The Future of The War Horse and How to Support Our Ambitious Growth Strategy
Since The War Horse was founded on Kickstarter in 2016, we have remained steadfast in our commitment to ensure veterans and military families are better understood and represented in the media. The War Horse has trained 50 veterans and military family members during four writing seminars featuring award-winning journalists and authors. Our War Horse Fellows have written for The New York Times Magazine and CNN, and have appeared on PBS NewsHour and at SXSW. Our programs have been recognized for excellence in investigative reporting, multimedia storytelling, and business innovation.
During the last five years, The War Horse has partnered with local and legacy newsrooms to bridge the military and civilian divide. The War Horse’s work was highlighted in Esquire and on the front page of The New York Times, and our reporting has empowered countless survivors of sexual violence. During a time when nearly 60% of Americans say that they distrust news media, a recent audience survey shows The War Horse is a trusted source of news with 91% reader satisfaction. Nearly half of our newsletter subscribers rely on The War Horse as their only source of military news. And we’re just getting started.
We’re mobilizing new and diverse sources of support to establish a promising path forward. As we’ve built the foundation of our newsroom, our team has reimagined what military news can be. We need your help elevating underreported stories, treating readers as partners, and building on our early success to create a nonprofit newsroom that ensures those most affected by war have a prominent voice in the national conversation.
What follows is our plan and the ways you can get involved. Let’s break this ground together.
What We’re Up Against
Across the United States, veterans and military families face many precarious and underreported issues, ranging from access to health care and toxic exposure, to rising rates of suicide and feeling more disconnected from fellow Americans than ever before. These serious issues are exacerbated by an increase in military censorship and a decline in the depth, fluency, and volume of coverage about military service amid a landscape where journalism’s existence, in general, is already under threat. These barriers decrease opportunities for public discourse, and, in turn, the ability for these conversations to influence positive change.
Today, U.S. military operations are embedded across all five inhabited continents on more than 800 military bases worldwide. The U.S. government now spends around $800 billion annually, which accounts for more than 60% of the U.S. discretionary budget. In contrast, less than 5% of accountability reporting focuses on this topic, and as the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs—two of the largest government agencies—have expanded, scandals have plagued both departments. Reports of military war crimes, negligence, sexual exploitation, toxic exposure, human trafficking, and white supremacy continue to be exposed. The body count both on and off the battlefield also continues to rise. Since the beginning of the global war on terror, now in its 20th year, suicide rates of service members have risen to an all-time high, and the psychological impact of service is taking its toll on military families. Just like service members, spouses, and children are killing themselves at alarming rates. At the VA, scandals range from health care wait times to cover-ups of infectious disease outbreaks to reports of thousands of veterans undergoing colonoscopies with reused medical equipment, and many other unsafe health care practices that jeopardize public health.
Despite the magnitude of these scandals and growing concerns among military families about their quality of life, the government is more secretive than ever, routinely denying requests under the Freedom of Information Act, and purportedly “wag[ing] a war” on whistleblowers. According to the director of the Project on Government Secrecy with the Federation of American Scientists, “[g]enerally speaking, increasing secrecy tends to have a corrosive effect. It encourages public cynicism and widens the distance between the public and its government. In a democracy that is unhealthy.”
Meanwhile, civilians grow increasingly disconnected from veterans and military families, and the Defense Department forebodes that this divide poses a grave threat to national security. “Today, a widening military-civilian divide increasingly impacts our ability to effectively recruit and sustain the force,” said a former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness in a 2019 government news report. “This disconnect is characterized by misperceptions, a lack of knowledge, and an inability to identify with those who serve.”
What We’ve Created
The War Horse has become a leader in the military and reporting communities. Today, in 2021, our team has the capacity to publish weekly reflections and two reporting projects every month, more than 75 stories each year. We also host writing seminars and public events and are frequently syndicated by newsrooms like Patch, Spotlight, Task & Purpose, and Military.com. The War Horse has partnered with local and legacy newsrooms that have ranged from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Richmond Times-Dispatch to The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and Center for Investigative Reporting. Explore more about our impact.
The War Horse is one growing organization in an ecosystem characterized by decline. Unlike budgets in the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs since 9/11, Columbia Journalism Review notes that “Newspaper budgets, unfortunately, didn’t balloon with them, and right now, political drama is far more likely to make the front page than anything to do with the military.” In recent years, there has been a severe decline in the staffing of military reporters across the media industry. This decline in reporting has not been limited to national outlets. The consolidation of local media and the expansion of news deserts has also had a direct impact on military reporting in local communities with the highest populations of active service members, veterans, and their families. This information gap leaves their needs unexplored, misunderstood, and unmet. The War Horse is working to change that by taking the best elements of newsroom business models to report on a subject wholly undercovered.
The preexisting military reporting market assesses the demand within the existing market and does not engage with audiences where the information gap about the military is widest. The War Horse embraces the new economics of the internet, recreating the cost efficiencies of a general-interest local newspaper by turning the model on its head—uniting geographies across one topic rather than multiple topics across one geography. Perhaps most importantly, The War Horse’s dedication to a single topic, and to the community that cares about it, produces a laser focus on quality and builds trust with readers. As a result, The War Horse goes beyond merely replacing what’s been lost as newspapers die. We’re improving upon the old model.
