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4 questions nonprofit newsrooms and funders have about their evolving relationships

As journalism’s traditional business models continue to shift, more news organizations are turning to nonprofit and foundation support as a way to support their journalism. But taking money from private foundations rather than commercial advertisers comes with its own ethical issues concerning how news organizations maintain their editorial independence. Funding can be often more tied to content than in the commercial world. And funders often have policy goals in mind.

At a Center for International Media Assistance event on Feb. 28, those issues and others were addressed in a discussion with Humanity United executive director Tim Isgitt, API executive director Tom Rosenstiel, and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs director of technology, media and advocacy specialization Anya Schiffrin.

Schiffrin recently released a report with CIMA on nonprofit funding and editorial independence in the Global South, “Same Beds, Different Dreams? Charitable Foundations and Newsroom Independence in the Global South.

The discussion also followed the release in January by API of two sets of guiding principles for funders and nonprofit newsrooms. The guidelines, which were issued in the name of API but were drafted by a diverse group of leading voices in nonprofit media, are intended as a reference point for funders and newsrooms thinking about these issues.

What follows below are some questions discussed at the CIMA event which funders and news organizations are continuing to think about.

1. How are guidelines for funders beneficial for both news organizations and funders?

John Dinges, executive director of the Center for Investigation and Information, asked the panel, could guidelines for funders help news organizations keep their funders accountable. “The idea is that the news organization then have something to point to that would say, look, we want to guarantee our independence and you’re asking us to do something … that’s going to put into question our survival, but we do want independence and we think what you’re asking for is beyond the pale,” Dingus said.

“These [API] guidelines are supposed to sit out there and be a model that other funders can adapt and adopt as they need to,” said Isgitt, who was part of the creation of those guidelines, explains. For example, Humanity United’s own internal guidelines model the guidelines from API, Isgitt said.

Schiffrin said having guidelines for funders could also help these organizations in times of change. When the head of organizations change, “everything grinds to a halt while the new president tries to think what to fund next,” Schiffrin says. “When you have a lot of foundations switching leadership at the same time, it can gum up the works. I think another unintentional consequence of these kinds of terrific guidelines would be helping some sort of consistency and smoothing during times of transition.”

2. What is the role of funders in creating an environment that supports and facilitates independent journalism?

Funding media in developing countries also often means helping create an environment that supports independent journalism. “If we’re going to continue to support the reporting [in these countries], we need to also support the development and capacity building of media,” says Isgitt.

If we’re going to continue to support the reporting [in these countries], we need to also support the development and capacity building of media.

And in the United States, the current political climate means supporting independent media is also an important issue. “[Walter] Lippmann’s old metaphor that you can shine a light on something — well, you’re only shining a light on it for people who are already aware and care about it,” Rosenstiel said. “The ability to change minds and create a public square is profoundly challenged by technology. You can spend a lot of money creating media outlets that would do it, and it won’t have any impact.”

The question of how to support independent media also means thinking about what organizations you’re supporting, National Endowment for Democracy’s senior director for Asia and global programs Brian Joseph suggested. “If you go into a media environment and you’re picking media outlets, that in and of itself strikes me as the major issue,” Joseph said. “What we’re always looking at is, who is the media outlet? What is their political bias? Where are they coming from?”

3. How does the funding of training for journalists play into creating an environment for independent journalism?

“What we’ve seen is a move to training on topics,” Schiffrin said in response to a question from the audience on whether funders were still funding training for news organizations. “Twenty years ago, it was what I used to call ‘teaching the natives how to write the nut graf.’ Now it’s also bundled — we’re going to train [you], but we’re going to train you how to cover oil or gas, we’re going to train you how to do governance,” Schiffrin says.

While we’re now seeing “more enlightened funders who are more interested in capacity building and training,” Rosenstiel says that what these news organizations need is not training on how to report, but on areas they don’t realize they’re weak in.

“The pressure the other way actually comes from the nonprofit media, who say, ‘I know how to fish! You don’t have to teach how to teach me how to fish. Give me gas so I can take my boat out and go fishing.’ They want money so they can exist. As is true in the commercial media, they need training to do things that they aren’t aware they need to do — how to get digital, how to listen to their communities, how to reach new audiences.”

4. What’s OK for funders to ask from news organizations in terms of measurement?

Navigating the relationship between funders and news outlets is tricky, the panel members said. And what makes them harder, Rosenstiel says, is that the conversations about to what cover don’t have to happen out loud: “You know why I’m here, you know what I care about, I know what you care about,” Rosenstiel said of the problem. “I’m not really sure what you can do about that.”

There’s a whole bunch of folks out there who think that what traditional media is doing in its coverage of Trump is wrong. And the media don’t recognize that, they view it differently.

That dilemma also varies by the type of news outlet. “If you’re Inside Climate Change, you’re already oriented a certain way. It’s pretty different than the Toledo Blade, that’s trying to cover all of that community for everybody in that community,” Rosenstiel said. “Even considering covering something like Trump, it’s like we’re on two sides of a river right now. There’s a whole bunch of folks out there who think that what traditional media is doing in its coverage of Trump is wrong. And the media don’t recognize that, they view it differently. You look at the ad that the New York Times ran during the Oscars, and it’s like a Rorschach test. For some people, that was like, ‘That was so great’ and for other people, it’s like, ‘How can these idiots not see what they just did in their ad?’”

While people in his organization understand the value of creating awareness of an issue, rather than asking for broad change from grantees, but “it doesn’t mean when I go to a board meeting or a funding meeting, people aren’t saying, ‘Well, connect that line for me. How did this grant to media organization X result in Y?’” Isgitt says. “It’s an ever evolving conversation but it’s basically that we have to be really comfortable and clear with the dotted line that might exist between X and Y.”

Talking about Humanity United’s relationship with The Guardian on its modern-day slavery work, Isitt said, “What we’re really careful not to impose upon them is how attitudes changed. Did this company over here react because of your story? How can you prove that? What is the change in people’s lives? That’s just impossible, and it is why we’re doing it, but it’s not why we would engage with The Guardian.”

And asking grantees for that type of change may be futile: “One hundred years of media research has basically proven one thing,” Rosenstiel said. “The media can tell people what to think about, but it can’t tell them what to think.”

You can watch a full recording of the event here.

One hundred years of media research has basically proven one thing: The media can tell people what to think about, but it can’t tell them what to think.

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