Q&A with Lizzy Hazeltine on NC Press Forward chapter

Lizzy Hazeltine is the director of the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. She leads the strategy and portfolio of the North Carolina News Local Lab Fund, and coaches teams nationally in news transformation programs and grant-making.

CISLM Intern Serena Sherwood spoke with Hazeltine via Zoom; this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Editor’s Note: Hazeltine was a coach in the UNC Knight Table Stakes program, most recently in 2021.

Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media: Can you provide some background on what the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund, Press Forward NC, and the other partnerships going on between those organizations are?

Lizzy Hazeltine: The North Carolina Local News Lab Fund has been at work making grants and weaving strong networks of trusted messengers, news organizations and others in North Carolina since late 2017. We’ve been at this for six years, and (are) in our seventh year of this work. We’ve moved more than $4 million directly and activated at least that much in additional funding alongside it.

Lots of dollars moved so that everybody in North Carolina can find trust in the news and find the information they need to thrive. We take a community-centric approach and have pooled funds. We’ve built a funder coalition, including the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, which are co-chairs in Press Forward North Carolina. The News Lab Fund is the home of this Press Forward local chapter, in alignment with the national Press Forward movement. It’s not a new organization, but we are carrying the flag for this effort.

CISLM: How do you see these new partnerships benefiting communities across North Carolina?

LH: The first bit of good news is that we have more funding that’s committed to North Carolina. We announced just over $2 million in funding from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, and the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust and Democracy Fund as part of taking this Press Forward North Carolina chapter announcement live. And that’s just the base.

It’s clear that the local funding coalition has doubled down in their support. It’s a wide and deep coalition, a variety of different funders who all understand fundamentally that if people have the news and information they need, things like communities and local democracy will thrive. If we don’t have a system that helps people understand their stake in local democracy, if we don’t have access to just basic news and information, people aren’t going to be able to make decisions, navigate their day-to-day lives, feel a sense of belonging, and ultimately participate in their communities. That throughline is part of what gives us this powerful connection across these foundations.

It wasn’t ever going to be the work of one foundation to support the many different types of organizations that it takes to expand distribution, that it takes to fill reporting gaps which we know exist, that it takes to democratize access to narrative power and make sure that the stories we’re telling are really representative of the nuances that are part of this wonderful, beautiful, complex place that we live.

CISLM: Are there any communities in specific that you see being impacted by the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund and these partnerships more than others? Are there any that you’re trying to target with this work?

LH: We’ve been really clear about the necessity of getting a racial and class equity lens on our work — in the American South, and even more specifically, in North Carolina, there are inequities that trace race and class. We’re trying to create a more equitable system, we’re trying to invest where there has been the least investment, where there’s been the least access to philanthropic dollars. By acknowledging the ways that race and class impact these systems, we learn a lot about the ways that libraries, churches and other community-based organizations have long filled these gaps. Rather than taking a deficit framing, we say that if we can’t see it from the outside, we need to get curious about what does exist, and then move resources to help people do what’s needed.

CISLM: How are these community grants created and distributed?

LH: We are what’s called a pooled fund. We build a funder coalition and we raise funds ourselves in order to create our grantmaking budget — we don’t have an endowment. But what we do have is deep expertise in local news and information and flexible adaptive grantmaking. We have a staff that is steeped in this, and an operational capacity to make really effective grants, and then also to steward them and elevate the learning both from the field and then translate that to other funders.

We also are able to be a resource for understanding philanthropy — helping people with applications, helping them think about their fundraising strategy, whether they’re grant partners of ours or whether they’re just folks who were in North Carolina and signed up for our office hours. We are fundamentally (in) this bridging role.

CISLM: Can you explain what your “office hours” concept is?

LH: The intention here is to make myself and the fund and philanthropy more accessible. One of the things that’s hard about raising philanthropic funds is just “Who do I talk to? How do I get started? What does it mean to look for a grant? What do people actually want to see in a grant? How do I talk to funders?” These big, big, big questions are part of a learning curve that can be really steep for people. There’s lots of navigation that’s happening both for funders and also for people who are seeking grants. So “office hours” is time on my calendar that I set aside to try to help demystify the process a bit to try to be helpful.

This is not something that anybody was born knowing how to do, me included. There’s been a trend in philanthropy called trust-based philanthropy, where funders are trying to make our processes more transparent so there’s less guesswork and less privilege for people who know what philanthropy is because they’ve been proximate to it, as that’s an unfair advantage in a selection process. This is our attempt to bust that up a bit.

CISLM: What do you hope to see as the biggest impact of adding Press Forward North Carolina to the overall News Lab ecosystem?

LH: This represents continuity of the fundamental work that aligns between Press Forward as a national movement, the coalition building and activating local news funders, and the network weaving in the funder learning and generation of interest and excitement around funding local news as a way to help our communities thrive. There are tons of new Press Forward chapters launching across the country. I’m really excited to see something that we have seen work in North Carolina activate in more places, and I’m excited to be in conversation and in relationship with these other leaders across the country.

We need more resources to flow to organizations that are making sure that communities know what’s going on. I’m excited for the excitement that I’ve seen among other funders — there’s more possibilities of different types of funding. I’m enthusiastic about the national excitement and the recognition of North Carolina’s leadership in developing these coalitions and leading them for so long, and what that might mean for the future.

CISLM: If someone wanted to apply for a Press Forward grant, what would be the process that they would take to do so?

LH: People will apply through us and national Press Forward separately. The national pooled fund just announced through its newsletter that the first call will open on April 30. Press Forward NC applications will be one and the same with our grant calls moving forward. There’s no separate process locally.

CISLM: Is there anything else you want to highlight about the work that you’re doing?

LH: Making local grants and having local leadership is really important for operationalizing equity in grantmaking, which is really exciting about Press Forward, understanding not only the necessity but the importance of the local chapters. North Carolina is the home of community centric, local news innovation, we have so much that is going so right here to build on. I continue to be encouraged by the national recognition of the work of local leaders in North Carolina, in addition to the structures and the fund and the infrastructure to continue mobilizing resources.