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Feb. 1, 2010, 10 a.m.

NPR’s Ron Schiller: “A concrete and hopeful message” can raise funds

Ron Schiller, the new senior vice president for development at National Public Radio, doesn’t subscribe to the notion that the nation’s news media are in a state of crisis. Is the landscape changing? Absolutely. But this is no time to wallow in doom and gloom, according to Schiller. It’s an opportunity to take the case for nonprofit journalism to a broader audience of foundations and grant-making organizations with a “concrete and hopeful message” about what their philanthropy can achieve.

NPR has a long track record of success with big donors — witness Joan Kroc’s $200 million gift in 2003 — but many of its major institutional donors give because public affairs journalism already is a particular area of interest, Schiller said in an interview Thursday. But with the rapid decline of traditional, for-profit media, more nonprofits, including foundations and advocacy organizations, are having trouble getting their messages out. As a result, he said, they may be more open to the idea of NPR as a “partner in philanthropy” that can address a growing and demonstrated social need.

“There is a great opportunity to go to many, many organizations with that kind of case,” said Schiller, a former vice president at the University of Chicago who was named to his post in September. “We certainly have an opportunity to educate.”

Schiller hopes the approach will yield more gifts in the five- to nine-figure range. He concedes the approach isn’t novel; universities have been using it for decades as they take on issues such as urban education. But NPR’s new direction also would align with a broader trend in the nonprofit sector in response to the decline of traditional media.

From being the news to producing it

More and more nonprofits that once operated as expert sources for mainstream media have cut out the middleman and gone into the business of producing journalism. Last year, for instance, David Westphal documented the effort of Human Rights Watch. The New York-based nonprofit is “leveraging an already robust network of fact-gatherers around the world by adding a small unit that converts its academic-type research into consumer-friendly news reports,” Westphal wrote. Likewise on the domestic front, the Kaiser Family Foundation, a longtime provider of high-quality healthcare data, last year launched Kaiser Health News as a response to a decline in mainstream reporting on healthcare policy.

Other nonprofits with less expertise or commitment to journalism might be equally interested in filling society’s need for high-quality reporting, Schiller said. But the public radio community, including NPR, has not done a very good job of making what is known in the fundraising business as the case for philanthropy. To date, the appeal has been largely transactional, he said. It goes something like this: If you liked what you heard on “Morning Edition,” please send us a contribution.

The pitch is not without its successes. In 2008, NPR collected $57.7 million in grants, contributions and sponsorships, or about 34 percent of its total revenues, according to the organization’s most recent Form 990 report. But going forward, Schiller said, it might sound more like: “How do we use this incredibly powerful news and cultural organization to serve the country more powerfully?”

Are the nation’s major foundations ready to take on the task? Less than a year ago, Chuck Lewis and Bruce Sievers wrote an article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy called on foundations to pitch in. They wrote:

Philanthropy is in a unique position to take the initiative because it can move quickly and deliver significant resources to key players in the news media, while taking a hands-off stance toward content. Yet, with a few notable exceptions by some of the nation’s biggest grant makers…foundations have not become involved in this arena of public life.

Today, Schiller is optimistic that more grant-making organizations will be open to the idea of supporting journalism. What is needed is more education of potential donors and a message that makes the case compelling, Schiller said.

That might sound a lot like a traditional, university-style giving campaign, and Schiller doesn’t discourage the idea that NPR might launch that kind of effort. Much of his time, he said, is occupied in strategic planning with his counterparts at NPR’s 300 member stations to coordinate a national message while preserving their ability to meet local needs.

“We have a special time right now when the need for good information in the media is out there,” Schiller said in an interview at NPR offices in Washington. “In every community now, this is on people’s minds.”

Photo of Schiller by Dan Dry/University of Chicago.

POSTED     Feb. 1, 2010, 10 a.m.
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