Foundations, heal thyselves!

18 April 2009

The recent announcement about the Huffington Post Investigative Fund raised some concerns for me, not so much with how the journalism will be organized (although there’s plenty to talk about just there) but more on how philanthropy may not be properly organized to serve this need.

Here’s what I see unfolding:

First, various media observers (Paul Starr, Jay Rosen) are beginning to talk about journalism (Starr) or more specifically investigative journalism (Rosen, twittering away) as a “public good.” This takes the argument for “non profit journalism” (which for instance, Vince Stehle’s recent piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy neatly laid out) and extends it: it’s no longer just about the structure of financing and operations – now it’s perceived to be actually intrinsic to the work itself. If this consensus takes hold, I think it’s actually a big deal for how journalism or investigative journalism will be perceived in the near future.

I’m personally not sure about Starr’s argument that “news delivered to the public is a public good,” (Brittney Spears a public good?) but I do think Rosen’s case that investigative journalism is a public good can be made. Historically delivered via private, commercial media operations, but now with the upheaval in the business (particularly metropolitan daily newspapers), the search is on for a new home for investigative journalism. The argument then goes that given its status as a public good, investigative journalism “ought” to be supported via some sort of public funding, or at least funding made in the public trust. That is, philanthropy. And so we see a kind of intellectual backfilling going on to justify what’s beginning to unfold: big donors (like the Sandlers) or foundations (Atlantic Philanthropies) putting major money into investigative journalism. And of course this has been Mother Jones’ MO for 33 years.

Well, let’s assume that this is all true. This is a very new understanding of investigative journalism (or else takes it back to its j-school roots), and so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the institutions and processes in place to support it may not be (I think: are not) consistent with this definition, let alone practice.

The problem as I see it is threefold.

First, the public good we’re talking about is predicated on transparency. That is, one of the new definitions of “good journalism” is that the process by which the sausage gets made should be transparent – certainly if it’s going to be at all based on crowdsourcing that’s an absolute necessity. Call this the “value consistency” requirement for investigative journalism as a public good, i.e., how it gets financed ought to be as transparent as how the news gets produced.

Second,  because this notion of public good is a new (or newly articulated) definition of investigative journalism, I would think the advocates for this point of view need to pay attention to how it is perceived by the public. That is, the process by which this new public good gets organized needs to be assembled with one eye on how it’s viewed by others outside the immediate circle of interest. This public good, if you like, needs to justify its definition as “public.”  (For instance, it didn’t take long for Patrick Ruffini to weigh in about the HuffPo/Atlantic deal, criticizing it for its political slant). Call this the “legitimation” requirement for investigative journalism as a public good.

Third, one of the benefits – if properly organized – of the new digital universe within which investigative journalism as a public good will happen is that it’s possible to engage “the crowd” in (among other things) reconnaissance of the field of operations. That is, (and Talking Points Memo is still the best example of this) the users/audience/participants add major value to this public good by knowing things that no paid staff could know, by extending the reach of the effort, and by helping to generate and filter information about a particular issue or question. The same should hold true when it comes to making smart allocation choices about what sort of people or institutions or networks would be most capable of delivering high quality investigative journalism as a public good. An example of this is how the Knight Foundation organized its News Challenge; using an open-to-the-public interface, the foundation was able to get really high quality feedback on the projects under review, without giving up control over the process itself (and they augmented their evaluation capacity via a panel of experts, their own staff expertise, and then the final review by the board). Call this the “efficiency” requirement for investigative journalism as a public good.

Value consistency, legitimation, efficiency: these I think are the 3 reasons why philanthropic decision making regarding support for investigative journalism as a public good needs to be organized itself as a transparent, public-facing, collaborative process. (There’s actually a fourth problem, which is that foundations are a fickle lot, with relatively short (in my experience) 3 year product cycles – not a good financial basis for ongoing support of a public good.)

Well, (and with a couple of important exceptions) that’s not how the philanthropic sausage gets made. And I’m not sure what incentives are actually in place to encourage grantmakers to change the way they go about their work (the incentive system may actually work in the other direction).

All the more reason why I do think to make best use of very scarce funds (even the Sandlers’ gift pales in comparison to what’s needed to fill the gap) there should be a discussion within the philanthropic community about how this particular kind of giving should be organized going forward.

The good news is that there are tools already in play that could be adapted to this field, if people and organizations want to make the change.

Tools: Knight’s toolset IMO really works as a way to manage public participation along with internal organizational evaluation.

Common questions: foundations have long experience working with a common application form. I think a similar common set of questions could be developed for this public good.

RFP/open invitation approach: again, as Knight and others have shown, it is possible to use a public facing method, and open up the process using an RFP approach, which makes it more likely (with good promotion and networking) that a funder/donor will actually have a superior dataset to work from than using the usual funding approach (which is a modern day gloss on the patron/servant relationship).

Interest cluster: it may be time to begin discussions within philanthropy about forming a new affinity group specifically focused on investigative journalism (or journalism generally). Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media (GFEM), an existing foundation affinity group, has a mission that could conceivably be tweaked to make this happen, but I don’t know enough about how they work to say for sure.

All of these things are pretty much standard elements to the philanthropic scene.

So if the interest is there, it should be possible to make something like this happen. And I do think it would strengthen the funding effectiveness of investigative journalism as a result.

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10 Responses to “Foundations, heal thyselves!”


  1. I’m a tiny player in the field of funding innovation in journalism, having given to Baruch College’s new Department of Journalism and the Writing Professions and creating the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University.
    Other small investments have been made at the Poynter Institute, http://www.minnpost.org, and elsewhere.
    I’m especially hopeful about the http://www.spot.us model, and I hope many more emerge.
    As I said at Poynter’s “Who Will Pay For The News?” seminar last year, I’m tired of all the talk and ready for as much action as possible. I said, “We’ve got to start throwing some spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks.”
    So I’m throwing.
    And I’m eager to hear about what else is working.
    And WHO else is working!


  2. [...] fundraising question about Spot.us Jump to Comments Ruth Anne Harnisch posted a comment earlier today here and pointed to Dave Cohn’s Spot.us as a model to watch for [...]


  3. [...] It does happen, though – and there’s no doubt in my mind that this is absolutely essential if foundations are going to make smart and efficient investments in nonprofit journalism right [...]


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