April 8, 2015

Priority problems: Journalism's position in the charitable-giving ecosystem

Amidst the news industry’s many challenges, and the hopeful flowering of a new nonprofit-news movement, the low position of public-interest news reporting in the charitable ecosystem is a troubling puzzle.

It also speaks poorly of our cultural and democratic priorities. Billions are spent on media that sell and influence, producing messages that serve vested political and commercial interests — yet the room sure clears out fast when the conversation turns to the topic of paying for public-interest journalism.

Where’s the soup kitchen for the information economy? Image: The New Yorker / Franco Pagetti

It turns out, in fact, that for all the declamations and examinations of journalism’s importance to our democracy, actually funding its noncommercial, public-interest practice is one of the lowest priorities of the charitable sector — inclusive of major and individual philanthropy.

Priority disconnect

This lack of subsidy has crippled public-interest journalism, which is not competitive in the commercial attention economy, and not easily or ethically monetized, particularly at the local level.

The good news is that such harsh conditions have produced a tough strain of nonprofit survivors. These organizations — members, for example, of the Media Consortium or the Institute for Nonprofit News — are drought tolerant. They take root in niches and keep blooming.

In organizational terms, they’re high-achieving, efficient, networked and media savvy. Their potential as engines of public-interest information is off the charts.

Yet the opportunity and mission they represent has not yet been fully recognized and embraced across the spectrum of philanthropy.

The sap may be rising for the new crop of news nonprofits — but a garden will not grow unless you water it.

In today’s parsimonious funding economy, that means infrastructure for new news nonprofits is rudimentary, newsrooms operate on shoestring budgets, founders heroically take on operations as well as editorial roles, and their ventures only thrive relative to their ability to sacrifice and work for free.

Their dedication is beyond question, as is the lack of support. Let’s look at the numbers for a better sense of journalism’s low position in the current funding ecosystem.

Journalism as a subset of media funding

Up-to-date numbers for journalism philanthropy are elusive. A good benchmark comes via a Foundation Center report that tracked $1.86 billion in grants of $10,000 or more to “media” projects of all sorts in the United States from 2009 and 2011.

That alone, however, did not necessarily add up to more money for news production.

Of that sum, 55 percent — about $1.02 billion — went to developing “media platforms” across the Internet, broadcast, film and video, TV, mobile, etc.

Actual journalism production (and training) received about half that — $527 million, accounting for 22 percent of all media grantmaking during the three-year period under scrutiny.

Journalism’s position in the individual-giving spectrum

Individual Americans gave $335.17 billion to charity in 2013, according to Giving USA, the majority of which went to religious organizations ($105.3 billion) followed by education ($52.07 billion) and human services ($41.51 billion).

In fact, Journalism itself doesn’t come up as a category, at least in the public summary of the report.

The nearest you get is arts, culture, and humanities — all noncommercial arenas of discourse, narrative, study and exchange — with an estimated $16.66 billion in giving in 2013.

For perspective, that’s a bit more than 30 times in one year what nonprofit journalism was given over three years.

Profits, politics and influence money

The forthcoming 2016 elections, with billions of influence dollars lining up for media prime time, reframe journalism’s funding struggles in the context of a full-blown ecosystem crisis.

One projection expects election-ad spending to hit $12 billion next year — a tide of influence messages choking media channels like an offshore toxic-algae bloom fed by unregulated fertilizer runoff.

That $12 billion in influence funding is a bit more than 22 times the $527 million in charitable funds invested in journalism and media from 2009 to 2011.

It will also make up a handsome 18.4 percent of the estimated $65 billion in revenue the U.S. news industry as a whole is expected to earn in 2016.

Mass media are are handily adapting to the information economy and developing all sorts of marketing and revenue streams. The philanthropic sector remains enormously wealthy. And individual giving remains a deep and largely untapped wellspring.

Yet nonprofit journalism — and specifically public-interest news production in communities that lack it — remains a neglected, and even unrecognized, priority.

Where is the imagination, the conscience, the commitment and the will to strengthen this emerging, and desperately needed, charitable sector?