Philanthropy and the Media: a Chronicle of Missed Opportunities
The interchange of media and philanthropy raises important questions about philanthropy’s effect on shaping the media market and donors’ ability to promote change in public discourse. The civil awakening after Trump’s election was a great opportunity for philanthropic foundations to create substantial change in the struggling media market. A new report demonstrates how the foundations donated money to fund many individual journalistic projects, but not necessarily to advance actual media coverage or the battle against fake news.
The media and philanthropy spheres have been going through a fascinating process of convergence in recent years. This process accelerated after President Trump’s election, the decline in printed media’s income, and the widening polarization in American society.
Specifically, philanthropic foundations are donating more to newspapers and digital media systems, to strengthen the journalism industry and fight fake news. However, despite the great promise embodied in philanthropy as the modern engine of journalism, it has not yet managed to create a significant change in the American media discourse or to stem the spread of fake news.
Philanthropic donations to media organizations and academic schools for journalism are a known phenomenon. Foundations have been donating for years to newspapers and universities to build infrastructure and strengthen often-neglected areas of coverage.
At the same time, the model of non-profit journalism has been trending. This model acknowledges the critical social role of the press and the social service it fulfills, and thus solicits financial support from the public and philanthropic foundations. Among the well-known examples of non-profit newspapers are the digital ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, and the Oklahoma-based The Frontier. These media outlets successfully preserve a local or investigative journalistic ethos, in partnership with the public and donors.
A new report by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy (at the Harvard Kennedy School) and Northeastern University’s School of Journalism reveals a fascinating picture of philanthropic foundations’ involvement in the media in America. The report maps the 1.8 billion dollars donated by 6,568 foundations to various media organizations and universities.
It demonstrates how the foundations donated money to fund many individual journalistic projects, but not necessarily to advance actual media coverage or the battle against fake news.
For example, the report mentions that 32% of the donations went to industry-supporting initiatives rather than to direct journalism: university programs, professional development groups, and research and technology development. Public media received 44% of the donations, along with their affiliated programs and news-reporting initiatives. Grants in this category also funded national news and programming providers such as NPR, American Public Media, and the PBS NewsHour, as well as a variety of content such as music, culture, and entertainment.
The foundations exhibited a philanthropic strategy that created sharp geographic disparities: they allocated donations to media organizations and universities mainly on the east or west coast, with few going to the Midwest or other peripheral areas in the US, even though these areas need independent and reliable media more than ever. Specifically, 25 public media stations and content producers accounted for 70% of all funding, with grant money going primarily to stations or content producers based in 10 states.
It is also worth noting that just five universities accounted for half of all foundation funding, and 16 of the top 25 grant-receiving campuses were based in either California or the Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. metro areas. Only a small portion of the donations was dedicated to developing innovative ideas in media and journalism or to start-ups that create new platforms to improve audience accessibility to reliable news.
Philanthropic foundations are significant actors, who can shape the media market through their donations. We are used to thinking about foundations in terms of money, but it is essential to consider them in terms of influence, especially when discussing mass media.
These findings demonstrate how the foundations are transforming their donations into an investment with minimal risk to the donors personally. This stands in opposition to one of philanthropy’s most significant advantages: the ability to offer swift and creative solutions and quickly promote social projects — in this case, to fight fake news — and to reinforce the gatekeepers’ importance.
Despite their good intentions, it seems these foundations are missing the potential to invest in local media outlets, develop actual journalists, and promote novel technological ideas. They preserve the elite newspapers when they donate to media outlets that approach the New York Times’ and Washington Post’s audiences, instead of encouraging small and local media outlets that will re-establish the public’s trust in the media.
Unfortunately, many foundations chose a strategy of supporting traditional media organizations, addressing the elites. I’m not sure this is the best strategy to create real change. Instead, these foundations should exit their comfort zones, and develop strong and independent local newspaper industries in the American periphery ‘media desert.’
At the end of the day, the support of free and independent media will allow the foundations to invigorate civil society, encouraging open and diverse public discourse that will allow donors and foundations to promote solutions to many more social problems.