Alliance@PND

Through an agreement with UK-based Alliance magazine, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles about global philanthropy.

Rules of the Road for Nonprofit Journalism Funding

Rules of the Road for Nonprofit Journalism Funding

It is merely the latest sign of turmoil in the industry that, in September 2017, the New York Times announced that one of its newsroom leaders was moving into a new role, helping the paper "seek philanthropic funding for ambitious journalism."

Yet unlike advertising departments — which over a century developed clear lines of ethical practice to ensure separation from editorial or even public broadcasting (which is governed by strict guidelines) — the rules of the road for nonprofit funding of digital journalism, and even partnerships with traditional commercial outlets, is less certain.

In 2015, we at the American Press Institute were approached by the Knight Foundation and the Bill & Melinda and Gates Foundation, first to conduct detailed research on what rules and protocols funders of media and nonprofit media outlets were operating by, and then to gather key stakeholders and, learning from what our research found, develop guiding principles to govern (or at least inform) the field.

Our research, which included surveys of 94 nonprofit media outlets, 76 funders, and 146 commercial outlets, identified a number of possible vulnerabilities at the time, vulnerabilities that seem even more salient a year and a half later given the concerns about trust in the media raised by the current political climate.

Funders could be troublingly specific about what they wanted reported, going so far as to finance specific stories and exposés. In 2014, a major New York public TV station returned a $3.5 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation following criticism that a series on pension funds was too close to the foundation's interests.

Media outlets in our sample — which had a higher representation of newer nonprofit media, many of them digital natives — were often too willing to say "yes" because they needed the funding.

We then gathered eighteen scholars, nonprofit media executives, and representatives from funding organizations to hammer out two sets of guidelines: a lodestar set of separately drafted principles for funders and another for nonprofit media. They then shared their ideas. We refined the language, returned the drafts for review to everyone, and, after participants were satisfied, put them out for further comment.

Three key notions emerged. News organizations "should have written policies that establish…principles of editorial independence, transparency and communication, which will be the starting point of any interaction with funders."

Funders "should be transparent [with the public] about the media they are funding, and they should expect media partners to report their sources of funding." And they should likewise "articulate their motivations for funding journalism and explain what would constitute success in meeting their purposes."

These principles should be a starting point for those in the field. Honolulu Civil Beat, a nonprofit local news outlet launched in 2010 by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar, is one organization that has announced publicly it is adopting the guiding principles in full and links to them on its website.

We encourage everyone to take them even further, specifying their own rules. If we have learned anything in this research, it is this: the key to avoiding problems is to think through what those problems might be ahead of time and then to be as transparent as possible with the public about how you operate.

Tom Rosenstiel (tom.rosenstiel@pressinstitute.org) is executive director of the American Press Institute. Kevin Loker (kevin.loker@pressinstitute.org) is program manager at the American Press Institute and directed its work on nonprofit funding in media.