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NPR gets $5.5 million grant to strengthen local journalism as news deserts spread

The $5.5 million grant to NPR comes at a time when local newsrooms are struggling to stay afloat.
Allison Shelley/Allison Shelley
The $5.5 million grant to NPR comes at a time when local newsrooms are struggling to stay afloat.

Philanthropists Eric and Wendy Schmidt have given NPR a $5.5 million grant to invest in regional newsrooms – an infusion of cash at a time when local journalism is struggling financially.

The grant, announced Wednesday, will be used to establish the Appalachia regional newsroom, uniting six public media outlets in Kentucky and Tennessee. The money will fund four new positions and help support existing reporters and editors at those stations.

A digital editor and a journalist covering indigenous affairs will also be hired for the Mountain West News Bureau, which unites 14 stations across Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. A visual journalism pilot program will be launched in New England as well.

The regional newsrooms serve to share resources between independent, neighboring public media stations that may not be able to afford those resources individually.

“It’s the idea of strengthening local and regional news so that by working together, they don’t have to go cover things, each duplicating something,” said Edith Chapin, NPR’s Senior Vice President, Editor in Chief and acting Chief Content Officer. “They can now decide amongst themselves what they want to do, share, and it allows them to use their resources in the most effective ways to tell the most important stories in each of their communities and regions.”

Eric Schmidt, the former executive chairman of Google, and his wife Wendy, head of the Schmidt Family Foundation, gave $4.7 million to NPR in 2020. The initial donation was used to launch collaborative projects among public media stations in both the Midwest and California. This new grant builds upon that work by funding two new positions to help grow audiences for smaller stations in California, and three jobs in the Midwest regional newsroom.

More broadly, local news faces a crisis due to lack of funding. The Medill Local News Initiative found last year that more than half of the country can be considered a news desert. That means they have, at most, just one local news outlet, which is often a weekly newspaper.

Independent newsrooms, especially those covering smaller communities like those in Appalachia, have struggled with limited public funding.

“These are stations that have deep roots in their own local communities. And they’re already there, they’re already on the ground, they’re already doing great work. And at a moment when a lot of local newspapers are closing, this local journalism is really important,” said Kathy Goldgeier, the director of collaborative journalism at NPR. “We, as the public media system, are well positioned to be doing this kind of local reporting. And so the more we can do to help strengthen that, the better.”

Bolstering local news has been a priority for Wendy Schmidt, who was a journalist early in her career. She says that as people turn to social media and other news alternatives for information, and individual stations face budget barriers, the future of journalism could be nonprofit. She hopes that regional newsrooms will keep the public informed about the issues that directly affect them.

“Journalism is changing, our mediums are changing," she said. "You can use the power of networking here to elevate local journalism and local reporting into regional discussions as well. And those can have a pipeline into national conversation."

Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR Business Intern Lola Murti and edited by NPR Deputy Business Editor Emily Kopp. In keeping with NPR's protocol for reporting on itself, no corporate officials or news executives reviewed this article before it was posted.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Lola Murti
[Copyright 2024 NPR]