As Funders Press Forward for Local Journalism, Doubts Persist Around the Role of Racial Equity


When the funders and organizers behind Press Forward finally unveiled their $500 million initiative to support local news earlier in September, reactions to the announcement may well have put them in mind of the old axiom that no good deed goes unpunished. The initiative, launched by major players including the MacArthur, Ford and Knight foundations, has faced criticisms including that it doesn’t make a sufficiently explicit commitment to racial justice, that it’s far short of the amount actually needed to make a real difference, and that it lacks the urgency to start moving money and the willingness to engage with skeptics.

To be fair, in a wider environment where multiple, overlapping crises have led to legitimate questions about why such a small number of individuals and organizations have been allowed to accumulate and wield a vastly disproportionate share of the country’s wealth and power, it’s safe to say that there is no way Press Forward could have escaped at least some criticism. And as someone who lives in a relative local news desert, I’m personally thrilled about Press Forward, both on its own merits and for its potential to bring attention, and solutions, to the struggles facing the local news sector. That includes the need to find new operating paradigms to allow true news organizations to compete with the rising tide of right-wing financed, “pink slime” propaganda outlets masquerading as local news programs. 

Successfully persuading 22 funders to commit $500 million to a single cause, in less than a year, is a huge accomplishment — even if some of that money will come in the form of previously committed grantmaking. It speaks, in part, to widespread and growing enthusiasm among funders to back nonprofit journalism, a development to be applauded. 

At the same time, though, it is also fair to say that some of the criticisms aimed at Press Forward seem to have merit and that the initiative’s organizers would do well to heed those criticisms if they truly want to achieve their aims. 

To give just one example, I share ProPublica founding general manager Richard J. Tofel’s befuddlement that the organizations behind Press Forward chose to give their initiative the same name as an existing organization, an association of independent Canadian newsrooms that also works to support independent news. Nor, according to Canadian Press Forward Chair Jeanette Ageson, had anyone from the U.S. program responded to her outreach regarding the issue, though a MacArthur spokesperson told me after this story was published that they had received communication from a different person at the Canadian Press Forward and didn’t receive an acknowledgement of their response to that effort. Ageson said that the U.S. program still hasn’t adequately responded to their concerns.

For their part, a spokesperson from the U.S. Press Forward said that, yes, they were aware of the existence of the Canadian organization, but aren’t concerned about confusion between the two organizations because of extensive research and efforts on their end and because “our coalition is focused on the U.S.-based local news organizations.” 

Press Forward in Canada doesn’t agree. “I think for clarity's sake, to avoid confusion, both of our associations should make clear that we are not affiliated with one another,” Ageson said. “Our association will add something to that effect on our website, and we suggest that the U.S. initiative do the same.” After the original publication of this piece, Ageson added that her organization has had to deal with “a few inquiries” from people wondering whether or not her organization is affiliated with the U.S. effort.

But while this problem and the other criticisms leveled at Press Forward are potentially troubling, another issue truly stands out. In today’s environment, the fact that Press Forward hasn’t made a strong, explicit commitment to racial and other kinds of equity deserves particular notice.

A vague commitment

The most substantive concern with the initial Press Forward announcement, particularly in terms of the number of organizations and people involved, was raised in the form of an open letter to Press Forward’s organizers from professional associations representing and supporting more than 10,000 Black and other people of color in journalism, including the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, the Asian American and Indigenous Journalists associations and the National Association of Black Journalists. 

Citing a 2020 Bridgespan report showing disparities in both the amount of money and the level of constraints funders apply to nonprofits led by people of color, and a recent study finding that 53% of surveyed publishers of color or those serving “racial, ethnic or linguistic communities” expect to be out of business in less than five years if something doesn’t change, the letter is blunt: “We are pleased to see that the funding priorities of the Press Forward initiative include ‘improving diversity of experience and thought.’ As this initiative unfolds and decisions are made about where support is directed, we want to be clear: Racial and ethnic diversity, equity and belonging must be among the pillars of its foundation.”

It’s certainly true that Press Forward’s announcement fails to explicitly articulate a commitment to racial equity — or other forms of equity, including for LGBTQ+ communities. Instead, it opts for much more ambiguous language, pointing to what it says is one of its funders’ shared values: to “Enable growth with equity and diversity of thought.” That includes a commitment to “close longstanding inequities in media ownership, philanthropy, and journalism, so the future of local news in America is more relevant and better serves all communities, especially those that have been historically marginalized in media and democracy.”

