Philanthropy Won't Save Journalism. Digital Will

There is an idea that the only way journalism can survive is to be funded by those who stole its profits: Facebook, Google and the other tech giants accused of wicking revenues and audiences from traditional local media.

While there is plenty of room for philanthropy, the solution for long-term sustainable journalism won’t come from tech giants propping it up through charity.

Local news is a business and must survive on its own merits. The way for journalism to thrive is to engage in savvy new digital platforms and business practices that reach people where they access their information. Journalism can’t wait for a handout – and if it does, it won’t survive.

Media companies are finding new ways to be relevant to audiences and advertisers. Local media companies are leveraging their existing core strengths as launching pads for transformation and innovation.

It hasn’t been an easy road and profit margins are different today from those in the past. But traditional media – both for-profit and nonprofit – is working hard to find new revenue models to fund journalism.



Many are innovating in digital services and advertising space. A recent survey by Borrell Associates found that 86% of traditional local media providers sell digital services in addition to advertising space, and 48% of them have formed a digital service agency within the last four years.

Others have established events divisions that deliver profit margins of 50% or more, or are banding together to form strength-in-numbers partnerships to leverage buying power.

Collaboration in these areas is a way for the major tech platforms to contribute to the future of journalism, and Google and Facebook already are proving to be viable partners.

Google has opened up its Ad Exchange to a group of local media companies and provided other vital services at very favorable economics, while Facebook’s recently announced Local Journalism Project is designed to brainstorm ways to collaborate and drive more revenue and audience for news publishers.

But forming partnerships with these giants is by no means the only solution or option. We must – and will – continue to find ways to sustain this integral need of American society.

Local news is a business. Search and social media platforms are businesses. Working together to acknowledge our interdependency and finding ways for both sides to succeed will be a far more sustainable proposition than guilting billionaires to fund our trade.

Those in the local media trenches are hungry to learn, grow and gain access to the tools and technology to make it economically feasible to compete in the digital age. Many are seeking successful long-term partnerships they can influence and grow over time, rather than appealing to charity.

We should embrace philanthropy when it furthers learning new ways to sustain journalism. This includes scholarships that enable journalism students to hone skills in the digital age. Programs like the recent $881,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to the nonprofit Poynter Institute strengthen local journalism with a focus on digital and cultural transformation.

This will provide content, training and workshops to help local news organizations tackle the challenges of the digital age and become more valuable for their communities. This type of philanthropy enhances our trade, rather than spoon feeds our existence.

With the double-edged phenomenon of “fake news,” whether fueled by actual fake, fictional news or by politicians calling coverage they don’t like fake, there never has been a more compelling backdrop for the need of journalism and especially viable local media companies.

The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee anyone a living. It doesn’t guarantee an audience. It doesn’t make journalism entitled to anyone else’s money. It guarantees us a powerful freedom that we must fight to earn every day.

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