve seen in my lifetime.

But being a nonprofit isn’t enough. While I believe nonprofit journalism is the future of our industry and the best alternative to corporate, hedge fund or billionaire newspaper owners, it’s only a tax status. It is not a business model. Nonprofits must find ways to sustain and grow our newsrooms — and we face similar pressures and risks as corporate media.

Philanthropy is finally catching up. It’s acknowledging journalism as a civic service and public good — a cause worth supporting, just like museums and theaters. Foundations can no longer say “we don’t fund journalism” because any cause they care about — from climate to housing — hinges on the role journalism plays to shed light on the issues, spark civic engagement, uncover a common set of facts and pave the way for change.

“It is time now for philanthropy to move at the speed of news,” said Maribel Pérez Wadsworth, Knight Foundation’s new president and CEO.

Being in Miami energized and inspired me to absorb what’s happening in local journalism across the U.S. — and to bring those ideas and solutions to my hometown. Here are three takeaways from the Knight Media Forum and what philanthropic leaders are doing to sustain local news.

National funding isn’t enough. The announcement last year of Press Forward, a national initiative to infuse $500 million into local newsrooms, was an extraordinary moment for journalism. It’s the first time we’ve seen a collective of national funders band together and make a significant investment in what we do.

But it alone is not enough. While much of the conversation in Miami centered around Press Forward, the real catalyst for change will be if local funders step up and essentially match what’s happening nationally. This initiative is called Press Forward Locals, and with chapters in more than 17 communities across the country we’re seeing a shift in institutional support for journalism at a local level. Foundations from Wichita to Chicago are putting their dollars into a local fund to support newsrooms in their regions, inspired and incentivized by Press Forward.

Here at home, we’re having conversations with funders in Silicon Valley to capitalize on this opportunity and create a sustainable funding stream for local newsrooms like San José Spotlight.

We’re also ensuring any local efforts include the voices of minority-led and ethnic media.

Journalism is king. Sustaining a newsroom and making it a core part of its community goes back to the impact of its work. Philanthropy will fund journalism that matters to a community, and that’s making a difference in its region.

Our mission-driven journalism has made an remarkable impact in Silicon Valley. Our stories have sparked new laws. They’ve cost politicians their jobs and ruffled powerful feathers. Most importantly, our watchdog reporting has brought justice. It’s building a more equitable Silicon Valley for those often left behind — homeless people, people of color, working families, immigrants and other marginalized communities.

We exposed how San Jose and former Mayor Sam Liccardo violated state sunshine laws and sued for withholding public records. Our victory forced the release of records dealing with the public’s business and sparked legislation from state Sen. Dave Cortese inspired by our lawsuit to bolster government transparency statewide.

Our reporting highlighted a troubling lack of diversity on a critical government panel, forcing reforms and the appointment of two Latino leaders. We revealed how a tech mogul sexually harassed a staffer. We uncovered ties between elite politicians and a disgraced eBay executive involved in a vicious stalking scheme. We shed light on a public hospital system that serves poor people, saved a food bank from closure and helped homeless seniors stay housed. We recently uncovered mold at a homeless housing project — sparking change and efforts to clean it up.

These stories would not be told without San José Spotlight. As we create sustainable revenue streams for journalism, we’re using existing resources to double down on journalistic efforts, invest in reporters who can build relationships with diverse communities and fearlessly pursue stories that make a difference. We’re obsessed with the quality of our journalism. Good journalism is worthy of investment — and philanthropy should be watching.

Collaboration is the future. I cut my teeth in competitive news markets facing the pressure of “being first” or angling for the best shot or quote. But as newsrooms across the U.S. face financial uncertainty and competition for eyeballs from Facebook (and others), we have to work together. We can do more with less if we pool our resources and collaborate.

In nonprofit journalism, we see meaningful partnerships emerge every day. Chalkbeat, a national nonprofit focused on education, has made partnerships a core part of its business model and recognizes how they strengthen the entire news ecosystem.

At San José Spotlight, we’re exploring a collaboration with a longtime media organization now, and we’ve already partnered with Bay City News and Local News Matters to allow their Bay Area media partners to republish our work — at no cost. We see how the right partnerships allow us to reach more readers and maximize our impact.

No one has it figured out. And just when we think we do, things change again. But with the leadership of philanthropic leaders who care about journalism — including Knight Foundation’s new San Jose Director Allan Madoc — we are one step closer.

Contact Ramona Giwargis at [email protected] or follow @RamonaGiwargis on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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