Published in July 2011 by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, the study found:
The 46 national and state-level news sites examined—a group that included seven new commercial sites with similar missions—offered a wide range of styles and approaches, but roughly half, the study found, produced news coverage that was clearly ideological in nature.
In general, the more ideological sites tended to be funded mostly or entirely by one parent organization—though that parent group may have various contributors.
On the other hand, the study found that sites that had a broad base of support—a larger number of smaller funders—were more likely to produce journalism as the traditional nonpartisan mission would have it:
Sites that offered a mixed or balanced political perspective, on the other hand, tended to have multiple funders, more revenue streams, more transparency and more content with a deeper bench of reporters. The six most transparent sites studied, for instance, were among the most balanced in the news they produced.
Or as media critic Jack Shafer put it in a column on Slate in September 2009, “No matter how good the nonprofit operation is, it always ends up sustaining itself with handouts, and handouts come with conditions.”
The bigger the handout, the more onerous the conditions. Laura Frank, director of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, last September told the American Journalism Review: “People think, ‘Oh, wow. You don’t have to deal with advertisers,’ but it’s kind of the same thing. Foundations are used to funding something and having control over it. You have to explain to them that there is a firewall: ‘What you’re funding is the act of journalism for the benefit of society.’ ”
There is, of course, a great debate over whether the kind of standardized objective journalism that took hold with the professionalization of the craft in the latter half of the last century still serves the public. A press that advocates positions on issues is not inherently problematic. The question is whether the advocacy is pursued independently of funding interests; that’s the distinction that Frank finds she must constantly strive to make her funders understand.
Advocacy as an editorial priority or point of view is essential to a healthy, diverse press culture. Without it, there’s no Nation, no Weekly Standard, no New Criterion, no Dissent, to name a few outlets with radically different structures but with independent editorial missions.
Advocacy as a funding mechanism is what I find problematic, especially as new big-money power bases emerge for solving the problems that society encounters. Everyone takes for granted the need to be a news organization that is independent of Washington. But how long before it becomes just as important to be independent of, say, tech billionaires out of Cupertino, or Mountain View, or Redmond?
Building a “philanthropy firewall” is just as daunting as any advertising firewall ever was. Yet contemplating a nonprofit model does not necessarily mean hunting great personal or corporate fortunes. Broad appeals to the middle class have long been a part of American philanthropic practice.
But broad appeals need a broad base, and, therefore, scale. Most journalism will not be able to reach that scale quickly, without large private disbursements from a small number of deep pockets. The next NPR or PBS will not just drop out of the sky without some boldface name from the financial pages creating it. That strikes me as perilous.
Building a business, as risky as it sounds, at least builds value that belongs to the organization. It can be difficult, and slow. Today’s apparent success stories are often small regional startups that have generally been patient about scaling up. Such sites may not comfort those who want to see three or four more news organizations with the strength and reach of now-fading quality regional dailies, like The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, or the Chicago Tribune. But it’s worth remembering that these papers, in a different era, themselves grew organically over time from local dailies to large operations, according to market conditions.