Who benefits from an increase in philanthropic money to journalism?

March 10, 2015

February was a good month for the Society of Environmental Journalists. It received an unusually big donation—$385,000—from The Wyss Foundation, dedicated to protecting the American environment. The donation enables a major expansion of SEJ’s Fund for Environmental Journalism in the form of two new full-time reporting positions, one at High Country News and one at the Los Angeles Times. Foundation support from Wyss and others also allows the fund to run two 2015 grant rounds offering support of up to $5,000 for projects by freelancers and nonprofit news organizations.

“We’ve definitely seen growth in philanthropic dollars coming into journalism over the last five years,” says Beth Parke, the Executive Director of SEJ, who administers the society’s fund. “The tipping point was 2009 with increased attention to the need for philanthropic investment.” That observation applies more broadly, backed at least anecdotally by others in the journalism and funding worlds: Philanthropy-funded journalism is on the rise.

At first glance, this increase in philanthropy may seem like a mostly positive development—journalism’s old revenue model keeps floundering, and funders are stepping in to fill the gaps. But some say that growing pool of money is often earmarked for specific beats or issues, be it health, religion, or the environment, rather than covering general production costs to produce news.

Jack Shafer noted as much in February, when he wrote a breakdown of the rich benefactors who have been funding nonprofit news and investigative outlets in the last half-decade—from the Marshall Project to ProPublica, to the Texas Tribune—and thereby grabbed an opportunity left open by struggling newspapers that have scaled back on investigative work. The goal of wealthy donors is usually a different one from newspapers, he pointed out.

“The new Medicis want primarily to save the world,” Shafer writes, pointing to the fact that many big funders pursue issue agendas.

As foundation money plays a bigger part in the journalism that’s being produced, that could push overall coverage toward issues that have donor interest, a bias that’s all-too-easy to overlook when the money is rolling in.

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”Most types of grants usually have some kind of issue attached. It can be human rights, economics, health care, business,” says Felicia Pride, founder of The Create Daily, a website that curates opportunities for media producers.

None of this is new, says Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president of the Knight Foundation. ”Topic funders always support work in their focus area. It’s been going on in public broadcasting for decades.” But, he added, “We might be noticing it more because of the increase in funding.”

It’s very hard to confirm the increase in the last couple years, because few tools are available to gain an overview of the foundation landscape, particularly ones that include the level of details necessary to evaluate the question of issue support. But there is evidence beyond industry anecdotes to suggest that it’s happening.

Media Impact Funders has one of the most comprehensive data sets on media and journalism funding that can provide some supporting facts, although only the years 2009-12 are fully updated, and the categories that separate journalism from advocacy media are not perfect.

Take health journalism as an example: A search on “health” in the data set and a manual tallying of donations to journalistic projects reveals a dramatic 2012 increase in donations to health journalism compared to previous years. However, just as that increase could be a result of donors favoring health journalism, it could also be a result of outlets generally ramping up their focus on health, and applying for funding accordingly. It’s hard to draw a clear distinction.

Funder ideology behind the money

As Shafer noted in his column on rich benefactors, funder agendas sometimes breed concerns about bias. While agendas may not be perceived as threatening to overall coverage when outlets state their purpose openly, like the Marshall Project or the Intercept, it’s a different case when that earmarked money finds its way into mainstream or public institutions. PBS, for example, returned a $3.5 million grant for a news series on pension cuts from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation in 2014 after journalist David Sirota criticized the lack of transparency about funder John Arnold’s own political involvement in pension reform. When a funder and his or her funded reporting come down on the same side of an issue, even if completely arbitrarily, it’s no surprise that people start questioning the difference between sponsored reporting and sponsored content.

Similarly, audiences criticized NPR’s education blog for accepting money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation because of Bill Gates’ own political agenda on education.

“It’s going to be a gray area. There’s no getting around that,” Steve Drummond, senior editor of NPR Ed, told Current then. That same year, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant of $1 million went to WNYC’s health journalism.

Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, says that while the investigative nonprofit prefers general operating support, he doesn’t see specific funding as a problem. “As long as people are supporting broad beats, that still leaves decisions about what stories to cover and how to do it in the hands of the editors,” he says. What is problematic, he says, is funders who want to support particular stories. But he hasn’t experienced an increase in that type of foundation money, or in general funders shifting gear, he says.

SEJ’s Parke agrees that potential biases are avoided by journalists and editors setting up “firewalls” and helping donors understand the culture of journalism, or even rejecting certain types of donations. “The ones who generally want to invest, I think that’s a set of funders that really do understand the importance of these firewalls,” she says.

But everybody may not possess that same level of good judgement, as a 2013 Pew study on nonprofit journalism shows. Forty-four percent of organizations that produce journalism under a 501(c)3 (nonprofit) exemption are what the study calls “clearly ideological in nature,” and not very transparent about their funding.

Freelancer funding

Foundation money isn’t just increasing to news outlets—it’s flowing to freelancers too. The Howard G. Buffett Foundation just donated an unprecedented $14 million to the International Women’s Media Foundation, who in 2015 will start handing out that money to freelancers, photojournalists, and African journalists. The many millions are awarded in recognition that these are not easy times for journalists, who increasingly struggle to fund their work, says Elisa Lees Muñoz, Executive Director of IWMF.

As freelancers continue to replace staff writers at various institutions and influence coverage areas, that’s another reason to keep an open eye on the issues that foundation money is directed at.

“The implication [of the increased money flow] for freelancers is that there’s more freelance work that’s being funded by philanthropy than there used to be. So there’s more ways to support yourself with money that has origins in philanthropy,” says David Callahan, founder of Inside Philanthropy.

While the Howard G. Buffett donation isn’t so much focused on one issue as it is on a group of reporters, plenty of other foundations may give freelancers incentive to go looking for stories on health or the environment, such as Google chairman Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy Schmidt’s grants for environmental journalism. Environmental reporting is certainly an important beat, under-prioritized by many mainstream news organizations, but those types of grants may still have pitfalls in a freelance-heavy industry where writers are forced to look not only for good stories but also for stories that will pay.

Even if issue-specific funding has always taken place, these new conditions for journalism and the increase in foundation money at least make it worth considering what issues are currently in focus. Donor money enables worthwhile journalistic coverage, but there are reasons to at least be cautious about rich people who want to save the world.

Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.