February 1, 2019; Columbia Journalism Review
It will not come as news to NPQ readers that foundations play a growing role in the funding of nonprofit journalism. And, as Matthew Ingram writes in the Columbia Journalism Review, “with more media outlets turning to alternative sources of financing as advertising revenue dries up, the issue is likely to get even more acute in the future.”
In the US between 2010 and 2015, philanthropic funding of journalism (including not just news operations, but also journalism schools and museums) averaged $300 million a year. Internationally, according to a new report from Martin Scott of the University of East Anglia, Mel Bunce from City University of London, and Kate Wright at the University of Edinburgh, “between 2011 and 2015, foundations awarded grants worth more than $1.3 billion annually to media and journalism around the world.”
At NPQ, we’ve noted that while philanthropy has helped build nonprofit journalism infrastructure and provide space for nonprofits to develop their business models, there has also been a tendency to pursue “shiny things” and often favor large national outfits over local ones.
What do Scott, Bunce, and Wright find at the international level? For their research, they conducted 74 interviews. Of these, 10 interviews were with foundation representatives, 55 were with 47 individuals (including eight follow-up interviews) with 13 nonprofit news organizations, and nine were with intermediary organizations that support journalism. Most of the foundations will be familiar to NPQ readers, including Gates, Ford, Knight, McArthur, Omidyar, Open Society, Rockefeller, and the UN Foundation. In terms of intermediary organizations, these include such groups as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Ground Truth Project. Among the nonprofit news outlets interviewed were the Inter Press Service and the Thomas Reuters Foundation.
Scott and his coauthors debunk the notion that foundations directly restrict journalistic autonomy, at least if defined on narrow grounds such as “allocative autonomy”— the ability to determine internal resource allocation—or “operational autonomy” (day-to-day editorial control). But Scott and his coauthors do find that foundation funding shifts journalism in other ways. For instance, take that tendency to favor large entities over smaller ones. One reason this occurs, Scott tells Ingram, is precisely because foundations don’t want to step on autonomy, so journalism nonprofits must invest considerable resources to build relationships with foundations.
Scott tells Ingram that one interviewed journalist said to him, “We didn’t want to spend money to make money, we wanted to spend money to report.” But that newsroom, Scott adds, “eventually ran out of money and had to shut down.” The time, note Scott and his colleagues, that nonprofit journalism spends seeking alignment “often involves simultaneous ongoing conversations with multiple, potential donors.” Larger nonprofits can assign marketing and administrative tasks to staff. Smaller nonprofits often have to pile these functions onto existing journalists, reducing output.
A second way foundations affect nonprofit journalism involves the need to “show tangible results from their reporting, whether it’s the number of page views or changes that stemmed from their journalism.” Again, Scott notes that larger nonprofits such as the Guardian can more easily document impact than their smaller peers.
As Ingram notes, a third impact of foundation funding involves shaping “the issues a nonprofit newsroom chooses to focus on, and how they go about reporting on them,” a tendency that Scott and his colleagues call the “thematization” of nonprofit international news. As Scott, Bunce, and Wright explain, “nonprofit news outlets are more likely to report on events that are relevant to their funded thematic areas…and/or devote less coverage to issues that fall outside of these themes.”
In particular, Scott and his colleagues find greater foundation support for covering human trafficking, modern-day slavery, land and property rights, global health, and international development—and less support for covering human rights, humanitarian assistance, and press freedom. Breaking news coverage can also suffer as a result. One intermediary director observed that “long-form work with a shelf-life is more attractive in the philanthropic world than breaking news or hyper-topical reports.”
All funding carries consequences, of course. For Scott and his colleagues, the question is not whether an impact exists, but whether the impact is what we would like to see. Some questions that Scott suggest we consider include: “Are we happy that foundations are encouraging journalism in a more impact-oriented direction?” Are news organizations seeking to achieve impacts that are easier to achieve rather than deeper ones that are more radical? And which issues are getting that treatment and which are not?”—Steve Dubb