CC0 Public Domain.

January 10, 2020; Columbia Journalism Review

As the nonprofit news sector grows, some journalists find their work is shaped by the grant funding that sustains their organizations. That’s the central finding of a new study authored by two journalism professors—Patrick Ferrucci of the University of Colorado and Jacob Nelson of Arizona State—and published in the journal Media and Communication.

While the study pertains to journalism nonprofits, many nonprofits grapple with the same issue. Finding grants to support a nonprofit’s particular programs can be challenging, and the need for funding can sometimes drive staff to subtly or overtly adjust aspects of their work to raise needed resources.

The study’s authors surveyed 40 journalists at US digital nonprofit news outlets and staff at foundations that fund news nonprofits. They were curious about the effect of journalism’s emerging nonprofit revenue model. In the old model, revenue came from advertising and subscriptions. In the new model, it comes from subscriptions, donations, and grants. The growth of nonprofit news has been rapid: In 2004, fewer than 10 organizations belonged to the Institute for Nonprofit News, compared to more than 200 today.

The study identified three trends in grant funding for nonprofit journalism:

  • Technology-specific grants. This common type of grant focuses on the use of a particular technology in reporting, such as virtual reality. “Journalists described feeling compelled to continuously chase the latest tech trends to remain competitive for foundation funding,” the study’s authors found.
  • Audience engagement” grants. These grants asked journalists to focus on their audience and how audience members “interact with and respond to the news.” The study’s authors report that this is a trendy topic in journalism, but that little data exists on how, or even whether, audience engagement measures produce results.
  • Extra work. The study’s authors found that “journalists said they often acquired extra responsibilities when their organization accepted foundation funds,” such as presenting findings at a conference or writing articles about the funding and its uses.

“Indeed,” the authors wrote, “considering how critical some of the journalists we interviewed were about these foundation-funded initiatives, it seems possible newsroom managers who apply for and accept foundation grants feel more passionately about the directives associated with those grants than the reporters and editors ultimately tasked with implementing them.”

Nonprofit fundraisers know this problem well. Do you scrupulously avoid “chasing money” and apply only to those foundations that want to support exactly what you were already doing or planning to do? Or do you attempt to shape a proposal to a foundation into something that works for both parties, perhaps altering something about the nonprofit’s way of working, collecting data, or reporting to fit the foundation’s guidelines? The latter approach can lead to problems, including the one identified above—the resentment of program or other staff who bear the burden of complying with what’s been promised.

Recently, foundations have been asked to consider this problem from a different angle: How can they shape their giving to align better with the communities and nonprofits they support? How can they create partnerships that alleviate an inherently skewed power dynamic?

In the past, news organizations attempted to maintain a clear division between the advertising and news sides of the business for the sake of journalistic independence and integrity. This, of course, had and has its own challenges. But even if such “firewalls” are less than perfect, the norms of separation are well established. Foundation funding, the study authors note, is “often premised on editorial influence, complicating efforts by journalists to maintain the firewall between news revenue and production.” For this reason, even though foundation support of nonprofit journalism is welcome and needed, the influence of funders on contemporary newsrooms remains an ongoing concern.—Catherine Jones