Still All-In: The "Trump Bump" to Journalism Giving Shows No Signs of Letting Up

 image: Sylverarts Vectors/shutterstock

image: Sylverarts Vectors/shutterstock

One of the obvious questions about the post-Trump boom in journalism philanthropy has pertained to its long-term sustainability. Rattled by an unexpected election result, donors opened their checkbooks. But would they keep the money flowing? 

Recent news points to the affirmative.

In late 2016, the Knight Foundation, in a partnership with the Democracy Fund and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, launched an initiative called NewsMatch and helped 57 nonprofit news organizations raise more than $1.2 million in matching donations. 

Now comes word that NewsMatch raised four times that amount in 2017 from individual donors and a coalition of foundations. Support has flowed to more than 100 local and investigative nonprofit news organizations.

The $4.8 million haul represents the largest-ever fundraising campaign to support local nonprofit and investigative news, and it comes on the heels of a record-breaking year overall for charitable giving to journalism. 

Let's not delude ourselves, here. The fallout of Trump's election certainly played a huge role in the sector's fundraising success over the past 12 months. That being said, by helping recipients implement funding models built, at least in part, on philanthropy, NewsMatch addresses a challenge that has vexed journalism outlets for many years.

A deeper dive into NewsMatch's fundraising data, which offers a broader look at the money flowing for journalism beyond just its match campaign, provides reasons for optimism.

In total, more than 202,000 donors contributed $33 million to local, nonprofit newsrooms. Of those 202,000 donors, 43,000 were new donors giving to an organization for the first time. The average year-end donor gave $163.

The Democracy Fund attributes the campaign's success to the following key factors.

The first is technological. Planners created the first one-stop platform, NewsMatch.org, enabling donors to give to more than 100 newsrooms with one transaction.

NewsMatch also expanded and leveraged its growing universe of partners, welcoming the News Integrity Initiative, the Wyncote Foundation, and the Gates Family Foundation into the fold. These partners created double and triple matches for many of the participating organizations.

In addition, NewsMatch's fundraising capacity-building efforts paid financial dividends. In tandem with the Institute for Nonprofit News and the News Revenue Hub, it provided templates, best practices, and coaching and training webinars to assist small newsrooms lacking big fundraising teams. 

It worked. Outlets raised more money and reached more donors. "NewsMatch provided the roadmap, tech support, and national exposure that we needed to have our most successful year-end fundraising drive ever," said Lauren Fuhrmann of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Lastly, NewsMatch raised awareness around the importance of supporting nonprofit news. #GivingNewsDay, for example, saw journalists, celebrities, and politicians on both sides of the aisle talking about the importance of donating to nonprofit newsrooms.

Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, summed up the gist of this awareness-building strategy accordingly:

One of the most important things we can do is increase awareness about the need for and benefits of nonprofit journalism—that is, to add to the usual American philanthropic checklist of schools, hospitals, churches and cultural institutions the possibility of donating to journalism. NewsMatch helped enormously in that effort.

Which brings me back to NewsMatch's reference to a "record-breaking year overall for charitable giving to journalism." The evidence strongly corroborates this assessment.

Most visibly, a spate of well-funded anti-fake news initiatives sprung up in the aftermath of a highly contentious election. Meanwhile, funders with a historically light footprint in journalism philanthropy like the Barr and Heising-Simons Foundations allocated grants aimed at strengthening nonprofit outlets. And last year, the newly formed Lenfest Institute for Journalism received more than $21 million in new donations. A matching campaign hopes to raise that figure above $100 million.

Throw in NewsMatch's fundraising success, and the takeaway here is irrefutable: Donors remain engaged, and better yet, their enthusiasm for nonprofit journalism seems to be growing.

One thing that's less certain is the extent to which this success is linked to anti-Trump animus.

While Knight representatives cited the rise of fake news as a contributing factor to the launch of NewsMatch, they did not explicitly cite the president or his policies. That said, it would be naive to ignore that elephant in the Oval Office. Many of the issues central to Knight's mission, such as defending free speech and ensuring "informed communities," are very much under siege by the current White House occupant.

It's also worth noting that eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, one of Trump's most spirited and deep-pocketed critics, backed the Democracy Fund, a NewsMatch partner. 

While surveying the post-Trump boom in nonprofit journalism philanthropy last year, I pointed out that Trump seemed to moderating some of his views after a crash course in how national policy actually works. "If this trend continues, and Trump's presidency becomes normalized," I wrote, "we could see a falloff in emergency funding initiatives, including for journalism."

A year later, the Trump presidency hasn't normalized, nor have we seen a falloff in funding for nonprofit investigative journalism organizations. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Coincidence? I'll leave it to the reader to decide.