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How much funders specify the content news organizations produce

How specific are funders about the content they want to finance?

General operating support grants, which allows a nonprofit media organization the most freedom regarding how it spends funds, was the most common type of grant cited by the nonprofit media organizations surveyed.

Most foundations (57 percent) also said they had given grants to help nonprofit media build capacity in a particular area, such as beefing up their fundraising.

At the same time, a majority of funders (59 percent) also said they make grants to fund more specific subjects, fracking as an example rather than the environment in general, or specifying coverage of breast cancer rather than women’s health in general. And 61 percent of funders say they have funded investigations into specific problems or to do a particular series of stories.

This level of specificity, as essayists Richard Tofel, Dan Green, Kathy Im and Peter Slevin all note in their essays, can be more complicated than if the money were earmarked for more general subject areas, or as unrestricted general operating funds. Would this coverage have been done had the funder not specified it? Does this kind of specificity get near or cross lines of journalistic independence? And what kind of firewalls or lines of communication are needed to make sure it doesn’t?

While these grants may be more complicated as they become more specific or targeted, most of the nonprofit media organizations surveyed said they accept them. In all, indeed, only about 20 percent of nonprofit media organizations said they do not accept grants tied to specific content.

Type of media grant Percent of media funders who give
General operating grants 64%
Capacity building grants (to help grantees fundraise
and develop sustainability)
57%
For coverage of general subjects areas
(i.e. environment, health)
65%
For coverage of more specific issues
or problems (i.e. fracking or breast cancer)
59%
For particular investigative projects or
series of stories on specific problems
61%
To experiment with new forms of storytelling 60%
To adopt new technologies 57%
For a particular type of journalism
(i.e. investigative) without specifying topics or projects
50%

Data Source: Survey conducted May 21 – July 6, 2015. Question: Which of the following kinds of grants does your foundation currently make to media organizations?

American Press Institute

Type of media grant Percent who have received
General operating grants 33%
Capacity building grants (to help grantees fundraise
and develop sustainability)
19%
For coverage of general subjects areas
(i.e. environment, health)
24%
For coverage of more specific issues
or problems (i.e. fracking or breast cancer)
17%
For particular investigative projects
or series of stories on specific problems
24%
To experiment with new forms of storytelling 15%
To adopt new technologies 12%
For a particular type of journalism
(i.e. investigative) without specifying topics or projects
25%

Data Source: Survey conducted May 20-July 5 and Oct. 16 - Nov. 2, 2015. Question: Which of the following kinds of grants is your organization receiving now?

American Press Institute

Perhaps the most specific kind of journalism grant is one that pays for an expose or investigation into a specific problem. In all, 41 percent of nonprofit media outlets said they received offers from funders to conduct specific investigations of this sort. Of those, more than 80 percent said they accepted such offers.

Of the 12 single issue media outlets that have been offered funding for a specific expose or look into a specific issue, all but one of those surveyed accepted the offer.

Percent nonprofit media
No, was never offered
such funding
34%
Yes, and accepted
the funding
33%
Yes, but did not
accept the funding
9%
No answer 24%

Data Source: Question: Has a foundation ever offered to fund an investigation or specific series of stories on an issue or problem, as opposed to ongoing coverage of a general topic area? / If yes: Did you accept the funding?

American Press Institute

The money also played a role in the grantees’ decision-making process. Some media organizations accepted the specific project funding saying it was important for their sustainability. Some said they had a good relationship with the funder, or wanted to establish such a relationship. A few other organizations said they initiated the specific request, or the project was already underway. Another organization said foundations often ask for proposals on specific topics, and the group applied and won such a grant.

Of the 31 nonprofit media organizations in the survey that accepted such funding, half said they have written guidelines that determine who they will accept money from.

Why nonprofit media accept funding for specific projects Percent of nonprofit media who accepted funding for such projects
The project or investigation was already on our list to do

74%
The project was not on our list already but struck us as worthwhile 16%
The particular project was not on our list, but the topic is one we cover 13%
The funding was important to our sustainability 13%
We wanted to establish a relationship with this funder 9%
We already had a good relationship with this funder 9%
Other: We requested the funds 13%

Data Source: Survey conducted May 20 - July 5 and Oct. 16-Nov. 2, 2015. Question: What were the main reasons you went forward with the project? (More than one response accepted.) Note: Based on 31 respondents who said they accepted funding for specific projects.

American Press Institute

A smaller percentage turned down such specific project funding for various reasons, ranging from the fact they never accept funding for specific investigative stories, to a previous experience with the funder that led the news organizations to turn down the offer. Other reasons included not having the capacity to do the work at that time and the fact that the funder was such an advocate on the issue that it felt like a conflict of interest.

The small number of nonprofit media organizations who told us they turned down grants for specific content tended to be the better-financed media grantees. One respondent said their organization refuses funding for specific projects but tries to negotiate the offer into funding for a more general reporting beat that they are comfortable with. This is also the practice of ProPublica, as Tofel writes in his essay, and it has been successful making such a trade to fund its beat structure.

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