Newspapers may seek philanthropy to support news-gathering

Could newspapers and local broadcasters begin seeking philanthropic support from the civic foundations and private donors that are starting to bankroll news non-profits? It appears entirely likely. With for-profit media watching their news-gathering resources dwindle, some editors say they’re open to the idea of seeking help from donors.

Charlotte Hall, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, told me the idea raises multiple questions about how newspapers could solicit philanthropic support and still retain credibility. But bottom line? “I believe that a model could emerge for foundations to fund some local reporting at newspapers — investigative reporting or an important local beat, for example,” she said in an e-mail. “A new kind of firewall would be needed to assure independent reporting and unencumbered editing.”

The idea that for-profit media might seek subsidies from community foundations came into sharp focus last week, when the Knight Foundation awarded $5 million to 21 civic foundations that pitched plans for expanding news and information in their communities. Some of the ideas sounded much aligned with the mission statements of local newspapers and TV stations.

The most striking was a winning proposal from the San Antonio Area Foundation, which received a $488,500 Knight grant to produce live Web video on community issues. Its proposal began this way: “Although ranked in the top 50 media markets in the country, San Antonio lacks in-depth news coverage about diverse communities and issues.”

Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News, was taken aback. He sought out the foundation’s director, Reggie Williams, to ask how the foundation could be making such a claim given the newspaper’s concerted efforts to reflect and report on the city’s diversity. Williams issued a statement praising San Antonio’s local media and, while not backing away from the project, said it was in no way intended as a slap.

But no expression of comity could mask the powerful dynamic on display. Local foundations were teaming up with Knight to support a total of $17 million worth of new-media journalism that, in many cases, the for-profit media in town would love to be doing.

I e-mailed Rivard asking if the Express-News would be willing to compete for foundation money of the kind Knight gave to the San Antonio foundation. It took him less than 5 minutes to respond. “We would have shown keen interest in such a grant, which could fund a couple of teams of online documentary journalists for two years and help us move more rapidly to enrich the site with dynamic content not repurposed from the print edition,” he said. “I wouldn’t have a problem accepting funds from such a reputable foundation, especially since it’s a leader in the movement to reinvent the way we gather and distribute news and information…”

Nancy Barnes, editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, said newsroom leaders there have also kicked around the idea of seeking philanthropic support. “What we need most as a newspaper is investigative help,” she said. “If I could get some non-profit funding for that, it’s a plus… That’s the part that must survive.” The Star Tribune last week sought to reorganize its business under Chapter 11 bankruptcy provisions.

And how does Knight feel about the possibility of redirecting some of its philanthropy to newspapers and broadcasters? The idea seems potentially at odds with Knight’s determination to encourage news innovation, not to mention foundations’ reluctance to invest in profit-making ventures. But Knight said the door is open.

“In general, we support nonprofit endeavors,” said Marc Fest, Knight’s vice president of communications. “What we’re open to are innovative ideas from wherever.” He pointed out that Knight has backed MTV and Village Soup, both for-profit concerns but worthy recipients because of their strong proposals.

In fact, Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab at American University in Washington, said there’s nothing new about journalism foundations supporting for-profits. Between 1993 and 2002 Schaffer said she funded 120 pilot projects with mainstream news organizations, many of them profit-seeking, as director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism.

“So, I would suggest that many news organizations have been open to this idea for, oh, the last 15 years,” she said.

Robin Reiter, a Miami adviser to Knight in its new communities grant program, said many foundations aren’t willing to go through the hoops required when their money is given to for-profit businesses. An “expenditure responsibility requirement” kicks in that can be costly and time-consuming, she said. But Reiter said newspapers or broadcasters, joining with civic foundations, could easily get around that problem through a partnership.

“Let’s say the newspaper brings $100,000 worth of resources to the table for a project, and the foundation brings its own $100,000,” she said. As long as no money changed hands, a little creative partnering could end up doubling the newspaper’s investment. “A newspaper could, for example, set up its own nonprofit arm,” said Reiter.

The Knight program is but one aspect of the new competitive environment that legacy media find themselves confronting across the country. Increasingly, in big metros like Minneapolis as well as smaller ones like Quincy, Ill., online-only news sites, both nonprofits and for-profits, are springing up to compete for news and local ad dollars.

