Here's Why Ford Foundation's Grant to Frontline Provides Hope for "Legacy" News Outlets

An array of deep-pocketed funders have taken the lead in helping nonprofit news outlets adapt to the brave new world of technologically driven, community-oriented platforms.

To that end, we frequently see foundations funding universities and journalism schools so new teaching models can be embedded from the ground up. Similarly, we've seen Wall Street and Silicon Valley bigwigs dip their toes in the waters of "new journalism," creating nonprofit outlets out of thin air because they can.

Meanwhile, traditional, old-school "legacy" outlets ask, "What about us? Who's going to help us make the leap?"

And we can't blame them. When Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, creates his own media organization from scratch, it makes for good copy. It also fits a pattern, as big-pocketed funders often throw money at shiny new things that may revolutionize the world of journalism (or anything else for that matter).

Traditional outlets, on the other hand, just aren't as sexy, which explains why many are concerned the new journalism gravy train may pass them by.

Fortunately, we have some good news out of Boston to pass along. PBS's flagship investigative series Frontline received not one, but two new major grants to expand its original investigative reporting.

And no, the grants didn't come from San Jose or the accounting office of a distant hedge fund, but from two solid, old-school sources—longtime supporters Jon and Jo Ann Hagler, who gave $5 million, and the Ford Foundation, which gave $800,000.

(Fun obscure fact: Jon Hagler worked at Ford, managing its assets, in the late 1970s before moving on to more lucrative pursuits.)

The Hagler gift, which represents the largest single gift in Frontline's 30-year history, will go toward a new endowment for continuing journalism. The Ford grant will help to create a new cross-platform Enterprise Journalism Group within Frontline that will "deepen the series' in-house investigative bench."

Frontline Deputy Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath sums up Frontline's plans for the latter, saying, "The Enterprise Journalism Group will pursue and report major trans-media projects combining text, video, photography, and graphics on our own and partner websites, as well as on our new Frontline tablet app."

Other nonprofit news outlets should keep an eye on Frontline's efforts as it suggests a way forward into the digital unknown.

For example, Frontline recently hired two investigative reporters and promoted a digital specialist within the Enterprise Journalism Group. Six months into the project, Aronson-Rath sees flexibility and "time to market" as particularly critical elements for the project, noting, "Maybe there’s a story that should go digital-first, so we get it up quickly," she said. "Or maybe we'll write a longer story for online, with video extras."

Taken in total, these two grants illustrate that not only do funders still appreciate the value of traditional investigative outlets, but that they're willing to fund their transformation in the digital age.

(Ford has also made big gifts to other legacy outfits, including the Los Angeles Times and Minnesota Public Radio, although support in both casese was for reporting on public interest topics.)