Takeaways from the Journalism Funders Lab 2019
“The journalism industry is in a very tough place. It will get even tougher. We need to know why. And identify reality-based ways to move forward. This is not doom-and-gloom. It is tough and will grow tougher for the business of news. But the best journalism we see today is some of the best ever and it has never been more important.”— Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
Philanthropy can certainly play a central role in enabling sustainable journalism. But what needs to be done to better align foundations’ grant-making with the needs of journalists and journalism organisations?
To address these questions, the Journalism Funders Forum (JFF) brought together a group of 50 practitioners from the world of philanthropy and media — including foundation managers, journalists, academics and technologists — for this year’s Journalism Funders Lab (JFLab).
When we started JFF three years ago, it was a bit of a novelty in the philanthropy sector. While foundations were supporting journalism, they hardly ever discussed their engagement in a systematic fashion. The latest JFLab, however, was attended by a record number of European philanthropies, including several that had not engaged with journalism before.
Many of the foundation representatives that gathered at Château de Rochefort were not media specialists so one of the goals of our event was to bring everyone on the same page about the current state of the journalism industry. Stemming from this wider context, the group spent the next two days reflecting on the next steps to make journalism funding in Europe more effective.
Journalists should put more effort into gaining and preserving the trust of their audiences. Be it by using open sources, explaining their investigative techniques and approaches or by cooperating with media brands that signal integrity, and engaging with communities. Such increased transparency and sharing of learnings will, in turn, inspire the funders’ trust.
Journalism is an end in itself. It is key to building well-informed and critical thinking communities and crucial for a functioning democratic society. It should, therefore, be recognised by funders not as a vehicle but as a constitutive element of an open society in its own right.
Yet, many media funders see journalism as an amplifier for their specific mission, and not as a systemically relevant aspect of open societies, which often leads to instrumentalism and short-term project grants rather than core funding.
Funders should re-evaluate short-term project grants, because they often increase journalism’s financial precariousness and may set the wrong incentives. Journalists may propose projects primarily because there is money available, but not out of genuine competence and interest. In aggregate, they may also inadvertently compromise editorial autonomy.
Instead, funders should make more core grants, which provide journalism organisations with a longer planning horizon and simultaneously safeguard their editorial independence. The ‘50:50 Funder’s Pledge’ could help — a commitment that funders provide core funding at least in equal measure as they make project grants.
Much of media funding takes place in isolation — funders often reinvent the wheel or run into issues that others have already recognised. There’s a need for a better ecosystem overview of who is doing what, and to see what best practice in media funding is. Sharing of lessons learned could include mentorship, training, and constructive use of failures as a learning opportunity.
Deeper co-operation and use of combined weight to support journalism will also reduce fears that media organisations might come under too much influence and/or dependency from individual funders.
Funders should also continue to collaborate and pool their efforts supporting independent media in precarious environments. In such a way, no single funder bears responsibility if there is a political backlash.
Funders and journalists should work out shared objectives and a common mission in a language they both understand and take cooperation from there. Both parties should develop a shared vision of what success means, and then define cooperatively how such success can best be tracked.
In terms of metrics — journalists are, in fact, using them, but usually different ones than the funders are looking for, so they need help defining and isolating the most meaningful outcomes. A good way to tackle this issue might be thinking fundamentally of the sustainability of non-profit journalism first, and about grant-specific reporting second.
Philanthropy might also consider investing in an entire ecosystem — journalism, NGOs, advocacy groups — and only then bring them together to enable, inter alia, well-informed and impactful media coverage.
There is still too little knowledge exchange across the journalism funding community — more exchange forums, databases, and newsletters are needed.
Funders should advocate, and practice open and honest conversations with grantees at eye level. This will increase their media literacy and in turn journalists’ insights into the needs of funders.
But we can’t go it alone. To succeed in pushing the field forward we need collaborators and engaged partners that are keen to get involved. With your help, we are confident to put some of these solutions into practice.
If you would like to get involved with JFF or know more about our initiative, please get in touch.
Journalism Funding in Europe — Reflections and key lessons from the Journalism Funders Forum by Merel Boger, PhD, Adessium Foundation (published by DAFNE — Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe)
JFLab was kindly supported by Adessium Foundation, News Integrity Initiative, Open Society Foundations, Schöpflin Stiftung, Stichting Democratie en Media and Nicolas Puech Foundation.