Clay Shirky’s “second great age of patronage,” foundations, and journalism.

19 July 2009

I’ve written about foundation funding for journalism before (in fact, it was what got me started doing this thing in the first place). But Clay Shirky’s Cato-Unbound  piece (interesting choice of publication site) arguing inter alia that we’re entering “a second great age of patronage” got me thinking again about this topic.

Shirky writes: this new patronage is

“. . .either of the ‘one rich person’ model, as with Richard Mellon Scaife’s subsidy of conservative journals, or the NPR Fund Drive model, where the small core of highly involved users makes above-market-price donations to provision a universally accessible good run for revenue but not for profit.”

Your local journalism fundraiser says it’s actually got to be both at the same time – since that is what a successful nonprofit fundraising program almost always looks like. It’s a measure of just how far the new nonprofit journalism world has to yet to go, fundraising-wise, that Clay sets up a distinction where it’s actually a continuum. Of course, there are reasons for that: mainly, the way these new projects are getting started – with (relatively) big money, and little or no membership/community base.  And since journalists tend to be lousy community organizers, this could be a problem.

Right now, everyone’s attention is focused on foundations. The latest evidence is Bill Mitchell’s post at Romenesko that the New York Times is “considering” taking foundation funding for some of its reporting. Inconceivable even a few short months ago, most of Mitchell’s piece is taken up with a discussion about how such an arrangement would be organized/pass standards review etc etc – but the truth is, if the people at the Times wants to make this happen, they’ll figure it out. The dance steps for getting money from foundations are no more complexly orchestrated than the ones journos have had to do with advertisers all these years. It’s really not all that different a problem, when you get down to it.

The big worry, of course, is that a big foundation will put big money into a newspaper or magazine and have a big influence on its editorial line. That’s an issue Clark Hoyt, the Times‘ public editor, touches on in today’s piece about the Times letting its name be used (as the potential publisher) in the pitch for Lindsey Hoshaw’s photoessay about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (btw, I pitched in $20 to help make this happen; you should too).

Hoyt puts his finger on the problem when he compares the worries over Big Foundation money to the old school, advertising-driven, business model for the Times. That was one, he writes, in which the newspaper’s reporting was “supported by hundreds and hundreds of advertisers, none big enough to influence the journalism in any way.”

“None big enough to influence the journalism in any way.” Of course that’s true only because the Times adheres to the unspoken consensus values of the times in which it operates, never getting too far out ahead nor falling too far behind; and, it being the Times, organizing that consensus, too. But within that frame – yes, the fact that the Times can depend upon an advertising market filled with lots of players certainly gives it a position of relative independence from any single one.

I don’t think this is a real problem for big operations like the Times, actually. Nor, for that matter, for the (much smaller) national non profits like the Center for Investigative Reporting or Center for Public Integrity – two of the lead organizers of the recent Pocantico meeting of investigative journalism organizations. But I do think this could turn out to be a big problem for smaller, regional or local nonprofit news organizations – especially if they look to community foundations for support.  Dave Westphal recently commented on this direction, writing about a $24 million challenge program from The Knight Foundation that has already resulted in community foundation matching grants of about $12 million. Clearly, nothing to sneeze at.

But here’s my worry: I think it’s a matter of time before either the local investigative news orgs go up against powerful local players (real estate, finance, local pols, etc) who park their philanthropic money at community foundations, and begin to find a much less friendly reception there. Or (just as bad): the news orgs  develop a blind spot when it comes to the intersection of local business and local philanthropy, i.e., they just stop asking questions about this piece of local life.

So far as I can tell, no one is talking about (a) how community foundations live in a highly competitive environment for donors (with Fidelity, Schwab, other private foundations) hence must be acutely attuned to donor worries or risk losing their portfolio to competing organizations; and (b) how local philanthropy serves a crucial function of creating an elite culture in a local town – usually through the spouses – that integrates the business community into some sort of coherent “class.” If a local investigative news operation is doing its job properly, eventually it will afflict the comfortable – and at that point, well, watch out.

So just as the Times operates within – and shapes – the larger social and political consensus about the way the world is (that “all the news that’s fit to print” conceit), the question is whether and how these new investigative news operations will become integrated into an equivalent local consensus about what’s newsworthy, and what isn’t. Push too hard on local power, and the walls will go up.

So one piece of advice: take a good hard look at the foundation system in the larger social and political context. Even a rudimentary power structure analysis will show how charity, politics, and business integrate into one big pile of power. A good place to start thinking about this is Mark Dowie’s 2001 book, American Foundations: An Investigative History.

Another piece of advice: start building that broad-based network of individual support. The faster the new local reporting outfits can get out from under the burden of narrow-band foundation funding, the better off everyone will be. No one said it’d be easy, but it’s clear to me that genuine independence and sustainability demands it. (Plus the fact that foundations are notoriously fickle and unreliable partners, and basically work on a 3-year product cycle).

And here’s another piece of advice: stop acting as if the history of foundation funding for journalism started in 2009. It didn’t. There’s a history here, and way more experience than the new journalism pundits would lead you to believe. Here’s what I mean:

Back in June, the J-Lab, based at American University, released a slim report on “New Media Makers” which assembled a database of foundation grants to journalism projects since 2005. Over that time, the J-lab report stated that journalism organizations had received nearly $128 million in foundation support. About a third of that amount, the report stated, went to three organizations: ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and New America Media. Ordinarily, a report like this would’ve come and gone without much notice, but this time, the statistics – $128 million, one-third to 3 organizations – turned into the conventional wisdom about the new relationship between foundations and journalism operations.

