In Prestigious Awards, Another Sign That Philanthropy-Backed Journalism is Thriving

The George Polk Awards for Journalism were just announced and the list of winners offers more evidence of the growing success of philanthropy-backed journalism. 

Among those winners was ProPublica's Alec MacGillis, who won the national reporting award for his election coverage about Trump's supporters. Last year, a ProPublica reporter, T. Christian Miller, was also among the Polk winners. In addition to the Polk Awards, ProPublica—which was started in 2007 by the philanthropists Herb and Marion Sandler—has won three Pulitzer Prizes and too many other journalism awards to mention. (See them all here.)

Meanwhile, reporters from the nonprofit Marshall Project also won Polk awards both this year and last. The Marshall Project, which focuses exclusively on criminal justice issues, was started in 2014 by former hedge fund manager Neil Barksy. In addition to funding from Barksy and other individuals, the Marshall Project has landed grants from a range of foundations, including MacArthur and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Earlier this month, Marshall won a National Magazine Award. And last year, it won a Pulitzer Prize.

Another Polk award this year went to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a global network of more than 190 journalists, which won the financial reporting award for “The Panama Papers.” The list of funders that has backed the ICIJ includes Open Society Foundations, the Ford Foundation, the Packard Foundation, and Pew Charitable Trusts. Two reporters from public radio outlets also won Polk awards this year. 

A few years ago, InsideClimate News won a Pulitzer for national reporting. 

The growing pile of prestigious awards won by nonprofit journalism outfits is one indication of how these institutions keep gaining steam and respect. Another sign of their health is a rising flow of funding. While we've written about the surge in support for nonprofit journalism following Trump's election, the upward trend began well before that. 

RelatedAnother Beneficiary of the Trump Fundraising Bump: Nonprofit News Outlets

ProPublica is the best example of this. In 2014 and in 2015, it raised nearly $13 million each year from foundations and individuals. Last year, it raised nearly $17 million, including more than $2 million in online donations from thousands of contributors. 

These are impressive funding numbers for any nonprofit, and especially for one focused on investigative reporting. ProPublica is raising far more money than organizations in this space ever have before. The Marshall Project's revenues, although much lower, are also striking. It raised around $5 million each year in 2014 and 2015. 

One result of ProPublica's fundraising success is that while it still receives annual support from the Sandler family, that funding has steadily decreased as a share of ProPublica's budget. This is a trendline that every donor who starts a new organization wants to see, but there are plenty of cases where new nonprofits fail to develop a diverse and sustainable funding base. 

Why has ProPublica done so well? There are a bunch of reasons, including the strength of its leadership, the timeliness of its mission as newspapers have declined, and—most of all—the pace, quality, and high visibility of the original reporting that it is producing. 

To get a sense of just how expansive ProPublica's work and reach has become, take a spin through its 2016 annual report. It says that ProPublica now has partnerships with 139 news organizations and that its own website is pulling in over a million unique visitors a month. It also documents the impact of ProPublica's reporting on public policy and corporate practices in a range of areas, showing the ability of journalism to move the needle on key issues. The way that hard-hitting reporting can make things happen, and quickly, is a big part of what draws funders to this work—although it's always hard to say when and where such payoffs will come. So far, ProPublica's batting average is pretty high. 

Last spring, in a quarterly update, ProPublica President Richard Tofel noted a few of the group's recent accomplishments:

In just the last few months, ProPublica’s reporting prompted changes to the workers’ compensation system, the Department of Education’s handling of student loan debt by individuals with severe disabilities, changes to the New York City Police Department’s tactics that lock residents out of their homes without due process, new policies and proposed legislation to protect children with disabilities and proposed legislation in Texas to study ways to protect Houston from the threat of devastating hurricane damage, as documented in a recent ProPublica report.

What does 2017 hold in store for ProPublica and nonprofit journalism writ large? Well, if the past few weeks are any indication, this reporting work will only become more important—and better funded, too.

ProPublica is already engaged in extensive coverage of Trump administration policies and has a new section on its site devoted to this work. Reveal, the news site of the Center for Investigative Journalism, also has a dedicated Trump section. InsideClimate News is on high alert, too, with steady reporting on how Trump policies will affect climate issues. 

Will the expansion of nonprofit journalism be sustainable over the long term? That's a good question, and much will depend on how well these organizations do at diversifying their funding bases, especially in regard to cultivating major donors—essential to protect against the fickleness of foundation funding. 

For now, though, this is a sector that continues to boom.