April 28, 2015

Changing journalism philanthropy — and practice: A shared metamorphosis


Nonprofit journalism — and in particular its public-interest practice in neglected and marginalized communities — is critically underfunded, and journalists and their advocates are in a great position to lead systemic change.

This change has to go deep. It must affect journalism’s value proposition, its enterprise — the mechanism journalists use to organize and work together — and its relationship with “audiences” and with subsidy.

Journalism leadership — from below

This change is more than an alteration in processes — it’s an evolution and refinement of the nature of the organism, from rationale and paradigm to means and methods.

And it is a shared metamorphosis. Journalism practice, audiences and economics are deep in transitional phases. Community needs are growing more pronounced. Philanthropy (institutional and individual) needs to observe and respond — but journalists (myself included) must articulate and advocate for their own needs as service providers more effectively.

If we journalists want our working conditions to improve, we have to organize, and we have to lead the conversation about our role and value in the United States today.

But we can’t do that without listening, and this may be the most difficult thing of all. I’m not sure we know entirely, or in some cases at all, how to listen to the most important people of all.

We’re trying to monetize UGC, we’re trying to build membership funnels … but somehow we’re not listening. We’re not essential to their daily lives. We’re just an optional product on a shelf.

What’s not working here?

More to the point, how can we turn this situation around?

Three inflection points

(1) We can start by rethinking our value proposition. Are we selling products or providing a service? Can the deep public-interest work we want to do really compete against lolcats and runaway llamas? What’s the real value we as journalists ideally provide? How can we best articulate and demonstrate that value in a manner that inspires the trust and enthusiasm of the people we want to serve?

(2) We can follow-up by repositioning our practice with a focus on enterprising missions, not commerce-oriented entrepreneurship. The former is about providing an ongoing, regular service for a community that needs it. The latter is about trying to build and monetize non-commercial products for a market that is distracted by shiny commercial products.

(3) We can bring the change home by building, and seeking investment in, shared infrastructure to provide scale and efficiencies. These would include critical services in distribution and marketing, fund development and technology platforms.

With regards to this final inflection point: The lack of significant and appropriate infrastructure for journalism practitioners doing public-interest work is a deep pain point in need of realistically designed solutions and immediate investment.

Data — the missing link

Measuring audience engagement alone is insufficient and to determining journalism’s public-interest outcomes.

There’s missing context, namely, what does the funding want?

In a democratic society notable for its widening wealth and inequity gaps, the needs of capital (to use a trendy term) cannot be ignored.

Journalism philanthropy (as well as commercial investment) is driven in large part by theories of change based in economic dogma native to the legacy commercial-news industry.

What are the impacts of this market-oriented dogma on journalism’s service to its community?

These are specific and real phenomena that can and should be identified and measured — to provide tools for responsible investment, and to provide some form of accountability.

Here a few such data points that a roomful of grad students could really tear to pieces over the course of a semester:

  • How the type and source of funding — grants, ads, crowdfunding, subscriptions, small donors, major patrons or brand-driven subsidiary businesses (events, training, data services, etc.) — affects a journalism outlet’s mission and appeal to diverse audiences
  • The functional, fungible, economic value of public-interest reporting across news organizations in the commercial market — providing critical context for discussions about subsidy and public-interest reporting
  • The specific unfulfilled information needs of neglected communities — and standardized/adaptable methods of identifying and responding to those communities and those needs
  • Longitudinal data — at least five years, but ideally encompassing more than one election cycle — tracking the impact of quality, accessible journalism in diverse communities over time

Philanthropists: To invest in a business model you need a complete picture of the conditions on the ground for the producer, and of the actual information needs of the community. Otherwise your public-interest mission is flying blind, and the prospects of impact funding are undermined.

Journalists: The economic sustainability of your practice depends on your work being indispensable on a lifestyle level — a vital source of information that people use to make a spectrum of critical choices. What issues of scale, relevance and accessibility must you resolve in order to achieve this?

Strategies and actions

Consider this a call to action for journalists and their advocates in all their diversity.

Leadership, listening and multi-tiered advocacy can open the way for a more level playing field for public-interest reporting practice.

Consider the following strategies and actions as starting points for a conversation that needs to be owned by many other people who care about journalism in our democracy.

Strategy: Develop data-driven measurements of the public-interest outcomes of journalism funding.

Action:  Identify the influence of types of funding in relation to types of news coverage produced and communities served, in order to set a baseline of accountability around journalism’s public-interest outcomes. This is an encompassing and complex data set that can sustain a critical, national conversation about the civic performance of the Fourth Estate.

Strategy: Support collaboration and network-building between independent news producers.

Action: Develop, fund and iterate shared/distributed/horizontal/p2p tools and infrastructure services to support independent news production, distribution and operations by diverse, accomplished public-interest news producers — individuals and organizations — that lack the connections, resources and scale available to mass media.

Strategy: Help communities organize to get and support the quality journalism they need.

Action: Shift from thinking about markets to focus instead on constituencies and community organizing. Re-imagine your promotional activities more fully as a public-information campaign — a type of cause campaign, really. There’s no room for paywalls here, but lots of room for developing a strong charitable foundation for public-interest work people need in their lives.

The 2016 general election, with its billions in influence-dollars, is a great lens to look at this through. What does community engagement with vital civic information really look like in such a crowded, low-quality information ecosystem?

(And remember that “community” is an encompassing term that includes more than specific geographic regions.)

Strategy: Identify and encourage philanthropic leadership

Action: (1) Philanthropists and foundations that put money down on journalism subsidy and infrastructure need to take more prominent roles as advocates for increased overall largesse nationwide. This can be achieved through a program of data-driven advocacy targeting the philanthropic community, complete with PowerPoints and panels, articles in the trade publications and some coalition building.

There are plenty of problems with the patronage of the wealthy. The support of individual sustainers — very large numbers of them — is in fact the only meaningful outcome of the entire business-model conversation. But institutional charity has its place, and until Fourth Estate has fully reconstituted its social contract with its constituency, such funding is critical.

 Action: (2) Philanthropists and microphilanthropy communities — including giving circles and crowdfunding programs — should take the lead in supporting an emerging culture of commissioning in journalism.

Just as commissions drive great works in the arts and humanities, commissioning provide a great opportunity to activate journalistic productivity around specific topics of interest to communities with unfulfilled information needs.

Strategy: Rehabilitate journalism before individual donors.

Action: Again, think about a cause campaign. It needs to be as easy and as logical to give to public-interest reporting in your community as it is to donate to your local PTA, public library, fire department — or the Red Cross, March of Dimes or United Way.

Yet the brand of “Big J Journalism” is damaged. Repairing that damage and improving the practice’s public image is worthy of a “Got Milk?”-style PR campaign, and would require coordinated fundraising and sector-wide enrollment.

The imperative of change

Executing any of these grand schemes would require nontrivial energy and funding inputs.

But given the protean moment we are in the midst of, given the entrepreneurial energy, given the exhortations to “go big or go home,” I really want to make the case that for all the good that’s being achieved, we all have to get way further out of our comfort zones than we have so far.

Healthy information ecosystems and news ecologies are complex and fragile — but if cultivated they can be become resilient and enormously productive.

The metaphor of the market and its brutal, reductionist worldview is not appropriate for this level of charitable human service. The information needs of communities transcend the vicissitudes of the market and the attention economy. Our mission, ingenuity and commitment as journalists all demand more of us.