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50th Annual Meeting Speaker Highlight: John Thornton


Local news outlets have seen precipitous declines in audience and circulation since the emergence of the Internet – a downward spiral that accelerated significantly following the economic crash that began in 2008.

Yet in 2009, with the country still mired in the worst downturn since the Great Depression, venture capitalist John Thornton decided to make a big investment in local news by raising funds – including $1 million of his own – to launch the Texas Tribune.

Did Thornton see a business opportunity where others didn’t? Did he believe there was still money to be made in local news?

Not exactly.

“I’m not saying there isn’t a for-profit model out there,” Thornton told The Austin Chronicle in 2009. “It’s just not a good business, and it never will be again.”

What it could be, however, is an incredible opportunity for philanthropic investment, especially for funders interested in promoting civic engagement and a strong civil society.

“I really did become passionate about this idea that an informed society, a functioning democracy, requires public service journalism,” Thornton told NPR in a 2010 interview. “I came to the conclusion that public service journalism is not a very good business and, in fact, it's a public good.”

Now marking its 10thyear, the Texas Tribune has become a well-regarded, and sustainable, source of news and analysis. Thornton is now expanding his vision nationwide: Early this year, he joined with Elizabeth Green, founder of Chalkbeat – a nonprofit news site focused on education – to launch the American Journalism Project (AJP).

Underlying AJP’s work is the belief that journalism, while critical to democracy, is also a public good that – like roads, law enforcement or parks – market forces won’t supply or support. The organization launched with $42 million in funding, including $20 million from the Knight Foundation.

While AJP will make direct investments in what it calls civic news organizations, it also wants to, in the words of its founders, “help galvanize a movement in journalism philanthropy.”

“Today marks the start of a long journey, and the continuation of a national conversation about the importance of public service journalism,” Thornton and Green wrote in launching the AJP. “The need for that conversation has never been more urgent or more important.”

The goal of AJP is not to make news organizations dependent on foundations, though initial philanthropic investment may be necessary to launch new publications or expand the capacity of existing ones so that they can become self-supporting. The Texas Tribune, for example, has gone on to achieve sustainability through a mix of direct donations from readers, smaller grants and sponsorships.

“We think there's a model that combines premium content, membership and corporate sponsorship that will allow us to run this shop without having to go continually to foundations and wealthy individuals,” Thornton told NPR. “And so that's the road we're on.”

John Thornton is a panelist at the 50thAnnual Meeting plenary session, “Can Philanthropy Preserve the Pillars of Democracy?”, which begins at 8:00am on Thursday, November 14.

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