“Sorry, we don’t fund Journalism” — Establishing the Value of News in Every Field

Edited from the concluding keynote presentation at INN at Home on June 17, 2020

If there was ever the time to make the strongest possible case for philanthropic funding of mission-driven journalism, the evidence couldn’t be clearer or the argument more straightforward.

In the absence of a vaccine, information is the best medicine.

In the absence of honest and straightforward answers and accountability from police departments, City Hall, the statehouse and the White House, journalists have been essential “first responders,” setting the record straight about what is going on across the street, across town, and across the country — insisting on the truth, holding those in power accountable for their actions and inactions. You have risked your own health and welfare to defend the public and the public interest.

The social, economic and racial injustices exposed by the pandemic, and the horrific murders of Black Americans by the hands of local police, have forced a reckoning in newsrooms across the country about who decides what is news, how it is reported and who does the reporting. This moment makes even clearer the case for nonprofit, mission-driven journalism that is motivated, first and foremost, by service to the community.

In this crowd, I don’t need to go into chapter and verse about how the economy’s free-fall has accelerated the financial woes of the local and metro commercial news industry — it is a crippling body blow to local news at a time when the need for local public service journalism couldn’t be more crucial.

I can speak from lived experience as a parochial New Yorker. And I can say with confidence that absent local news reporting, especially from public and nonprofit media sources, we would have been left in the dark about the impact of the pandemic, the machinations of the NYPD and the integrity, compassion and peace-seeking of those who took to the streets in protest. Nobody else would have told us the truth about the dire situation in nursing homes, homeless shelters and our local hospitals. Quite frankly, no one in authority was telling us rates of infection, hotspots, hospitalizations and deaths during the first few weeks of the pandemic — we relied on local journalists to push back on the mixed messages, the petty bickering, the misinformation.

When the market cannot provide an essential public service, philanthropy has historically stepped up as the loss leader, often in partnership with civic leaders and sometimes even the public sector, to create new ways to fill the gap.

So, how do we make the case for philanthropic investment—individual, foundations, and communities in building a mission-driven nonprofit news industry:

Step 1, Foundations: You are the key leaders in a critically needed education process

The marketplace has changed so rapidly — what was a public service cross-subsidized by ad revenue is truly at risk of extinction. And even in its heyday, local news did not equally represent, reflect or amplify pressing issues, especially in lower-income and minority communities. Journalism as a public service IS an equity issue. Funders who say they don’t fund journalism need a better understanding of the links between journalism, equity, civic engagement and their own missions. You are the educators.

There is an inextricable link between mission and the role of journalism in advancing philanthropic mission. Foundations simply can’t afford NOT to fund journalism as a tool to advance their mission.

How can a foundation advance positive change in any number of issues — public health and health care, education, social services, workforce development, criminal justice, housing, economic development — without the press to amplify those issues in the public mind and hold accountable those making the decisions about these vital issues? Can a foundation that cares about the health of the elderly population not support reporting on nursing homes? Journalism is an incredibly powerful lever for influencing public opinion and spurring change. If a foundation funds youth development, yet doesn’t fund journalism that spotlights budget cuts in youth services, they are deeply hampered in furthering their mission.

How can a foundation tackle civic engagement, voter participation, and community building without an informed citizenry that has trusted sources of information?

For foundations interested in bridging racial, economic and geographic divides, local journalism is a powerful tool to create common ground and common knowledge about lived experiences other than one’s own. Who else is going to be the ‘eyes on the street’ to tell the stories of individuals and communities that are all too often rendered voiceless? Our ignorance of the bigger picture makes us more divided. Our knowledge and understanding of others’ lived experiences unites us. Nonprofit mission-driven journalism is an important tool in the arsenal of trust-building.

Any foundation that invests in policy or advocacy — and how public resources are distributed and used — has a vested interest in supporting journalism that follows and reports on public (and private) expenditures and budget decisions. Without someone watching, corruption goes unchecked; institutions that affect our everyday life are not held to account and precious resources may not reach its intended beneficiaries. Without local journalism, how would the public know that City Hall has eliminated all funding for summer youth employment while cutting less than 1% of police funding? I don’t think the Mayor is making pronouncements about this.

Step Two: Addressing the ‘impact’ dilemma

Funders say they have difficulty funding journalism because they can't measure the impact of their investments. Prove them wrong: an essential element to making the case is putting together the evidence that these investments do make a difference. There is no one impact indicator, but a collection of data points from which your story can be told.

Follow-through: track stories for responses, including official responses, change in policy, legislative changes, change in basic quality of life issues, a street sign fixed.

Traffic: who is reading? Does it represent a wide cross-section of stakeholders? Elected officials? Policymakers? Under-represented communities?

Amplification of stories: republication, social media, follow-up stories by outlets with a bigger reach?

Engagement: an essential tool in proving the case. Evidence of the outcomes of community engagement not only shows impact, but makes for better journalism, trust-building and relationships with trusted sources. I want to cite two recent examples from NYC’s nonprofit news outlet, The City, which is an INN member. In May, The City put out a call for New Yorkers to submit about individuals who have died as a result of COVID 19 — to commemorate all the lives lost. Over 1,000 stories have been collected to date. Another example, asking readers to report allegations of unlawful conduct, yielded a huge response and important information to share with the public.

Base of support: from individuals, membership, donations, tips, community endorsements, showing why the publication matters to a community.

Step 3: Think as broadly as possible what constitutes philanthropy in your community

Make the case for community investment, for individual investment in local journalism. If you show value, the public will respond.

One way to show value is service journalism: providing valuable information to the public, information they find valuable to navigating their lives. It could be information about applying for unemployment insurance, where to get tested. For example, the Coronavirus Tracker: when official sources of information about the spread of COVID 19 were inaccessible and unreliable — The City created its own tracker.

Highlight your ‘virtuous cycle’ to funders. Proof of value to the community is evidenced by donations, memberships, tips, community engagement — which in turn makes for quality journalism, which in turn makes for stronger support.

The most sustaining social change — as we’ve seen over these past few weeks — is local, local, local — from the bottom up. Local champions are essential. Are there civic leaders, business leaders, community leaders, and yes, even elected officials, who will champion this cause and make the case to local philanthropists?

Step 4: Lead by example

And lastly, YOU ARE THE CHANGE, and you are leading by example. According to the 2020 INN Index, the field of nonprofit journalism is the bright spot and is leading the way forward. And as a member of the public who benefits from this essential public service, I want to offer my gratitude for all you are doing to keep us safe and informed.

I wish you all continued strength and courage, success, safety and good health.
Thank you very much

This was the closing speech from INN at Home, our virtual conference celebrating public service and nonprofit journalism. Read and watch our opening speech from Martin Reynolds, Co-Executive Director of the Maynard Institute, calling on newsroom executives to diversify their leadership and support their journalists in telling accurate, complete stories of marginalized communities.