Theres a strange experiment under way in Kingston, a small city in New Yorks Hudson Valley. The NoVo Foundation, a private foundation created by Peter Buffett, the son of billionaire Warren Buffett, has been unusually active in funding local initiatives. Recipients of NoVo funding have included the citys annual O+ Music Festival, a new family health center, the Hudson Valley Farm Hub (an agricultural research, training, and food distribution center), and even some government services, including a countywide universal basic income pilot initiative, the first of its kind in the country.
NoVo spending also supports Radio Kingston, a local broadcaster entirely funded by the foundationPeter Buffett sits on the stations four-person board of directors. Until recently, the radio station provided one-third of the budget for Kingston Wire, an online news service launched in the fall of 2020. Helmed by two longtime Kingston journalists, Jesse Smith and Dan Barton, the news service was established as a vehicle for the journalists to continue reporting on the city after the pandemic forced the shutdown of their previous employer, the Kingston Times.
Kingston, the largest municipality in Ulster County about two hours north of New York City, is still recovering from economic dislocations.
The remainder of Kingston Wires funding came from the weekly Shawangunk Journal, which covers the Rondout Valley, south of Kingston. The Shawangunk Journal would manage the Kingston Wires newsroom and run its paywalled website, while Smith would anchor a daily local newscast for Radio Kingston. But several months before the Kingston Wires one-year anniversary, Radio Kingston announced that the station planned to pull its funding from the news service. The abrupt decision caught the news team off guard, and raised new questions about Buffetts influence in the area, how transparent he intends to be about his involvement in local media, and the implications of NoVos financial backing for a wide range of programs in the city and surrounding region.
The NoVo Foundation receives an annual grant of Berkshire Hathaway stock, initially worth about $1 billion (and doubled in 2012), one component of the 2006 pledge by Warren Buffett to give away the bulk of his fortune. According to the online magazine Tablet, NoVo has spent perhaps more than $250 million in the Kingston area in less than a decade, a sum that rivals local government spending. (In 2019, Kingstons annual budget was about $44 million.)
The private foundation has about 40 employees and disbursed over a quarter of a billion dollars in 2019, according to its most recent 990. While NoVo finances progressive initiatives and contributes to donor-advised funds nationwide, the decision to concentrate on Kingston and the mid-Hudson Valley is unique.
Buffetts devotion to the region appears to stem from a belief in launching civic transformations from where you arehe has lived ten miles outside Kingston for about a decade. Buffett and the NoVo Foundation are particularly focused on combating crises like climate change that threaten the community. At NoVo, we believe the coming century is going to see many more shocks like the pandemic, some considerably more severe, and so it is our intention to help the Kingston community not just survive but thrive through these events, he wrote in A Letter to the Kingston Community, posted on Medium. Buffett has committed to at least another decade in the area, noting that the funding is not forever.
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Kingston, the largest municipality in Ulster County about two hours north of New York City, is still recovering from economic dislocations. The city was once a hub for IBM, which employed over 7,000 local residents at its 1985 peak. But the company closed its plant in 1994, devastating the Kingston economy. Today, both the city of 24,000 and the county are reeling again, this time from an intense housing crisis, primarily fueled by an influx of middle- and upper-income New Yorkers fleeing the city (Buffet is one of them), a pattern dramatically accelerated by the pandemic. In the summer of 2020, the National Association of Realtors found that Kingston had the fastest-rising single-family home prices in the entire country. Low-income Black and immigrant residents of Kingstonwhere the median household income is about $51,000, and the poverty rate is nearly 20 percentare disproportionately bearing the brunt of the rising prices. (The city is about 70 percent white, 15 percent Black, and 15 percent Latino.)
Kingston Wire has covered gentrification and related economic concernsincluding the fraught approval process for the Kingstonian, a mixed-used project in a historic district that has sparked opposition over issues ranging from possible tax breaks for the private developer to the loss of municipal parking and associated revenue.
The news service also dug into NoVos dealings with the city. A July 2021 story outlined the unusual financial relationship between the city of Kingston and the Kingston City Land Bank, where Mayor Steve Noble sits on the board of directors. NoVo is the principal funder of the land bank, which has had limited success in acquiring homes to renovate and sell to first-time homebuyers.
The idea was that we were going to do quality, daily news journalism, with a very tight focus on Kingston, says Smith. These types of stories attracted a steadily growing audience: According to Alex Shiffer, publisher of Kingston Wire and founder of the Shawangunk Journal, the site now has over 5,000 registered readers.
The NoVo Foundation, a private foundation created by Peter Buffett, the son of billionaire Warren Buffett, has been unusually active in funding local initiatives.
But last June, Jimmy Buff, the executive director of Radio Kingston, informed Shiffer that Kingston Wires funding agreement would not be renewed. After Shiffer and Kingston Wires co-founder Amberly Jane Campbell repeatedly pressed Buff for an explanation, he admitted that a dearth of climate coverage and positive stories about NoVo were factors, and proposed that Jesse Smith anchor a more in-depth newscast for lower pay.
Four months later, Kingston Wire went public with the falling-out in an editorial: [Radio Kingston] thought we didnt pay enough attention to climate change and, in a case of apparent lse-majest on our part, didnt write enough stories on all the good things NoVo was doing in town It seems there wasnt a way to independently and objectively report on NoVo without getting on their bad side We do know that if youre trying to do things without drawing attention to yourself, the fewer nosy reporters around, the better.
In a statement, Buff disputes the characterization, writing that: [We] were not getting the depth of coverage we had hoped Jesse would/could provide on many things that affect Kingston. In a separate statement, NoVo said that the foundation had no involvement in Radio Kingstons decision.
Denials notwithstanding, the way the foundation operates, wielding considerable power over a host of local projectswith little transparency and no accountabilityis profoundly anti-democratic, says Shiffer. He adds that Radio Kingstons $31,200 contribution to Kingston Wires budget would be a drop in the bucket for NoVo, and that keeping experienced and knowledgeable reporters in the community is invaluable.
While NoVos formally progressive orientation may align with values many Kingston residents share, it is, according to Shiffer, a one-sided proposition. [Buffett]s trying to leverage his power in a way he thinks is good, says Shiffer. But its his power, its his money. He makes the decision.
For Smith, the Kingston Wire reporter, this kind of power and influence needs a watchdog. If you have an entity out there thats spending as much or more money on your city [compared to local government], trying to enact a vision [on the scale of] city government, it might be a good idea to give it the same level of scrutiny that you give to city government, right? he says. But thats difficult with NoVo. You dont have all the tools You cant FOIL for what theyre doing, or sit in on one of their board meetings.
Kingston Wire has established a GoFundMe to recoup the lost dollars, and is about halfway to its goal of $31,200with a donor lined up who has agreed to match the final $10,000. Shiffers future funding plan includes advertising, event hosting, and potential support from other foundations to cover the news services operating expenses. Establishing a self-sustaining stream of reader-generated revenue is the primary goal. At this point, a lot of people recognize that publishers are not usually in it anymore for the moneyits a public service, he says.
Shiffer sees dangers in the ongoing partnership between the city and the foundation. A lot of what [NoVo] does [pertains to] food and sustainable agriculture and threats to the food and water supply, trying to make communities a little less vulnerable to disruptions, he says. There is nothing less sustainable than being at the whim of a rather unaccountable organization.
In his letter to the Kingston community, Buffett recognized that the economic and social trauma caused by IBMs departure still simmers: [It is] imperative that we do not contribute to a repeat of that experience by creating long-term dependencies that leave the community open to a similar shock in [the] future, he wrote. Still, NoVos extensive financial investments have sparked questions about what might happen to Kingston if NoVo goes the way of IBM before the city has the capacity to sustain the initiatives that the foundation has been supporting for years. Kingston Wires experience raises an equally vexing question: What happens if NoVo decides to stay?