BIPOC Media Leaders Welcome Press Forward… With Caution

Publishers and news leaders ask how equity will fit into funders' vision of "saving the news"

March 2024
Sherrell Dorsey
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The past few weeks marked another onslaught of bad news for the news industry. Between large cuts at daily papers like the L.A. Times and Washington Post, to extensive layoffs at Time magazine and Sports Illustrated, the grim outlook continues to roll in for an industry that has seen over 2,000 newspapers shuttered in the last 20 years.

Enter: Press Forward—the latest philanthropic endeavor hoping to close the resource gap, at least partially, tossing newsrooms a lifeline in the form of grants. The $500 million initiative, announced in September and kicking off in earnest early this year, is led by a coalition of heavy-hitters known for their history of investments in journalism, like The Knight Foundation, The MacArthur Foundation, and the Miami Foundation.

While the influx of dollars is being celebrated across the industry, some industry groups are also urging these funders to prioritize equity in the distribution of grants. It's well documented that BIPOC publishers see less financial support across capital opportunities –and a coalition of news groups including the National Association of Black Journalists and Asian American Journalists Association is pushing for these disparities to be taken into account as Press Forward kicks off.

“We have seen in the past with philanthropic funding that organizations led by and founded by people of color don’t always get the level of funding that others do," said LaShara Bunting, CEO of the Online News Association. "The hope is that Press Forward will find those organizations and give them the investment they need to succeed... no one wants to look back five years from now and see that funding was distributed in a predictable way."

A Lens on Equity

For newsrooms owned and run by Black, Indigenous, and people of color, the announcement of the Press Forward commitment is a welcome opportunity, yet still a cause for caution. Data from the Democracy Fund show that between 2009 and 2015, only 6 percent of the $1.2 billion in grants invested in news and information in the US went toward specific racial and ethnic groups. 

“Grants put a Band-Aid on things, but they don’t heal,” explained De’Von Johnson, CEO of BlueLife Media Group and magazine.

Johnson is a leader of the Black Owned Media Equity and Sustainability Institute, where he helps support more than 200 Black-owned media businesses. While he sees the potential influx of cash from Press Forward as promising, he also recalls what happened to BIPOC publishers who saw a rising interest in support, donations, and grant opportunities emerge following the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020 – and the subsequent reduction of their budgets as the interest in equity declined by the end of 2022. 

“These grant moments often happen in response to something traumatic in society, and as we move away from that traumatic moment, so does that financial support,” said Johnson. “Sometimes [publishers] are worse off than they were before... Founders scale, and then what happens if there is no follow-on funding?"

Johnson is not alone in asking these questions. Last fall, a coalition of journalism organizations that included ONA, AAJA, IJA, NABJ, NAHJ, Maynard Institute, and OpenNews penned an open letter to the Press Forward consortium urging grantmakers to prioritize an equitable distribution of resources across racial and ethnic newsroom leaders. The collective wrote: 

"Philanthropy has a responsibility to be inclusive, intentional and transparent about how funding from this initiative is distributed... A recent study of 103 publishers of color and outlets serving “racial, ethnic, or linguistic communities” revealed that 53 percent of them will be out of business in less than five years if current revenue trends persist.” In effect, that would undermine the stated objectives of the Press Forward initiative.”

The coalition laid out recommendations for Press Forward’s leaders to drive equitable distribution of dollars, including:

  • Align funding priorities with the demographic shifts occurring across our nation by investing in trusted leaders, publishers, journalists, and organizations serving communities of color.
  • Consider as a foundational criteria for all newsrooms that their organizations, including leadership, are reflective of the communities they serve.
  • Break the cycle of disinvestment and the disproportionate investment in white leaders and organizations with under-representation of people of color.

An Opportunity to Do Things Differently

“I think we all realize that $500 million is not going to solve the problem, but it is a great place to start and a great way to ignite further funding,” said LaShara Bunting, CEO of the Online News Association. Bunting previously served as director of journalism for the Knight Foundation. For her, the biggest question she asks funders is how they will help newsrooms understand business sustainability via expertise and technology. 

"We’re in this ever-changing, unknown territory, and part of the conversation around sustainability has to be: what will this look like in 10 or 20 years?" Bunting says. "What’s the realistic picture of the public willingness to pay and engage over time?”

For Bunting and others, grants can be a good start and a catalyst for change – if and only if sustainability and equity are at the root of the support. Indeed, initiatives like BOMESI and URL Media, led by Sara Lomax and S. Mitra Kalita, pick up where accelerators and grants leave off. These projects leverage the power of BIPOC news org audiences to recruit national advertisers and create frequent and sustainable deal flow for publishers who have limited time and access to advertisers at a larger scale.

Also in the picture are equity-focused grantmakers, like Borealis' Racial Equity in Journalism Fund. Launched in 2019, the fund has granted more than $10 million to over 40 organizations since its inception, and continues to award grants to newsrooms led by and are serving communities of color. 

"These newsrooms are doing amazing work," Bunting says. "The hope is that Press Forward will find those organizations and give them the investment they need to succeed."

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