Nonprofit Media is Experiencing a Growth Spurt – So is Philanthropy’s Response
25 February 2019 at 5:06 pm
Major cutbacks across the news industry are fueling the growth of nonprofit news outlets in the US. Philanthropy is taking note, writes Tory Martin, from the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, as part of their 11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2019.
While the freedom of the press has been enshrined in our constitution for over 225 years, the press has never been free from politics. After all, President John Adams signed the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts – effectively criminalising public, printed opposition to the government – before the Bill of Rights was even a decade old.
Still, the crisis of confidence facing today’s media is happening within a unique context: the Digital Age.
Free online platforms like Craigslist (whose founder Craig Newmark has now pledged over $50 million toward reviving US media) dramatically undercut local advertising sales at the same time that 24-hour news channels and online media outlets began generating compelling competition to traditional print journalism. The 2008 financial crisis accelerated the decline.
Consequently, the news industry is eroding. According to the Pew Research Center, newsroom employment dropped by 23 per cent between 2008 and 2017, representing the elimination of some 27,000 journalists. Newspapers have felt the brunt of this loss: 45 per cent of newsroom jobs have disappeared.
These major cutbacks, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News, are fueling the growth of nonprofit news outlets. In their 2018 report, INN Index: The state of nonprofit news, INN notes that three-quarters of nonprofit news organisations launched within the last decade. These organisations remain heavily reliant on philanthropic dollars: 90 per cent of their total revenues come from charitable sources.
Existing, for-profit media outlets are also flirting with the nonprofit model. In late 2017, both the Guardian and The New York Times announced the establishment of nonprofit wings.
Philanthropy is taking note. Frequently led by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (a constant leader in this space), Democracy Fund, and others, philanthropy is pouring new money and emphasis into nonprofit journalism and media literacy. Today, Media Impact Funders (MIF) counts 9,000 funders in the landscape. Rising demand for MIF’s expertise led to a 2018 grant from the Wyncote Foundation to update their “Five Things” handbook for funders wishing to enter the space.
Some funders are working to expand giving within the general public. In December 2016, the Knight Foundation launched NewsMatch, now housed at the Miami Foundation, for just this reason. In 2017, NewsMatch helped galvanise $33 million in donations, including gifts from 43,000 individuals who gave to nonprofit journalism for the first time. Overall, 2017 was a record-breaking year for giving to nonprofit journalism in the US.
But where philanthropy will go from here is still unclear. A 2018 study from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy revealed that public radio and television received 44 per cent of the grant dollars in this space 2010-2015. And while only 5 per cent went to local/state-specific outlets, 20 per cent of that number came from just one source: the Knight Foundation.
Skeptics point to the fact that most media funding goes to a comparatively limited number of outlets (eg ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, NPR), recapitulating institutional funders’ tendency towards “pack philanthropy,” and that journalism funders have not yet found a balance between general support for a free press and their desire to gain coverage for specific issues and influence public opinion. As philanthropy pays increasing attention to journalism’s role in civil society, these issues are likely to come up repeatedly.
Other questions remain to be answered. Practitioners like Miguel Castro at the Gates Foundation are right to question whether Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post, Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective’s majority stake in The Atlantic, and Marc Benioff’s purchase of TIME constitute philanthropy or business. So far these corporate billionaires don’t seem to have overstepped the editorial firewall. But as Americans of all stripes and sectors continue to debate the virtues – and existence – of a free press, it behooves philanthropy to pay attention.
About the author: Tory Martin is the director of communications and engagement at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University. Prior to joining the Johnson Center in the fall of 2017, Martin served as grants manager for National Public Radio (NPR) in Washington D.C., stewarding foundation donors and individual philanthropists to help strengthen and further the work of fact-based, independent journalism. She currently serves on the Steering Committee for EPIP Michigan – the statewide chapter of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy – and volunteers regularly with the YWCA West Central Michigan.
This article was originally published as part of 11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2019 produced by the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy.