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Guiding principles for funders of nonprofit media

Philanthropy increasingly provides important support for nonprofit journalism. Funders have varying reasons for supporting journalism and media. Some support journalism as a field unto itself, and a public good. Others see journalism and media as integral to their focus on democracy and civic engagement and participation. And still others may be primarily motivated by the content itself – the reporting, the storytelling – as a way to raise awareness of particular issues and topics.

The following principles were developed by and for funders and are offered as a guide to both help funders and grantees arrive a clear understanding of their respective roles; and to protect the independence, integrity and impact of this work.

Transparency with the public

  • Funders should be transparent about the media they are funding, and they should expect media partners to report their sources of funding.
  • Funders should articulate their motivations for funding journalism and explain what would constitute success in meeting their purposes.

Communications with grantees

  • Funders should be clear about whether they expect measurement of results, and, if they do, funders should support the cost of evaluation.
  • Funders should engage the media organizations they fund about what was learned from a particular grant and encourage them to share these lessons with the nonprofit news field.
  • When possible, news organizations, not funders, should initiate conversations about the journalism they wish to produce. In cases where a funder contacts a news organization first, it is better if the coverage areas being discussed should already be part of the news organization’s portfolio, or on a list of projects or beats for which the journalists are seeking funding.

Integrity

  • Funders should support media organizations that strive to achieve the highest editorial and ethical standards of journalism.

Independence

  • Funders should uphold the principle of editorial independence in the following ways:
    • There should be no pre-publication review or attempts to influence coverage (either as a condition of the grant or in practice).
    • There should be zero to light-touch post-publication editorial feedback.
    • Funders should offer general operating support whenever possible, thereby providing grantees with maximum flexibility.
    • When supporting specific content areas or projects, the grant should be broad and general. Ideally any discussion should be no more specific than about beats or general areas of coverage.
    • When funding more specific topics or series, the funder and grantee should agree in advance on clear parameters of the grant and the work.
    • To avoid the appearance of undue influence or attempting to buy coverage, funders should try to avoid when possible being the sole underwriters of specific stories or series. They also should avoid conversations about specific expectations related to the conclusions, outcomes or opinions that will be derived from the reporting.
    • The principles outlined above apply equally whether a funder is working with a nonprofit media outlet or a for-profit.

Sustainability and organizational health

  • Funders should focus not only on reporting and content, but also consider what organizations need to be stronger, more resilient and sustainable over the long term.

Education

  • Funders should actively educate others within their foundation (board, leadership and program staff) about the nature and best practices of funding independent media.

Guidelines

  • Funders should adopt and publish guidelines to govern their organization’s transparent and ethical support of media.
  • Funders should also encourage or require media partners to have written guidelines of their own outlining their methods of editorial independence and journalistic ethics that they publish.

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