The Society of Environmental Journalists is a favorite among green funders wanting to kick up some exposure for their issues, but usually gives relatively small amounts. The Wyss Foundation just took things up a notch with $400,000 to significantly expand a grantmaking program.
You may have heard a thing or two about journalism not doing so well lately, including terms like “hemorrhaging,” “layoffs,” or maybe “meltdown.” But we tend to think of it more like an industry experiencing growing pains, just as we’re seeing in all forms of media. After all, some incredible things are happening in online media these days (ahem).
But business models for cost-intensive reporting are shifting, and one of the big players, for better or worse, is philanthropy. Donors have been amping up their support for beat reporters, investigative muckrakers, and even entire newspapers.
Related: IP's Guide to Journalism Grants
One particular struggling area is environmental journalism, which is just such a downer, and often the first beat a newspaper will cut. One group trying to fill that gap is the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), a nonprofit organization that, among other things, makes grants for green reporting.
It’s been around since 1990, and has drawn notable names in philanthropy as backers, including Keith Campbell, Ford Foundation, Bullitt, Park Foundation, Ted Turner, Grantham, Surdna, Heinz, etc. And a bunch of smaller donors too. Now the Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss has stepped into the ring with a recent $385,000 for an expansion of SEJ’s grantmaking program.
The grant will support two full-time reporting positions—one for the L.A. Times and another for a High Country News D.C. bureau—and two new rounds of microgrants for $5,000 worth of pavement-pounding at a time.
One interesting thing about the Wyss grant is that other support for SEJ has been mostly smaller. It tends to thrive on smaller donations well below six figures. After all, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a huge organization. But maybe that’s about to change. There are a lot of rich people worried about the environment, and journalism is one of the best ways to prime ordinary Americans to support big policy changes, as well as to put politicians' feet to the fire. As well, a growing number of donors are interested in media. If Howard Bufffett can drop $14 million to support women journalists, as he did recently, it's not a stretch to imagine that somebody might look to supersize a place like SEJ.
And, in fact, we'll be interested to see if the Wyss gift is a prelude to bigger things. The guy's worth $6 billion after all, and he's a big-time environmental funder. He's also signed the Giving Pledge.
But what exactly does it mean for the end product? Conservatives have complained about SEJ for inserting bias into the news. And we see a lot of sizable grants in support of coverage for one particular subject, whether that’s climate change, land use, or health care.
I’m probably less concerned about this than others. I think some of these complaints fall into the category of false balance (e.g., people wanting news coverage to include climate denial, even though climate change is a matter of scientific fact).
But also, journalism is a business, always has been. And whether we admit it or not, it’s beholden, on some level, to its income streams, whether that’s ad revenue, subscriber base, or a wealthy investor. That doesn’t preclude amazing, envelope-pushing work. At least in the case of philanthropy, we can see the Swiss guy who’s helping to keep the lights on.
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