Rick CohenWhy Journalism Matters to Philanthropy

By: Rick Cohen In: 2013 Annual Conference| Media and Technology| Nonprofits| Philanthropy

9 Apr 2013

It’s a little unfair to sit through a 90-minute panel and laud it for what it covered and rap it for what it missed, but in a way, that’s the challenge of sessions at the Council on Foundations Annual Conference. Listening to the discussions is a matter of looking for trends and patterns, the big ideas that are gaining traction among funders, the concepts that are increasingly “common currency,” and what has turned into yesterday’s news.

With that caveat, here are some reactions to the issues discussed during yesterday’s panel, The Future of Journalism and Why It Matters to Philanthropy.  This session was quick to get to the heart of the issue for media funders and grantees alike.  Robert Rosenthal of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) offered an early summary:  “High quality information that protects and serves democracy is not only an ideal, but will be successful in business terms.” In fact, if there was an overwhelming message in the panel, it was Rosenthal’s contention that funders have to understand a new generation of journalists motivated by creative ways of storytelling.

The panelists talked about supporting nonprofit journalism in siloed interest areas—or readers’ supporting journalism based on the silo in which they operate, a focus on local news here or there, well known but young outlets such as MinnPost and the Texas Tribune, or a focus on a specific topic within a specific geography such as Philadelphia Tech News or California Watch. There are also some “national siloes” that merit attention; for example, one of my favorites, not mentioned by the panelists, the Daily Yonder published by the nonprofit Center for Rural Strategies. Foundations need to pay attention to multiple siloes that may not fit neat channels of supplementing or supplanting local legacy media outlets.

Nonetheless, there is the challenge of the business model. Bruce Sagan, the publisher of the Herald Newspapers, repeatedly suggested that the problem and the solution is the cultural challenge of readers thinking that the Web is free. He seemed quite convinced that people would eventually, with cultural change, come to see that paying for online content is appropriate, necessary, and doable. Some of us aren’t sure that model works, regardless of his optimism, and a questioner from the floor challenged his assumptions quite nicely.

Rosenthal’s confidence was in new media creating content for other organizations, taking risks in storytelling (he cited CIR’s work on doing animations in their storytelling), and not becoming wedded to any one specific model. He suggested that sponsorships or underwriting of specific events or efforts can be productive, but only as long as the funders don’t try to have their funding accompanied by their control of content. As a result, Rosenthal abjures efforts by funders to link their funding for CIR to taking advocacy positions or tied to the funders’ other advocacy organizations.

Calvin Sims of the Ford Foundation described Ford’s benchmarks for its media funding of nonprofit and for-profit venues, geared toward justifying the philanthropic appropriateness of Ford’s funding of for-profit entities such as NBC and the Los Angeles Times, but they appeared to be solid benchmarks for the nonprofit media to consider in general:  (1) the content should significantly increase what the public knows about the specific topic or topics being covered; (2) you should aim for wide reach, not necessarily just in terms of media impressions, but in term of the pick-up of the content and its impact on the media landscape; and (3) if possible, the content should be linked to some social change. The work of Rosenthal’s group in investigating the huge wait times at the VA office in Oakland Calif., generating research on wait times at VA offices all around the country and culminating in an announcement by President Obama that he was going to rectify the dysfunctional VA bureaucracy is a good example that seems to meet the criteria laid out by Sims.

One topical news silo that escaped discussion was nonprofit media providing daily or near-daily coverage of nonprofits and philanthropy (a space that Nonprofit Quarterly shares with the Philanthropy News Digest, the Non-Profit Times, the Chronicle of Philanthropy, and not many others). The coverage of 1.48 million 501(c) tax-exempt entities, including 1.08 million 501(c)(3) public charities (http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-soi/12databk.pdf) employing an estimated 15.59 million workers, is a significant news silo not to be overlooked—although it routinely is. It’s a big sector of news to be missed.

“Quality information has value,” Rosenthal concluded. I’d add that nonprofit media represents a critical aspect of the nonprofit sector’s contribution to a specific value of small “d” democracy. Hopefully that’s what foundations can see as the rationale for why journalism matters to philanthropy.

Rick Cohen is a columnist for NonProfit Quarterly.

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