Non-profits, Citizens, Journalism Schools, Public Broadcasting and Government
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A Crucial New Role for Foundations, Philanthropists and Citizens
Several foundations have already played a crucially important role in stimulating innovation during this period of 354
dramatic transformation of the media landscape.
We recommend that more foundations, philanthropists and citizens
consider thinking about news media differently than in the past.
In general, a growing but small percentage of foundation and philanthropic spending goes toward helping communities enrich and protect themselves through local reporting. No doubt foundations and philanthropists
had until recently viewed the funding of journalism as unnecessary since the well-heeled commercial media sector seemed to be filling these needs.
In addition, philanthropists and foundations pursue other worthy causes, many ofwhich will seem, and often are, more immediately pressing than the quality of local reporting. It could seem hard to argue for a city hall reporter over money for local food banks.
But, in fact, society will be less equipped to solve pressing problems if it is ill informed. It is now clear that there are important gaps—not in the number of media outlets or the forms of media distribution but specifically in
labor-intensive, professional reporting, especially on the local level.
As demonstrated in Part One, these shortages have particularly worrisome consequences in the areas of education, health, government accountability, and crime.
Ensuring that communities have a healthy media system is not in conflict with foundation efforts to other important goals; it’s a prerequisite for them to meet those needs. Foundations or philanthropists that focus on particular issues
should be conscious of the role of media in a) educating the public and b) holding officials and the institutions that oversee reforms accountable. Spending money on a cause without ensuring that there are reporters to analyze the
problem, and the proposed solutions, makes it more likely the money will be wasted. For instance, it seems more than a little risky to devote billions to education reform when most communities do not have full-time education
reporters working to make sure the reform is effective.
Foundations focused on economic development or financials issues should fund business reporters; those concerned with religion should fund local religion reporters; etc. Alberto Ibargüen, the president of the Knight Foundation has said, “It is hard to succeed in the areas of environment, safety,
education or health when the news and information system isn’t working.”
An especially important role will need to be played by the 650 local “community and place based” foundations, often formed by local business and other civic leaders, that spend $2.6 billion a year attempting to build healthy communities. These foundations have become crucial players in helping solve local problems. Terry Mazany, the president of the Chicago Community Trust put it well: “The success of nonprofit organizations depends on a strong media ecosystem.” We applaud the interest expressed by a growing number of local foundations, for just as foreign countries without a robust press tend toward corruption and economic stagnation, communities without a healthy media will suffer.
Some may argue that relying so heavily on donations from foundations, nonprofits and individuals lets government off the hook. But we do not believe government should play the primary role in directly funding journalism,
in part because it is difficult (though not impossible) for the state to fund accountability reporting against the state.
Nonprofit media outlets are more likely to succeed if they draw money from a wide variety of different sources, including foundations and individual donations.
We hope that a critical mass of foundations and donors that do increase their commitment to this field approach it in a nonpartisan, non-ideological fashion. Foundations that invest in reporting need to have a basic faith in
the ultimate societal value of objective reporting and let go of the notion that only journalism that advances a particular set of policies should be supported.
At least some reporters need to be reporters, not propagandists. One inspiring
model is the John Locke Foundation, a free-market foundation in North Carolina, which decided that the lack of nonpartisan statehouse reporting was harming the state. John Hood, the president of the Foundation, believes that since the commercial sector will not fill the gaps, foundations and other donors will need play a bigger role: “When you get to the state and local level, the collapse of the traditional business models imperils the delivery of sufficient public interest journalism—and we do believe that donor driven journalism can be a very important model.”
Foundation leaders have been discussing many creative new ways of helping local media. In many cases they are working on their own, determining how local media fits in with their other missions. But there is increasing discussion about collaborations as well. For instance, foundations that fund controversial journalism directly will need to develop thick skins and a set of journalistic principles when local powers-that-be complain. Some have therefore
suggested creating state-level foundation collaboratives. This would provide a level of political insulation, since a third body, one level removed, would be making the funding decisions rather than the individual local foundation. This
could also create a mechanism for insuring that poorer communities lacking local foundations might benefit.
Some 355 state foundation collaboratives could consider creating a pool of funds to subsidize local nonprofit websites through a formula based on traffic growth or success in recruiting large number of donors, rather having than only a competitive grant system. This would reward success and help ensure that foundation money provides ongoing online operational support, not just seed capital. The collaborative structure might work for national foundations as well.
