Nonprofit news organizations should, as some already have, individually and collectively through collaboration, develop professional fundraising capabilities like those of advertising departments for commercial news organizations. They also should develop other sources of revenue, including advertising, partnerships, and innovative marketing of their reporting to other news media and news consumers.
Philanthropists, foundations, and community foundations should substantially increase their support for news organizations that have demonstrated a substantial commitment to public affairs and accountability reporting.
Philanthropically supported institutions are central to American society. Philanthropy has been essential for educational, research, cultural, and religious institutions, health and social services, parks and the preservation of nature, and much more. With the exception of public radio and television, philanthropy has played a very small role in supporting news reporting, because most of it had been subsidized by advertising.
The FCC supports the public circulation of information in places the market has failed to serve. Local news reporting… is in need of similar support.
Led by the Knight Foundation and individual donors like Buzz Woolley and Herbert and Marion Sandler, foundations and philanthropists have begun to respond to the breakdown of that economic model by funding the launch of nonprofit news startups and individual reporting projects, as discussed earlier. But foundations are not yet providing much money to sustain those startups or to underwrite all of their journalism rather than only their reporting on subjects of special interest to each foundation or donor.
Foundations should consider news reporting of public affairs to be a continuous public good rather than a series of specific projects under their control or a way of generating interest and action around causes and issues of special interest to them. They should ensure that there is an impermeable wall between each foundation’s interests and the news reporting it supports, and they should make their support of accountability journalism a much higher priority than it has been for all but a few like the Knight Foundation.
These steps would represent major shifts in the missions of most national foundations. Their model of grant-making has relied on documenting specific “outcomes,” explained Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation, and it is not easy to measure the impact of news reporting. “News is not like electricity,” Newton said. “When there’s a news blackout, you don’t know what you’re not getting.” But what communities are now missing in news reporting is becoming increasingly apparent as newspaper and television station newsrooms empty out.
It is time for other national foundations to join with Knight in a concerted effort to preserve public affairs news reporting, and because of the importance of local news, the nation’s more than 700 community foundations should take the lead in supporting news reporting in their own cities and towns. Community foundations, which manage collections of donor-advised local philanthropic funds, have large assets and make large gifts. Donations from the twenty-five largest community foundations alone in 2007 totaled $2.4 billion. If community foundations were to allocate just 1 percent of their giving to local news reporting, it would roughly equal all the money that all foundations have spent annually to support news reporting in recent years.
Some community foundations have taken the first steps in this direction. Several donor-advised funds of the Greater St. Louis Community Foundation are among donors to the St. Louis Beacon. The San Diego Foundation has been a key supporter of the Voice of San Diego. The Minneapolis Foundation received a Knight grant to encourage its donors to help MinnPost pay for reporting on local subjects like education and poverty, in which the foundation has a longstanding interest and record of grant-giving.