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April 14, 2021, 2:10 p.m.
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Philanthropic support is a small but growing revenue stream for The Guardian, reaching a record-breaking $9M last year

What does it mean for other news organizations hoping to attract institutional support?

There has been much (understandable!) handwringing over how the pandemic would affect big donor support for news organizations. With all the economic uncertainty, would foundations take a more conservative approach? Would funds get redirected away from journalism to Covid-specific efforts? For one news organization, at least, the answer was a comforting “no.”

The Guardian — through its U.S.-based philanthropic arm theguardian.org — raised $9 million between April 2020 and April 2021. Rachel White, who has been president of theguardian.org since its founding in 2016, said every single project was renewed.

New multi-year reporting projects were funded and launched, too. Humanity United, which has funded reporting on modern day slavery and labor exploitation with a pair of two-year $800,000 grants, expanded its support in 2021 with a $1.5 million grant for a series on human rights around the world. (White says this has made The Guardian the only global news organization with a dedicated human rights reporting team.) In another example, Open Society Foundations, which has funded reporting on gender inequality in the U.S. at The Guardian in the past, reupped its contributions to fund work on climate justice and the intersection of inequality and Covid-19. Other grants have boosted the climate journalism that The Guardian has led the way on in recent years and made a U.S. voting rights project possible.

With bleak-and-getting-bleaker advertising figures, we’ve seen a number of new newsrooms choose to go the nonprofit route and look to fund their journalism through individual contributions and direct support from foundations and other charitable organizations.

Philanthropy at The Guardian is a little less straightforward. The news organization, owned by Scott Trust Limited, is not a nonprofit like, say, The Salt Lake Tribune or The Marshall Project or Mountain State Spotlight. (If I hit “Contribute” after reading a Guardian article, the donation isn’t tax-deductible, for example.)

Instead, in 2016, The Guardian formed an independent, U.S.-based charitable organization specifically to find financial support for its journalism. It’s part of a growing trend of U.S. newspapers seeking philanthropic support; the same year, The New York Times launched its own philanthropic arm and, in 2019, hired Sharon Chan, who’d formerly raised money to support education journalism at the Seattle Times, as its first VP of Philanthropy. A recently announced Times journalism initiative, Headway, is supported by philanthropic dollars.

White, who joined from New America Foundation, says her role was “experimental” at the outset. Two existing grants — from the Gates and Rockefeller foundations — had caught the attention of newsroom leadership who wondered, was there more where that came from?

“For a place like The Guardian, we wouldn’t and shouldn’t be seeking the same kind of funding that nonprofit newsrooms split because we have lots of different revenue streams that support the news organization,” White said. “We really needed to define why and how we would seek philanthropic support.”

The “how” was relatively straightforward; setting up a 501(c)(3) made it easier for more nonprofits to contribute. The “why,” White says, has been driven entirely by the newsroom.

“We’re fierce — and always will be — about editorial independence,” she said. “Every one of the ideas that we take to philanthropy comes first from senior editors at The Guardian. They tell us what they’re interested in and they we see if there’s an opportunity for us to find support for it.”

The Guardian goes farther than most to be transparent about who is funding its journalism. Every project funded through theguardian.org has a prominently placed badge noting the institution(s) that made the work possible. A gene editing documentary was funded by the U.K.-based Wellcome Trust, for example, while articles in a series on the threats facing public lands in the United States and Canada discloses its support from the Society of Environmental Journalists. The full list of more than 40 grant-supported projects appears on theguardian.org.

“We always want to make sure this information is not hard to find for our readers,” White said. “I think we set the standard on it, to be honest.”

White is quick to point out that philanthropy is not the primary way The Guardian supports its journalism. Annual revenue for The Guardian was £223.5 million (USD $308 million) in 2020, including digital-driven revenue — now making up 56% of all revenue — at £125.9 million. In contrast, theguardian.org has reliably contributed between $5.1 million and $5.4 million per year.