For instance, foundations, philanthropists and individual donors might create a national organization for the funding of local school reporters on the Teach for America model. The financing could be split between national philanthropy
and local community foundations; the reporters could be placed in either for-profit or nonprofit entities.
Foundations have already shown tremendous creativity in supporting journalism, not only funding nonprofit news websites but also journalism schools that do reporting and technology that helps local reporting flow. In that
vein, we hope foundations will also consider ways they can help nonprofit groups make good use of data and information put out by local governments.
Transparency will only work if there are mechanisms for organizing, analyzing and distributing the data. We also can envision a role for foundations in helping make the FCC’s new transparency efforts effective as well. Having broadcasters disclose information about their programming will only improve the functioning of commercial markets if the data are well used.
Ordinary citizens are crucial, too. Most nonprofit websites that have been created in recent years rely heavily on individual contributions. Those who support veterans’ organizations might consider whether there are any nonprofit media outlets that have paid special attention to the plight of veterans. Those who give to soup kitchens, might look for local media that has made a commitment to covering poverty. It is time for citizens to think of media as an
important item on their menu of charitable choices.
We do not, by the way, express a preference for individuals to give donations to free nonprofit sites over paying a subscription for a commercial media product. Indeed, the more done by the commercial sector, the better. But
labor-intensive, civically-valuable reporting will not flourish unless citizens spend more on it, whether through donations to nonprofits, subscriptions to commercial entities, or a combination of both.
Even a relatively small shift in behavior can have a significant impact on nonprofit media. If local “place based” and community foundations, which have a big stake in the health of communities, put 5 percent of their spending
toward journalism it would generate $130 million annually to fulfill the local information, news and accountability journalism needs of communities. If the foundations of the top new media companies and their founders, which have
benefited tremendously from the new media landscape, put 5 percent of their spending toward local accountability journalism, that would generate $220 million annually. If Americans spent one percent of their charitable giving on
nonprofit media, that would generate $2.7 billion per year.
To make it easier for individuals to give to local media, should they so choose, nonprofit groups and foundations should consider creating a database of nonprofit media, searchable by zip code and interest. We hope that the foundation sector will consider year-over-year increases in the funding of accountability reporting and we hope that each year more individuals will do the same.
A Crucial New Role for Journalism Schools Journalism schools have begun playing a significant new role in the media ecosystem. Innovators in the professionare calling for schools to adopt a “medical residency” model, which is to say—have the students do journalism as they learn it. Given that in any year there are about 4,500 graduate students and 50,000 undergraduates earning journalism degrees, this has the potential to add meaningfully to the accountability journalism in many communities.
Many journalism schools have created partnerships with other media entities and achieved great results.
We recommend that foundations and philanthropists help fund journalism-school “residencies” for recent graduates who can help manage year-round efforts to produce significant journalism for the community, using journalism school students.
This simple step could enable journalism schools to significantly increase their impact in communities, while improving the quality of their instruction at the same time.
Public Broadcasting and the Emerging Nonprofit Media:
Give Non-Commercial Broadcasters, Including Religious Broadcasters, More Flexibility to Create Sustainable Nonprofit Business Models.
Both supporters and opponents of government funding for public broadcasters should be able to agree that government rules should not hamstring the ability of noncommercial broadcasting to create sensible, responsive business
models that make them less dependent on taxpayer funds.
There is some confusion, for instance, about whether FCC rules prohibit public TV and radio stations from accepting advertising or merchandizing products on their websites. They do not. According to FCC rules, the restrictions on underwriting or merchandizing that govern on-air programming do not apply on the websites created by public media.
Stations ornfunders may have their own rules or policies leading them to not take advertising online but they should do so with the knowledge that FCC rules do give them flexibility.
The National Religious Broadcasters and others have argued that the FCC should allow noncommercial stations to devote a small amount of air time, up to one percent, to help fundraise for charities and other nonprofits. In
some cases, having local charities on the air can be a useful way of informing residents about problems in their communities, and certainly allowing such efforts can help stations achieve their public service or religious missions. We
recommend that the FCC consider allowing stations or programmers that are not grantees of the CPB, such as most religious broadcasters, to spend up to one percent of their airtime doing fundraising for charities and other third-party nonprofits.
