The largest annual convening of journalists and those who fund journalism took place in Miami Feb. 21-23 at Knight Media Forum. It’s the longest-running gathering of funders of journalism, and marked a return to in-person after two years of virtual-only conferences.
The forum is a bellwether for the future of funding for journalism. Despite headwinds that include financial challenges, an erosion of trust, and attacks on public institutions and the press, the conference offered an optimistic outlook for the road ahead, summarized in this comment by Alberto Ibargüen, CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation: “It feels like we are starting to play offense.”
Here are five takeaways for news organizations from the Knight Media Forum.
1. Journalism and philanthropy’s shared mission
From the opening keynote by Ibargüen to the breakout sessions and closing comments, the clear theme of the 2023 Knight Media Forum was that the interests and goals of journalism and philanthropy align around a critical shared mission: informing communities to ensure a healthy democracy.
To news organizations, Ibargüen was direct: Funders value journalism as essential means to a greater good.
“We’re not trying to save journalism,” he said. “We’re investing in informed communities to save democracy.”
Ibargüen was equally direct to funders.
“Whatever your first priority … journalism needs to be your second, because trustworthy information, most often locally sourced, is essential to achieving any of these other important goals,” he said.
2. Local news is essential in the media ecosystem
At the conference, recognition was widespread of the essential and specific contributions of local news to informing communities.
“We are part of the civic fabric. We are not just reporting on our community, we are living in it,” noted Paulette Brown-Hinds, publisher of Black Voice News. “We are there when the national news is not,” adding, “We are not just there for the tragedy. We are there for the joy, we are there for the resilience.”
Ibargüen summarized the shift in understanding among funders.
“There is growing recognition that high quality news, particularly local news, is foundational to democracy,” he said.
3. Inclusion and community service over tax status
While much has been written and debated recently about for-profit vs. nonprofit news models, especially in the wake of a gathering of funders in January at Sunnylands, at Knight Media Forum a consensus was clear: The tax status of a news organization is not the most important consideration.
What matters most is a demonstrated record of inclusive journalism that represents and engages all voices in service of the public good. The simplistic either/or framing was generally rejected in favor of a more inclusive view.
“It’s not either/or, it’s both,” said Sonny Messiah Jiles, CEO of Houston Defender Network, speaking on the opening keynote panel. “We [legacy publishers] have the relationships with the community — and those digital startups are coming to us and looking to partner.”
Kinsey Wilson, founder and president of Newspack, responded to a question on the framing of for-profit vs nonprofit model by saying that a more meaningful way of evaluating the media landscape was for news outlets of all types to move “away from a transactional relationship with the audience” to be more authentic, transparent, engaged, diverse and inclusive.
On the final day of the conference, Nieman Lab published an opinion piece by Steve Waldman, founder of Rebuild Local News, in which he wrote that “local news is a public service profession. We need both commercial and nonprofit outlets to fulfill that mission.”
4. Funders as champions for impactful journalism
When it comes to philanthropic support for journalism, “we want to make the tent as big as we can” both for funders and news outlets, said Jim Brady, vice president of journalism for Knight Foundation.
In breakout sessions, funders emphasized what they sought from news organization partners.
“The thing that excites funders is big ideas,” said Jill Ozarski, program officer with Walton Family Foundation, noting that collaborative approaches enable news organizations and funders to leverage greater impact.
Kristen Mack of MacArthur Foundation, a long-time supporter of journalism, put the challenge to new funders.
“We are asking for a ‘coalition of the enthusiastic’ to join in funding journalism, to respond to what we know is a need,” she said.
5. Focus on impact
Throughout the conference, funders circled back to the theme that their goal was not to save journalism or any particular format, but to support journalism as a proven and effective way to inform and engage communities.
Consequently, impact emerged as an essential metric for news outlets seeking philanthropic support. Going forward, counts of stories published or page views aren’t sufficient to make the connection between quality local journalism and healthy communities.
In short, the themes were inclusion and impact. Rather than one path only, the ultimate way forward is an inclusive approach — a bigger tent — that involves many types of information sources and structures, and more funders, focused on informing and engaging our communities to ensure a healthy democracy.
Read more: 6 Takeaways from Knight Media Forum by Jim Brady, vice president of journalism, Knight Foundation.
Find playbacks from the Knight Media Forum presentations here.