The relationship between these sites and the big news guns in town — newspapers and broadcast outlets — is much in flux. At an industry level, there’s a push toward collaboration. ASNE is in the process of changing its bylaws to admit the editors of Web-only news organizations. And Schaffer is starting what she calls a “networked journalism” project that will partner five news organizations with five citizen media sites.

But some editors have questions about foundation funding by Knight and others of community online news sites.

Bill Marimow, editor of thePhiladelphia Inquirer, told me that the idea “is troubling to me… All of us in newspapers are struggling to fulfill our public service mandate. Creating competition at a time of flagging revenues and rofits runsis contrary to preserving the core mission.”

The involvement of local civic foundations in supporting alternatives to the hometown media is particularly intriguing, partly because legacy media over the year have often been the financial and leadership bedrock of these organizations.

In an e-mail (her full statement is at the end), Hall said she believes newspapers should embrace much of what the new-media grants represent. “Most seem aimed at fulfilling specific unmet needs, rather than displacing existing media, thereby broadening a community’s information sources and providing a platform for more local voices,” she said. “That is to be applauded and nurtured.” She acknowledged that many newspapers have had to trim staffs. At the same time, she said newspapers are innovating in new media forms at a fast pace, and remain dominant information sources in their communities.

At one level, most newspapers seem comfortable with a nonprofit partner. There’s been little pushback against the idea of pairing up at a newsgathering level with a nonprofit like Pro-Publica, for example, or the Center for Public Integrity or the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The questions become more difficult when the philanthropy is not from a journalism organization.

Hall said many questions would have to be addressed: “Do we lose our independence if we take money from a foundation? What about from individuals? What about from the government? Can an NPR model emerge for local newspapers as profitability erodes? Are all foundations created equal on the independence issue? Is funding from the Knight Foundation different from funding from a foundation with a political agenda or a single-issue agenda? Should we take money from a local foundation we cover?”

Here’s the full transcript from ASNE’s Charlotte Hall, who is editor of the Orlando Sentinel:

“I think that relations with community foundations probably vary from newspaper to newspaper, so I can’t generalize on how a grant would affect those relationships. Generally, newspapers have had two faces in the community: an editorial face that is independent and that works for the public good through its reporting and editorial positions, and a corporate citizen face that fulfills the civic responsibility of an influential business through philanthropy and board service. The relationship of the business side and philanthropies should not affect news coverage.

“As I read through the list of the Knight grants, I was impressed by the range of projects. Most seem aimed at fulfilling specific unmet needs, rather than displacing existing media, thereby broadening a community’s information sources and providing a platform for more local voices. That is to be applauded and nurtured. ASNE, in its proposed changes to its membership criteria, recognizes and welcomes the emergence of Web-only news sources.

“Newspapers and their Web sites generally have the largest audience among local news sources, but declining staffs have left some areas under-covered. I would add, however, that editors have made local public service journalism a priority as they’ve had to make cuts. They also have used their Web sites to deepen public service reporting with databases, documents, video, photo slide shows, crowd-sourcing and interactivity. Because of their large audience and their ability to uncover stories, newspapers remain influential in the public life of their communities.

“The question of whether newspapers should seek and accept foundation funding deserves a lot of discussion. Independence is the basis of journalistic credibility. That’s why we separate the business side from the editorial side and why we enforce tough ethics codes. Do we lose our independence if we take money from a foundation? What about from individuals? What about from the government? Can an NPR model emerge for local newspapers as profitability erodes? Are all foundations created equal on the independence issue? Is funding from the Knight Foundation different from funding from a foundation with a political agenda or a single-issue agenda? Should we take money from a local foundation we cover?

“The questions seem endless, yet I believe that a model could emerge for foundations to fund some local reporting at newspapers–investigative reporting or an important local beat, for example. But a new kind of firewall would be needed to assure independent reporting and unencumbered editing. We live in the most exciting–and most scary–time imaginable for media. We need to experiment boldly and guard our values. I think we can do both.”

