Who are the journalism and media funders, why do they meet…and now what?

Journalism / Article

Today I’m in Oklahoma at the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation to meet with our informal journalism and media funders group. Because the event is at Ethics and Excellence, this meeting feels like a milestone. I’ll explain that, tell you who we are and why we meet and wonder out loud a bit about our future.

I came to Knight Foundation in June 2001 from The Freedom Forum, which was phasing out grant-making to focus on its successful news museum, the Newseum.  Nonprofit journalism groups and j-schools were worried about “traditional journalism funding” drying up. I wanted to get a handle this, and recruited Vivian Vahlberg at the then-named McCormick Tribune Foundation and Roz Stark at the then-named Radio and Television News Directors Foundation because they’d held previous funders meetings.

That started our movable feast. It had no budget, no staff, and after a decade, it’s still going strong.

At first we only invited foundations with annual journalism investments of at least $5 million. Charles Overby came from the Freedom Forum; Jon Funabiki, from Ford Foundation; Gordana Jankovic, of the then-named Open Society Institute;  Don Kimelman came from Pew Charitable Trusts, and Vivian and Roz. We met in Miami in January 2002. Hodding Carter, then Knight president, had OK’d a world-class facilitator, David Sibbet of Grove Communications in San Francisco, whom I knew from my Oakland Tribune days. As we talked, David drew a wall-sized graphic that recorded and focused our conversation.  

Our goal, I wrote, was “to spark interest in collaborative projects” by sharing our plans. We discussed a lot: freedom of expression worldwide, the First Amendment and freedom of information, journalism quality, journalism education and training, news and newsroom diversity, creating greater public understanding of how and why good journalism matters and how technology was creating a new multimedia world. (Ten years later, events have changed but the issues haven’t.)

We resolved to reach out to others in philanthropy to try to increase the amount of grant-making in the field of news and information. I listed these big reasons:

-the end of the cold war had left the world in the throes of change and our worldwide freedom efforts seemed at the forefront of the creation of more civil societies;

-the digital revolution was radically altering the business of news, and our training and education efforts were needed to help journalists use these new tools to achieve leaps of quality;

-the “newspaper generation” was retiring or dying, and the young, as diverse a group of young people as possible, must carry news and civics literacy forward if freedom and quality journalism are to survive.

If anything, I was too understated. As the issues mounted, the meetings took on greater urgency. Knight hosted again, then Poynter, then a new foundation each year agreed to host. We met with Open Society in London, with Gates Foundation in Seattle, with Belo and Scripps, with the Freedom Forum at the Newseum; with Pew Charitable Trusts and William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia, and last year with McCormick and Macarthur in Chicago. The full impact of the digital age began to be felt. Traditional journalism turned upside down and inside out. The funders group grew. A handful turned into three dozen. We welcomed anyone who wanted to fund journalism projects. Then we expanded that to media projects.

I have no measurements. But I feel certain we started working better together. In 2001, Knight endowed university chairs all by itself. Now we might have as many as six partners in launching an innovative nonprofit digital news organization. About midway through the decade, four of our group — Ford, Knight, McCormick and Ethics and Excellence — joined to create the Challenge Fund for Journalism. That project put millions toward helping journalism groups operate in more businesslike ways. (These were good things for the groups to know in 2008-2009 when the media meltdown cut company support). Dozens of journalism nonprofits benefitted. Without the funders meetings, I don’t think we would have done it.

There’s something about sharing our thoughts about the coming year – rather than promoting what we already have done – that creates trust and helps us work better.

This year’s meeting is a milestone  because it’s at the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. When the funders group started, it was like a brand new sponge, soaking up everyting. Today, it’s a leader. Ethic and Excellence saw the investigative reporting drought coming before many others and jumped in to seed new nonprofits. From a startup to the meeting host.

I also know Gates and Hewlett benefitted. Its contributions to media projects grew, as did Knight’s. The Freedom Forum and later, Pew, benefitted as they got out of grant-making because we helped give many of their grantees soft landings. Just one small example: the Freedom Forum cut its annual awards to journalism educators and administrators of the year. So Knight paid for those until Scripps could pick them up in their national awards program.

Knight started an international version of the funders group in Europe, involving both private and government funders. That meeting might also become a moveable feast. The Center for Independent Media at the National Endowment for Democracy is organizing the next meeting.  

My intuition says more money is coming into journalism and media grant-making since the funders meeting started. We know this is true for community foundations, and for international media development funders, because we have those numbers. But we are only now working with Guidestar and the Foundation Center to get good numbers for American nonprofit journalism and media projects overall.

For reasons I don’t fully understand, some of the foundation work I’m most proud of was not scientifically or strategically blueprinted. Like the funders group, it just happened, more or less out of our back pocket. This certainly was the case when Knight’s new president, Alberto Ibargüen spontaneously announced  we were going to start hosting community foundations every winter. Later, we would match their contributions to local news and information projects through a $24 million Knight Community Information Challenge.

Our invitation for all foundations to care about news and information is getting more attention as traditional media shrinks. A boost came last year when the Federal Communication Commission’s Information Needs of Communities report called local news shortages a crisis and asked for foundations to step up. Encouraged by leaders like David Haas of William Penn Foundation, we’ve started holding sessions at the Council on Foundations meetings to evangelize. We collaborated with Penn and a dozen foundations on a booklet called “Journalism and Media Grant Making.”

Here’s our pitch: Foundations want to make good things happen. But nothing happens without communication. You can’t get a vaccine in someone’s mouth without first getting the right idea into their head. Journalism is that special kind of communication that tells us if our society is working, tells us if people are taking the vaccines. It is truly the front-line of philanthropy. Media grants are the grants that can tell you if all of your other grants are working. 

Today should be a great day in Oklahoma with dozens (rather than a handful) of colleagues, watching the folks who used to be new, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism, being the Big Dogs. But it makes me wonder whether we have run our course as an informal group. In the decade since the journalism group started, another group, the Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media, has steadily improved. With its new director, Vince Stehle, and its new mission of increasing and growing media philanthropy in all its forms, it is looking good. Should the journalism group agree to work under the Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media umbrella? We aren’t the world’s greatest joiners, especially the Old Dogs among us. But I’m encouraged that it has a new leader and mission, is thinking about dumping the outdated name, and that Knight’s Directory Strategy/Assessment Jon Sotsky has joined its board.

Maybe we should give Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media a chance. Let’s let it help organize our next meeting. Perhaps we can find a future in the core of that larger organization. Journalism, the best and most fearless non-fiction the world has ever known, obviously has value. But we do need to learn more about how to keep improving it and how to engage communities in conversation about that value. If that conversation starts in earnest within the foundation community, I’m all for it.

By Eric Newton, senior adviser to the President at Knight Foundation