Of course, no one actually looked at the J-Lab’s database to see if it was an accurate representation of all foundation support for journalism during that time period. Well, okay, I did. And guess what: the database undercounts how much foundation money got parceled out during that time period, and who got it (how much it undercounts is a research project I didn’t do). It turns out that the first round of data was assembled without consulting the single best source for this information: the Foundation Center’s massive database of American grantmaking (this, according to an email I received from the person working on an update to the d/b, who is in fact relying heavily on the Foundation Center’s database).

What difference does this make? The database will get fixed, but that’s besides the point: there is now a self-reinforcing conversation taking place about journalism and philanthropy that is built on constructed social facts that are not true. The truth is that there is a far broader range of foundation support for journalism than is accepted by the current conventional wisdom, serving a much more diverse network of organizations and individuals that goes well beyond a too-narrow definition of what journalism looks like. Yes, that includes organizations like Mother Jones. Or LinkTV. Or Alternet. Or Ms. Magazine. Or Colorlines. Or The Uptake. Or Wiretap. Take a look at this list, and you’ll see what I mean.

And then there are new media operations that don’t fit into the traditional organizational mold. Terrific individual bloggers like Emptywheel aka Marcy Wheeler, whose coverage of the Scooter Libby trial put everyone else to shame. Or Glenn Greenwald at Or Talking Points Memo. And that’s just to start.

We all know that the very definition of what constitutes journalism is in a fluid state right now, and the range of people practicing journalism broadening by the moment. So when Clay Shirky writes about the “second great age of patronage” it’s not just about the way the money’s organized – he’s also talking about the dramatically shifting relationship between professionals and “amateur participants” and about how “attentive publics” get organized. Shirky says that “the current system is so brittle, and the alternatives are so speculative, that there’s no hope for a simple and orderly transition from State A to State B.”

And that, in the end, is why it’s so important to broaden the conversation beyond our respective comfort zones, and to look at alternative funding models with as much clarity as we can garner. The broader the discussion, the clearer the thinking,  the greater the likelihood that the wisdom of  our crowds will figure out how to head in fruitful directions. And that their money will help get us there.

14 Responses to “Clay Shirky’s “second great age of patronage,” foundations, and journalism.”

  1. Bob Calo Says:

    I can’t help but think that this idea that ‘patrons’ will allow reporters to maintain their special status as heroes of democracy is a kind of self-delusion. We’ve lost the audience, we don’t have the marketing smarts to win it back. We don’t even have the editorial product to win it back. We’re not a particularly creative bunch. I’m sure that the Pacific garbage patch story will please enviros, but it’s a story that’s been reported in one form or another over the last ten years, and I hardly think that we will reach a tipping point because of it.

    Rather than looking for one great grant to pay our salaries, we ought to bring same intensity to the search for a real market solution: one that pays actual salaries over the long term; one that rewards creativity rather than earnestness, and the social values of one foundation or another, one billionaire or another.

    • stevenkatz Says:

      Thanks Bob. Feels to me like we are at the very beginning of that process. I can see the logic of foundations playing an oversized role for the time being – things changing so rapidly and journalism on such shaky ground for the moment. But long term? Don’t see it. The question I guess is how long the “long term” is going to be.

  2. Laura McClure Says:

    a lot of really interesting stuff to chew on in this post, steve!

  3. […] and of subsidy. (And let me cop to Mamonides Ladder’s complaint, quite correct, that I oversimplified the landscape of subsidy in my original post.) These new forms could involve anything from making it easier for virtual […]

  4. Rick Cohen Says:

    Steve: You’re raised important issues that I’m only just now getting around to addressing. There are a number of problems with the foundation model that even larger foundation-funded efforts such as what the Times is proposing or some of the smaller investigative units you cited will encounter. Foundations are very thin-skinned about writing and analysis that touches on their areas of interest, not to mention specifically on themselves. It doesn’t require a foundation telling an entity not to cover something, it becomes a matter of self-censorship, you know which foundations tend toward hypersensitivity and when to sidestep the topics that might jeopardize a renewal grant. I don’t think that the philanthropic sector which is not a model of openness and transparency (see the controversies regarding the foundations affiliated with state universities)is automatically a good fit with journalism that might have as one of its targets the control and distribution of tax exempt capital by grantmaking foundations.

  5. […] Jeff Jarvis, prostat… on Sontag, reconsideredRick Cohen on Clay Shirky’s “sec…Cato Unbound »… on Clay Shirky’s “sec…Tom Lucci on A week on […]

  6. […] These trends have inspired a wealth of analysis and punditry. “Nonprofit investigative journalism outfits are breaking new ground. Can they sustain themselves?” asks Jill Drew in the Columbia Journalism Review. Or an entire hour-long Diane Rehm Show dedicated to “Not-for-Profit Journalism.” In the American Journalism Review: “The Nonprofit Explosion.” On Radio Open Source: “$30-billion to save journalism.” At the International Journalists Network: Investigative Journalism 2.0. Perhaps the most catchy title: “All the news that’s fit to fund” by John Honderich. And what I believe is the best analysis of non-profit journalism I’ve read so far, Steve Katz’s dissection of “Clay Shirky’s ’second great age of patronage,’ foundations, and journalism.” […]

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  13. […] These trends have inspired a wealth of analysis and punditry. “Nonprofit investigative journalism outfits are breaking new ground. Can they sustain themselves,” asks Jill Drew in the Columbia Journalism Review. Or an entire hour-long Diane Rehm Show dedicated to “Not-for-Profit Journalism.” In the American Journalism Review: “The Nonprofit Explosion.” On Radio Open Source: “$30-billion to save journalism.” At the International Journalists Network: Investigative Journalism 2.0. Perhaps the most catchy title: “All the news that’s fit to fund” by John Honderich. And the best analysis of non-profit journalism I’ve read so far: Steve Katz’s dissection of “Clay Shirky’s ‘second great age of patronage,’ foundations, and journalism.” […]

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