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How to save local journalism: Philanthropist gave her thoughts at event Wednesday

On Wednesday, Julie Sandorf, president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, came to the Sanford School to make a case for philanthropy in resuscitating local journalism.

The Revson Foundation has provided grants for urban affairs, Jewish life, biomedical research and education since 1956. In 2008, when the news industry was showing signs of market failure, the Revson Foundation awarded $4.5 million in grants toward the goal of reinventing the news ecosystem, with grants allocated to a total of 27 local organizations. 

“Why should journalism be an issue of concern and worthy recipient of philanthropy?” Sandorf asked. “Rigorous, robust journalism is the life blood of our society by supplying information and holding institutions of power accountable.”

Sandorf’s speech included examples of organizations that benefited from these grants in order to inspire a discussion on how continued philanthropy may be the only way to save local journalism at a time when commercial business models are not succeeding.

Lack of local news across the board has led to less civic engagement, lower voter turnout, a less informed community and a lower interest in local news, she explained.

Sandorf added that the biggest gap in local journalism is sustained coverage—referred to by journalists as beats. Due to a lack of revenue, the practice of thoroughly covering an issue to develop sources and credibility has gone by the wayside. 

“There is no beat in New York City that covers immigrants,” she said. “Between Sept. 2016 and the inauguration of [President] Trump, 59 immigrants with no criminal records were arrested by [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. Since Trump’s inauguration, 615 immigrants with no criminal records have been arrested.”

The current business model has created a system in which success is measured in page views, not whether journalism is truly affecting the actions of powerful organizations, she noted. 

Sandorf cited the Texas Tribune as one of the best success stories of a modern journalistic business model—which, after an initial philanthropic donation, now has an annual budget of $10 million from corporate sponsorships. This was the philanthropic market test in which such a high-quality product was produced that has attracted more and more national, local and individual funding support with donors from both the left and right.

Bill Adair, director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy and founder of PolitiFact, asked Sandorf how to best replicate the success of the Texas Tribune.

“Is the success from a mix of philanthropy and business in Austin?” he asked. “Or is it a few really talented people and the business director?”

Sandorf explained that their success was built on a combination of all those factors as well as hometown pride in Austin that motivated businesses to help provide the public service of local journalism.

Although the Texas Tribune model may be difficult to reproduce, Sandorf noted that even small-scale philanthropy could save local journalism institutions from going bankrupt.

“Foundations give grants to membership organizations,” she said. “If they invest in health and welfare, education, health, housing and the future of their communities, perhaps they should take two percent of their grant making and put that into a fund for local journalism.”


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