Let journalists be journalists: A case for grants to individuals

Much of grant-making in journalism emphasises support for media organisations rather than individual journalists. That makes sense, because individuals are not likely to save the public sphere single-handedly.

Among many other things, journalism requires an infrastructure that brings it to the attention of readers, safeguards quality, and signals trust. Journalism without some sort of managed and branded outlets remains difficult to imagine. Hence, ideally, financial support for organisations fuels the quest for the future order and practice of the profession, whether that be commercial, not-for-profit, public-service-oriented, distributed, or something else entirely.

And yet.

In the end, it is individual journalists or teams of journalists who research and create stories. However, more often than not, precisely they – in particular freelancers – are at the bottom of the food chain, with the least power and lowest earnings.

Typically, they became journalists for a reason: to satisfy their own spirit of discovery, to inform the public, to take sides with underdogs, to hold power to account.

Most did not become journalists because they wanted to develop business plans, raise venture capital, manage a company, perform marketing, do bookkeeping, or juggle human resources. Of course there are exceptions, but generally speaking, these are very different skillsets and motivations, and they do not always mix well.

In contrast, funding the work of journalists directly offers, at least in the current configuration of the media system, a shortcut to capturing the best of both worlds:

  • It leverages and empowers the creative individuals who are the bedrock of news and current affairs reporting.
  • It supports media outlets indirectly, as they can provide their audiences with compelling journalism they could not – or would not – afford otherwise.
  • And it allows donors to steer public awareness to under-reported topics or aspects which escape conventional audience reach and market logics.

Funding quality journalism in seven steps

Inspired by lessons learned while helping with a large multi-year journalism grants programme that achieved precisely all of the above, here are some thoughts on how funders might think about implementing something similar:


Decide on a topic or theme that you think deserves a boost. At the same time, don’t be overly specific, unless you don’t want to receive many applications.

In theory, it would be even better not to put any restrictions on the contents at all, but then, proposals will be all over the place and make the selection of grantees too hard.


Be prepared to give real money to individual journalists or small teams of journalists. It of course depends on the circumstances, but with “real money”, I mean something in the order of €3.000-20.000 a pop.

Anything less just perpetuates the situation where journalists are over-worked and under-paid; instead, you want to buy them the time and means to be diligent and generally do good work.


If you are in any way partial to the theme of the grants programme (e.g., as a foundation or NGO with a mission other than journalism, or a commercial company with a product), find or set up a neutral intermediary to manage your grants.

No journalist worth her salt will accept money from, say, a defence lobbyist to cover security policy. They need some sort of firewall to shield them from the source of the money and guarantee their editorial independence, which is an all-caps MUST.


Leave it to the journalists to exploit their stories. Both for financial and career advancement reasons, they have a strong incentive to sell them to as many outlets as possible, and to the best ones they can find.

As a result, you will get not one, but quite likely a handful of publications out of a single grant, and they will reach different target audiences – in many cases even across borders. Hence, avoid putting too many restrictions on which outlets and geographies are eligible.


Keep it light. Ask journalists for their pitch and a budget, and let them demonstrate why they are qualified for the job. But do not burden them with first grasping and subsequently explaining grantmaker’s rationales like intervention logic, objectives and impacts, or KPIs.

Because then you will either get the wrong applicants in the first place, or sap the energy and enthusiasm from the right ones.


Ditch the hypes and fads. They lead to contrived outcomes or are otherwise limiting. Asking for data journalism will deter the brilliant feature writer; the nerdy data wrangler will shy away from drafting a longread; the accomplished lone wolf will hate a mandate to engage with a community; the dyed-in-the-wool social media player will cringe at the prospect of talking to the editor of a print newspaper; and so on.

Because the journalists’ heart is in the topic, they might apply anyway. But you don’t want that. Rather, let them decide for themselves which format, approach, and channel best match the given combination of talent, topic, and means.


Reward your grantees with attention and an enabling environment. Bring them together so they can exchange experiences and cultivate new connections, nominate them for awards, and promote their work as much as you can. After a while, bank on the reputation that your programme has garnered, and put your grantees into touch with even more editors and outlets.

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Image by Chris Potter www.ccPixs.com CC BY 2.0

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