Philanthropy-funded journalism and public value

Notes from our Journalism Funders Forum in Paris.

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


The third Journalism Funders Forum convened in Paris on 15 June 2017 (as usual under the Chatham House Rule), and opened with the launch of the latest in a series of European Journalism Centre-commissioned country reports on philanthropic funding for journalism (available for download as a PDF here). Several topics already discussed in London and Hamburg came to the fore again: Journalism’s demand for specific assistance and training with respect to making grant applications and managing grant-based projects, and the need and proper strategies of philanthropy-funded journalism to assert its independence from the donor.

Perhaps more than the previous events, the Paris meeting was framed by the news media funding situation that is particular to France: Outlets depend to a substantial degree on direct or indirect state funding, a public license fee, and the mercy of a handful of wealthy and influential industrialists, while advertising revenues are in decline (like everywhere else), and independent funding through copy and subscription sales is nowhere near enough — notable exceptions such as Le canard enchainé notwithstanding. A representative of a major French news organisation quipped: “We are organised as a non-profit, and believe me — we are not making any profits indeed.”

A different dynamic

Especially in France, but also elsewhere, philanthropy is a way of diversifying media revenues in order to reduce dependence from both the state and wealthy influencers, but also from standard economic transactions. As one speaker remarked, philanthropic funding changes the whole dynamic of journalism’s relations with both audiences and stakeholders. With a regular client, you always engage in a rather narrow kind of exchange: Money for a specific product that the customer deems useful enough to warrant the price. But sustaining on clients has become ever more difficult for the press (though certainly not impossible).

With a donor, on the other hand, you don’t engage in a directly reciprocal relationship: Philanthropic donors big and small tend to invest with their eye on values rather than products: democracy, an informed society, better public health, the thriving of art, improved education, and so on — the idea of public value. One speaker went so far as to suggest to think of journalism like of fundamental research: Working to increase human knowledge and capacity, even when any concrete outcome may be decades away or turn out to be unattainable after all.

This approach is encapsulated in news outlets funded by a small number of donors, yet un-paywalled and open for everybody. In such cases, private individuals or foundations step up to provide the public with a good they deem necessary on principle, but which is too low in supply or missing entirely. Here, the notion of impact takes the place of utility. That notwithstanding, impact still requires proof; philanthropists in particular do not enjoy squandering their money. One Paris attendee put the success formula for philanthropy-funded journalism like this: “Impact should always be greater than the revenue pouring in.”

Making impact matter

Coming full circle with the discussions at the previous Journalism Funders Forums, the same speaker joked: “Journalists break into a cold sweat when they hear the word ‘impact’.” And certainly, impact was, once again, a leitmotif of the Paris gathering. The speaker introduced a framework for impact measurement by urging journalists and news organisations first to define the purpose of their work. This could be, for instance, as generic as making the audience better informed and thus enable it to make up their own minds, or as specific as a lasting real-world change — a legal reform, a new policy or regulation, or the replacement of the holder of a public office.

Next to realistic planning, appropriate resources, and, above all, quality content, an important prerequisite for serving said purpose is to have a good idea of the audience. The speaker advised: “Ask yourself how your audience and stakeholders have historically changed their minds”, and configure your publishing and measurement activities accordingly. Most importantly, he said, journalists should develop an approach to impact, a clear idea of what they want and hope to achieve. If that approach later turned out to be worthy of improvement, fine, but first have one to begin with.

Trust-inspiring contents

One step towards impact is inspiring trust in audiences and stakeholders. One funding beneficiary reported that a recent donor-supported constructive journalism project (see also my notes from Journalism Funders Forum Hamburg) in fact also elicited much more constructive audience feedback and much less hate speech than her publisher’s regular activities. Another speaker pointed to the example of a single British TV personality who, in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, improbably enjoyed the trust of both Brexiteers and Remainers. Apparently, this person had established himself as an honest broker in that highly contentious debate. It is not hard to imagine how philanthropists would line up to fund a news outlet or reporting project which achieved this kind of non-partisan credibility.

An American speaker, who shared his experience setting up a highly regarded non-profit news organisation, recommended that new initiatives be bold and generous: They should launch strongly and make a big splash rather than try to work their way into the news ecosystem incrementally, and were well advised to hire the industry’s big names in order to make themselves heard from day one. At the same time, they ought to be open to cooperation with other news outlets, even with their direct competitors, thereby focusing on reaching audiences with relevant journalism, regardless of the conduit. In short: Message (read: public value) trumps marketing.

However, as one participant pointed out, this approach may well hurt the organisation’s prospects of raising donor funding. Donors, pretty much like everybody else, might flock to recognisable brands much more easily than to highly use- and impactful, yet invisible background actors. And in fact, another speaker admonished news organisations that their contents needed to be clearly attributed to them, no matter where it appeared.

Still, before everything else, the legal and practical situation must be conducive to philanthropic journalism funding. France, where foundations cannot own media or any for-profit company, seems just at the beginning of creating the appropriate framework conditions. One speaker especially extolled the Northern European model, where charitable foundations may own companies — like the Scott Trust in the UK, which owns The Guardian and thus guarantees the paper’s editorial and financial independence, or the Bosch Foundation in Germany, which owns the eponymous corporation and uses its dividends to fund philanthropic causes, which include journalism. With the new administration in France, reforms to such effect may be on the horizon, and in the meantime, several crowd philanthropy projects went off to a promising start.


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

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