2017 is the year that philanthropy stops asking, “Why should we fund news and information?” and starts asking, “How do we get started?”
For years, funders have averted their eyes from the alarming loss of journalism jobs and coverage of local and state issues. This presidential election made it virtually impossible for them to ignore it any longer.
In the swirl of confusion and fear about fake news, echo chambers, and threats to press freedom, funders are now grasping the consequences to our communities when there are no journalists covering city council meetings or providing substantive statehouse reporting to keep elected officials accountable. Weeks away from the inauguration, foundations are waking up to the reality that this major transition of power will likely impact the issue areas they support, and that they can’t achieve their longterm objectives as long as the public is starved for relevant, reliable information about those issues.
Funders will be tempted to make grants that, in effect, seek to buy coverage in order to promote their agendas, by offering to fund beats or specific investigations, requesting editorial review and enacting quotas for stories written. But this would be disastrous to an already divided society, sowing further distrust for both philanthropy and journalism. Instead, philanthropy should focus on infrastructure: supporting a broad array of organizations — newsrooms, libraries, and civic tech organizations, as well as projects that promote open data and transparent government — that will strengthen news ecosystems across the country and give people access to information they crave.
Foundations should provide operating and project support with few or no strings attached. Additionally, they should give dollars that help newsrooms and other community-based nonprofits take creative risks, explore new revenue streams, and collaborate with partners. Doing so provides organizations the stable support they need while also empowering them to experiment, learn, and adapt to a changing landscape. Funding infrastructure also insulates philanthropy from accusations of deliberately influencing coverage.
There is no quick, easy fix to rebuilding capacity for news and information organizations or cultivating constructive dialogue and solutions for pressing issues; it will require sustained philanthropic investment and patience. But the opportunity here is immense. Journalists and their community-based partners can become the superheroes people desperately need right now: promoting understanding among neighbors; empowering people to participate in important local decisions; holding elected officials accountable; amplifying the voices and ideas that are never heard; and restoring the public’s trust in institutions. And fortunately, there are good models to turn to — thoughtful and creative leaders in the field demonstrating how people-powered journalism can act as a bulwark against fear, hate, and apathy.
Philanthropy has been too slow to value news and information organizations as community anchors. They have viewed media funding as a program area unto itself (one that they have not been particularly interested in), rather than a vital pathway for helping people discuss, understand, and engage with urgent issues. 2017 is the year this changes. Funders will make a bold longterm commitment to strengthening news and information ecosystems, recognizing it as a systemic way to inform, engage, and improve our communities and people’s lives.
Molly de Aguiar is the program director for informed communities at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.