Philanthropic support of journalism isn’t new (see: NPR, PBS), but the role of foundation and major individual donor support has grown dramatically in the last decade, in terms of the number and type of outlets supported. The rise of philanthropic support for news coincides with the advertising/circulation revenue declines in the marketplace.
This new application of the old mission-centric model (financial support from small-dollar donors, major wealthy donors and foundation grants on top of advertising and subscriptions and other revenue streams) offers all sorts of new opportunities for funding journalism and sustainability. It also raises some ethical questions that can potentially challenge reader trust.
Whether you’re a nonprofit or a for-profit, however, being open to creative ways to solicit philanthropic support is an example of Table Stake #5, the critical need for news enterprises to diversify revenue. If you haven’t read that section, do so first.
Donor-funded media often focus on specific thematic content that align with the interests of foundations and individuals who offer financial support. That alignment allows extraordinary work and draws sharp critique. Advocates for donor and foundation backed journalism argue that this model frees their staff to focus on going deeper with their work with fewer organizational conflicts of interest. Others question how editorial independence can exist in such a structure, and whether funders should have the power to focus journalism on the issues they favor, such as government accountability or healthcare, for example. To counter some of these concerns, major donors like The Knight Foundation have shifted their financial support to operational costs, rather than specifically funding the doing of journalism.
Few organizations pursue a purely-donation-backed approach, though any that accept outside money take on questions of independence and editorial control. Maintaining journalistic integrity and communicating organizational practices to readers becomes an essential part of healthy non-profit news.
We’ll examine the major facets of this topic including the following major points:
- Sustainable models for journalism include nonprofits that can capture their audience’s support and cultivate relationships with big funders, whether individuals or foundations
- These sources of financial support come with their own advantages, including greater freedom to go deeper on subjects and individual stories
- Nonprofits taking donor funds and grants face an analogous ethical questions about editorial independence for-profits who do paid content
- Transparency about funding sources is critical for sustaining reader trust