A Hard Look at Foundation-Funded Journalism

This post is part of our week-long forum on foundation-funded journalism. Join us this Thursday at 8 p.m. ET to chat live with these writers.

If the events of the past couple of months are any indication, the future of foundation-funded, nonprofit journalism looks pretty good right now. Consider:

  • Sheri Fink’s 13,000-word investigation into the facts behind the deaths at New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center put foundation-funded journalism (in this case, by the Kaiser Family Foundation Media Fellowship in Health program and by the Sandler Family Foundation’s support for Fink’s employer, ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative reporting outfit) on the mainstream media map;
  • A gathering at the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation’s Pocantico estate of about two dozen nonprofit news organizations, including the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and several local online news operations from San Diego, Seattle, Texas, St. Louis and elsewhere, led to the formation of a new Investigative News Network that may become a delivery vehicle for foundation funding for a number of media operations, as well as an opportunity for networked collaborative reporting;
  • And at least two states, Vermont and Illinois, have approved legislation authorizing the so-called “L3C” corporate structure, which (as Jim Barnett writes at his blog) “allows a corporation to take on investors who are willing to accept varying rates of return - or possibly none at all.” This L3C option could give budding nonprofit journalism outfits access to both philanthropic and straight-up private investor money.

What’s not to like about this picture?

Well, here are three things to keep an eye on, for starters:

  • Foundations tend to be cautious institutions of privilege, and while they can and do serve the public interest (as in the case, say, of the Kaiser Foundation’s support for Fink’s New York Times/ProPublica story), it’s the exceptional foundation that functions as a real agent of deep change in our society. How hard, for instance, will foundations push to ensure that a wide range of voices are heard in the new nonprofit world of journalism? Or will it just be old wine in new bottles?
  • In practice, foundations are accountable to their boards of directors and their donors, not (except in the most attenuated way) to the public. I think it's a matter of time before local investigative news organizations, for instance, go up against powerful local players (in real estate, finance, local politicians, etc.) who park their philanthropic money at community foundations and begin to find a much less friendly reception there. Or (just as bad): The news organizations develop a blind spot when it comes to the intersection of local business and local philanthropy, i.e., they just stop asking questions about this piece of local life.
  • Foundations are fickle. I’ve been doing the fundraising dance for nongovernmental organizations since the 1970s, and it seems to me that foundations go through a three-year product cycle that looks a lot like the product cycle for hairspray or potato chips or cars: always after something new, it seems. Not a safe bet for NGOs, IMO.

My point: Foundations can help ease journalism through a tough transition period, but it’ll require a different kind of money – open source money – that’s more accountable, more independent and more distributed – to keep journalism alive and kicking.

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Steve Katz is Vice President for Strategy and Development at Mother Jones and its nonprofit parent, the Foundation for National Progress. He blogs at www.maimonidesladder.com about fundraising, journalism and technology. These are his own words; they don’t represent the opinions, points of view, or attitudes of Mother Jones or the Foundation for National Progress.

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