Narrative change trend brings new money to journalism

“Many in philanthropy are eager for journalism to regain the public’s trust by telling a more complete and accurate story about communities it has historically misrepresented and excluded — and many journalists want the same thing.”

Philanthropy’s interest in “narrative change” has been rapidly growing, and funders that seek to advance social justice understand that journalism is a significant driver of public conversation. In 2023 and beyond, the journalism sector will see more investment from philanthropic actors that view the media as a critical ally in amplifying community-led stories and solutions on a range of pressing issues — from police violence to abortion rights to the climate crisis.

Author and policy advocate Heather McGhee often says, “Everything we believe comes from a story we’ve been told.” For several years, narrative organizers and strategic communicators have helped individual and institutional funders to gain a more sophisticated understanding of the ways stories bring emotional resonance to the beliefs that shape how we make sense of the world and the important role they play in determining the policies and practices that govern our lives. Prioritizing narratives of rugged individualism, scarcity, and zero sum thinking above interdependence, collective abundance, and cooperation has paved the path to political polarization and serves to maintain inequality. Those with the power to decide which stories are told (and not told), how they are told, and who gets to tell them are deeply consequential to our democracy.

Many in philanthropy are eager for journalism to regain the public’s trust by telling a more complete and accurate story about communities it has historically misrepresented and excluded — and many journalists want the same thing. This means there is a powerful opportunity that’s on the cusp of being seized.

For funders who want to contribute to the many transformations that journalists are leading in their industry, here are a few ways to do so.

Fund journalism that is community owned and operated. After a nine-month deep listening process with more than 300 residents, El Tímpano launched a local reporting lab in 2018 that uses civic engagement and participatory reporting techniques to provide Latino and Mayan immigrants in the Bay Area with what they need to make informed decisions about their lives. Operating with the belief that “no one is better equipped to report on a community than members of the community themselves,” El Tímpano makes editorial decisions and develops distribution strategies in continuous, two-way conversations with its readers and community leaders. It counters traditional notions of journalism that is about communities, but not controlled by or designed with and for those communities. By filling a gap in Spanish-language news and information, and supporting the emergence of other values-aligned community media outlets, it helps to even an unequal playing field and address racial and economic disparities in access to basic necessities like healthcare, housing, and education.

Fund journalists that build the power of movements for justice. Press On provides journalists from and living in the U.S. South with workshops on media history and political education, skills-building training, reporting fellowships, and opportunities to produce news stories that catalyze change. Its programming centers people whose perspectives and experiences have been historically excluded from mainstream news — including Black and Indigenous people, immigrants, queer and trans people, and people in rural communities — and it seeks to foster collaboration among journalists and grassroots movements that shift journalism from “a diversity and inclusion model to an approach that centers justice and liberation at every level.”

Fund groups that encourage newsrooms to do better. In Philadelphia, Movement Alliance Project, Media, Inequality & Change Center, and Free Press came together in the Shift the Narrative Project to build bridges with local newsrooms and counter the harm caused by “if it bleeds, it leads” crime coverage. The coalition works with journalists to challenge long-held yet repudiated practices around using police as primary sources in their reporting and extractive tactics that retraumatize victims of violence. It also supports reporters to improve their coverage by identifying and incorporating community solutions to increase public safety that go beyond policing.

Like any new exploration, those who are newcomers to funding journalism may find it beneficial to have the skillful guidance of those with experience. In addition to reaching out to either of us, joining a philanthropic initiative such as the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy and The Pivot Fund can help funders avoid injurious mistakes and provide them with a community of practice to learn how to resource journalism as part of a narrative change strategy. Philanthropy has an opportunity to encourage another influential institution to leverage its power by amplifying narratives it has long silenced that can repair our fractured democracy.

Molly de Aguiar is the president of Independence Public Media Foundation. Mandy Van Deven is a philanthropy consultant who advises on resourcing the narrative infrastructure of social justice movements.

Philanthropy’s interest in “narrative change” has been rapidly growing, and funders that seek to advance social justice understand that journalism is a significant driver of public conversation. In 2023 and beyond, the journalism sector will see more investment from philanthropic actors that view the media as a critical ally in amplifying community-led stories and solutions on a range of pressing issues — from police violence to abortion rights to the climate crisis.

Author and policy advocate Heather McGhee often says, “Everything we believe comes from a story we’ve been told.” For several years, narrative organizers and strategic communicators have helped individual and institutional funders to gain a more sophisticated understanding of the ways stories bring emotional resonance to the beliefs that shape how we make sense of the world and the important role they play in determining the policies and practices that govern our lives. Prioritizing narratives of rugged individualism, scarcity, and zero sum thinking above interdependence, collective abundance, and cooperation has paved the path to political polarization and serves to maintain inequality. Those with the power to decide which stories are told (and not told), how they are told, and who gets to tell them are deeply consequential to our democracy.

Many in philanthropy are eager for journalism to regain the public’s trust by telling a more complete and accurate story about communities it has historically misrepresented and excluded — and many journalists want the same thing. This means there is a powerful opportunity that’s on the cusp of being seized.

For funders who want to contribute to the many transformations that journalists are leading in their industry, here are a few ways to do so.

Fund journalism that is community owned and operated. After a nine-month deep listening process with more than 300 residents, El Tímpano launched a local reporting lab in 2018 that uses civic engagement and participatory reporting techniques to provide Latino and Mayan immigrants in the Bay Area with what they need to make informed decisions about their lives. Operating with the belief that “no one is better equipped to report on a community than members of the community themselves,” El Tímpano makes editorial decisions and develops distribution strategies in continuous, two-way conversations with its readers and community leaders. It counters traditional notions of journalism that is about communities, but not controlled by or designed with and for those communities. By filling a gap in Spanish-language news and information, and supporting the emergence of other values-aligned community media outlets, it helps to even an unequal playing field and address racial and economic disparities in access to basic necessities like healthcare, housing, and education.

Fund journalists that build the power of movements for justice. Press On provides journalists from and living in the U.S. South with workshops on media history and political education, skills-building training, reporting fellowships, and opportunities to produce news stories that catalyze change. Its programming centers people whose perspectives and experiences have been historically excluded from mainstream news — including Black and Indigenous people, immigrants, queer and trans people, and people in rural communities — and it seeks to foster collaboration among journalists and grassroots movements that shift journalism from “a diversity and inclusion model to an approach that centers justice and liberation at every level.”

Fund groups that encourage newsrooms to do better. In Philadelphia, Movement Alliance Project, Media, Inequality & Change Center, and Free Press came together in the Shift the Narrative Project to build bridges with local newsrooms and counter the harm caused by “if it bleeds, it leads” crime coverage. The coalition works with journalists to challenge long-held yet repudiated practices around using police as primary sources in their reporting and extractive tactics that retraumatize victims of violence. It also supports reporters to improve their coverage by identifying and incorporating community solutions to increase public safety that go beyond policing.

Like any new exploration, those who are newcomers to funding journalism may find it beneficial to have the skillful guidance of those with experience. In addition to reaching out to either of us, joining a philanthropic initiative such as the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy and The Pivot Fund can help funders avoid injurious mistakes and provide them with a community of practice to learn how to resource journalism as part of a narrative change strategy. Philanthropy has an opportunity to encourage another influential institution to leverage its power by amplifying narratives it has long silenced that can repair our fractured democracy.

Molly de Aguiar is the president of Independence Public Media Foundation. Mandy Van Deven is a philanthropy consultant who advises on resourcing the narrative infrastructure of social justice movements.

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