On bridging the gap between journalism and philanthropy

Notes from the Journalism Funders Forum London

Write-up by European Journalism Centre’s Eric Karstens.

On 11th May 2017, the European Journalism Centre (EJC) convened the Journalism Funders Forum London, which discussed the status and perspectives of philanthropic funding for journalism in Europe, with a focus on the UK. The event started with the presentation of a new report on philanthropic journalism funding in the UK (download the full report here, or read an article about it), which had been commissioned by the European Journalism Centre.

The subsequent debate, which took place under the Chatham House Rule, revolved around three main thematic complexes: Issues of philanthropies’ trust in journalists and news organisations, their difficulties to incorporate journalism into their specific charitable giving rationale, and the sustainability of quality journalism on the other hand.

Charity and accountability

Charity regulations and the funding of journalism are often at odds with each other. Journalism as such is not one of the officially recognised charitable causes, and therefore news outlets and platforms struggle to be granted charitable status. At the same time, many philanthropic foundations have statutes that prevent them from funding non-charitable activities in the first place, or need to be extra careful when spending money on journalism, i.e., outside the charity ecosystem.

There are workarounds, though: As soon as a journalistic activity can be couched as contributing to a charitable cause, it becomes eligible for funding. Indeed, most of the time, philanthropy-funded journalism is viewed through an educational prism or as a means to support citizen engagement, transparency, or international development. But this charity-by-proxy approach risks introducing a fundamental disconnect between the two sectors. Journalism generally doesn’t like to be pressed into a serving position; and on top of that, the charity requirements tend to limit the scope of fundable topics. Anything that cannot easily be justified as beneficial to a recognised charitable cause is particularly hard to support.

If the beneficiary of financial support is not a charity or non-profit organisation in its own right, but a commercial enterprise, philanthropies must exercise specific legal caution, but they still have scope for support. Funders present in London were adamant that charity regulation must not be used as a pretext to skirt journalism funding.

That said, however, the rationale of philanthropies is usually impact-driven. They were set up by their founders with a specific objective or purpose in mind, and they remain accountable to their trustees as well as to the tax office. As a rule, funders must always demonstrate that they spend their money well and in line with the given goals.

The issue of impact

It is primarily this impact orientation that puts journalism in a tight spot when it comes to cooperation with philanthropies. First of all, journalism’s ties to impact are traditionally somewhat hazy to begin with. Granted, most journalists and publishers went into the sector in order to get heard in public and exert some influence on society, but usually, they would be hard pressed to specify and quantify that influence. By its very definition, investigative journalism in particular is unable to promise in advance what kind of results it will yield; to varying degrees, the same is true for many other journalistic genres and approaches. It is often difficult to define specific, measurable objectives beforehand.

Furthermore, independence is one of journalism’s highest tenets. Whatever their own agendas, neither journalists nor publishers tend to react too well to third parties telling them what to cover and to give them express targets for their work. In practice, this works best when philanthropies manage to cooperate with media professionals who share the same thematic interest. Yet, this always carries the risk of preaching to the converted — a publication that is sympathetic to, say, minority rights, typically has an audience that is similarly inclined anyway. Intermediaries acting as a firewall between funders and journalists can at least mitigate this effect. There was also the suggestion that ambitious journalism should deliberately cater to a variety of audiences — a story that appears in a tabloid or a clickbaity online outlet requires a different frame than one that is meant for a broadsheet or a public broadcaster.

Embracing the model of journalism

But even if philanthropies across the entire thematic spectrum were funding journalism within their respective realms, general-purpose journalism that picks up any topic worthy of public attention would still be under-served. Hence, journalism should work on bringing philanthropies into a position to “embrace the model of journalism” wholesale, as one London attendee put it, rather than look for journalism as a mere amplifier of their own issue-related work.

Indeed, how are funders supposed to support a sector that is frequently depicted as sleazy or wilfully confrontational? How should they deal with the prospect of getting a “bad press” by engaging in media support? If journalism made a much better case for itself, if it explained more compellingly how it benefits society, and if it cleaned up its reputation, philanthropic funding would likely flow with much greater ease. The rationale behind public service media might provide inspiration for this. There are examples of foundations that expressly do fund contrarian coverage and have media pluralism as their main goal; however, this only works if they are strong enough to weather the occasional resulting backlash.

The image that journalism projects of itself, and its reputation, are not enough, though. Philanthropies, in turn, should address the most frequent hurdles that get in the way of funding quality journalism. Many funders require rather lengthy and detailed proposals, complete with administrative documentation to prove the capacity, eligibility, and unblemished reputation of the applicant individuals or organisations. This, conversely, increases the threshold for potential beneficiaries to apply in the first place.