Given that any reasonable reader already knows exactly which communities and people have suffered these “longstanding inequities,” it’s particularly perplexing that funders like Ford and MacArthur, both of which have foregrounded racial equity efforts in their giving, were willing to settle for such a comparatively weak statement. Indeed, while not all of the 22 funders backing Press Forward have been explicitly progressive and equity-forward in their recent grantmaking, enough of them do have that profile to raise the question.

Martin Reynolds, co-executive director of the Maynard Institute, told me that he sees the Press Forward statement as another symptom of what currently seems to be a retrenchment away from the 2020 movement toward using “the words that matter” in calling out racial injustice, not only in reference to policing, but also to journalism and philanthropy. Since the recent SCOTUS decision banning affirmative action in university admissions, Reynolds said, he has heard in quiet conversations from philanthropic partners that they are examining and changing the wording on their websites to avoid being targeted.

Perhaps Press Forward’s broad, non-explicit language around “diversity of thought” is a tactic by its organizers to keep from getting caught up in the kind of lawsuit currently faced by a fund seeking to benefit Black women entrepreneurs. The fact is, the gadflies behind these lawsuits aren’t going away — but behemoths like Ford and MacArthur have more than sufficient money to take up legal arms against them. By hiding behind vague language, the Press Forward organizers may have been able to attract other, smaller, or perhaps less progressive funders to their cause, but they have also missed the chance to stand as a shield protecting smaller diversity-focused journalism organizations. No doubt, those organizations now have reason to wonder just how much of a difference this new initiative will make to their struggling newsrooms. 

Asked whether Press Forward plans to make an explicit commitment to racial, ethnic, and sexual minority equity, either in further statements or its grantmaking policies, a MacArthur spokesperson responded by email, saying: “We have already made a commitment; it is one of Press Forward’s four investment priorities: Closing longstanding inequalities in journalism coverage and practice.” 

I also asked if any organizations representing journalists of color and/or sexual minorities, or nonprofit newsrooms led by journalists of color and/or sexual minorities, were involved in advising the group that came together to make Press Forward happen. Reynolds from the Maynard Institute told me that, to his knowledge, none of the organizations that are signatories to the open letter were consulted. MacArthur also declined to be specific about the extent to which organizations representing journalists of color were involved in those initial deliberations, instead saying, “Our inaugural donors have been actively listening to the field in the many convenings where this has been a topic and through our existing grantmaking partnerships, we have been learning from diverse leaders in the field.”

“Use the words that matter”

To be fair once again, it’s entirely possible that MacArthur and the other Press Forward funders have proactively sought out and engaged with journalists of color and other minority journalists as Press Forward came together. One would hope that the 10,000+ journalists represented by the open letter’s signing organizations are only a significant fraction of the minority journalists and journalism experts that have been available to Press Forward’s organizers, and that Press Forward has availed – and will avail – itself of these other voices rather than falling back on the top-down, we-know-best thinking that all too often has characterized giving by our country’s largest funders.

As educators are attacked for teaching historical facts about U.S. history and books containing those facts are being banned, “the time isn't now to sort of be withering back from a concern around racial equity, particularly as it relates to journalism and society writ large,” Reynolds said. “The time is to actually stand up and to re-engage.” Re-engaging is particularly important, he went on, given that some people continue to question how racial equity connects to the current, ongoing threats to democracy in the U.S. 

“If you can’t answer that, I don’t know what to tell you, because race is a huge pillar to the systemic inequities and disparities that we see,” Reynolds said. “There are other intersecting factors and fault lines, class and gender and the like, but race is a pillar. And so if we're not being explicit about that, and just saying ‘diversity,’ and even though those other forms of diversity matter, I think that we are actually pulling back from the important language that was finally used in 2020. And it is incumbent upon philanthropy, as it embarks on this very ambitious and important initiative, to use the words that matter.”

Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to reflect the fact that both the U.S. and Canadian Press Forward organizations attempted to communicate about the name issue, but failed to resolve the Canadian organization’s concerns.