On a trip to Silicon Valley with my new dean, Sarah Bartlett, I heard technology people express concern about the state of news. That is good of them, for they have had a role in the disruption of news — and I’m glad they have. Now they need to consider taking the fruits of their technology and the innovation, efficiency, productivity, profitability, and wealth it has created and turn some of it and their attention toward the good of society and perhaps, with it, journalism.
But not as philanthropists. That was my plea to them. We in journalism need them to bring their innovation and investment to news, to teach us how to see and exploit new opportunities to improve news and sustain it. More on the role of technologists another day.
Today, I want to talk about the role of philanthropy. As I was thinking about my trip to the Bay Area — and in the midst of a magnum opus Twitter conversation about the future of news sparked and stoked by Marc Andreessen — I tweeted this:
My good friend Jay Rosen got angry with me, accusing me of being hostile to nonprofit news.
Not true, I replied. I am expressing a preference. Given a source of capital and given the state of innovation in news and media — this is 1472 in Gutenberg years — I prefer to see that precious resource go first to sustainability. Don’t buy a hungry man a fish — or a news-starved community another article. Don’t just teach them to fish. Build the damned fishing boats.
A few months ago, I went to an event in Washington for nonprofit news organizations put on by the Knight Foundation and Pew. Again and again, we heard that the problem with too many of these good organizations is that they put no resource into development — whether fundraising or sponsorship or events. I often hear journalists say that every dollar they get should go straight into reporting; anything else feels practically immoral to them. But so is letting their good work die and disappear: no more fish, no fishing boats, just fishwrap.
I also hear journalists say that they don’t want to concern themselves with the business of journalism. Clearly, I disagree. That is precisely why I started the Tow-Knight Center in Entrepreneurial Journalism.
In New Jersey, I have been doing a lot of work alongside the Dodge Foundation, Montclair State, and others to try to build the foundation for a sustainable news ecosystem that can grow and improve. We are working with sites to make them profitable by improving the services they sell to local merchants, by experimenting with new revenue streams like events, by building a network to share content and audience and — soon, I hope — advertising. We just received $2 million from Knight and one of their wise conditions was that we not spend the money on operations — on buying more stories — but instead on building infrastructure. That is why we are hiring a sustainability director to manage just that. (Know anyone who’d be great at the job?)
So I do see a role for philanthropy in news, an important role. But I’ll caution journalists — as will every foundation I know — that there is not enough money in the endowments of all the foundations interested in supporting news to pay for the work that needs to be done. Similarly, charity and patronage from individuals and companies can do much, whether that is supporting the work of public radio or now crowdfunding a worthy project from a journalist. But neither can that do it all. Charity runs out. That resource is precious and should go where it is most needed.
So now I’ll have the temerity to propose not rules but suggested guidelines for the use and role of philanthropy in news:
1. Philanthropy should support that which the market will not support. And it should wait patiently to determine what that is. In other words, just because something is not being done now does not mean that philanthropy should swoop in and take it over if the market may find opportunity in it.
2. Philanthropy should not compete with the market. We heard this some years ago when a new non-for-profit news entity sprouted in San Francisco and an executive at the crippled Chronicle complained that it could kill the paper. Thank goodness for the paper, the charity was worse run than it and the paper outlasted it.
3. Philanthropy should help build the economic sustainability and independence of news. Here’s the most self-serving thing I will say from my perch in a university: This includes training the next generation of news innovators. It also includes investing in infrastructure and innovation, new methods and models. Innovation in news requires patient capital that will fund not losses but instead experiments and daring failures. Philanthropy can do that.
4. Philanthropy — and journalism , too — should measure its success by the outcomes it accomplishes. Journalists have something to learn from foundations here: It’s not enough to produce content and build audience. Journalism has to help communities better themselves. That starts with listening to the public and its needs.
5. Charity is finite. Yes, you can start a news organization on charity. Yes, we could support a great deal of the investigative reporting we have philanthropically. But I am more ambitious than that; the need is greater. The souce for investigative reporting is (1) whistleblowers and (2) beat reporting. We need to support beats at scale. That’s why I’m doing the work I’m doing in New Jersey and why I’m starting a new training program for beat businesses in a box. Charity doesn’t scale. Sustainability does.
Philanthropy is precious, important, useful. It is a gift to use well and wisely. It isn’t an excuse not do do our jobs. And our job is to rebuild journalism into a service that will last.