Working on short-term solutions, based on grants or single-contribution funds, won’t be enough to help build and support strong journalistic efforts, let alone the kinds needed to help foster and protect democracy.
Teresa Gorman wanted something that looked for longer-term solutions, aimed at changing the existing ecosystem and making it stronger across the board. As the program manager for the Public Square program at the Democracy Fund, she’s doing just that.
The Democracy Fund’s vision is for “an inclusive, multi-racial democracy that is open, just, resilient and trustworthy,” she says. “From the start, they had the Public Square journalism program. They were thinking we have to have this as part of a just democracy. In the beginning, that was surprising to some people, that the Democracy Fund had journalism as one of their core pieces of work. Fast forward a few years and people understand how important it is to democracy.”
Of course, news outlets are in trouble and many places are now news deserts with the loss of local reporting. When that happens, communities are less engaged in the democratic process and corruption in local government tends to rise. Efforts to help educate the citizenry to reclaim their civic power and attend public meetings can help regain some of that accountability, but it can’t be done in a vacuum.
“It doesn’t matter where people live or who they are; when you talk about inclusion and equity, people should be able to get the news and information they need to live their lives and engage in civic life,” Gorman says.
That’s where the Public Square program comes in. In addition to providing grant funds for projects, it helps build ecosystems and networks in which news organizations can learn from each other and adopt innovative approaches to addressing news deserts.
To go beyond that, the program has three key areas of concentration to help address the problem.
It starts with reframing the problem, Gorman says. “The conversation is often pretty negative and there’s lots of bad things happening. What are we building that we can be excited about? What are the other resources that exist that we can pull together? That’s happening in ecosystems.”
In North Carolina, for example, a team realized there was a big gap in Spanish-language information. “They helped fund the first digital news startup that is Spanish first. That’s a great organization, but they didn’t stop there,” she says. The group worked with a Spanish-language farm workers organization to utilize a text message service to help solve the problem, which was later used to help disseminate information about COVID-19 vaccines and masks.
The second aspect is “growing the pie. This is a big problem and we need big solutions and big dollars to solve it, and that’s with public partnerships. In Colorado, they’ve raised millions of dollars from other funders who have never given to journalism before. They said, ‘OK, you care about health, you should care about journalism. You care about democracy, you should care about journalism.’ We really think that there needs to be more public resources for journalism.”
Third, there’s a focus on equitable funding. “If we’re growing this pie and reframing the problem, we have to rethink what we’re doing,” Gorman says. “Resources have not gone to people of color and to communities that are marginalized and overlooked. … If we’re solving the news desert problem or building something new, we have to have equity first.”
Teresa Gorman talks to It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell about how the Democracy Fund’s Public Square program is building ecosystems to solve the problem of news deserts. It’s also promoting equity by identifying funding for newsrooms that cover marginalized and overlooked communities.