The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on almost all sectors of the economy, including retail, restaurants, the travel industry, and media and journalism. Since the pandemic, more than 60 local newsrooms across the United States have closed. Some had been operating in their communities for more than one hundred years.
Even before the pandemic, local newsrooms had been losing revenue and shutting down at an alarming rate. Between 2004 and 2018, more than 900 communities lost their sources of local news, creating what some are describing as “news deserts.”
It may be difficult to fathom this problem: with the global reach the internet provides, don’t we actually have more information available to us than ever before? The internet has certainly provided more people access to news from across the country and the world. It has even helped boost the number of subscribers, readers, and even journalists employed by the New York Times, Washington Post, Atlantic, and others.
Yet the shuttering of local newsrooms has broader implications for U.S. democracy.
Several studies show local news coverage can have an impact on the levels of civic engagement by providing community members with more information about their political leaders and mobilizing citizens to vote. Local news can also affect the amount of public money spent on community economic development; one study finds that “cities where newspapers closed up shop saw increases in government costs as a result of the lack of scrutiny over local deals.” Perhaps most importantly at this moment in history, when many view media as a polarizing force, research indicates local news outlets can help build social cohesion, serving as public forums where community members can discuss, debate, and build connections over local problems.
As Candid’s president, Brad Smith, discussed in this blog post, philanthropic institutions have a unique position and substantial resources to support efforts to improve the processes and performances for a well-functioning democracy. Many do.
Since 2014, Candid has been collecting and coding grants data related to democracy, which we publish on our free, public platform Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy. The site includes grants data from 2011 to the present and is organized into four subject areas: campaigns, elections, and voting; civic participation; government; and media (interestingly, the initial funders of the site debated about including this category).
So, what does the data show?
- Perhaps surprisingly, media has received more than twice the amount awarded under the campaigns, elections, and voting category from 2011 to present ($2.7 billion vs. $1.1 billion).*
- The share of funding for media jumped from 26 percent in 2017 to 32 percent in 2018. It dropped slightly to 29 percent in both 2019 and 2020, based on the funding data we have collected so far for those years.
- The proportion of democracy-related grant dollars for media has hovered in the high 20 and low 30 percent range since 2016.
Years Funding for media Percent of all democracy-related giving 2011 $223 million 31% 2012 $176 million 23% 2013 $236 million 25% 2014 $255 million 26% 2015 $247 million 25% 2016 $329 million 27% 2017 $367 million 26% 2018 $545 million 32% 2019 $183 million 29% 2020 $111 million 29%
- We categorize grants that fall under the media category into three additional subcategories: media access and policy; journalism; and journalism education and training. Journalism education and training is the smallest category by far, receiving only 9 percent of all media funding between 2011 and the present. Media access and policy and journalism account for 48 percent of all media funding each.**
Subcategory Amount % of funding for media Sample grant
Journalism Education and Training $230.6M 9% To support the New School’s Journalism + Design program in their efforts to train local newsrooms on systems and design thinking through workshops, convenings, and a digital toolkit to help journalists develop new ways to understand and serve their local communities’ needs. ($150,000 grant from the Democracy Fund to New School) Media Access and Policy $1.3B 48% For coordination of the Lifeline Coalition for Digital Equity and to relaunch the Media Justice Leadership Institute to foster a movement for a more just and participatory media and technology landscape. ($75,000 from the Ford Foundation to Media Justice) Journalism $1.3B 48% For the Frontline Reporting Fund, which will enable Democracy Now! to devote additional resources to on-the-ground reporting and other special broadcasts during the 2020 election cycle and beyond. ($450,000 from the Annenberg Foundation to Democracy NOW! Productions)
- Funders support local, state, and national journalism efforts. Some examples in 2020 include a $250,000 general operating support grant from Conrad N. Hilton Foundation to National Public Radio (NPR); a $50,000 grant from the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation to the Texas Tribune to support investigative reporting; and a $50,000 grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Inc. to WHYY to address news and information gaps in South Jersey.
Candid’s data shows that philanthropy can play an important role in upholding the tenets of democracy, especially at a time when organizations are already strapped for resources and struggling to survive and recover from the global pandemic. Research underscores journalism’s important role in informing the public and increasing civic participation. Support from foundations might be able to prevent further news deserts from popping up in local communities across the country.
*Total based on data from 2011 to 2020, pulled on January 26,2021. Data for 2019 onward is incomplete.
**Grants can be counted in multiple categories. As a result, figures add up to more than 100 percent.