How foundation funding changes the way journalism gets done

February 1, 2019

Many journalists are sensitive to the way wealthy owners can influence a newsroom, whether through outright pressure on reporters and editors, or behind-the-scenes maneuvering and subtle hints. But it’s not just rich capitalists and venture investors who bring such influenceevery form of funding, however well-meaning, shapes the kind of journalism that gets done, and that includes funding from foundations and nonprofits. While their motives may be pure, the fact that they hold the purse strings inevitably changes the way newsrooms that rely on that funding do their jobs. And 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.

Those are just some of the conclusions of a new report from a team of researchers in the UK, including Martin Scott of the University of East Anglia in the UK, Mel Bunce from City University of London, and Kate Wright at the University of Edinburgh. The study is based on interviews with 74 representatives from the foundations that are the most active in funding international non-profit news, as well as interviews with the journalists they support. “Foundations support a significant amount of important international journalism. Without it, very few of the nonprofit news outlets we spoke to would survive,” Scott tells CJR. “But we are concerned that the nature of this journalismand the role that it plays in democracy—is inadvertently being shaped by a handful of foundations, rather than by journalists.”

Scott and his fellow researchers found that funding from foundations does change the way reporting is done, the issues that non-profit media organizations decide to focus on, and the amount and content of that work. Regardless of whether we think those changes are ultimately good or bad journalistically, or even ethically, he says, it’s worth noting that even funding from foundations whose goals we agree with has an impact on the type of work that gets done and for whom. And by definition, if work is being done in certain areasareas that align with the goals of the foundation providing the fundingthen work is not being done in other areas.

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Ironically, Scott says some of the problems foundation funding creates aren’t a result of those foundations trying to meddle in the journalism their grantees do, but a result of them trying not to do that. Because they are so leery of infringing on the autonomy of the non-profits they fund, he says, many foundations aren’t very transparent about what their goals are. That means newsrooms have to spend a lot of time creating relationships with foundations and getting to know them well enough to start having those kinds of discussionsand all of that takes time and money many smaller nonprofit newsrooms don’t have. “I remember someone telling me: ‘We didn’t want to spend money to make money, we wanted to spend money to report,’” he says. “But [their newsroom] eventually ran out of money and had to shut down.”

Another thing that creates more non-journalistic work for foundation-funded newsrooms, Scott says, is that many foundations require the media organizations they fund to show tangible results from their reporting, whether it’s the number of page views or changes that stemmed from their journalism. But here again, coming up with that kind of evidence takes time and resources away from the actual journalism. And those extracurricular activities, or what Scott calls “hidden overheads,” are part of the reason why the bulk of foundation funding tends to go to larger non-profit media outlets such as The Guardian, rather than to smaller entities. Not only do The Guardian and others of its ilk have the time and money to spend producing evidence that the funding accomplished something, they also don’t have to do as much relationship building because they already have an established brand.

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In addition to these kinds of administrative pressures, foundation funding often shapes the issues a non-profit newsroom chooses to focus on, and how they go about reporting on them, according to the study. Most foundation funding is focused on certain themes, such as global development or the environment, and so that is where the non-profits they fund often concentrate as well, for obvious reasons. But doing this “encourages journalists to focus on a relatively narrow range of topics that broadly align with the priorities of the most active foundations,” he says. Because many nonprofits rely heavily on funding from a fairly narrow range of foundations, those foundations “have a disproportionate influence on the journalism and the news that people see. In many cases, it’s shaping that news to cater to niche, specialized, already engaged audiences, not on general mainstream news topics aimed at a general audience. That has broader implications for journalismwho it serves and how it serves them.”

It’s not that foundations have ulterior motives, Scott says. Instead, the funding they provide inevitably pushes their grantees in certain directions. For example, many foundations are pushing media outlets to do more of what some call “solutions journalism,” which focuses on specific outcomes and how to encourage readers to help. “I think we need to ask the question, are we happy that foundations are encouraging journalism in a more impact-oriented direction?” Scott says. “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?”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.