Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

Unrestricted funding vital for journalism

This essay is part of “Charting new ground: The ethical terrain of nonprofit journalism,” API research exploring the philanthropic funding of journalism. Read the other essays.

In 2009, graduate journalism student Linsay Rousseau Burnett spent her summer interviewing migrant workers in the tobacco fields of North Carolina. She returned to UC Berkeley with disturbing news: Supervisors routinely subjected women workers to sexual assault and threatened to fire them if they did not submit. Many women, fearful of losing their income or their chance to live in the United States, did what the supervisors demanded and held the secret close. Burnett, a former Army journalist in Iraq, alerted Lowell Bergman, head of UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program (IRP). Together, they wondered whether female field workers in the vast fields of California’s Central Valley faced the same problem.

Burnett moved on, but Bergman wanted to follow the hunch and tapped into IRP’s unrestricted funds to assign Andrés Cediel and another graduate student to pursue the story. It quickly became apparent that they were onto a major story. At this point, Bergman faced the twin truths of nonprofit investigative journalism. First, the project was too ambitious and expensive to do without partners. Second, if they did not do the story, it would likely not get done.

Bergman, who built his career on exposing wrongdoing, reached out to another veteran investigative reporter, his colleague Robert J. Rosenthal, executive director of The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). Recognizing the makings of an important investigation, story, CIR tapped its unrestricted funds to support deeper reporting. With the full financial and editorial backing of their institutions, IRP Berkeley’s Andrés Cediel and CIR’s Bernice Yeung uncovered a pattern of sexual harassment and assault against workers — many of them undocumented migrants. The abuse was widespread and yet the victims had little protection or recourse. PBS’ investigative series FRONTLINE and the Spanish-language television network Univision then stepped in with major grants to underwrite the production of a documentary film that was broadcast in 2013 by PBS FRONTLINE as Rape in the Fields and by Univision as Violacion de un Sueno (Rape of a Dream). Shared across every imaginable media platform, the reporting reached millions of people, inspired legislative action and criminal investigations, and won awards.

Shared across every imaginable media platform, the reporting reached millions of people, inspired legislative action and criminal investigations, and won awards.

The project that became Rape in the Fields demonstrated the power of nonprofit public interest media in an ever more cluttered and cacophonous journalism landscape. Its success depended on collaborations that would have been unthinkable a decade earlier, plus old-fashioned shoe leather reporting that required much plenty of time and care. The project also illustrated something rather more prosaic, and certainly unnoticed by the viewing public: The importance of philanthropies providing funds with a flexibility that allows professional journalists to pursue promising investigative leads not approved in advance by funders or tied to a funder’s pet issue. The Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism, PBS FRONTLINE, and The Center for Investigative Reporting all received such money, known in the field as unrestricted general funding. Without those funds, Bergman and his collaborators would not have been able to pursue this story. Decades of farmworker abuse might have continued unnoticed and unabated.

Philanthropy is a crucial component of the success of nonprofit news organizations, enabling them to pursue important stories that do not make commercial sense, particularly in the costly realms of investigative and international reporting. Many organizations would not exist, much less thrive, without such contributions. Yet, funders are increasingly dictating how these funds can be used, pushing journalists to produce work in line with the funders’ interests. While the degree of involvement varies, the American Press Institute survey found that only about one in three funders entirely avoids discussing content with their media grantees. Nearly half of the funders believe that grantees have modified their news reports based on feedback from the philanthropy that is writing the check.

The complex ethical issues raised by philanthropic support are addressed elsewhere in this series by ProPublica president Richard Tofel and others. We would like to focus on the practical impact of decisions made by the funders of nonprofit journalism. Along the way, we would like to speak up for the importance of unrestricted grants — that is, funding not tethered to a particular cause or to boardroom perceptions of what the news should be. We believe it is journalists and editors themselves who are best able to identify fresh and significant stories while building an audience and sustaining a news organization. The work of the funders is to identify smart, innovative and ethical newsroom leaders and then trust them to do the right thing.

The work of the funders is to identify smart, innovative and ethical newsroom leaders and then trust them to do the right thing.

