A project of Democracy Fund

September 23, 2014

Striking a Balance Between No-Strings vs. Strings Attached Journalism Funding


balancing act

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently made a $1 million grant to WNYC to support comprehensive coverage of health issues. Specifically, the grant is to “create a health unit at the station to cover three core areas—healthy living and wellness, health care economics and policy, and medical science and discovery—through a blend of high-impact investigative reporting, powerful first-person narrative, data news tools, and deep audience engagement.”

In response to that grant and other examples of funders supporting coverage of specific issues, an article by Inside Philanthropy discusses whether journalism funding is trending more and more toward coverage of specific issues and away from no-strings-attached funding. “Get used to it,” the article declares, as well as to the thorny issues that emerge when philanthropy funds journalism to advance its own agenda.

Making the Best of Limited Philanthropic Dollars

The article raises valid concerns about journalism funding, and I would add another to consider: When making issue or beat-specific journalism grants, are funders planning for how that coverage gets sustained over time? What happens when the grants run out? Do they expect public media and nonprofit news organizations to find other donors to sustain the coverage, or does the beat / issue coverage simply go away?

“What happens when the grants run out?”

As a funder, I wrestle with these questions a lot. And, to be clear, I do not know the details of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant to WNYC, and I am not criticizing this grant; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are our New Jersey colleagues, and WNYC is a grantee of the Dodge Foundation as well.

I wrestle with these questions not just because I get inundated with requests to fund content but because compared to other causes or program areas such as arts, health, and education, there are relatively few journalism funders across the US. So I want to make the best use of limited philanthropic dollars using smart, long term strategies to strengthen the journalism field. It’s a “yes, and” proposition. How can we fund coverage of issues that we care about and strengthen the field?

Talking To Each Other, Rather Than Talking At Each Other

More often than not funders and news organizations may be seated at the same table, but they’re speaking a different language. Foundations want to know, “If I make a grant, will it have meaningful impact on the issues I care about? How will you demonstrate to me that you are making a difference?” Meanwhile news organizations are making a case for trust and editorial independence, and often skirting the issue of measuring impact. (Incidentally, this dynamic is true of all nonprofits, not just news organizations – nonprofits want to be trusted to do the work they do, and foundations want to know how their investments will pay off.)

What this means for nonprofit news – and what the Inside Philanthropy article explains – is more funding of beat or issue-specific coverage and less “no strings attached” coverage. As a funder, it is far clearer to measure the outcomes of a journalism project or beat than it is to measure the impact of providing general operating support. Yet both kinds of support are needed, because they work in tandem. In order to have coverage of the arts, education, health and many other issues we care about, we also need the journalism field to be healthy, which requires at least some allowance for general operating support for public and non-profit news organizations.

Meanwhile, the journalism community, desperate to stem its losses, is willing to chase grant dollars for beat coverage, knowing it is not a long term, sustainable strategy. Rather than hasten their own demise with short term strategies, news organizations can help educate funders on the importance of general operating support while also accepting that it’s legitimate for foundations to want to know how news organizations are measuring their impact.

Taking Risks On Behalf of the Field

This question of sustainability and strengthening the field goes beyond non-profit and public media, and I don’t mean to limit this discussion only to the dynamic between philanthropy and non-profits. As funders we are in a position to help journalism take risks – to explore and experiment with diversifying revenue streams and deepening relationships in the community – and we are in a position to do this for the whole field, which means we can have a positive impact on the entire spectrum of for-profit and non-profit journalism. In a nutshell, this is what the Local News Lab is all about – experimenting with sustainability models in service to the field. Our six partner sites are for-profit sites because we want to demonstrate how journalism can be a sustainable business without (or at least minimizing) philanthropic support. This doesn’t mean that all journalism can or should be for-profit (Dodge funds several public media and nonprofit news outlets), but non-profit journalism needs to diversify its revenue streams too.

Philanthropy alone cannot rescue or sustain journalism. Nor should it be philanthropy’s responsibility. Understanding, then, that there are limited dollars to support journalism, how do funders and the journalism community (for-profit and non-profit) work together to satisfy both partners’ needs? How should funders balance their support for issues it cares about while also addressing the long term sustainability of the field? How can journalism better define and measure its impact in order to attract more funding to the field? We’d love to hear your thoughts.