A new wave of journalism funding is on its way. Are we ready?

This week, Pierre Omidyar announced the news that his foundation is to commit $100 million to support journalism and fight hate speech.

This is just the beginning of a new wave of journalism philanthropy.

But why is it happening now? And are we ready?

The demise of media at this point is well-documented (and as Twain would no doubt say, very much over-exaggerated).

  1. Media organisations no longer have a geographical or technological monopoly on content distribution (either through newspaper distribution, or attention via broadcast channels).
  2. Journalists face competitors everywhere (the internet has rendered the cost of distribution to be effectively zero). Anyone with a Twitter handle or a Medium account can compete with you for attention.
  3. Media no longer has the best data on audiences (did it ever?) and therefore the value of journalistic content has been reduced for advertisers.
  4. Other organisations are better at communicating to audiences in the ways they want, when they want. (The mediums of today: video, messaging).
  5. Public trust in media is at an all-time low.
  6. All of this is taking place against a backdrop of increased censorship, and violence against journalists. Global press freedom is at its lowest for 12 years.

These challenges are all very real, but it is essential to understand that they take place against a set of civic, geopolitical and human challenges. Brexit, the election of Trump, and the rise of populism across Europe has brought things sharply into focus.

The combination of a need for an new business model, plus a moment of political awakening, might just be the best thing that ever happened to journalism.

Danah Boyd’s must-read Google and Facebook Can’t Just Make Fake News Disappear perfectly encapsulates the moment of realisation that arrived for me, post-Trump:

We need to develop social, technical, economic, and political structures that allow people to understand, appreciate, and bridge different viewpoints. Too much technology and media was architected with the idea that just making information available would do that cultural work. We now know that this is not what happened.

That’s a tipping point. The imperatives are now economic, societal and personal. We need to start building bridges.

And you know what? See that list of challenges above?

Turns out they’re not bugs, they’re features. With a few tweaks, journalism as a profession is ready to build those bridges and ready to take up the role of the trust architect, as outlined in mark little’s essay Here Comes Somebody.

What might these architects look like?

  • Ability to manage large amounts of information
  • Experts in adding context, checking facts, balancing opinion
  • Motivated by transparency
  • Deeply questioning personality, loves to listen
  • Behavioural psychology expertise a bonus
  • Mastery of data for both storytelling and analysis
  • Good computational thinking skills and technological literacy
  • Distance from political institutions, freedom from deep commercial ties
  • Access to all areas of society, willing to advocate for solutions

That sounds a lot like a journalist, no?

Well, almost.

The bad news is that journalists are going to need to redefine their roles in order to be perfectly placed to build that social infrastructure of the future.

The good news is that some have already started. There are many examples of people using all the challenges up there in the first paragraph to build dynamic and profitable media businesses.

(Features not bugs, remember.)

The other good news is that if journalists work out how to build these bridges, they may just find philanthropists are prepared to pay for them.

In Bruce Sievers & Patrice Schneider’s essential article, The Civic Media Crisis and What Philanthropy Can Do, they outline some of the obstacles to the philanthropic funding of media.

In the past, the media’s complexity, political sensitivity, and historical tradition of support by commercial or governmental sources have all been deterrents to philanthropic investment. Additionally, the current philanthropic mindset tends to gravitate toward solving concrete, technically fixable problems and away from engagement with such knotty challenges as protecting and improving the quality of civic discourse.

Reframe journalism in the service of solving concrete, fixable problems, in service of building bridges, and journalism might just have itself a growing revenue stream driven by philanthropists.

What exactly then needs to change?

Well, last year, we at the European Journalism Centre granted over €1m of money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to freelance journalists and media outlets through our Journalism Grants programmes.

In Europe, philanthropic funding of media happens on a much smaller scale than in the US. That means we’ve had to work closely with journalists to help them work in ways that are sometimes different to those that they are used to. Practically, it means they have had to adopt some new practices and challenge some assumptions:

  • New levels of financial transparency. The money spent on the project must be traceable, and the organisation is accountable for every penny. A good example of this in practice is De Correspondent, who break down their entire expenditure for their readers in service of building trust. More organisations will have to do this.
  • Trust first. What would happen if every aspect of the project, from the secure gathering of tips, to the mapping of sourcework, to the design of stories is rethought and promoted as part of the story? That helps with transparency, which is good for donors.
  • Think of the long tail. Long-form work with a shelf-life is more attractive in the philanthropic world than breaking news or hyper-topical reports.
  • Collaboration by default. Funders are actively interested in getting multiple outlets working together, sharing data and translation duties. First Draft is paving the way for this. The European Journalism Centre’s own The New Arrivals project has been a great learning opportunity. Workflows need to built to do all this, and more, securely and efficiently.
The First Draft logo board
  • Measuring impact. Foundations and philanthropists need to work together with news organisations to define KPIs around both awareness and action. Pageviews are not enough when behaviours need changing. NGOs and CSOs found metrics around social impact long ago. How do we measure journalism’s impact in society? How could it not just solve concrete, fixable things, but also prove it made a difference.
  • Commercial and political distance. Here, the commercial and political ostracisation faced by the “mainstream media” may be a feature, not a bug. News organisations may find that — paradoxically — the drive for new business models and direct reader revenue positions them in a place that philanthropists feel more comfortable with.
  • New forms of training. Bringing computational thinking, entrepreneurship, video/messaging/data storytelling, behavioural psychology and algorithm literacy into journalism training programmes, at all levels, is essential.

There are scores of foundations (especially in Europe) who don’t yet support journalism for the reasons above, and many other reasons we might not be aware of. Journalists too are naturally and justifiably skeptical of the source of funding, and what’s required of them.

In the long-term, philanthropists are likely to demand products, organisations and daily acts of journalism that put bridge-building at the core of their offering.

If journalism can do that, and iterate around some of the transparency, monitoring and evaluation requirements, then it may not only find its vital social function reaffirmed, but also sustainably funded.

Thanks for reading this far! Because you have, I assume you might also be interested in this…

In May and June 2017, the European Journalism Centre is running three small events on European philanthropy and media. We’re calling it the Journalism Funders Forum.

If you’re a funder, media executive or journalist interested in exploring, expanding upon, or challenging anything I’ve written above, join us. Through engaging case studies, unseen research and open discussion, we will explore key editorial, ethical, financial and technological questions and — hopefully — provide a blueprint for future European collaboration.

Places are limited; you can register your interest here.