The news media is still struggling financially, however, and the industry is undergoing some major shifts. For some outlets, that’s led to shrinking or even disappearing science desks. Journalists are a scrappy bunch, though, always adjusting to keep the news business alive and kicking. Philanthropic resources have become an important part of that retooling.
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The latest move by a funder to give a jolt to journalism comes from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, one of the largest private funders of academic science research. HHMI also has a large science education program, giving $86 million in fiscal year 2016.
That funding has backed work like creating science resources for educators, providing research opportunities to college students, and engaging the public. The last area includes a film production arm and collaborations with outlets like NOVA, the New York Times, and Science Friday. In fiscal year 2014, HHMI funded nonprofit news outlet The Conversation with $500,000 for science journalism, according to tax forms.
Now, a collaboration between HHMI and the AP is backing two year-long projects to bolster science coverage. One is a series of stories, profiles, videos and graphics about genetic medicine; the second supports multimedia coverage aimed at putting scientific evidence in the context of subjects like the environment and public health.
Funds will increase the number of journalists on the AP’s team and the number of stories the service can publish. While the announcement states that HHMI will offer expert background information and educational materials, the AP assures that it will retain editorial control over what gets published.
While we’ve seen some funders back journalism in response to attacks from the Trump administration, HHMI’s Sean B. Carroll, vice president of science education, says this was in the works well before the election. The institute takes a longer view in its science education work, and this collaboration is more in response to larger struggles in journalism, he said via email.
“The pressures on newsrooms have led to a widespread reduction of science journalists. As the world’s largest news gathering organization, AP is perfectly positioned to provide its vast client base with more and deeper science reporting,” Carroll said.
The AP is a large news cooperative, so there’s potential for stories the funder is facilitating to have greater reach.
Generally speaking, there are a couple kinds of journalism funders out there—those supporting the field on basic principle (Omidyar, Knight) and those enhancing coverage of a particular topic that’s been neglected for whatever reason. We’ve seen a lot of nonprofit environmental coverage, for example. RWJF backs health journalism in a big way. Gates is a major backer of education reporting. And on the science beat, the Sloan Foundation supports various media, including popular books like Hidden Figures and Radiolab.
Media philanthropy isn't new, but as it's grown, funders are still feeling out some of the ground rules and best practices. There’s been controversy regarding what kind of influence funders have on the coverage of news outlets.
My only criticism of this particular initiative is that HHMI is not disclosing the amount of funding involved. I don’t believe there is anything sinister behind that decision, and HHMI staff say they generally refrain from sharing financials. Both partners publicized the collaboration and cited motivation to increase attention to and understanding of science. But one of the guiding principles in journalism philanthropy should always be a high level of transparency, so we'd like to see all the cards on the table when it comes to this kind of grant.