Trade-Offs, Not Solutions: Assessing Philanthropy-Backed Journalism

photo: Bohbeh/shutterstock

photo: Bohbeh/shutterstock

The social theorist Thomas Sowell famously (and accurately) said, "There are no solutions, only trade-offs that leave many desires unfulfilled and much unhappiness in the world."

Sowell was talking about tradeoffs through the lens of public policy, but his sentiment also rings true in the world of philanthropy, where the most idealistic dreams must be tempered with a healthy dose of pragmatism.

Consider, for example, the burgeoning field of philanthropy-backed journalism.

A new study from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and published online in the journal Journalism, explores the possibilities and limits of the foundation-supported nonprofit model. In doing so, it argues that while nonprofit journalism organizations have made contributions, they have fallen short of offering a "strong critical alternative to commercial journalism."

“In the ongoing financial crisis in U.S. journalism, philanthropic foundation-supported nonprofits are increasingly hailed as the remedy to the lack of civic-oriented news production. This study questions whether foundation-supported news organizations are an adequate solution to what ails journalism,” said Rodney Benson, professor and chair of the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU Steinhardt and the study’s author.

Close students of the new philanthropy-backed journalism are likely to raise an eyebrow at how Benson frames his subject. In our extensive coverage of this field, rarely have we come across terms like "remedy" or "solution." Anyone acquainted with the profound challenges facing news media would be very reluctant to posit philanthropy as some kind of industry-wide savior. Neither the grantmakers nor the leaders of nonprofit media outlets in the field think in such hopeful terms.  

Still, Benson's study offers important context and raises critical questions about philanthropy's role in media.  

Journalism's golden age—from roughly the 1960s to the 1990s, when "companies were able to turn a profit while also producing civic-oriented news"—began unraveling thanks to the internet, the study recounts. As a result, outlets "cut newsroom jobs; local, national, and international public affairs reporting, as well as investigative reporting, were hit particularly hard by the reductions in staff."

The challenges facing media have only metastasized over time as outlets, faced with plunging subscriptions and advertising revenue, continue to search for a sustainable business model.

Philanthropy entered the picture in a major way back in the mid-2000s, and therein lies the thrust of Benson's study: A decade on, has it made a positive impact? Benson argues "not really."

One claim of the study, which by now is familiar, is that project-based funding from foundations may skew media attention toward issues favored by donors. "Media organizations dependent on project-based funding risk being captured by foundation agendas and are less able to investigate the issues they deem most important." Similarly, Benson underscores how engaged and agenda-driven donors can lead to editorial self-censorship and a diluted product.

Benson also looked at what foundations ask in return for their support and found that nonprofit news organizations are often stuck trying to reconcile their "impact” and “sustainability.”

Foundations put nonprofits in a bind with their competing demands to achieve both civic impact, via circulation of free content, and economic sustainability, via paying audiences and corporate sponsors. This dynamic ultimately creates pressure to reproduce dominant commercial media news practices to capture wide audiences or provide “infotainment”—or alternatively, orient news for small, elite audiences.

But is this always the case?

One could argue that philanthropy-backed journalism, by stripping away a purely commercial profit motive, is more conducive to high-quality journalism, or, at the least, the kind of journalism that might not draw enough eyeballs or could unnerve corporate advertisers. Just look at the success of places like the Marshall Project, which focuses on criminal justice, or the environmental news site Grist

Sure, philanthropy will never have the resources to subsidize such journalism on a large scale. But nobody ever imagined that would be the case. If you look past the high bar that Benson has set for such grantmaking—to offer "a strong critical alternative to the market failure and professional shortcomings of commercial journalism"—you're likely to agree that philanthropy has done a decent job in the past decade of helping to mitigate the crisis of civic journalism.

Benson notes that funders only give about $150 million to support journalism, even as annual commercial spending to support news operations has fallen $1.6 billion since 2008. That's not a lot of money to fill a yawning chasm. But from where we sit, this grantmaking has achieved quite a bit of bang for the buck. As we've reported, nonprofit media outlets have won any number of prestigious prizes over recent years for their investigative reporting. Most notably, ProPublica—which was started in 2007 by the philanthropists Herb and Marion Sandler—has won four Pulitzers. (See all its awards here.) InsideClimate News has also won a Pulitzer.

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

What's more, there are signs that philanthropy-backed journalism—however modest the scale—may prove sustainable going forward. This field is always becoming more creative. 

Last year, for example, H.F. Lenfest created a nonprofit journalism institute to insulate outlets from the very market factors that keep Times executives awake at night. It turns out donors enthusiastically support his vision. In May, the institute announced it received more than $21 million in new donations while Lenfest pledged an additional $40 million

Or consider the Knight Foundation's work in addressing "news deserts." These are regions of the country where small-town newspapers, besieged by the usual suspects—namely, a drop in subscribers and print and online revenues—are fighting for survival. Knight chipped in $3 million for a $4 million effort, lead by the University of North Carolina, to generate new digital media ideas that deal with "digital disruption" for local news sites. Will this effort succeed? It's too early to say, but it's an example of how grantmakers are grappling with the decline of news at multiple levels. 

None of these optimistic points should detract from the critical questions that Benson raises about philanthropy-backed journalism. Or the importance of some of his recommendations.

Benson calls for more long-term, non-project-based, and no-strings-attached funding by foundations. He also recommends more innovative and democratic funding through small donors and crowdfunding, more effective modes of distribution that reach beyond elite and partisan silos, and increased funding and greater autonomy for public media.