A Good Friend to Have: The Ford Foundation's Backing of the Nation Institute

Investigative journalism is famously in decline, a casualty of the Internet age, because it takes time and experienced journalists to ferret out malfeasance, often involving legal battles along the way. Since it’s often the most expensive work the media tackles, it’s often the first activity to be cut as newspaper circulation drops.

The Nation Institute is among a handful of nonprofit journalism outfits that's working to plug the gap, and while it's been around much longer than, say, ProPublica, it's a smaller operation that gets less attention. The Investigative Fund is a flagship program of the institute, with a mission is to improve the quality of investigative reporting that has the potential for social impact. Recently, fund fellow John Carlos Frey won a 2014 George Polk Award for Network Television Reporting for a bilingual documentary that was broadcast in Spanish on Telemundo as Muriendo por Cruzar ("Dying to Cross") and in English on the Weather Channel as The Real Death Valley. It concerns Brooks County, Texas, where, over the last five years, more than 400 bodies of migrant workers have been found in a forbidding, barren desert landscape.

One of the institute's most important friends in the funding community is the Ford Foundation, which has given it over $1.2 million in grant funds since 2011. While that's hardly huge money, it can go a long way when supporting the work of underpaid investigative reporters. 

Last year, Ford gave the Nation Institute two grants, totaling $420,000. The larger of these, for $370,000, came out of the foundation's initiative for Youth Sexuality, Reproductive Health, and Rights, but went to support various activities at the institute. 

The Nation Institute isn't the only investigative outfit getting Ford money lately. Last year, for example, it awarded $500,000 over two years to the Center for Investigative Reporting to help launch Reveal, the nation’s first investigative public radio show. As well, it's given over $2 million to ProPublica since 2011most recently a $125,000 grant to report on the surveillance economy and how it impacts both individual privacy and civil rights. The foundation also gave money last year for both those groups to report on social justice issues focusing on how the urban poor were affected by the 2014 Soccer World Cup.

There's still not a huge amount of foundation money going to investigative reporting, and the Nation Institute's progressive bent means that's it's less likely to pull in grants from certain foundations. Other funders beyond Ford in recent years have included the MacArthur Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, Wallace Global, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations. Many of these grants have been on the smaller side. The institute leans heavily on individual donors, throwing a gala every year.