As The War Horse secures increased philanthropic support, we will expand our business and editorial teams more aggressively, strengthening our programs to ensure resilience and sustainability at scale. The War Horse has leveraged its singular focus on military service to raise nearly $1.5 million in philanthropic support since its founding, the vast majority of which comes from foundations and individual donors. We will build upon our early philanthropic support and diversify revenue streams, creating an even stronger foundation as we mobilize a new movement of support for military reporting. We will also inaugurate efforts that combine two of The War Horse’s core strengths—professional development of military families and rigorous journalism that ensures those most affected by war have a prominent voice in the national conversation.
To carry out this mission and transform from organization to institution, we will undertake an ambitious three-part plan:
1. Brilliance in the Basics
In 2021, five years since our Kickstarter campaign, The War Horse has graduated from being fiscally sponsored by the Institute for Nonprofit News to being an independent 501c3 nonprofit with diverse leadership, an array of academic and corporate partners, significant philanthropic investment, and a growing community across the United States. As The War Horse continues to build more resilient infrastructures, the next five years will begin with a renewed commitment to:
Investing in the Professional Development of Team Members. The most important investment we will make is in the personal and professional development of The War Horse team. We will increase our efforts to share access and expertise with the broader journalism community during annual conferences, across academia, and in local communities across the United States. Doing so will have a compounding return on investment not only within The War Horse but across the news industry and for the veterans and military families we serve.
Increasing Understanding of Veterans and Military Families. The best ideas emerge from those working closest to problems. The War Horse will partner with an academic institution to launch a study exploring how the reporting landscape impacts the military and civilian divide. The research findings will guide distribution and engagement strategies, empower impact-driven reporting projects, and allow for data-driven business decisions that help The War Horse better serve the most underrepresented members of the veteran and military family communities.
Convening World-Class Leadership. Informed, dynamic leadership is essential to developing actionable and effective strategies in increasingly complex environments. As The War Horse grows, we will increase the diversity of experience and perspective on our board of directors and advisory council to inspire and refine the most ambitious goals and initiatives at The War Horse while increasing the sustainability and impact of our programs.
2. Transform Obstacles into Opportunities
The industry-wide decline in local and legacy media presents unique challenges. Over the next five years, The War Horse will work with peers to reinvent and resuscitate the news industry. We will invest in bolstering a culture and creative process in which everybody at The War Horse is encouraged to propose novel approaches. The War Horse will accomplish this bold vision through programs that:
Improve Access to the Military Reporting Movement. The War Horse serves a community of people who have historically been misunderstood and misrepresented in the media, and who often lack access to power and privilege. To do this well, The War Horse must forge and empower a team that reflects the population we seek to serve. We will formalize our vision for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI); define clear goals across all roles at all levels; and commit resources to achieve those goals. We will also engage in continuous accounting of our hiring, culture, writing, sourcing, funding, and audience engagement from a lens of DEI.
Foster Effective, Enduring Partnerships. As The War Horse continues to grow, it is vital to increase organizational efficiency and ensure the scalability and sustainability of our programs. As we raise awareness about the need for The War Horse’s work, we will also raise awareness about the broader needs of the communities we serve through dynamic partnerships with organizations serving veterans and military families. We will share access and lessons with these peers, and learn from them in turn—embracing collaboration opportunities and inspiring newsrooms by providing a replicable news blueprint for other topics of major civic importance.
Increase Community Engagement Opportunities. The success of The War Horse depends on the success of our peers in the military and reporting communities. In addition to hosting and participating in formal events, The War Horse will survey and conduct site visits with people living in news deserts across the United States to ensure that earning and maintaining the trust of our audience remains at the core of business and editorial operations, forging deep connections with the communities we serve.
3. Establish TWH as the “Teaching Hospital” of Military Newsrooms
The War Horse’s mission is rooted in educating the public and ensuring that the communities we serve are represented in our programs is vital to our success. To achieve our most ambitious goals, The War Horse will launch the following long-term initiatives:
The Debrief. Since 2016, The War Horse has been curating some of the best news and research about military and veterans issues from around the web. The Debrief will be a searchable repository of the most authoritative sources on the topics, people, and events that shape the conversation about military service, war, and its impact. This effort will integrate multiple technologies and serve as the nucleus of future crowdsourcing and data efforts.
Military Spouse Reporting Network. The War Horse will launch a professional development and employment program for military spouses in journalism. The program will highlight the unique expertise of individuals with a real-life understanding of veterans and military families, provide vital training and resources to military spouses eager to report on issues closest to home, and address the problem of expanding news deserts across the United States.
War Horse Studios. To increase the volume, reach, and impact of our storytelling, The War Horse will incubate a multimedia studio (Public Benefit Corporation) spotlighting untold stories of military service. Building on The War Horse’s legacy, War Horse Studios will offer production and event services that gather top thinkers and leaders to educate and engage audiences in person and online.
Endowment Campaign. The War Horse will continue to work alongside leading academics and newsrooms to implement a calculated growth and sustainability plan that proactively mitigates the evolving economic challenges and legal threats experienced by legacy and nonprofit newsrooms alike. By establishing predictable revenue, The War Horse will be better able to implement bold, transformative strategies, rather than simply paying the bills, and ensure that our team can focus on delivering life-changing programs in perpetuity.
We know many people today feel called to serve this country and the ideals upon which it was founded. These are the people we invite to join us in a public service mission that, for the sake of a healthy democracy, simply has to succeed.
If our vision inspires you, we would love to meet you. Not sure what you bring to the table? Maybe it’s financial support, skills and talent, valuable connections, or business services you can donate. We’d love to hear from you.