Progressive media activists, rattled by the collapse of a generation of youth-oriented digital news outlets like Vice and BuzzFeed News, are pushing wealthy Democrats to invest in for-profit media companies and social media influencers.
That’s the conclusion of an 85-page report, obtained by Semafor and subsequently published online, prepared for a gathering of progressive leaders in Washington, D.C. last month.
The report calls for “diverting a share of the investment that’s going into exclusively cause-funded nonprofits towards sponsored content and into direct investment in hybrid and for-profit enterprises with large audiences.
“Likewise, rather than continuing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on TV ads, we believe that there is more long-term value for nonprofit investors — ranging from civic media focused philanthropies to mission-driven SuperPAC investors — in diverting a share of that investment into sponsoring topical reporting in a for-profit, or simply in buying some of the stations on which they are now advertising,” the report says.
Titled “Analysis of the Changing U.S. News Media Landscape and Strategies Toward Delivering Civic Value,” the report also suggested backing social media influencers and networks of non-traditional journalists who reach audiences not served by mainstream news outlets. And it recommended creating or backing hybrid non-profit/for-profit newsrooms, and buying unwanted or run-down local television networks that still generate revenue and serve as vital resources for local community news and bulwarks against local gossip on sites like Nextdoor.
The report and private forums with liberal philanthropic big-wigs were the brainchild of Arkadi Gerney, a longtime Democratic operative and communicator. In an interview with Semafor, he said he hoped the paper could also be used by center- and left-leaning philanthropists and investors hoping to push back against conservative media dominance in local television and radio in places where local media had collapsed.
Gerney enlisted a series of co-authors, including Tim Hogan, Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s former 2020 presidential campaign communications director, and Sarah Knight, the former director of Soros’ Open Society Foundation’s democracy and media initiatives. “They also sought input from Allison Rockey, the former Vox executive editor and vice president, and Elizabeth Spiers, founder of The Insurrection, a political consulting firm specializing in polling and digital strategy.”
“Editorials barely exist, the half-life is shorter on op-eds, the audiences are smaller for cable news,” Gerney said of the changing media landscape. “It’s many things happening at the same time, and it’s made it more challenging.”
He continued: “This is not about nostalgia for the past and trying to bring back the exact old ecosystem that we had. There are things that the old ecosystem was doing that were attractive. So what is a new way to achieve that thing?”
The report and the meeting are part of a push by liberal activists to rethink their approach to influencing politics through the media on a local level.
Over the past several years, liberal groups and individuals have experimented with a number of new initiatives to reach news deserts and fight right-leaning local news behemoths like Sinclair.
- Accelerate Change, which is backed by Soros’s Open Society Foundations, scooped up NowThis earlier this year. According to one person with knowledge of the company’s plan, the organization will use the platform in a more explicitly activist form.
- Democratic operative Tara McGowan sunk millions into Meta’s advertising network during the 2022 midterm elections to boost Courier Newsroom, a network of local news sites that Wired dubbed the “antidote to bad information” from the right.
- Hogan, one of the report’s authors, is the executive editor of Heartland Signal, a new regional digital newsroom linked to the progressive radio station WCPT 820AM in Chicago. The newsroom has paired aggressive, left-leaning local reporting with progressive AM radio.
One unconventional theme of the report is that progressives should challenge conservative dominance in local television and talk radio, which goes unmatched on the left.
The report also argued that just backing meaningful print journalism or National Public Radio programming (both of which get a lot of support from left-leaning and philanthropic backers) doesn’t lead to coverage that finds its way to non-liberal audiences in a substantial way.
Saving progressive media may be a tough sell. But Soros’s Open Society Foundations have already embarked on something like the strategy detailed in the report. Along with NowThis, they’ve invested in media ranging from the now-bankrupt Vice to a group of Spanish-language radio stations.
Room for Disagreement: Many Democrats love to quibble with stories in the New York Times and the other great American independent news outlets. But ultimately, those outlets remain the primary media voices for American liberalism, and represent the very thing that Republican alternative media has always rallied around. “The American right and left have never been mirror images of each other. They’re different sorts of coalitions, with different histories and strategies,” as Ben wrote in the New York Times in 2020.
- Despite the impending retirement of George Soros, his family appears to be ready to delve even deeper into backing liberal causes. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Alex Soros, Jonathan’s younger brother, said the family’s $25 billion philanthropic enterprise will prioritize voting and abortion rights.
- Many journalists are extremely skeptical of partisan dollars flowing to news. Courier Newsroom is “exploiting the widespread loss of local journalism to create and disseminate something we really don’t need: hyperlocal partisan propaganda,” NewsGuard’s Gabby Deutch wrote in the Washington Post.