Journalists in particular do not respond very well to red tape, to forms and templates, and to too many probing questions. As a result, suitable candidates for funding get deterred. Hence, application procedures and financial practicalities should be simplified as much as possible, while still satisfying the accountability needs of the funders.

With this in mind, some philanthropies already took a major step further: They let journalists do what they do best, and provide practical support for the rest. Their beneficiaries can draw on proposal development consulting or outsourced administration and impact measurement capacities.

Sustainability

Quality journalism is financially precarious, almost by definition. Left to market forces alone, way too many relevant topics just fall through the cracks. Ever fewer journalists, and in particular freelancers, can make a living from journalism proper and have to resort to PR work on the side or to entirely different jobs in order to cross-subsidise their reporting. Even many of the stars of the profession suffer from this very predicament. In fact, being a journalist of international repute does not guarantee a living income.

One aspect of this is the proclivity of many funders for projects rather than long-term initiatives. From philanthropy’s perspective, small- to mid-scale projects are easier to manage, limit financial and content-related risks, and do not over-extend the funders’ financial capacity. Form journalism’s perspective, however, such projects “don’t keep the lights on”, as one London participant complained: They hardly allow beneficiaries to pay for their overheads and only give them a short-term professional perspective, after which they are forced to look for the next funding opportunity again.

Accordingly, it might be salutary if philanthropies gave more consideration to longer-lasting interventions. Options for these are varied. First, there are classic grants that could be funnelled into entire journalistic platforms or long-term projects, such as media outlets or technological tools that help journalists cooperate, develop, or distribute their stories.

Second, there are investments and loans. Where a journalistic venture has a clear promise to sustain itself economically over time, but lacks the financial means to get started or to expand in order to reach critical mass, philanthropies might consider acquiring an equity stake in the project, or provide a repayable low-cost loan. Equity gives funders greater control and entitles them to a share of the profit down the line (if any is ever made); at the same time, a controlling stake can be used to protect the news outlet from being sold to third parties or being taken over by competitors, and thereby conserve its purpose in the long run.

Philanthropy can thus function as a risk absorber for journalistic initiatives. In a country where press freedom is fragile, regular investors and banks may be reluctant or unable to put their money into a promising media outlet, while a philanthropic funder could step in from a secure position. But even in free societies and highly developed economies, investors and lenders may shy away from helping launch a public-interest media enterprise that carries a risk of economic failure, which philanthropies may be able to afford. There are many examples of such initiatives that just needed a kick-start to develop into genuine businesses and commercial investment opportunities.

The way forward

Perhaps the most straightforward way to facilitate philanthropic funding for journalism would be journalism’s legal recognition as a charitable cause. However, attempts to achieve this in the UK have failed recently, and anyway, charity status is not a panacea. The key problems, which need to be solved more urgently, lie elsewhere.

Funding with a consistent long-term perspective, for instance, could leave a substantial mark on the entire journalism ecosystem: Hiring journalists full-time, funding larger multi-year projects or platforms complete with the management expenses required to run them, or providing news organisations with ongoing operating costs.

It is clear, though, that this requires funders with substantial financial means and stamina; many smaller foundations are unable to make such commitments — unless they join forces and pool their money. To do so, they would need a model to form coalitions in order collectively to punch more weight. That, of course, is no easy task.

Furthermore, funders could use a toolkit that sets out the options for them — legally, practically, and financially –, possibly complete with consulting as needed. This could be like a catalogue or flowchartflow chart that guides them through the process and explains the pros and cons of the various choices for journalism funding, as well as their implementation. In particular, many funders are unsure just how to approach journalists and news organisations in the first place. Such toolkits exist for philanthropy in general, but as yet none of them seems to focus on journalism and the public sphere.

And finally, as one London attendee put it, philanthropies should contribute to, and perhaps even help steer, the “structural re-engineering of journalism”. This means supporting, through grants and investments, the enabling infrastructure for journalists and quality news outlets — through direct support for the creation of contents, practical assistance to journalism funding beneficiaries, but also through the establishment of operational platforms and the development of technological tools. Once again, public service media philosophies may pave the way for this.

One funder present in London summed up the lesson to be learned by philanthropy like this: It is actually an illusion to think that charity can bring systematic and lasting change to society without extending support to media. Even as he was referring to developing countries, the same holds true in principle — if at another level — for Europe. And considering the benefits to be gained by all involved, charities, journalism, and society, the key obstacles are not at all insurmountable.


Watch this space for the next Journalism Funders Forum events organised by the European Journalism Centre!

Read Eric’s Paris write-up here and his Hamburg write-up here.