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New study offers insights into funding and ethical practices in nonprofit journalism

Findings show rising funding, high levels of transparency but few written guidelines on editorial independence

A new report out today breaks new ground in understanding the ethical landscape of a new area in American journalism, the funding of nonprofit news.

The study, by the American Press Institute, surveys funders, nonprofit media outlets and commercial partners about the financing of nonprofit news, editorial firewalls, disclosure practices, the level of communication between funders and grantees and the specificity of what gets funded. The report also contains essays from five prominent funders and journalists working in nonprofit journalism.

While both commercial media and public broadcasting have long-standing rules and systems  that insulate journalists from pressure by the revenue side, there is new cohort in nonprofit news, heavily digital, that is new and finding its way,” said API executive director Tom Rosenstiel. “It’s vital that this exciting new area of journalism establish best practices so the public has faith in the work. This research will help move that forward.”

While there is little expectation of editorial review by funders, there are also few clear rules in the sector. What’s more, the study identifies some practices that, if the lines aren’t clear, could undermine the public’s confidence in the editorial independence of some nonprofit journalism.

Among some of the findings:

  • There are fairly high levels of public transparency about funding in nonprofit media.  Nearly all (99 percent) of the media outlets surveyed — nonprofit and commercial — disclose their relationships with funders and collaborators in some manner.
  • There are also relatively few written guidelines governing editorial independence. Fewer than half of nonprofit news organizations (4 in 10) said they have written guidelines about what kind of funding they will accept and just about third have written guidelines about what level of communication with funders is appropriate.
  • About half of funders (52 percent) make grants on issues about which they are also trying to change policy or public behavior.
  • Funders can be quite specific about the journalism they want to underwrite. Six in 10 funders surveyed, for instance, say they have given grants in the last five years to finance particular stories, exposes or investigations–as opposed to general coverage areas. About a quarter of nonprofit media organizations said they have accepted such offers.
  • More foundations are funding nonprofit news organizations, and they are spending more money on media than they have before.
  • Funders are evenly divided as to whether they are funding media more as part of their larger policy agenda work or more to improve journalism–with about 4 in ten on each side.

The work was funded by the the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted by API in collaboration with two partners, long-time nonprofit media executive Bill Buzenberg and former New York Times polling editor Marjorie Connelly.

“Major foundations are funding journalism at record levels,” said to Bill Buzenberg, one of the report’s authors and the former head of the Center for Public Integrity.  “Our report, based on extensive surveys of foundations and news organizations, is the first systematic look at funding and ethical practices in this area.”  

“This in-depth view of the current funding landscape will help news organizations examine their relationships with funders and develop best practices for the field,” said Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation vice president for journalism. “As the report notes, it is essential that news organizations uphold journalistic independence by being transparent with their readers about relationships with funders. “

Five accompanying essays that explore those ethical practices come from Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica; Joe Bergantino, co-founder of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting; Daniel Green, director of program advocacy and communications for the Gates Foundation; Kathy Im, director of journalism and media at MacArthur Foundation, along with Peter Slevin, Northwestern University; and Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian.

ABOUT THE AMERICAN PRESS INSTITUTE

The American Press Institute conducts research, training, convenes thought leaders and creates tools to help chart a path ahead for journalism in the 21st century. The Press Institute is an educational non-advocacy 501(c)3 nonprofit organization affiliated with the Newspaper Association of America. It aims to help the news media, especially local publishers and newspaper media, advance in the digital age. For more, visit: americanpressinstitute.org

ABOUT THE JOHN S. AND JAMES L. KNIGHT FOUNDATION

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. The Foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit knightfoundation.org.

ABOUT THE BILL & MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION

Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, it focuses on improving people’s health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people—especially those with the fewest resources—have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. Based in Seattle, Washington, the foundation is led by CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann and Co-chair William H. Gates Sr., under the direction of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.

Contacts:

Laurie Beth Harris, American Press Institute, lauriebeth.harris@pressinstitute.org

Anusha Alikhan, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, 305-908-2646, media@knightfoundation.org

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