2023: The year equitable journalism goes mainstream

Lindsay Green-Barber
The Impact Architects
5 min readJan 30

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At Impact Architects, we’re fortunate to work with both journalism organizations and philanthropic institutions that fund journalism, giving us unique insight into trends into both — where they align as well as where they diverge.

In 2022, we conducted two portfolio reviews for the Democracy Fund and the Ford Foundation with the goal to assess progress made toward DF’s Public Square strategy and Ford’s Creativity and Free Expression Journalism Program’s strategy, both from 2016 through 2021. These evaluations, together with other work, have us convinced that equitable journalism is the answer to so many of the sector’s quandaries — lack of public trust, failing business models, and the prevalence of mis and disinformation.

At IA, we define equitable journalism as a strategy to serve communities needed information with the long term goal of building power in communities. This approach generally privileges the depth and quality of relationships between the information provider and its community over the scale of audience reach.

Equitable journalism recognizes that for many communities, particularly among people of color, the media has not been a provider of information, but instead has presented and sustained harmful narratives and stereotypes and provided misinformation about their experiences. Equitable journalism aims to address these inequities.

And while equitable journalism often employs tactics of engaged journalism, everything from digital engagement to in person listening sessions and events, the tactics to provide equitable access to information with the express goal of building power are distinct from many engaged journalism practices designed to grow audiences in order to increase revenue (through subscriptions, membership, and/or advertising).

From Democracy Fund Public Square Program Evaluation, 2016–2021: Distinction between Engaged Journalism vs. Equitable Journalism

Evidence from DF and Ford

The Democracy Fund’s Public Square strategy from 2016 through 2021 was three pronged: support local news ecosystems, equitable journalism, and freedom of the press. During this same time, the Ford Foundation’s Creativity and Free Expression Journalism Program developed and implemented a strategy to support organizations that are led by and directly serve women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and those living in rural communities. When those communities are strengthened and new journalism organizations and leaders from these communities are developed, these innovative organizations will become stronger and more resilient, thereby reaching and serving Ford’s priority communities. In both cases, the Foundations’ strategies aim to support a more resilient, inclusive, and sustainable journalism sector, as well as a strengthened American democracy.

In both evaluations, we found that the DF’s and Ford’s investments brought new philanthropic investment to their grantees. For DF, the Ecosystem News portfolio was particularly successful in bringing new local investment to news and information through a concentrated strategy of outreach and engagement. In the case of Ford, the respect across the philanthropic sector for the Ford Foundation resulted in a halo effect and additional recognition and investment for its grantees, particularly newer organizations and those led by women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, and those in rural underserved communities, which often struggle to make inroads with philanthropic institutions due to structural inequities and barriers in philanthropy.

From Ford Foundation’s CFE Journalism Program Evaluation, 2016–2021: Excerpt from outcomes and insights table.

But perhaps most importantly, over this five year period, both DF and Ford further elaborated their strategies to define and center equitable journalism. Ford worked to diversify its grantee pool and by 2021, its partner organizations were more diverse than the journalism industry, which has historically been and continues to be predominantly white. On average, 37% of organizations’ staff that responded to our grantee survey identify as white. By comparison, the most recent survey of nonprofit newsrooms conducted by INN in 2020 indicates that about 56% of all nonprofit news staff members are white. And in the American Society of News Editor’s last diversity survey of the newspaper industry in 2018, 77.4% of staff identified as white. And the median percentage of executive leadership that identified as women among Ford’s grantees was 73%.

DF moved from a strategy of Trusted and Engaged Journalism to Equitable Journalism as it observed the ways in which engaged journalism practices run the risk of recreating historic inequities among newsrooms and audiences or communities when not practiced in news organizations that have at their core principles of equitable journalism.

In both cases, we found that newsrooms built on the principles of equitable journalism are successfully building relationships with their communities/audiences, innovating with models for information delivery and audience engagement, and creating new models of sustainability. These organizations are led by and staffed with people who have life experiences that mirror those of the communities they are designed to serve. They have high standards for their reporting, and they are unabashed in their mission to create actionable information and to ensure it is delivered in a way that resonates with audiences. For example, Documented, a news organization in New York dedicated to serving immigrant communities, has hired native Spanish, Chinese, and Haitian Creole language journalists to report in and on immigrant communities in the city. In addition to producing award-winning, high-impact reporting, Documented shares its reporting, as well as NYC resources for immigrants, directly with community members through WhatsApp newsletters and in-person engagement. Documented has received grants from the Ford Foundation and has participated in the Democracy Fund’s Ecosystem Builders cohort and financial resilience training.

The future of news

From this work, we’ve found that the visibility and intentionality behind equitable journalism efforts is critical. The two organizations we’ve explored, Ford and DF, are looking at equitable journalism at a structural level, and have provided evidence that the approach works and an example for others to follow. Where large funders choose to invest has power beyond dollar amounts, as we have seen through the “halo effect” among grantees.

While advertising, subscriptions and membership, and philanthropic support all play an important and likely ongoing role in the production of news and information, it’s clear that there are larger, structural solutions needed to support information as a public good. We’re seeing creative examples of public funding in New York, New Jersey, and California, all to support community and ethnic media, many of which are practicing equitable journalism. And we’re hopeful these and more will develop long-term sustainable solutions.

For too long, journalism has had a laser focus on holding power to account, rather than widening its aperture to recognize the opportunity to build and share power in and with communities. Given trends in the journalism and philanthropic sectors, we’re hopeful that the current wave of equitable journalism will continue to grow and that reporting with, by, and for diverse communities across the US will contribute to more equitable communities that demand a more inclusive and responsive American democracy.

Read our evaluation of Ford Foundation’s CFE Journalism Program here.

Read our evaluation of Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program here.

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