'Press Forward' offers a glimmer of news biz hope


Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

It was more than two decades ago when Time Warner and America Online came together in a media marriage that ranks as one of the largest mergers in Wall Street history, a deal that rocked the Richter scale at a staggering $350 billion. At the time it was billed by one of its architects, AOL co-founder Stephen Case, as a “historic moment in which new media has truly come of age.”

Age, unfortunately, wasn’t kind to that particular business combination. It produced huge job losses from the ranks for the merged companies, repeated investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and a seismic drop in stock price. It proved “historic” in the sense that the AOL-Time Warner deal is now viewed by business experts as one of the biggest busts in history, another prime example of bigger not necessarily becoming better.

Now, as we are in the midst of an era marked by the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), few media observers would dare forecast what is to come over the next 10 years, lest they run the risk of being cast into the depths of historic ignominy. Instead, it would be far more prudent to predict that the Techno Age may still be in its infancy in the way the digital world is transforming the business universe.

For those in the publishing field, the challenge of keeping pace with how news is gathered and disseminated was magnified recently when more than 20 nonprofit organizations announced plans to invest $500 million over the next five years in local media organizations.

The effort has been labeled “Press Forward,” a catchy name for a philanthropic initiative led by the MacArthur Foundation, a Chicago-based organization formed by the late husband-and-wife team of John and Catherine MacArthur who amassed their fortune in insurance and real estate ventures.

In announcing the investment, officials from the MacArthur Foundation fittingly issued a press release, noting that “since 2005, approximately 2,200 local newspapers have closed, resulting in 20 percent of Americans living in ‘news deserts’ with little to no reliable coverage of important local events. Press Forward seeks to reverse the dramatic decline in local news that has coincided with an increasingly divided America and weakening trust in institutions.”

Among the groups investing in Press Forward are the Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

“We have a moment to support the reimagination, revitalization, and rapid development of local news. We are prepared to support the strongest ideas and seed new ones; build powerful networks; and invest in people, organizations, and networks with substantial resources,” said John Palfrey, president of the MacArthur Foundation. “The philanthropic sector recognizes the need to strengthen American democracy and is beginning to see that progress on every other issue, from education and health care to criminal justice reform and climate change, is dependent on the public’s understanding of the facts.”

While philanthropic support for journalism has grown over the past decade, overall giving to local news falls short of what is needed, according to Palfrey. Press Forward funders are ready to move from individual grantmaking strategies to a shared vision and coordinated action that ensures individuals are informed and engaged on issues that affect their everyday lives.

Press Forward partners have identified the following priorities and have committed to making grants in one or more of these four areas of focus:

(1) Strengthen local newsrooms that have trust in local communities;

(2) Accelerate the enabling environment for news production and dissemination;

(3) Close longstanding inequalities in journalism coverage and practice;

(4) Advance public policies that expand access to local news and civic information.

Palfrey indicated that Press Forward is “independent of ideology” and plans to work with More Perfect, a bipartisan initiative that is advancing five interrelated democracy goals, one of which is Access to Trusted News and Information.

“Press Forward is an audacious effort to fortify a key pillar of American democracy, a healthy and independent free press,” said John Bridgeland, CEO of More Perfect. “Local news provides critical information, knits communities together, and keeps public officials accountable, all of which are essential to a thriving democracy.”

In short, the new venture offers a glimmer of hope that in the coming years news-starved communities across the country will have the information they need to make informed decisions about civic issues and governance, thereby helping curb the spread of disinformation that has contributed significantly to our political divide.


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