Can non-profit journalism save the day?

The non-profit sector and the media continue to flirt with each other, and even have the occasional offspring. This morning, the Guardian launched its website on global development, http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development. Madeleine Bunting introduced the new baby on the oped page and the web. It is interesting because it is funded by the Gates Foundation, and indeed they are credited on the site’s home page. The peg is the UN summit on Global Development in New York, though the partnership is longer lasting and more substantial.

“It is the first time the Guardian has developed a partnership with a major charitable foundation to fund a strand of its core journalism,” says Bunting. “Part of the agreement includes safeguarding the Guardian’s editorial independence. Both organisations are committed to making achievement of the UN goals a central strand of the new site. But alongside the challenge of working in a partnership with a foundation, the site has set itself a big ambition of curating a global conversation about development.”

Beyond editorial independence, a second (and related) issue is that not everyone agrees about development: its importance, how it is funded, what results are possible or desirable. There are lots of different audiences, and as Bunting says: “The problem about these different audiences is that while they often have much knowledge of the subject, they don’t much like talking to each other. Part of the challenge on the new site will be to host all these conversations – all of which are crucial to the debate in their very different ways. Will that mean that everyone gets cross at some point or another with the site? Probably.”

Non-profits have an agenda, a way of working and resolving conflicts, and they have  financial interests. It will be interesting to see how the new experiments work out. How easy will the site and its funders be with controversy? And with mistakes? And with conflict? All of these things are somewhat inevitable in reporting. The cultural issues will be significant if the new journalism is to mean more than just taking a handout.

My own brief experience in non-profits is that there are massive opportunities for both sides in teaming up, or working alongside each other, or even in replacing each other from time to time. Non-profits are starting to make interesting moves into the field; journalism is starting to look for other funding .

There are many different models. ProPublica is essentially a news venture that focuses on developing public interest stories and finances them through foundation grants and individual donations. It aims to get its stories into mainstream publications and media where possible. FreePress puts more of a political and social message around non-profit and low-profit ventures. The Guardian is featuring journalism funded by the non-profit sector, but not guided by it. National Public Radio (often forgotten) is a hybrid of public and private funding. Human Rights Watch produces its own media, more or less, and hired a bunch of journos.

Not surprisingly, this flirtation between non-profits and journos has excited a lot of policy wonkery. Duke University’s Sanford School looked at the options in this series of papers, based on a conference. This conference at UW Madison examined some of the ethical issues, including who was an acceptable backer. And the Nieman Journalism Lab has looked at what makes non-profit journalism legit, and proposed some standards. This blog covers the issues.

Despite the anguished ethical debates, conflict of interest is only part of the issue: it is at least as much a question of conflict of cultures, and this will be hard to bridge, as Mary Walton explains in the American Journalism Review. “Says Laura Frank, who is navigating the new channels as head of a startup, the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, “People think, ‘Oh, wow. You don’t have to deal with advertisers,’ but it’s kind of the same thing. Foundations are used to funding something and having control over it. You have to explain to them that there is a firewall: ‘What you’re funding is the act of journalism for the benefit of society.’ ”

There are a couple of bigger questions for the non-profits and foundations, too – like: why fund journalism? “I have in my wallet three million dollars,” said Jack Shafer, media critic of Slate, at a symposium on investigative reporting quoted in the AJR piece.  “The opera wants it, the ballet wants it, the museum wants it, the YMCA, poor kids in Africa want it.” Why give it to journalists? Or journalism? Or news? Or media?  Can they get more by handing over money, or internalizing the resources and doing it themselves? What bang for their buck do they get?

Newsosaur, a blogger who writes on the news and business, is completely unconvinced. It would require far, far more money than the charitable sector is capable of providing to pay for all current newsgathering, he says. “So, let’s stop dreaming about a visit from the Non-Profit News Bunny and get serious about discovering some realistic possibilities.” To be fair, no-one is saying that everything will go this way, but he has a point.

The trend can only continue; I have some (non-rhetorical) questions about this:

  1. Is this a good use of money (Can’t they get a proper job)? Why does journalism deserve charitable status or money? What are the non-profits getting out of it that they couldn’t through other means?  Why pour money into activities and people that apparently weren’t capable of generating it themselves?
  2. Will this produce good journalism (Up to a point, Lady Bountiful)? Does the institutional culture of journalism work with a foundation culture? Will people still pick fights, dig dirt, kick against the pricks? Or will it tend towards the worst aspects of non-profits and trade journalism: inward looking, clubby, self-satisfied? Does the need to sell and be read actually have a role to play 9and can these be decoupled)?
  3. What about competition (Mr Gates)? What impact will this have on other media that remains revenue-focussed? Will it price some of it out of the market? Will there still be a role for competition in the coverage of, say, development through (for example) the New Internationalist (a workers co-op, btw). Does it make sense to have competition in any case?
  4. Does this only work for some things? Does this decouple investigative and public interest journalism from the city beat, sports, financial, community reporting, politics etc? One of the advantages of the old model was that everyone competed for space and shared resources; is that over? Does public interest journalism now exist in a subsidized, gilded ghetto?
  5. What happens to the stuff that gets left out? We accept that not all new business models will cover everything. So: if some stuff can be paid for (business, sport and celebrity); and some can be locally  or crowd-sourced (community news, reviews etc); and some gets paid for by non-profits, what falls through the cracks? What can’t be covered by money, vanity, love and charity? And does it matter? Reporting on mental health? Local government?
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