Big Media Companies Join Trend in Nonprofit Journalism

Amy Russo

By Amy Russo

As news organizations struggle for funding, the Guardian and The New York Times have announced they will both be pursuing philanthropic initiatives to support their reporting.

“This is one of the most compelling developments in our business,” Times editors Dean Baquet and Joe Kahn said in a note to employees that was released to the public on Sept. 1. “Philanthropies across the country are providing money for big investigations, including our own “Fractured Lands,” the magazine’s epic examination of the post-Arab Spring Middle East, which was funded in part by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.”

The Guardian will also be engaging in investigative reporting initiatives through, its nonprofit arm that will support projects focusing on issues including human rights, social justice and climate change. However, philanthropic funds have accounted for less than two percent of the Guardian’s revenue over the past year.

Unless the trickle of nonprofit money flowing to news organizations turns into a flood, the partnerships will not be enough to compensate for the billions of dollars flowing to Google and Facebook. As print revenues continue to decline, digital revenues are flowing primarily to the two digital giants rather than to news organizations. Brian Wieser, a senior analyst at Pivotal Research, calculated that Google and Facebook combined captured 77% of gross spending on digital ads in the US in 2016, according to Business Insider. More ominously, Wieser estimated that Facebook and Google accounted for 99% of revenue growth from digital advertising in the US last year.

For the nonprofits, funding may not be consistent form year to year, and cultivating a strong bank of donors requires great effort. “The funding stream in philanthropy can be unpredictable,” said John Dunbar, CEO of the Center for Public Integrity, a longstanding nonprofit for investigative reporting. “There are good years and not so good years. The challenge going forward is to diversify the income stream so we’re not so reliant on one type of revenue.”

“That’s where all the ethical dilemmas come in and kind of unspoken limits of the grants and they may say that you can do whatever you want but then when the grant comes up for renewal, if you transcended some kind of unspoken limits, then it won’t get renewed,” said Rodney Benson, Department Chair and Professor in New York University’s Media Department.

But partnerships have helped nonprofits like CPI spread their work over a large audience. The Center worked with The Associated Press to produce “Politics of Pain,” a 2016 joint program exploring the U.S. government’s handling of the opioid crisis. Both organizations provided reporting and the AP was able to provide a significant platform for publication, creating a win-win for each, Dunbar explained.

While time will tell whether The Times and The Guardian are engaging in sustainable initiatives, Benson underscored the importance of a diverse audience, remaining skeptical of the potential of foundations to bring about change.

“Though I think foundation support can help nonprofits do a lot of things, there are limits,” he said. “So far, a lot of foundation funding has gone to support ventures that are doing quality reporting but that are mostly reaching elite audiences. We need to do more to figure out ways to support quality reporting that will reach non-elite audiences. It’s not clear whether the new Guardian and New York Times non-profit projects will address this problem.”