I recently spoke to John Adams, founder of the Montana Free Press, an independent local news outlet that has been around for seven years. We swapped origin stories, and he shared how a local community member wrote him a $10,000 check in the early days of his startup.
“We literally would not be here if not for that initial ten grand,” he said. “It gave us the runway to get started.”
Since then, his organization (now with 13 full-time staff) has grown into an essential part of the information ecosystem in its region.
This is the kind of story that inspires our team at Indiegraf. We strongly believe, with even modest seed funding, small teams of journalist entrepreneurs can be a major part of the solution to the local news crisis.
This is why we’re thrilled to announce the News Startup Fund, a $3.5 million scale up of our Indie Capital program. With support from the Google News Initiative, Knight Foundation and McConnell Family Foundation, the News Startup Fund provides painless growth capital paired with the technology and services journalist entrepreneurs need to grow their businesses.
Interested applicants are welcome to read more on the News Startup Fund in our application page.
Why do we need the News Startup Fund?
Traditional news media are failing at an alarming rate and underserved communities are disproportionately impacted. In contrast, news startups are popping up and making an impact. The number of independent community news outlets in North America has grown by 50% in only five years, according to the Oasis Report. LION has identified more than 800 digital independent local news outlets.
More and more journalists are choosing to become entrepreneurs and launch local news businesses. This transition of local news ownership represents a generational opportunity to transform local news to be more robust, equitable and responsive to communities’ information needs.
However, traditional sources of seed or small business capital are largely inaccessible to journalist entrepreneurs. Few funders will take a risk on an early stage news startup. Moreover, the amount of funding needed is so small that it often doesn’t justify the transaction cost for large funders.
As a result, most local news entrepreneurs rely on personal savings to get started. Think about that. Hundreds of journalists are taking the local news crisis into their own hands, using their own savings. They are democracy heroes!
Here’s the thing: when founders can’t access seed capital, they struggle to grow their audience and revenue to a point of sustainability before running out of money. They are forced to take on a whole lot of personal risk and often end up burned out. And that negatively impacts the whole local news ecosystem: if the only people who can become local news owners are those who can afford it, the future of local news will replicate the diversity and equity problems of the legacy system.
The News Startup Fund is about lowering the barrier to entry and democratizing local news ownership. We are on a mission to make local news entrepreneurship not only possible, but a great career and life choice for journalists everywhere.
How does the News Startup Fund work?
Having helped more than 80 community news outlets start up and grow, Indiegraf has designed the News Startup Fund to serve the unique needs of journalist entrepreneurs, even at the early stages of growth. Here’s what makes the News Startup Fund so special:
🧩 It’s more than funding: News startups need more than funding to succeed. That’s why the News Startup Fund provides a combination of direct grants, marketing budgets and hands-on services. All fund recipients join the Indiegraf network, gaining access to tools, expertise and capacity needed to maximize their audience and revenue growth. Grantees will also benefit from access to the Google News Initiative’s free business training, consulting, and implementation support.
🔓 It’s progressive: Once grantees join the Indiegraf network, Indiegraf team members roll up their sleeves to help implement various growth strategies. As publishers hit key growth benchmarks, they can unlock further funding opportunities across four progressive stages.
🎯 It’s timely: The News Startup Fund is designed to provide “just-in-time” funds, giving journalist-entrepreneurs access to growth capital when they need it, and without time-consuming application processes. We aim to make quick funding decisions based on the applicant’s audience and revenue data.
⏳ It’s ongoing: To ensure a continuous flow of investment for the independent news ecosystem, grants will be disbursed on a first-come-first-served, rolling basis over a three-year period. Each quarter, Indiegraf will release a new tranche of funding available to those interested in joining the network.
🪢 It prioritizes equity: In an effort to build a more equitable media ecosystem, one where everyone has access to culturally pertinent, historically informed journalism, the News Startup Fund favors underrepresented founders.
How will the News Startup Fund make an impact?
Our goals with the News Startup Fund are ambitious. Indiegraf and its partners plan to seed 25 new community news startups. We want to make quality local journalism available to three million people living in areas of news poverty, and aim to serve more than 300,000 new email subscribers and generate millions in new annual revenue for the publishers supported.
We want the impact of the News Startup Fund to go beyond the publications that will directly benefit. The Fund seeks to support founders that are proving new ways of serving communities with local journalism. Indiegraf will share the progress of the projects supported in an effort to model new pathways to sustainability we hope will pave the way and inspire other news entrepreneurs.
We will support founders like Ryan Sorrell of The Kansas City Defender, who received funding earlier this year from a previous Indie Capital round. “When we first started, being an unapologetically pro-Black news outlet, [people] told me we had to do unbiased reporting,” Ryan shared. “So to me, it was very important and very validating to have Indiegraf be the first organization to provide funding for us. Truly, it was absolutely transformational for the survival and growth of our organization.” Inspired by the history of the Black press and the current information needs of young people in Kansas and Missouri, the Defender is building a more equitable information ecosystem.
The News Startup Fund is also designed to provide responsive funding to founders like Annelise Pierce, who is bravely telling truths about the outsized influence of Bethel Church and the presence of far-right extremist groups within her community. “As a news start-up you have to be so nimble and so flexible with your money all the time,” Annelise shared with us, reflecting on her past experience with Indie Capital. “Flexible capital is what we need because we’re figuring out what our communities need, we’re responding to our audience, and we need funders to do that with us. Indiegraf is doing that.”
If you’re a news founder building the future of local news in your community, we’d love to hear from you.