How donors can enable quality journalism

The second Journalism Funders Forum took place in Hamburg on 31 May 2017. Once again, an EJC-commissioned country report on philanthropic funding for journalism (download the full PDF here) set the scene for the ensuing debate, which was, however, putting the German situation into the broader European context. As before, the event took place under the Chatham House Rule, which is why statements summarised or quoted below remain unattributed.

Discussions revolved primarily around the role that philanthropic donors can play in journalism; funders and beneficiaries present in Hamburg shared their experiences and expressed their hopes and visions for future cooperation. What became clear soon is that donor action is appreciated in the pre-grant phase just as much as it is when grants actually get awarded and implemented.

To start with the big picture, one participant emphasised that we often tended to get the relationship between civil society and news media backwards: If you want to underpin quality journalism, the best you can do is support an engaged civil society. Citizens and communities genuinely involved with current affairs at all levels – local, national, or global – proactively demand information and debate and will thus let the journalism ecosystem thrive. Civil society avidly consumes news and doubles as a valuable source. Conversely, hopes that quality news will stimulate the emergence of civil society in the first place may be overrated.[i]

This insight is perhaps one explanation for the relative reluctance of many charitable foundations to fund journalism. Unless they are expressly dedicated to journalism, or have emerged from media with an innate understanding of the news ecosystem, they focus on their immediate causes first. If at all, journalism funding often comes only as an afterthought once foundations realise that their charitable activities require a public forum as well as an amplifier towards society at large.

Matching donors with journalism

But even under the best circumstances, one of the major remaining challenges is then how to match donors with journalism. This matching process is two-fold.

On the one hand, it implies that donors need to find and select the appropriate journalists or news organisations to support, respectively vice versa. There must be overlapping thematic interests and qualifications, common ground in the area of journalistic independence, effective dissemination channels, and, not least, a shared understanding of the approaches and tools most suitable for the task. One journalism representative complained that there are many worthwhile journalism initiatives that simply fall through the cracks of existing grant schemes. If you do something unconventional or innovative, chances are that philanthropies do not even recognise your project as fundable.

On the other hand, matching donors and journalism has a lot to do with practical, and at times bureaucratic, chores such as proposal writing, budgeting, accounting, as well as progress and impact reporting. All these things are out of the scope of your typical journalist’s competences (or preferences, for that matter), and it takes quite some effort to learn them – that is, if the journalist does not simply give up in the process. It is safe to assume that countless journalists get deterred already when they take a glance at grant application forms and fine print; and many successful applicants retrospectively regret their decision once they pore over financial reports.

In the current journalism landscape, where many of the particularly forward-thinking initiatives are set up as insulated, self-reliant projects within the legacy publishing industry – or entirely outside of it –, this issue becomes ever more pressing. Most of the time, grantee journalists cannot rely on a backoffice full of project developers, accounting departments, audience researchers, and clerical staff to do the preparatory, administrative, and follow-up work. This prompted Hamburg attendees to call for a “new kind of consulting”: Foundations could provide journalists more consistently with help drafting proposals, but also with expertise in impact metrics and financials, in order to free them up for genuine reporting.

But that is not all. One foundation speaker suggested that journalists engage in “continued donor education”, so that philanthropies be kept abreast of the most recent innovations in, and demands of, the news sector. Several others chimed in: Regular donor-beneficiary workshops (one proposed an “unconference”) or a permanent working group might go a long way to increase mutual understanding between the two sides, entice funders to think out of the box, and alleviate journalists’ concerns about their independence as well as, not least, about the practical barriers to accepting funding.

One participant added that while foundations usually insist on diligent progress and impact reporting while a project is running, there is not much exchange of lessons learned after projects have ended. Hence, the fundamentals of donor-beneficiary relations and all sorts of practical matters only rarely get discussed; mistakes and less-than-optimal procedures on both sides perpetuate themselves. Another attendee urged the community specifically to share worst practice as a learning shortcut.

Funding activities

All of the above concerns creating the preconditions and an enabling environment for philanthropy-funded journalism – the pre-grant phase. But what are the key options and advantages that foundations have when it comes to actually funding news-related projects?

