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Guidance on philanthropic funding of media and news

As nonprofit funding of news grows, what are the best practices for ensuring editorial independence?

The following two sets of broad guidelines of best practices, one for funders and another for nonprofit media organizations, are the product of more than two years of work exploring the question.

That work began with surveys of funders, nonprofit media outlets and commercial media outlets on what their current practices are, described in “Charting new ground: The ethical terrain of nonprofit journalism,” which the American Press Institute released in April 2016. This work was funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In October 2016, we gathered 18 funders, nonprofit media executives and scholars who are engaged in this world. Each group created a rough draft of key guiding principles, which the other group commented on in a full-room discussion. In the weeks since we have worked to refine the language with the feedback from both groups.

What follows are the ideas surfaced from this process. The gathering was supported by a grant from the Craig Newmark Foundation.

Since this work began, the importance of the nonprofit media sector has only grown in significance and some mile markers have already occurred.

The MacArthur Foundation announced commitment to general operating grants, signaled in an essay for our own work.

More recent reports suggest increased donations following Election Day.

The guidelines come issued in the name of API. Informed by all our conversations, they do not necessarily carry the stamp of approval, in full, of an individual organization whose perspective or employee’s perspective was shared within the process. But we do hope they carry their wisdom.

We invite media organizations or funders to contact us about how they used or adapted these principles in their own work.

Read the guiding principles for funders of nonprofit media.

Read the guiding principles for nonprofit newsrooms.

Participating at the event, Oct. 6

Funders

  • Molly de Aguiar, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation
  • Elizabeth Christopherson, Rita Allen Foundation
  • Tim Isgitt, Humanity United
  • Michael McPherson, Spencer Foundation
  • Lauren Pabst, MacArthur Foundation
  • Barbara Raab, Ford Foundation
  • Gabriella Stern, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Vince Stehle, Media Impact Funders
  • Chancellar Williams, Open Society Foundations

Nonprofit media executives and educators

  • Karen Avery, PBS Foundation
  • Sandy Close, New America Media
  • Sue Cross, Institute for Nonprofit News
  • Burton Glass, New England Center for Investigative Reporting
  • Andy Hall, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
  • Steve Katz, Mother Jones
  • Nicholas Lemann, Columbia University
  • Charles Lewis, Investigative Reporting Workshop / American University
  • Richard Tofel, ProPublica

From API

  • Tom Rosenstiel, executive director
  • Kevin Loker, program manager
  • Laurie Beth Harris, editorial coordinator
  • William Buzenberg, consultant
  • Marjorie Connelly, consultant

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.

Guiding principles for nonprofit newsrooms

Journalism produced by nonprofit newsrooms is becoming a more important part of the media landscape and foundation support. In addition, increasing numbers of commercial news publishers are partnering with nonprofit media, and in some cases, accepting direct grants themselves.

The following principles were collected by and for nonprofit media and are offered as a guide to help both newsrooms and their funders understand their respective roles, and to protect the independence, integrity and impact of this work.

Editorial independence

  • News organizations should retain editorial control. They should not relinquish legal and ethical responsibilities to funders or to the public.
  • News organizations should not allow pre-publication editorial review, and never accept directed conclusions from funders.
  • Journalists should not promise outcomes in advance.
  • News organizations should have a review process to determine whether to accept and how to handle funds for limited purposes, such as coverage of a beat or issue, especially if funders have an interest in related policy outcomes.

Transparency

  • News organizations should aim for the highest practicable degree of transparency regarding editorial, donor and business standards and operations, both as a matter of journalistic integrity and because of the transparency journalists demand from other institutions.
  • News organizations should clearly disclose their ethics policies, mission statements, conflict of interest policies and fundraising policies on their websites.
  • News organizations should clearly disclose their federal tax returns, audited financial statements and basic information about the staff and board of directors on their website; they should also explain how to contact the newsroom to report errors or make complaints on their websites.
  • Donor information should be readily available to the public. The public should know who paid for the journalism. Projects funded by specific funders should include notifications to the public.
  • News organizations should consider in advance how funding decisions will be explained to the public, including critics. Avoid acceptance of funding when it would compromise the integrity or credibility of the journalism.
  • News organizations should accept anonymous donations, including from donor advised funds, only under carefully considered conditions. To do so, each news organization should develop criteria before considering donations.
  • News organizations should also encourage all donors to be public and should explain the importance of transparency to the credibility and impact their work.

Communications with funders

  • Independent journalism is a public good. Journalism can produce impact and change, but news organizations cannot and should not promise specific outcomes. News organizations can, however, summarize what they have learned during the course of their work.
  • News organizations should clearly inform funders of the news organization’s mission and guiding values.
  • News organizations should help funders understand that support for independent media is in their interest and differs from that of PR and advocacy organizations.
  • News organizations have a strong preference for general support on the principle that it best preserves independent journalism. Any fundraising policy should clearly state conditions governing acceptance of general support, coverage of issues and beats, and coverage of specific projects and stories.
  • When civic or community engagement is part of a grant, journalists and funders should agree in advance what that mean
  • 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.
  • News organizations should have written policies that establish these principles of editorial independence, transparency and communication, which will be the starting point of any interaction with funders.

 

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