How This News Site is Testing the Long-Term Viability of Philanthropy-Fueled Media

InsideClimate News and similar nonprofits are thriving, in spite of worries about independence and sustainability in philanthropy-supported media. With a new $1.5 million grant, ICN is pushing its model even further.

In the latest round of Pulitzer Prizes, three nonprofit media outlets either won or were finalists for their work, some multiple times, which is impressive considering it was just six years ago that the nonprofit ProPublica took home its first Pulitzer. 

There’s ongoing trepidation in media and philanthropic circles concerning both the editorial independence of such organizations, and whether it’s a sustainable business model. But nail-biting aside, the accomplishments and the numbers show that philanthropy-backed journalism is becoming a steady force rather than a few experiments.

Related: Green Journalism Gets a Raise from a Top Environmental Donor

One of those 2016 nonprofit Pulitzer finalists, and a past winner, is InsideClimate News. With help from a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the Grantham Foundation, ICN's biggest contribution to date, the investigative outlet plans to double its size and establish a permanent newsroom. For perspective, ICN’s current annual budget is about $1.5 million, and Grantham's first grant in 2012 was $100,000. So this is a big step up. At nearly a decade old, ICN and its expansion is testing the long-term viability of journalism that’s supported mostly by foundations.

Nonprofit journalism has been growing, including both local news outlets and investigative partnership organizations like ProPublica. InsideClimate News stands out from the crowd in a few ways. Launched in 2007 by David Sassoon and originally sponsored by social change funders group Public Interest Projects (now going by NEO), it ran with a tiny budget and staff and no physical newsroom. It’s grown in influence over the years as it decided to hammer down on investigative coverage. ICN has won a number of awards since—including a Pulitzer in 2013 for its investigation of an under-covered, massive oil spill—and was a finalist for coverage of Exxon’s misinformation campaign on climate change. 

Not only does it fill a very distinct niche, many of its big funders are climate or environment funders such as Grantham, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Energy Foundation. They're undeniably driving an agenda to spur action on this particular issue, as opposed to a goal of generally strengthening journalism.

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This kind of relationship between funding sources and an editorial agenda makes many journalists uneasy, and there have been a few cases of news outlets coming under fire for their funding sources. In January, New Yorker writer Nicholas Lemann called for a code of ethics for media nonprofits. A recent study by the American Press Institute found a concerning lack of ethical guidelines on nonprofit funding at news organizations, and that about half of funders are making other grants on issues where they are also trying to change policy or public behavior.

The rules of the road should be clarified, but these concerns aren’t insurmountable. In fact, the API study also found public transparency on these donations to be almost universal (99 percent are disclosed), and there’s very little evidence of explicit editorial influence by funders. ICN is notably highly transparent about its funding sources. 

Related: This Climate News Site is a Winner in the Surge of Funding for Green Journalism

I’d also point out that the conceit of neutral journalism is not all its cracked up to be. Aside from the inescapable influence of where the money comes from (ads, readers, a tycoon owner), attempts to avoid bias have crippled climate coverage in the United States. Outlets are improving over time, but have notoriously parroted conservative skepticism on climate change that has no factual basis in pursuit of perceived balance. 

Not only that, traditional models of journalism have fallen down on the job when it comes to basic coverage of climate change, with climate news actually falling in 2015, despite several historic occurences. Say what you will about ICN’s agenda, it’s one that is underrepresented and desperately needed in traditional news coverage.

The bigger issue is whether grant-funded journalism is a sustainable model. Philanthropy may seem like a godsend for journalism, but we see all the time that it can be both fickle and demanding. So we’re naturally skeptical that it’s a model for media that can provide a secure and ongoing foundation.  

Related: State of Dependency: How Funders Keep Nonprofit Journalism Afloat

ICN could certainly prove people like us wrong. Its most recent report from 2014 showed an incredible 88 percent of its funding came from a mix of foundations, but that it’s shooting to get that number down to 51 percent, balanced by individual donors, corporate sponsors, and a small amount from collaborations. That still means 96 percent would come from the generosity of others. 

What’s the big deal? Well, foundations tend to lose interest in causes over time, generally dislike having grantees depend on them for survival, and they usually demand concrete metrics of success for continued funding (all of which makes grantees pull out their hair and lose sleep). You can imagine why this would be especially troubling for editors and reporters, who prefer to live on the other side of a firewall from the hunt for stable revenue.

One other scary note—the API study found a disproportionate relationship between the dependence of outlets and the priorities of media funders. About half of the foundations in the study said they gave 10 percent or less of their funding to media in the last year. But among nonprofit media, 39 percent said they depend on foundations for most of their funding. Imagine being mostly dependent on a source that is 90 percent concerned with other stuff. 

Building an individual donor base will certainly go a long way, and nonprofit media appears to be here to stay. But we’re definitely in uncharted waters, with outfits like InsideClimate News finding their way as they go.