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Jan. 13, 2020, 2:20 p.m.
Business Models

Foundation grants have strings attached, and nonprofit journalists sometimes don’t like being told what to do by them

But comparing grant money to advertisers trying to sway coverage seems a bit much.

As advertising revenue dries up and goes out of style, news outlets increasingly look to foundations for support. And foundations are paying up: Journalism philanthropy has nearly quadrupled since 2009, and when the Institute for Nonprofit News surveyed its members on their finances last year, it found that on average 43 percent of their revenue comes from foundations.

But these relationships aren’t always complication-free, and the journalists working at these organizations have learned that, even when it’s not an advertiser paying your bills, there can still be strings attached.

For a recently published (open access) paper, Patrick Ferrucci and Jacob Nelson conducted more than 40 interviews with employees of nonprofit, digital-native journalism outlets and the foundations that fund them — and one thing that comes through loud and clear is that journalists are often highly skeptical of these relationships — at least when given the power to speak anonymously.

“We found that the impact of foundations on journalism parallels that of advertisers throughout the 20th century, with one important distinction: funding from foundations is often premised on editorial influence,” they write in CJR, “complicating efforts by journalists to maintain the firewall between news revenue and production.”

But note that this “editorial influence” isn’t the kind you might imagine from the ad-dominant days — a local car dealer trying to use his huge weekly ad buy to pressure the newsroom out of investigating local car dealers. What Ferrucci and Nelson are describing is that foundation grants often come with expectations that newsrooms will do something new or different with the money:

We found that foundation funding did not push journalists to pursue or avoid specific topics with their reporting — perhaps the most obvious form of editorial influence. Instead, foundation funding was tied with the methods that journalists utilized for their reporting. The journalists and foundation employees we spoke with described how foundation funding often went to news nonprofits pursuing three types of initiatives: specific, technology-driven projects; audience-engagement projects; and projects intended to push journalists to expand their daily work beyond traditional routines.

Most commonly, Nelson and Ferrucci write in their paper, “foundation funding that came with an expectation of journalists using specific new technologies.” Here are some quotes from the journalists they interviewed:

For a while, it was all about [virtual reality]. Some biggies like The Guardian made some cool stories using VR and now these places would give anyone money if they promised to use it.

All [foundations] care about is how cool something sounds right then. Let’s be honest, most of these [foundations] are run by journalists who are [around my age of 60]. They read a proposal with something cool sounding on it, and they’re all over it. They spread their money around to anything they think is innovative. They’re helping a lot of different startups, and that’s a good thing, but a lot of that money goes to waste when these startups fail. Those funds could have gone to help support newsrooms they already funded. If I wanted to make sure I kept [foundation funding], I would have to reinvent this place every year or so.

And when the initial grant runs out, “these journalists are unlikely to receive more, because the foundation identified the next new other technology, and has thus moved onto the next newsroom attempting to adopt it.”

From the foundations’ point of view, expecting neverending funding for general operations typically misunderstands the foundations’ goals, which support newsroom experimentation over a new check cut each year. Here’s the perspective of someone at a foundation:

It sucks. I said it. It sucks when one of the newsrooms we’ve worked hard to support cannot make it. We provide this infrastructure and guidance, but sometimes it doesn’t work and that makes you feel bad. There are people involved.

The thing is, we’re upfront with our newsrooms. We’re not here to support you till the Earth ends. Our job is: Help find journalism’s future. That means seeking out innovation, finding the model that will unlock journalism’s potential to work with the public and, yes, finding the model that can become self-sustainable.

You know, we may never find that. I don’t believe it; I think we will. But our mission isn’t to keep newsrooms alive. It’s to look toward the future.

The journalists interviewed didn’t really buy that and “suggested that the implementation of these technologies are typically done just for public relations purposes.” In reference to “an audience engagement platform that has grown popular in newsrooms” (it isn’t named, but paper coauthor Nelson has been publicly skeptical of Hearken in the past), one journalist said:

I felt like [my editors] needed to justify having [the platform], which meant using it more than we needed to. When [one editor] suggested it before I started, I didn’t realize I was being forced to use it, not asked. That kind of stuff happened often. I remember the whole thing so well because it opened my eyes, you know? I came to understand that if someone was paying us to do something, we did it no matter what. I’ve written some great stories that way since, though. We still have it, but I don’t think it’s a priority since the [funded period] stopped.

It’s worth noting that foundation money doesn’t just fall from the sky and start ordering around reporters who’d rather be doing something else. Presumably, all of this foundation money came via grants that the news organization specifically chose to apply for, and those grants tend to outline rather specifically the expectations on both sides. So it seems strange to lump “doing the things we voluntarily contractually agreed to do” in with “editorial interference” from advertisers. Some of what the authors quote in the paper looks a lot like reporters disagreeing with management about priorities and strategy — an issue as old as newsrooms.

Audience engagement is another big theme: “A majority of the journalists interviewed, and all of the foundation employees, said that foundations currently prioritize audience engagement within newsrooms.” One journalist expressed his skepticism about his audience:

The people are not as knowing about a story as I am. They haven’t researched the topic. They haven’t talked to a lot of people outside of social circles. I read legal briefs or other places’ journalism. I don’t think people do that. It can become infuriating when my bosses or Columbia Journalism Review or Jeff Jarvis tells me I’m missing an opportunity by not letting people tell me what to do. I get the idea, you know, but most people are ignorant or can’t be expected to know as much as I do. It’s not their job to look into something. They aren’t journalists.

Another journalist:

I’ve been in this business a long time. What people in academia, no offense, or not actually doing journalism say now about what they currently call engagement isn’t very different than others said 30 years ago. Jay Rosen, for example, is still Jay Rosen. And back then, some places jumped on the bandwagon but most stayed off. The difference is now we have these [foundations] waving money at us, money we need, if we just do this thing or that thing that will engage our public. When money is offered, we listen. Don’t think for a second, OK, that taking that money and doing this stuff isn’t changing journalism.”

Nelson and Ferrucci argue that this shows there’s currently no “firewall” between foundations and journalists the way there is supposed to be one between advertisers and journalists. “The idea that this work was essentially public relations for the funder came up often,” they write.

In a perfect world, this firewall would be unnecessary, because the goals of the foundations and the journalists would be one and the same — to improve the quality of the news (Ferrucci, 2019). But as these findings illustrate, the ideas that foundations have for how to improve news quality (e.g., more audience engagement, more technologically driven projects) are not necessarily the same ideas as those actually working within the newsrooms. In the previous, advertising-driven era, no journalist at a reputable organization would be asked to write a story to appease a specific advertiser. In the world of foundation-funded journalism, however, journalists are asked to embrace certain tools and approaches to their work because doing will help that newsroom secure or maintain their foundation funding. This finding is consistent with previous work by Scott et al. (2019), which concluded that foundations do not necessarily influence editorial decisions so much as they alter journalistic roles and practices, primarily by putting on premium on what they referred to as “non-editorial activities.”

You can read the full paper here.

Illustration by Louis Richard used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 13, 2020, 2:20 p.m.
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