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Aug. 28, 2023, 10:52 a.m.

More funding is flowing to local journalism and for-profit newsrooms, study finds

The report also finds “warning signs” over editorial independence in responses from newsrooms.

In a new report on journalism grantmaking, more than half of funders said they’re investing more in journalism than ever, including many who funded journalism for the first time in the past five years.

The report — out last week from NORC at the University of Chicago, Media Impact Funders, and The Lenfest Institute for Journalism — is based on responses from 431 news organizations and 129 funders. The newsrooms were a mix of digital nonprofit newsrooms, public media stations, for-profit independent local outlets, and legacy newspapers. The funders surveyed included private foundations, community foundations, family foundations, and other philanthropic institutions that support journalism.

There’s strong support for local and issue-based journalism among donors:

  • 74% of funders said they support journalism that addresses a specific topic or problem
  • 71% of funders said they made investments to increase local journalism

Though more than half of funders said they prefer to fund nonprofit journalism, the report also found more philanthropic giving is going to for-profit newsrooms:

  • 38% of funders said they’ve donated to a for-profit news organization in the past five years
  • 65% of for-profit news organizations that receive funding from national foundations said the support has increased over the past five years. (52% of for-profit organizations that are funded by local foundations say that funding has increased, as well.)
  • 67% of for-profit newsrooms with paywalls said they provide free online access to philanthropy-supported journalism

Among for-profit newsrooms that got funding, 52% got grants from Google News Initiative and 36% received funding from Meta, which is unlikely to offer the same support again.

Compared to other sectors, philanthropic support for journalism remains relatively new and grants are mostly small. More than 70% of funders said their contributions to journalism represented less than one-tenth of their overall donations. Just five funders reported investing more than $5 million. That said, grantmaking for journalism is growing overall and the report finds the number of grants more than $100,000 has steadily risen over the past five years.

The report finds the risk of conflicts of interest has grown as philanthropic investment has risen, and there are “warning signs in survey responses” over editorial independence.

About 57% of funders are donating to support journalism about areas in which they do policy work, up from 52% eight years ago. The percentage of outlets reporting they accepted funds to do specific investigations suggested by a funder has dropped, however, from 59% eight years ago to 40% today.

Some of the most worrying data points conflicted with other survey responses. When donors were asked “How often do you estimate grantees make editorial changes based on input from your organization?”, more than half said changes were either “almost always” or “often” made. But 70% of both nonprofit and for-profit news organizations said they “never” make editorial changes based on funder input. The vast majority — 92% of nonprofit news organizations and 82% of for-profit outlets — said funders never even see editorial content they’ve helped fund before publication.

Nonprofit news organizations are more likely to be transparent about their sources of funding. The report found 86% of nonprofit newsrooms disclosed “at least some” of their donors on their website or annual report. Only 46% of for-profit news outlets said they list any of their donors publicly. Most of the nonprofit newsrooms that responded to the survey are part of Institute for Nonprofit News, which asks members to disclose all donations exceeding $5,000. Outside of INN’s network, written policies around philanthropic donations have “not been widely adopted,” the report finds.

The report flags “a growing trend” in journalism philanthropy: contributors using donor-advised funds. These funds — offered by places like Fidelity Charitable — can be more private than other types of contributions.

“In 2023, 74% of nonprofit news organizations say they receive contributions from DAFs, up from 56% in 2015. Only 22% identify both the name of the contributor and the name of the fund, down from 40% in 2015,” the report reads. “Of the for-profit news organizations that say they receive funds from donor-advised accounts, only 10% identify the name of both the fund and contributors. More than half of funders who support media with DAFs identify the source of the money.”

The survey responses also uncovered mixed signals on funding going to news outlets that serve people of color.

“Six in 10 funders said they had made grants to news outlets primarily focused on serving communities of color, and of those, seven in 10 said their grantmaking to outlets serving communities of color had increased,” the report notes. “Respondents from outlets serving people of color painted a slightly different picture, with only half reporting their funding had increased.”

Richard Tofel, founding general manager of ProPublica, has asked if journalism intermediaries are getting too much foundation money. This report found about 36% of donors said they only funded news outlets directly while just 7% said they only gave to “field-building organizations” like the American Journalism Project or Report for America. (About 28% said they gave both directly to newsrooms and to journalism-adjacent organizations.)

You can read the full report here.

Photo by Umesh Soni on Unsplash.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     Aug. 28, 2023, 10:52 a.m.
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