Howard Buffett's Latest Move: Bolstering Women Journalists

As a woman who writes, the issue of women writers is a personal one to me. When the New York Times fired Jill Abramson, the only woman lead editor at a top-10 U.S. newspaper, earlier this year—and for spurious reasons—I took it hard. If even Jill Abramson could go down, after a tenure marked by Pulitzers and profit in an imperiled industry, I wondered what hope there is for the rest of us.

I did not find it encouraging when Alex Pareene, one of my favorite writers, noted that Abramson had been fired by "the man who inherited the paper from his father, who inherited it from his father, who inherited it from his father-in-law, the last man in this chain of publishers who had to do anything resembling work to earn the position." Leaning in and meritocracy in journalism, it seemed, mattered far less than aristocratic lineage. In the wake of Abramson's firing, I was discouraged.

So I was overjoyed this week (and that's not an exaggeration) when I learned that the Howard G. Buffett Foundation had given $4 million to support women journalists, especially freelancers, over the next decade. The so-called Howard G. Buffett Fund, to be operated by the International Women's Media Foundation, will launch in February. The fund's mission: To provide the financial backing necessary for women writers to actually, well, write, as well as pursue investigative reporting and media development opportunities they might not be able to take on otherwise.

The director of programs at IWMF, Nadine Hoffman, tells us that the fund will cast a wide net: "Journalists from all countries will be able to apply to our Fund for support, and we plan to give grants for a wide range of reporting, including both domestic and international, as well as educational opportunities."

Howard Buffett is a philanthropist we watch very closely here at Inside Philanthropy. For one thing, Buffett is likely to be giving away several billion dollars between now and 2045, when he has said his foundation will shut down. That's a lot of money, and most people are still unaware of Buffett's giving capacity.

Related - Howard G. Buffett Plans to Spend $3 Billion in 3 Decades. But How?

But Buffett is also fascinating to us because he's a risk taker who's on a crusade to help the world's most impoverished, marginalized people, and he's willing to get hands-on to advance his work—including projects in some very dangerous parts of the world.

We know: The guy looks pretty frumpy. But Buffett is actually one of the more dashing figures on today's philanthropic stage, and it's just like him to write a $4 million check to advance women journalists. 

Buffett was motivated to bolster the infrastructure to develop women journalists after the death of Anja Niedringhaus, a German photojournalist who reported from the ground in Afghanistan, and who died in the line of duty earlier this year. Buffett had financially supported her professional development earlier in her career, when she received a Nieman Fellowship in conjunction with Harvard University.

Niedringhaus was the kind of person that Buffett admires: Someone who goes to where the action is, even if there are risks. This year has been one of the deadliest ever for journalists reporting from war zones. 

One other thing about Buffett's role: His decision to invest in journalism is part of a notable trend among wealthy donors. We've also reported on Pierre Omidyar's big give to establish First Look Media, and Neil Barksy's creation of the Marshall Project. But Buffett's gift is the first big one we've seen specifically focused on women journalists. 

For its part, the International Women's Media Foundation was established in 1990 by a team of women journalists committed to supporting their peers in the profession. The foundation's mission statement asserts, movingly, that "the news media worldwide are not truly free without the equal voice of women."

Earlier this year, the Women's Media Center dropped a bombshell report on the 2014 Status of Women in Media. The study's findings were sobering: Male opinion columnists outnumber the female counterparts in the nation's leading newspapers by a ratio of 4:1; men outnumber women among newsroom staff at a rate of about two to one; and men are more likely to get bylines, be quoted, or receive "serious" assignments (world politics vs. fashion, say) in media outlets across the board. 

With the state of women in media seemingly at the forefront of the media's own consciousness, and with Howard G. Buffett's sizeable, and unusual grant to develop women in journalism, it will be interesting to watch whether philanthropic spending will help to usher in change to an industry whose gender equity statistics have barely budged for 15 years.