Money follows money in nonprofit journalism
It’s unfair for major for-profit outlets like the New York Times to receive philanthropic funding.
An initial harbinger of coming nightmares hit my team of independent media crusaders at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) last October, when it was formally announced that the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation teamed up with the Boston Globe on an initiative that, according to the newspaper of record around here, “might just serve as a new model for supporting arts journalism.” Here we are, a newfangled nonprofit struggling to fill some of the giant voids left by negligent pro-business outlets, and a beast where several employees make six-figure salaries crashes our free lunch. We’re collecting 10-dollar donations to get off the ground, while the privileged Globe found not just one but three funders willing to foot its bill for… classical music reporting!?!
It was only a matter of time before that line blurred even more, helping to push the likes of BINJ even farther away from the major foundation table, where we already wait like dogs off to the side, fighting for crumbs that shake our way. And so the news on the Friday before Labor Day weekend that journalists like us who work in the trenches for peanuts will now have to compete with a philanthropic appendage of the New York Times — in addition to the university outfits we already wrestle with — was just the latest blow in an excruciating saga.
For anyone who follows media insider happenings closely, it was inevitable that major for-profit players like the Times would run roughshod over the work that many of us are doing in local, independent, and alternative nonprofit journalism. They are by nature followers that masquerade as trendsetters, and not just in the stories that they steal and co-opt from small shops without giving due credit. In this case, the Times hilariously got beaten to the punch by the Guardian, which four days earlier announced “the public launch of theguardian.org, a new nonprofit to support quality independent journalism around some of the most pressing issues of our time.”
If this reads like sour grapes, you’re right. For more than two years, my team has designed a model that could be rolled out across the country in a way that empowers media makers elsewhere to build their own sustainable ops, and over the past several months, BINJ has helped spawn grassroots incubators in Santa Fe, Little Rock, and most recently Baltimore. Still we have been rejected or ignored by the dozens of foundations we have reached out and applied to, largely due to the reallocation of resources to national initiatives since Donald Trump took office.
When you’re rejected from a journalism grant, just like in any nonprofit area, the form letter will note that there were several worthy applicants that deserved funding, but sadly there’s just not enough to go around. This is true, and it is also bullshit. I decided to stay classy and not call out specific names of individuals or orgs this time, but if pressed by privileged insiders who respond in haste to this polemic, I promise to explain in detail how the money follows money in this journalism game, as loyalists from places like the Times go on to pull the strings at big foundations and in turn support their own in any number of endeavors. In its most senseless conformation, this revolving door results in money going from major foundations to reporting programs at universities that have plenty of money already.
I am able to say these things, and to preach a gospel that says money should go into grassroots journalism rather than the ivory tower outlets, because BINJ is one of the lucky ones — from our proximity to wealthy liberal enclaves like Jamaica Plain and Cambridge, to the popularity of our events, to the reality show contestant who just won us a serious chunk of money (announcement coming soon about the latter). Furthermore, in the past few months alone, our tireless work on minimal budgets and assistance to others who are starting their own small nonprofits have earned us attention from the likes of Poynter, Nieman Lab, Columbia Journalism Review (twice), Journalism UK, Nonprofit Quarterly, and even the Guardian, which prominently featured BINJ just days before announcing its own nonprofit. All of that considered, and since I have been informed my team’s more or less been blackballed by some of the large foundations because I write things like this, I am more than happy to speak up for frustrated media fundraisers everywhere, many of whom I communicate with regularly.
While people in this industry can be outspoken about various issues, especially journalism, you won’t see many editors or people who move in these circles publicly whining about the kind of greed that’s on display here. Doing so is sure to get you mean looks from the likes of one Times expat who, in response to my complaining about said newspaper’s nonprofit grab, tweeted, “They’re doing really important work, and market forces still batter them. it’s not about you.” Followed by, “why are there sides? They’re supposed to just stop holding Trump to account because other journos need $?”
It’s insanely disingenuous to say that I implied the Times doesn’t do critical work, or to suggest that market forces haven’t crashed upon the smaller shops in ways that international behemoths couldn’t fathom on their lightest payday. It’s also fraudulent to say the Times can’t hold the president accountable without stepping on those who are toiling to keep all of the other lowlife state and local pols and bureaucrats in check while the goliaths unearth White House improprieties. I’m not sure why those who wish to see BINJ and others like it trampled would worry about partitions or posturing either, since they are on the side with all the money, not to mention that such a predictable response misses the point — that the Times and its ilk should be seeding, not depleting, the scant resources for journalism. To their credit, at least the press release about the Gray Lady’s nonprofit was up front about their milquetoast intentions of sharing any of the largesse they will surely pocket from innumerable readers who want to ensure dinner table bragging rights should they donate to the outlet which topples the POTUS:
We also believe that The Times can help with the growing crisis in local news coverage by partnering with other institutions around the country. But mainly, we think there are journalism projects we are eager to pursue that could be more ambitious and have greater impact with outside support.
Finally, while my crew at BINJ spent our two years naively thinking that most major journalism funders really want to see a replicable grassroots model, I now realize that a lot of them are actually afraid of such proliferation. The more independent, small, and ethnic outlets that show up groveling for money, the less there will be for the fatheads who already pull in major salaries from college shops and public radio and television stations. I guess that’s our silver lining, though. The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism — not the New York Times, not the Guardian, and not even the well-established nonprofit veterans at NPR — has an effective selfless model to start baby incubators where they’re needed, and the longer that we wait for handouts from foundations that are predetermined to reserve the whale’s share for the sharks while all us crabs down at the bottom of the barrel bludgeon one another over morsels, the less time we have to do actual reporting and help friends across the country find solutions.