The broadcasters should disclose how this time is used—including how much is helping charities in the local community—so the FCC can make an
assessment about the efficacy of this experiment.
Remove Obstacles That Prevent CPB From Emphasizing Local Content and Innovation Public broadcasters need to continue to play an important role on the media landscape. They have done superb work in many areas, and this would be precisely the wrong time to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
But the system can be improved so that public TV and radio would be more likely to produce local programming and digital innovation.
Like commercial broadcasters, public TV stations should be spared the paperwork burdens of the current disclosure system and required to offer the public clear information about how much local programming they are doing and other types of information that might promote accountability and improve quality.
The leaders of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have asked for more flexibility as they embrace a 21st century mission. We agree. For instance, it may not make sense to continue to stipulate that approximately 75 percent of funding go to public TV and 25 percent go to radio. In a converged world, radio stations are doing video on their websites; TV stations are producing for the Internet, and websites are doing multimedia for multiple platforms.
Based on what public media leaders have told us, local communities would benefit if the CPB had more flexibility to award money to multimedia innovators, whether their original platforms were TV or radio or something else.
We especially hope that such flexibility would be used by CPB to incentivize public media players to provide more local content and services.
We also would like to see public TV consider the potential of state public affairs networks (SPANs) as a possible form of programming on their multicast channels. Perhaps CPB could provide extra funding to public TV stations that provide carriage for such operations.
CPB should have more leeway to fund nonprofit media that do not hold an over-the-air TV or radio license.
It makes little sense that a nonprofit children’s program that runs on a broadcast station gets money from CPB but an equally good nonprofit children’s program that runs on only satellite TV does not. CPB should consider funding
educational programming across a broader range of platforms including: nonprofit programming on satellite, PEG channels, Low Power FM stations, state public affairs networks and nonprofit websites.
However, we recommend that any non-broadcast nonprofit media outlet getting government funding should not be allowed to have more than 15 percent of its revenue come from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Eliminating the possibility that government would become the dominant funding source would go a long way toward reducing the odds that the state could financially pressure media. The bulk of the money for local nonprofit news sites should come from users and philanthropy, not government. To further guard against political interference at the local level, stations should, if they don’t already, have clear policies assuring editorial independence from underwriting pressures.
Encourage Collaboration between For-Profit and Nonprofit Sectors
One of the most intriguing developments has been the organic rise of partnerships between for-profit and nonprofit entities. The partnership between Channel 7 in San Diego and the nonprofit website Voice of San Diego was so promising that that Comcast decided to apply it to four other local NBC stations, a decision we endorse. We saw fruitful collaborations, too, when the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a nonprofit, worked with the Washington
Post and when the Texas Tribune and Chicago News Cooperative were hired by the New York Times.
The idea of the commercial and nonprofit sectors working together is not brand new—newspapers for years have relied on a nonprofit, the Associated Press, for essential coverage—but this model may become more important over time. Commercial ventures will gravitate toward the more profitable lines of business, yet they cannot ignore labor-intensive accountability coverage. Nonprofit ventures can fill the gaps but will struggle to survive. In all of these partnerships, the commercial entity benefited by getting high quality and low cost coverage; the nonprofit benefited by getting exposure and, yes, cash for services. If nonprofits can reliably count on this additional revenue stream—fees for service—from the commercial sector, both sides benefit.
Most of this will happen organically. But public policy may
be able to remove obstacles. For instance, IRS changes may make it easier for nonprofit websites to thrive and grow into such partnerships. When the FCC creates a streamlined disclosure form for broadcasters, it should offer a field
for stations to describe their partnerships, including with nonprofit news websites. In making funding decisions, CPB could consider assessing the willingness of public broadcasters to engage in partnerships and help the media
ecosystem as a whole.
There is one public-private partnership we think would be a bad idea: some have suggested creating a federally-funded AmeriCorps
program for journalists. Journalism should often be about challenging powerful institutions, which sometimes will draw political fire and controversy.
AmeriCorps has grown and prospered by focusing on the forms of service on which most Americans can agree, such as tutoring, helping seniors, or working for Habitat for Humanity. Creating a government-financed AmeriCorps for reporters would potentially seriously harm AmeriCorps.