Several people present at the Hamburg event criticised the prevailing “projectitis” – dedicated funding for a specific action that is limited in time and scope and that usually requires the beneficiary to co-fund from other sources, or to provide contributions in kind, such as administrative overhead. Accordingly, one of the non-profit journalism sector’s most urgent demands is for core (a.k.a. operational) funding that would power a permanent backoffice and the development of new projects, rather than only cover the fraction of overhead directly attributable to a specific project (which is usually limited to 7 or 15%).

However, many foundations have a hard time giving such core funding. This is primarily because they face difficulties to explain to their trustees and the tax office why and how financing of generic backoffice efforts is in line with their statutes and remit. Unlike a concrete journalistic action, an operational office does not have any direct and demonstrable impact on a charity’s objectives, and journalism itself is not yet a charitable cause in its own right either.

As a consequence, foundations which do engage in core funding of journalism organisations have to go to great lengths to explain and motivate their activities, especially when they cross over from non-profit into (potentially) commercial projects. There are several examples in Germany, though – foundations which make available permanent operational capacities for journalism associations and networks, which fund an investigative journalism non-profit organisation, or which provide start-up support. With one notable exception, however, they are all endowed with money originally made in media such as newspapers and magazines.

But even those foundations explained that rather than funding coverage directly, they were more intent on leverage effects: How could they support something that has the potential to grow into something bigger on its own, that would develop into a self-sustaining market, or that would strengthen journalism’s renewal overall?

As one beneficiary explained, partnering with a foundation was the only way to escape from the stifling, set-in-their-tracks structures of legacy news organisations and start something entirely new that was unencumbered by burdens and prejudices from the past. But he warned that stable core funding might also make journalism complacent, and suggested a healthy mix of core, project, and community or commercial funding instead. In any case, however, if there is no operational money from whichever source in the mix, everything else gets so much harder.

And finally, it came up repeatedly that one of the special privileges and capacities of philanthropic funders is their ability to stomach risks. They can invest in projects or initiatives that might fail, and can relieve activists and founders of their personal economic risks so they may dare something new. Perhaps most importantly, they can also absorb thematic risks that are beyond what public, public-service, or market-dependent organisations are able to tolerate. One funder said that they kept receiving complaints about the coverage published by an investigative news organisation they support. It takes stamina to resist this kind of pressure – but who were better positioned for this than a self-sufficient and independent foundation?

Building and restoring trust

Unsurprisingly, another leitmotif of the Hamburg event was trust. One speaker pointed out that journalism had a double role as trust consumer and trust producer. Journalists routinely demand the public’s confidence in their work, but are they doing enough to earn such trust in the first place? Does it show that they actually care for their community, or do they remain aloof? Another speaker added that journalism could only assert its relevance if it is seen as relevant by the public, and that hence journalism was well advised to put the utmost effort into understanding its audience.

Among the approaches to address this issue is solutions (or constructive) journalism. Two leading figures in the area made a strong case that linked the psychology of news with its sustainability: It is hardly a surprise that people struggle to pay for news outlets that essentially only make them depressed. Constructive journalism, in contrast, puts issues into perspective, points to good examples, and explores potential solutions – notably all without sugar-coating, without gushing optimism, and without crossing the line into advocacy. As it lowers the incentive for public figures to go all negative and confrontational in order to attract attention, constructive journalism might even have a favourable effect on the political climate in general.

It turns out that the audience, especially younger demographics, reacts much better to this kind of news than to the often cynical, doom-mongering journalism of yore. And obviously, constructive journalism is much more attractive for foundations, too. While many philanthropic funders cope fairly well with substantiated criticism, they are, however, wary of vicious media backlash that might taint their overall image.

And this is how the Hamburg debate came full circle: Arguably, most journalists chose their profession because they wanted to make an impact on society, but the news business, as it were, conspired against their good intentions. Wrong incentives, a skewed attention economy, and derisive newsroom cultures got in the way. Yet with constructive approaches, a renewed focus on communities and audiences, and, perhaps, foundation support, journalism could break free from legacy structures.

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[i] A while back, at another EJC event, Polish journalist and activist Konstanty Gebert expressed a similar notion: „It’s not democratic institutions that create democracy, it’s democrats. It’s not a formally free media system that ensures that you get free media, it’s independent professional journalists.”

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Thank you Adam Thomas for cross-posting: