Telling generous people how to give away their money can be a bit presumptuous.

So instead I’ll offer a suggestion to the philanthropies donating more than $500 million to help save America’s local-news ecosystem.

The 22 national foundations announced an alliance called Press Forward on Sept. 7. They aim to support trusted local newsrooms, spur innovation, improve performance and encourage more support for local news organizations essential to democracy.

My suggestion: Consider buying one or more of the country’s big newspaper chains.

Then break them apart and return the papers to local ownership. That could be for-profit investors, cooperatives, nonprofits or other local groups committed to public service journalism.

This would be a relatively fast and efficient way to rebuild the independent, local press system, especially beyond big cities that still have decent news options.


It would start to undo decades of consolidation by Wall Street types that was weakening local news even before the internet disrupted the business.

Gannett, the largest local-news publisher with newspapers and digital news sites in 43 states, had a market cap of $410 million as of Wednesday.

Lee Enterprises, the next largest publicly held local-news publisher, had a market cap of $71.2 million. The Iowa-based chain serves 77 communities in 26 states.

I’m oversimplifying this, a lot.

But it’s worth considering if the primary goal is to save and improve local news coverage that’s essential to civic engagement and the health of communities.

This is an urgent situation. Papers are closing at the rate of two per week, civic distrust is growing and the void is filling with all manner of spin, spam and propaganda.

Flipping these fixer-uppers would be quicker and more efficient than trying to build an entirely new local-news ecosystem, piece by piece. It would be entrepreneurial and galvanizing for local communities. It would also simplify the path for regional funders wanting to help address the local-news problem.


But like I said, it’s up to the foundations and others supporting Press Forward to decide how they want to help and where they see the greatest need.

In its announcement, the group said its first goal is to “strengthen local newsrooms that have the trust of local communities.”

It also wants to “scale the infrastructure required to support a thriving independent local news sector,” close inequities in journalism coverage and practice, and advance public policies that expand access to local news and civic information.

Grantees could include existing for-profit and nonprofit newsrooms, startups building news outlets or services, journalism and education organizations and the growing group of nonprofits working on the journalism problem.

That’s all terrific. It would also be complemented with a big, bold move to return still-trusted newsrooms to local ownership.

Start with Lee Enterprises, perhaps, and see if it’s possible to find local investors and community organizations to operate or support its daily papers.


I’m not suggesting benefactors bail out failing old businesses. These are actually going concerns, with fast-growing digital operations, but hobbled by obligations to investors and financiers.

Think of this as accelerating and improving the modernization that’s underway across the industry.

Every major newspaper is now delivering news digitally as well as in print. Many have large and growing audiences of younger readers.

Gannett’s annual report said half of online millennials in the U.S., aged 27 to 42, accessed its news content monthly during 2022.

Despite deep cost-cutting, chains continue to produce civic journalism of great value to communities and the country.

Gannett’s Austin American-Statesman was a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year for revelatory coverage of the Uvalde school shooting. Its Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel was a 2022 finalist for a series exposing an epidemic of electrical fires that especially affected Black renters.


But the chains have different priorities, including satisfying Wall Street every quarter and generously compensating executives. They’ve wooed investors by funneling revenue into building national ad networks instead of robust, local newsrooms.

A model could be The Philadelphia Inquirer. The for-profit daily is now owned by a nonprofit, The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, that prioritizes public service.

While sustaining a newspaper that’s the foundation of local news in its region, Lenfest simultaneously funds new ways to cover news and serve communities. It supports news startups and programs to improve the reach, sustainability and diversity of journalism.

A commitment to restore local stewardship of newspapers in a majority of states would also help convince Congress to pass two promising local-journalism bills.

One would provide temporary tax credits to news outlets saving or adding newsroom jobs. The other would enable small and large news outlets to collectively negotiate content deals with Google and Meta, which are now dominant distributors of news content and digital advertising.

Regardless of what Press Forward does, these policies would help get local newspapers’ business flywheel spinning again. They would also make it more feasible for local stewards to step up and acquire papers spun out of the chains, whether or not the foundations help that along.

The outpouring of charitable support for local news will be transformative regardless of where the dollars end up. But it’s still hard to resist offering suggestions, and imagining what you’d do with somebody else’s $500 million.