Reinforcements Have Arrived: What to Make of MacArthur's Big Journalism Give

Just the other day the New York Times published an opinion piece entitled "When Did Optimism Become Uncool?"

It argues that, believe it or not, the country is actually in decent shape, yet you wouldn't know it from the doom and gloom spewed by politicians, commentators, and, yes, the occasional philanthropy blogger out there.

In our defense, we at IP get paid to worry. Take our recent coverage of the MacArthur Foundation, for example. We recently fretted that recent changes at the Chicago-based grantmaker would leave documentary filmmaking worse off. 

A few months before that, we channeled fears that as the foundation increasingly turns its attention to more global problems, it would sidestep some of its hometown grantees in Chicago—a fear, mind you, that MacArthur quickly dispelled back in February with an impressive arts give to 14 Windy City-based groups spanning the fields of jazz, theater, film, dance, opera, and visual art.

And now comes more comforting news courtesy from MacArthur—and in a space that could use some.

In a significant expansion of its support for journalism and media, the foundation is making nearly $25 million in completely unrestricted, five-year general operating grants to a core group of journalism grantees. 

MacArthur is framing this development as a "reinforced commitment" to "the core values of accurate, in-depth journalism and documentary storytelling while also supporting innovation and experimentation and building diversity in the field." 

(Before documentarians get too excited, it's worth noting that this commitment to "documentary storytelling" should be viewed more through a journalistic, rather than cinematic, lens.)

"MacArthur’s investments will strengthen and enlarge the ecosystem of independent journalism, enabling even more entrepreneurial work that makes available factual reporting, authentic stories, and diverse voices to help inform a robust public civic dialogue," said MacArthur President Julia Stasch.

MacArthur's funding will, among other things:

  • Promote experimentation in storytelling forms and platforms to find new ways of reaching and engaging audiences
  • Facilitate noncommercial-commercial collaborations to ensure that public interest content reaches the broadest, largest audience possible, and
  • Strengthen local accountability and investigative reporting in Chicago

Check out the fill list of grantees here. When you do, you'll notice that next to each of the 12 grantees, you'll see the word "general operating support." As proponents of no strings attached grantmaking, we applaud this move.

What's more, while other funders like Knight seek to "creatively disrupt" the journalism field, the MacArthur grantees, at least at first blush, seem rooted in a more traditional reporting paradigm. Grantees receiving money for investigative reporting, for example, include American University, the Center for Public Integrity, and National Public Radio. No funding for "citizen hackers" (yet).

Then again, MacArthur's funding isn't "general operating support" in its purest sense. If it was, then a grantee like Public Radio International could take its $1.75 million grant and create a totally insane espresso bar in its lobby. But it isn't. PRI is using the money to support its signature news program, The World.

Bottom line? MacArthur's made a bold statement here, especially in a journalism field that seems torn between disruptive futurism, unproven donor-based models, and cracking up entirely. In short, the announcement instills some stability—both figuratively and financially—across a mercurial funding landscape while simultaneously signaling that the foundation remains committed to traditional journalism work. 

If we do have a concern with this announcement, it's this: We've been hoping that MacArthur will become a model of a big foundation that truly does streamline its operations, focusing on just several areas and directing larger grants to fewer nonprofits. Certainly the ax has fallen in a major way under the Stasch regime, with many programs winding down. 

Now, though, we're wondering if the inevitable process of program accetion will simply start all over again, with multiple well-funded new initiatives piling up over time, and old focus areas making a comeback, ultimately watering down MacArthur's much-touted strategy of "big bets." I guess time will tell.