Community foundations across California are part of a growing movement to revitalize the essential civic infrastructure of independent local news.

Two decades of disruption within the industry has shuttered dozens of local newsrooms across California, creating a growing number of­ ‘news deserts’ that exacerbate upward trends in civic disengagement and political polarization.

Fewer local journalists means less representation for increasingly diverse communities throughout California. The vacuum of credible reporting left by disappearing local news outlets can often be filled with so-called ‘fake news’ and misinformation.

By making big investments in local news community foundations are “amplifying community voice” to bolster civic engagement and foster more active, informed communities.

Communities need “a bedrock of local civic leadership, philanthropy, and readers willing to nurture local journalism as a valued community asset,” writes Julia Sandorff in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Here are four examples of community foundations stepping up to play this role in California.

Sacramento Region Community Foundation

The Sacramento Bee launched its Impact Media Fund at the Sacramento Region Community Foundation in 2019 to support local journalists covering the most pressing issues in the Capitol region.

A flagship project of the Fund is the Equity Lab, a community-funded team of journalists at The Sacramento Bee with a mission to “deeply engage with disenfranchised communities and elevate stories of community and collective importance.” All coverage is available free of charge to the community.

The Foundation partnered with the Bee as a fiscal sponsor of the project, initially raising $300,000 to support its first year. The Foundation also invested staff time and technical support. Other early supporters include the McClatchy family, former owners of the Bee, through their Journalism Institute (now known as Journalism Funding Partners.)

Neither the Foundation nor the Fund’s supporters exercise any editorial influence with the new reporting team at the Sacramento Bee.

While designing the Impact Media Fund, the Foundation researched similar models at the Seattle Times and Salt Lake City Tribune. “We did a lot of homework,” said Kerry Wood, the foundation’s Chief Marketing and Donor Engagement Officer. “Our belief in the importance of equitable, local journalism in this region inspired us to learn from others who paved the way.”

To date the Equity Lab team at the Bee has produced dozens of investigative pieces, community spotlights, and special projects such as a deep dive on local trends in domestic violence during the COVID-19 crisis.

Central Valley Community Foundation

The Central Valley Community Foundation launched its Impact Media and Measurement Fund to “increase civic agency for both informing and engaging residents, as well as increasing transparency and accountability in achieving community goals” across the Foundation’s six-county service territory.

The idea arose through conversations with The Fresno Bee and the McClatchy family. This early coalition united around a shared goal of lifting up community voices and improving accountability through local reporting and storytelling.

The project quickly evolved into a portfolio of six special projects overseen by Foundation staff, including the Education Lab, the Fresnoland Lab focused on housing and land use, and an annual short film contest called The Big Tell.

The Foundation emphasizes transparency by publishing a list of donors that contribute $5,000 or more. It also maintains a strict policy of editorial independence.

“We believe that readers should know who is paying for their news,” said Gretchen Moore, Chief Strategy Officer at CVCF. “The editorial independence policy is sacred to us – neither CVCF nor any contributors to the fund have any say whatsoever in what is published.”

The Foundation continues to bring new projects online and to partner with other journalism funders to advocate for local news ecosystems. Foundation staff are developing a toolkit to share the team’s top learnings with other community foundations.

In early 2020, with support from CVCF and Microsoft, the Bee joined a coalition of local partners including Vida en el Valle, Valley Public Radio and Radio Bilingüe to launch new coverage of how the Central Valley’s communities of color were being impacted by the COVID crisis.

Community Foundation for San Benito County

The Community Foundation for San Benito County joined the movement for local news in response to a yearlong series of community listening sessions.

At these gatherings, said CEO Gary Byrne, residents explored questions like “What is the quality of life in San Benito County? What is missing? What can the community foundation do to make it better?”

Until 2010 San Benito County boasted four local daily newspapers. Today it has just one, published weekly from a neighboring county. Media outlets in nearby urban hubs like San Jose rarely venture into the more rural areas of San Benito County for stories.

Recognizing the need for a reliable daily local news outlet, the Foundation launched BenitoLink. For two years the Foundation incubated the online news hub as its fiscal sponsor, supporting staff salaries and start-up costs. BenitoLink has since evolved into its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit, supported by funders like the Knight Foundation as well as individual donors in the community.

Today BenitoLink’s monthly readership tops 280,000 page views and 120,000 unique users as residents engage with investigative reporting, event coverage and local storytelling.

“Now they’re totally independent from us,” said Byrne. “It has helped us and helped them.”

Humboldt Area Foundation

In the summer of 2020 the Humboldt Area Foundation (HAF) and the Wild Rivers Community Foundation joined a group of local media partners to launch the Community Voices Coalition to support journalism in Humboldt, Trinity, Del Norte and Curry counties.

These rural communities share a long history of free and independent media outlets, all of which have struggled financially in the wake of the COVID crisis.

In 2020 the funder collaborative pooled $35,000 for a pilot project to support coverage of how the pandemic was impacting the region’s most vulnerable communities.

 “The goal was to bring together a coalition that could be not just an information source during COVID – then wildfires and our other disasters – but that also might endure past that,” explained Lindsie Bear, the foundation’s Vice President of Strategy, Program and Community Solutions.

The coalition centers around solutions-based journalism and equitable coverage of underrepresented groups. “We are not just looking at what is broken in our region, but also what we are doing to fix it,” said Bear. “It’s really about empowering the community to use our resources to address pretty dire needs.”

The Coalition is guided by a local editorial board, which quickly identified the need to overcome language barriers by hiring Spanish and Hmong translators. “Early on we realized that if we were putting out stories from communities, they had to be in languages that all of those communities could understand,” said Bear. 

Recently the Coalition’s support has allowed the North Coast Journal to cover local impacts of the COVID crisis, including a story on how the Yurok tribe invested stimulus funding in critical digital infrastructure. The project’s public health coverage also inspired a public service announcement with Access Humboldt and Spanish language advocacy group Centro del Pueblo.

More Local News Initiatives

McClatchy Media Lab Fund - Stanislaus Community Foundation

The Media Lab Fund bolsters community journalism through an innovative partnership with the nonprofit Report for America. Grants from this fund will expand the team of reporters at The Modesto Bee and support new models for journalism at the local level.

Community Catalyst Fund - Silicon Valley Community Foundation

The Community Catalyst Fund for local journalism supports coverage of hyper-local issues and addresses gaps in news reaching underserved communities, including residents of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties who are Black, Indigenous or people of color.

Mission Metrics Initiative - San Francisco Foundation

In 2021 the nonprofit newsroom The Oaklandside launched its pilot Mission Metrics initiative with funding from the San Francisco Foundation. Paid community advisors from each Oakland district give direct community feedback, evaluate the impact of The Oaklandside's reporting, and identify ways the newsroom can better reach and serve more Oaklanders.

Ethnic Media Table - California Community Foundation

The California Community Foundation, serving the LA region, supports the work of the 2020 Census Ethnic Media Table representing over 50 outlets in communities of color in LA County.