About David Westphal

After almost four decades in newspapering, I've made the jump to academia at USC's Annenberg Journalism School in Los Angeles. I hope to use my recent experience as head of McClatchy's Washington Bureau to write about the revolution that's taking place in journalism -- and in particular to study new-media business models. I'm a senior fellow at Annenberg's Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, and also affiliated with the Knight Digital Media Center.


  1. says:

    As a former editor at Rumbo newspaper in San Antonio, a Spanish language daily published in that city from 2004 to 2008, I can attest that the San Antonio Express News does not represent, in anyway, the city’s diversity. Mr Rivard himself expressed in a editorial as soon as we arrived that their research showed that they was not enough Spanish speakers in town to merit a newspaper. We did not find an ad market, true, but there are thousands of first generation immigrants in the city that loved our work and constantly assured us that the Express News did not serve their information needs. I am not suprised with Mr Rivards “shocked” response to the video project, as he would love to keep the monopoly the Express News holds on news as long as possible. This new project is definitely welcomed by the Spanish-speaking and Latino community in San Antonio.
    Gabriel Sama

  2. says:

    Seeking donations to support a dying newspaper industry is sad. Newspapers are owned by corporate giants and still have margins larger than most businesses. The problem is those corporations have leveraged so much debt they can no longer service that debt with shrinking revenues. It would be shameful if newspapers took donations that should go to worthy public service organizations. Newspapers must learn to operate with the new technologies and on less than they have in the past. Welcome to the 21st Century.

  3. Philanthropic-income sources, odd though they may seem, are likely to be more supportive of fourth-estate functions than advertisers. Subscriber charges seem the most in line, though insufficient.

    But media’s call nowadays to protect the fourth estate seems oddly disingenuous, when corporate media giants have treated governmental power as more of a threat to multinationals (like themselves) than to individuals, and treated readers more like consumers than citizens in need of information to govern themselves.

    But we’re clearly in the midst of a (virtual) revolution.

    Likely, the self-organizing features of the internet (and its social-networking tools) will result in new patterns of revenue flows (as well as information flows)

  4. says:

    Newspapers, or as they are euphemistically but more accurately known in my little section of LA County, Coupon Delivery Systems, have far outlasted their usefulness in this country, at least in their modern form. Newspapers were at one time viewed as indispensable props of liberty, but today have become one-note Mollies, each of them reflecting the same leftish worldview (with relatively minor local variations) and carrying the same AP, NYT, Reuters-generated stories. Even at the local level, the Coupon Delivery Vehicle I happen to take, the LA Daily News, has maybe one or two actual news stories per edition generated by its own reporters. I guess a case can be made that we need to know about local issues in order to be informed voters, except that the space and energy devoted to telling us (or strongly hinting) what we’re supposed to think about the news and how we’re supposed to vote far exceeds the space and energy devoted to the raw news itself. Sheesh. It was bad enough when local papers were simply assuming (prior to the last election) that Prop 8–our anti-sodomite marriage proposal–would fail, but you should have seen the glut of tear-jerkers and agenda-driven “reporting” foisted on us in the wake of its passage. The whole charade just makes me sick. May these papers die the deaths they so richly deserve. I think a truly independent paper–which would be almost by definition a humbler, more conservative paper–that reflected the actual views and interests of its readers would have no trouble finding loyal subscribers.

    I realize this is slightly off the subject, as I’m supposed to be commenting on the idea of seeking philanthropic help for papers’ news-gathering efforts, but I should hope my view about that is clear enough: don’t bother. If you’re failing it’s because you’re failing your readers and they don’t want your product. It’s Mr. Smith’s “invisible hand” at work. Now that alternatives exist, your formerly captive readers are abandoning you for them, weeding you out of the marketplace like last week’s Pravda. Seeking to prop yourselves up via charity is simply a transparent (and frankly, risible) attempt to hold onto your ability to influence and mold the public, your primary aim not having been to serve them.

  5. says:

    It’s a very noble approach until you consider that most of these newspapers make money – they just bleed cash in their newsrooms covering trivial things, including things they already pay the AP to cover. It’s not the cost of paper or the economy, it’s the bad financial management. We’re not numbers people and it’s showing.