Funders have become increasingly important as revenue sources for the practice of journalism. The old business model of paid advertising and circulation numbers has collapsed. As consumers increasingly turn to the Internet as a source of news coverage, traditional news organizations across the country have shed staff, shuttered news bureaus, and cut back on coverage.
Meanwhile, in cyberspace, websites and organizations specializing in journalistic niches have proliferated, and education is no exception. A number of websites have dedicated themselves to coverage of education policy and news developments. One such site, The Seventy Four, was founded by former CNN anchor-turned-education reform advocate Campbell Brown, and is scheduled to debut this summer. Brown's site is designed to stimulate public discussion of K-12 education reform.
The media landscape has room for other sites interested in journalistic coverage of education issues, and funders who support education projects and initiatives are potential sources of revenue, provided that sufficient safeguards exist to protect editorial independence. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the nation's biggest philanthropic funder of journalistic projects, has this advice for aspiring education journalists looking to establish an online presence.
Do Your Homework About the Funder and Its Interests
While journalists tend to see their work as an end in itself, funders are more likely to ask how journalistic coverage of education aligns with their main interests and funding priorities. Fundraising for good education journalism is a less effective pitch than aligning your request with the funder's mission and strategy. This does not mean slanting your coverage to align it with the specific views of a funder.
It is safe to say that Education Week and its publisher, Editorial Projects in Education, do not share the market-oriented education reform agenda of the Walton Family Foundation. Yet, Education Week receives Walton funding for coverage of parent empowerment issues, a favorite issue for Walton, which supports "parent trigger law" advocates such as Parent Revolution. Few would argue, however, that Education Week's coverage of these issues displays a bias toward Walton views.
Do Not Expect a Funder to Immediately Embrace Journalistic Work
Although foundation interest in news and information projects is growing, many funders remain cool to the idea of funding journalistic activities. Some funders may be concerned about receiving critical coverage from an independent organization they cannot control. One funder has likened journalistic funding to "giving out fire." The Knight Foundation advises fundraisers to seek out a person within the organization who has some decision-making power, one who understands the value of independent journalism, rather than someone who sees journalism as an extension of public relations and advocacy.
Because funders are unlikely to fund a news site or organization indefinitely, it is important that education news sites consider the future, seeking other sources of revenue and support. Knight advises groups seeking funding for start-up education news sites to present a plan that demonstrates how their work ties back to long-term sustainability.