But newsroom budgets are tight and after one glorious year of not losing money, The Guardian reported “significant financial challenges” in 2020 amid the pandemic. The philanthropic arm focuses on reporting projects that might be difficult to justify funding while facing budget shortfalls.

“The instinct is that there are topics that are really important to us, from an editorial standpoint, that require longer durations of reporting or could benefit from a dedicated editorial team or extra data journalism,” White said.

Unlike other news organizations that may prefer unearmarked funds, White says The Guardian seeks out subject-specific funding. Broad topics — environmental justice or biodiversity or global development — lend themselves particularly well to this approach. White says their breadth gives editors “more latitude” and appeals to foundations driven to “tackle the big problems and big challenges.” White says she had wondered earlier in her tenure if philanthropy supporting the arts would want to fund, for example, journalism about music, but has found more of an appetite for “more serious” topics.

(When newsroom budgets shrink, arts and culture coverage often appears on the chopping block early. Given the critical role that reviews, features, and other journalism play in creating audiences for new work in theatre, literature, and other artistic endeavors, why don’t we see more organizations funding arts-and-culture journalism?)

The organizations and individuals that White works with are, unsurprisingly, very interested in the impact of the journalism they fund. The Guardian has developed a suite of tools and procedures to try and measure who their journalism is reaching — and what effect it has.

“Foundations have a really specific way of thinking about the world,” White said. “Their boards want to know, if they paid to do something, could you tell if it worked?”

As more news organizations, including The Guardian, appeal to readers for contributions, impact work is increasingly being deployed beyond philanthropic efforts.

“You hear about the role of impact and this obligation or desire on the part of news organizations to be talking about impact more and more,” White noted. “It gets to the heart of, ‘Why do we do the reporting?’ and ‘What do readers get out of this?’ It’s part of a virtuous circle of feeling that, ‘Right, this matters and it did something.'”

Answering those questions at theguardian.org includes leaning on a proprietary metrics tool at The Guardian (alongside more widely-used tools like Google Analytics) and an impact tracker — described as, basically, an interactive spreadsheet developed by the Center for Investigative Reporting — that allows journalists to contribute items like a call from the U.N. for more information about their reporting or a pending bill written in response to an article’s findings. The Guardian also measures impact by tracking backlinks on sites from government agencies or NGOs and using a social listening tool called Pulsar.

“Pulsar allows us to get gain a better sense of where the journalism is traveling in social media, whether we reached unexpected audiences and whether we reach an audience that we hoped to reach,” White said. “We can see a lot more than just the episodic experience of noticing that [for example] Greta Thunberg retweets our stuff. We can see the kind of stuff that everyone sees and gets excited about, but this allows us to better understand our spheres of influence.”

Looking ahead, White says the newsroom is looking at finding funding for topics like “the future of the American worker” and “the long tail of inequality and poverty” post-pandemic.

“This part of the world will start to feel better. Lots of us will be immunized. The world will want to move on. The Global South, meanwhile, will suffer for a very long time,” she said. “People will get tired of that story, but we will stay with that story and we will continue to seek philanthropic funding to stay with that story.”

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked White — who has been working to secure philanthropic support for journalism for nearly six years now — what has surprised her most in her role.

“I really did believe in 2016 — the first time it felt like the world was collapsing— that everyone would immediately see the role of journalism and philanthropy would rise triumphantly to the challenge and that there would be this outpouring of support. While the market has expanded and this commitment to the idea of supporting journalism has grown, it certainly hasn’t grown at the pace of the crisis for journalism,” White said. She said she sees “many glimmers of hope,” including undertakings like the American Journalism Project and Report for America but that philanthropy would have to “massively scale” to meet even 20% of the budgetary need.

“I just continue to hope that the philanthropic market will expand to meet the needs of news organizations, because they’re substantial,” White added. “I don’t think the philanthropic sector is quite there yet.”

Photo by Thomas Richter used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 14, 2021, 2:10 p.m.
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