Until recently, Jesse Hardman was one of just two staff reporters at WWNO, New Orleans’ public radio station. But he wasn’t a general-assignment guy; Hardman covered the coastal beat — a rich and complex mix of environmental, economic, and cultural issues that informed life across the Mississippi Delta.
Why? Because what happened in the region’s coastal communities was manifestly important — and because it was a way for a cash-starved station to make a mark with distinctive, high-value stories.
We see more newsrooms headed this way — picking their spots, investing more resources in coverage of just a few big issues where deep reporting can move the needle. Those new areas of focus typically are exploding traditional newsroom departments, cutting across education, health, crime, and other topics.
That’s because more of the issues that define society today represent “wicked problems” rooted in complex systems that defy easy categorization. (The education performance gap, for instance, is only partly explained by what happens in schools; it’s also a function of myriad contextual factors such as poverty, homelessness, poor nutrition or childhood trauma.) Understanding and describing those problems — and relevant responses — faithfully requires connecting many dots.
Editors and news directors will choose this path because it produces distinctive stories that actually matter to audiences — and because throwing their dwindling bodies and resources at rote coverage of school board meetings and one-off shootings is a losing proposition.
News organizations will discover that a growing number of philanthropic foundations are eager to support deep-dive reporting projects that promise to build public awareness and understanding of issues connected to those funders’ mission. At the Solutions Journalism Network, we’ve already facilitated dozens of these relationships with leading news organizations, including The Seattle Times (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), The Boston Globe (Nellie Mae Education Foundation), The Detroit Free Press (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), and others.
Editors and publishers will get past their old discomfort with these arrangements, because (a) they’re running out of alternatives, and (b) they’ll figure out that the potential conflicts aren’t much different, in the end, than those posed by commercial advertisers and sponsors (which, jeez, public media figured out a while ago). They’ll also see that foundations are growing increasingly savvy about steering far clear of editorial decisions.
Some media watchdogs will complain that foundation-newsroom relationships threaten journalism’s integrity. (And it’s healthy for all of us to be cautious about that and keep a close watch.) However, our experience is that newsrooms have found such funding not to be coercive, but rather a desperately needed resource to pursue longer and more thoughtful explorations into issues of major concern to audiences. These news organizations have communicated clearly to readers where their funding comes from and the rationale for taking it. The general response from readers has been appreciation for excellent coverage, and improved engagement.