The Charles H. Revson Foundation and six philanthropic partners this week launched a new local news outlet in America’s largest city. It is an attempt to stanch a hemorrhage of local reporting and shine a light on the increasingly invisible politics of New York City and State.
In January 2018, the president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Julie Sandorf, spoke to a FIRG seminar at Duke about a philanthropic proposition that had struck some observers as farfetched: Foundations, she argued, ought to treat the flailing business of state and local journalism as an endangered public good in need of charitable sustenance.
More ambitious still, she proposed that philanthropy ought to tackle that challenge in America’s biggest city — where at least four local news outlets have folded in just the past year, where the New York Times has shrunk its local reporting to a couple of stories a week, and where the New York Daily News, the quintessential local paper, is slowly imploding.
Last week, Sandorf made good on her proposition. A new online local news outlet in New York, called The City, declared itself open for business and has started hiring. Although it will function as a subsidiary of the for-profit (and nationally popular) New York magazine, The City will be a purely local nonprofit, launched with $8.5 million in grants from a team of foundations and donors organized by Revson. New York will provide technology, editorial, and distribution services.
In the past two years, as Sandorf traveled around the country, field-testing the idea and seeking advice from nonprofit news organizations, she had encountered two kinds of opposition to her concept. First, some people argued, journalism is a business, not a charity, and tax-exempt dollars have no place in a market where news and advertising are bought and sold. To that, Sandorf’s simple answer was: Maybe that used to be true, but it isn’t any longer. With local news desks closing and local publications failing from coast to coast, any suggestion that state and local journalism is mainly a profitable market, rather than a public service, is becoming more fanciful by the day.
More to the point, as public services go, this one is especially precious. State and local journalism is indispensable to a healthy democracy and an informed electorate. The lack of a steady diet of local civic information, research shows, both depresses voter turnout and leads to less-informed voting. Local news explains things that people can see and touch: their neighborhoods, their transportation, schools, sanitation, safety, business and civic activity, sports and entertainment. If nearby businesses are disappearing or parks are falling prey to development, local news helps us understand why and what we can do about it.
So the idea that journalism is a fit target for philanthropy struck Sandorf as nearly self-evident. But the other objection she encountered was more worrisome: What do foundations know about running a news organization? And how competent would they be if they stepped into this complex and battered market purporting to offer solutions?
To answer that question, Sandorf and the Revson Foundation decided that they would do nothing without eminently expert partners. And as of this month, they made good on that promise, too. The City starts off with a gilt-edged team led by Jere Hester, the award-winning former city editor of the New York Daily News, whose initial staff of 15 reporters will be guided by an expert advisory panel featuring some of the best-known names in New York City journalism. Business operations will be in the hands of Kai Falkenberg, a seasoned manager with experience in both government and publishing.
Will it work? Good question. But if not, it won’t be for lack of solid backing and expert staffing. Unquestionably, the attempt needs to be made, as a matter of urgent public need. And succeed or fail, it will have been an astonishingly bold and assertive use of philanthropy on uncharted civic terrain, in an attempt to save at least one aspect of American democracy in a time of consummate peril.
When people ask why we need foundations, they’d be hard pressed to find a better answer.