From a funders’ perspective, restricted support can be desirable. The outlays can be more strategic and more closely aligned to program goals, and as well as more straightforward when it comes to monitoring and evaluation. In an informal survey, journalism organizations supported by the MacArthur Foundation revealed that 50 to 80 percent of their revenues were restricted. This might mean funding designed to underwrite a particular task, such as hiring a social media specialist, or a particular project, such as a report on an aspect of climate change or politics. Indeed, the API survey found that 8 in 10 funders had given grants in the previous five years to fund specific stories or investigations.

Three in five grant receiving organizations in the American Press Institute survey said they had been offered money to fund specific exposes. Less well-funded news organizations were more likely to accept than those with deeper pockets. Some grantees said the topic was already on their list, while others said they wanted to build a relationship with the funder or needed the grant to remain financially viable. Such grants are meaningful and they can yield excellent results. And yet, from the journalism organization’s perspective, restricted support can be, well, restrictive. Grants often carry built-in expectations of advocacy, starting with an answer to defend, not a question to explore. ProPublica executive editor Stephen ve Engelberg argues that neither distant foundations nor deskbound editors should be telling reporters or filmmakers what the story should be. “The best stories come organically,” said Engelberg, a Pulitzer-winning former New York Times reporter and editor. “The fact of the matter is that my knowledge is derivative. You don’t get insights that way. You want to be in a position to follow the most original, the most creative, the most meaningful work you can.” Putting it another way, former Washington Post reporter and editor Glenn Frankel said general support delivers “an ability to take risks.”

Unrestricted funding is indeed vital in helping nonprofit news organizations experiment and innovate, at the time and place they choose. One example is the work that produced Rape in the Fields. Another comes from The Center for Investigative Reporting. Seeking to move beyond the its familiar print and visual content, the organization used general operating funds in 2013 to create Reveal (with Boston-based PRX), a radio and podcast experiment dedicated to investigative reporting. Reveal has been transformative, expanding CIR’s audience, providing a fresh platform for other nonprofit news organizations, and attracting new underwriters.

Funding not tied to a particular project is also necessary for attracting and retaining talent, as well as improving marketing and accounting functions — what one nonprofit executive calls “behind the curtain” work. It also allows editors to be nimble when unforeseen expenses arise. In 2014, during the Ebola outbreak, PBS FRONTLINE aimed to send two producers to Africa, following United Nations personnel into the heart of the crisis at a time when fear of the disease was growing in the United States. They discovered that health insurance would cost tens of thousands of dollars, far beyond the project’s anticipated budget. Time was too short and the story was too urgent to search for a donor. So PBS FRONTLINE tapped general operating funds. The reporters’ output included a widely-viewed hour-long PBS FRONTLINE documentary, Outbreak, and a series of video reports featured in The New York Times, including Tracing the Ebola Outbreak, Scientists Hunt a Silent Epidemic, and How Ebola Roared Back.

Whatever the funding approach, the justification for supporting public interest media operations is clear: To help them do the best work they can, and the more of it the better. Why? Nonprofit journalism is an essential component of the modern media and public policy ecosystem, and its role is growing. From the way the journalism is produced to the way it is distributed, understandings that were considered the norm five years ago are nearly as outmoded as the typewriter. No longer are nonprofit operations considered outliers. Partnerships are richer and audiences are larger as news organizations discover ever more dynamic ways to tell stories and distribute their good work. The best nonprofit institutions are becoming more nimble while losing none of their hunger for the fight. They have the portfolios and prizes to prove it.

Funding not tied to a particular project is also necessary for attracting and retaining talent, as well as improving marketing and accounting functions.

The nonprofit Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, for example, supports journalism that appears in outlets as varied as the PBS NewsHour, Huffington Post and The New Yorker, and it takes its work on the road in hundreds of public appearances each year. Beyond its new public radio show, The Center for Investigative Reporting produced a play, Alicia’s Miracle, drawn from a 15-month investigation into the use of dangerous, outdated pesticides in California’s strawberry industry. PBS FRONTLINE used to mean documentaries on PBS, aired once, maybe twice. These days, PBS FRONTLINE’s work is just as likely to appear in a New Orleans newspaper or on the website of The New York Times, which might also package a piece for its commercial-free YouTube channel. All of this serves the mission of the non-profits, whose unchanging goal is to make readers, listeners and viewers smarter — and to make democracy stronger.

There is also a snowball effect when compelling non-profit work appears on platforms as varied as, say, PBS, ABC News, The Washington Post, and NPR. Editors, producers and journalists at other organizations will see the work. They will write about it and assign follow-ups. They will raise the issues with policymakers, and share developments on social media. The New Yorker alone has 5.4 million followers on Twitter; NPR has 3.8 million followers, The Atlantic a million. In other words, partnerships are not just desirable, but essential. MacArthur, for example, made a 2014 grant to ITVS to promote collaboration between journalists and filmmakers in videos of varying lengths. Wider and more targeted distribution is the key; the ever-evolving Internet makes it possible. New platforms are sprouting all over, providing opportunities and pressure alike for non-profits, pushing them to develop new ways to present their work in differing lengths, styles and formats. As the arena continues to expand, only the strongest will survive.

As for the grantmakers, roughly half the funders in the API study identified their primary mission as strengthening a free press. Most of the rest said their principal purpose for supporting journalism was to advance policy goals. The best non-profits address and expose some of the country’s biggest problems. This work holds leaders accountable. It deciphers and sometimes challenges the reigning approaches to schools, policing, finance, health care, immigration, the environment, elections and, indeed, to voting itself. The Pulitzer Center won a raft of prizes for an investigative project with The Seattle Times on the growing acidity of the Pacific Ocean, a perilous and little-known sibling of climate change. ProPublica focused on fracking, lax banking oversight, dysfunction at the Red Cross, and California’s broken disciplinary system for abusive or incompetent nurses. PBS FRONTLINE built on Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal to produce a documentary on end-of-life decisions and aired a powerful film, Stickup Kid, about the impact of adult prison on juvenile offenders. The organization also delivered influential films on the NFL’s concussion crisis, the power of the National Rifle Association, and the impact of money in politics.

The bottom line is that the journalism matters and funders must do all they can to help public interest media do essential work. This starts with identifying skilled leaders and trusting them to direct fresh, honest and meaningful coverage of their own choosing. This does not mean delivering a big grant and walking away. Rather, it is important for funders to have an open channel of communication with the organizations it supports while respecting the need for journalists to maintain the independence that is so essential to their credibility. A sense of trust and collegiality will help both sides navigate the implications when, inevitably, a well comes up dry or the organization faces unexpected challenges.

Most [funders] said their principal purpose for supporting journalism was to advance policy goals.

As a sign of confidence in this approach, the MacArthur Foundation has decided to increase substantially its investments in explanatory and investigative reporting produced by nonprofit news organizations. MacArthur will be providing unrestricted five-year grants to a core group of public interest news organizations considered to have strong and stable leadership, a distinguished track record, and a successful history with the foundation. These include The Center for Investigative Reporting, Center for Public Integrity, Frontline, ProPublica and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. As MacArthur deepens its commitment to nonprofit journalism, a central goal is to build stability and flexibility and reverse the funding ratio, so that fifty percent or more of an organization’s income is comprised of general support.

Without unrestricted operating funds, Lowell Bergman would not have been able to encourage his associates and students to follow their instincts into the lettuce fields of California and the orchards of Washington state. Without it, Rape in the Fields would not have won a DuPont-Columbia Award for Excellence in Broadcast and Digital News. California legislators might not have written new legislation and prosecutors might not have opened new investigations. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would not have been able to use Rape in the Fields to develop a new training film. Law enforcement and trauma counselors would not have had fresh tools to raise awareness and address the fear and the stigma that deters victims from coming forward.

It is a truth of investigative journalism that reporters can never be certain where a trail will lead. The Rape in the Fields investigation produced another benefit, as meaningful as it was unexpected. While working their sources, Bergman, Cediel and Yeung learned that similar intimidation, harassment and sexual abuse also afflicts immigrant janitorial women, a larger workforce that reaches into virtually every city with a tall office building. The work led to a piercing documentary that aired on PBS FRONTLINE and Univision in June 2015. They called it Rape on the Night Shift.

Kathy Im is Director, Journalism and Media, for the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Peter Slevin, a former Washington Post national correspondent, is an associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Need to Know newsletter

The smart way to start your day

Each morning we scour the web for fresh useful insights in our Need to Know newsletter. Sign up below.

Featured topics

Go deeper on…

Dive deep on everything we produce about these key topics.

Strategy Studies

The best practices for innovation within news organizations

This Strategy Study presents examples and insights about journalism innovation, offering actionable advice and methods to move your journalism and business forward.