News and analysis
July 27, 2012

Ford Gives $500,000 to Augment Washington Post’s Reporting

The Ford Foundation today announced that it is giving $500,000 to help The Washington Post strengthen its reporting on government accountability.

The grant is the second by Ford to a commercial newspaper, and the foundation says there will be a “handful” more to come.

A longtime backer of public broadcasting, the New York philanthropy is experimenting with new ways to finance coverage of social issues, says Alfred Ironside, Ford’s director of communications. Financial support of for-profit newspapers like The Post and the Los Angeles Times, which in May received a $1-million, two-year Ford grant to expand reporting on immigration and other issues, is one strategy, he said.

“The media landscape has been evolving rapidly,” he said in an e-mail to The Chronicle. “And how we think about supporting thoughtful, meaningful journalism that reaches a broad audience is evolving, too.”

Ford’s grant will enable The Post to create four newsroom positions focused on covering local, state, and federal governments. The foundation expects to renew the one-year grant for two more years.

Mr. Ironside said Ford and The Washington Post began exploring ways to work together two years ago. A focus on government oversight was The Post’s idea, “though of course it also falls squarely within Ford’s mission,” Mr. Ironside said.

As financial problems have forced newspapers to cut back coverage, more foundations have stepped in to finance reporting on issues they care about.

While most of that money has gone to public broadcasting and nonprofit journalism groups, including relatively new organizations like ProPublica and The Lens, in New Orleans, at least a few grants have gone to commercial entities.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation supports journalism exploring the three causes it backs: global health, poverty, and U.S. education. It gave $2.5-million to The Guardian, a for-profit newspaper in London, for a blog on poverty and $1.5-million to ABC News. It has also provided money to The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s sister publication.

If more foundations follow Ford and Gates in supporting commercial papers, that could mean greater fundraising competition for nonprofit journalism groups, many of which are trying to gain traction with donors.

Mr. Ironside said Ford will still reserve 85 percent of its $10-million journalism budget this year for public media.

Journalism’s growing reliance on foundation support has worried some people who say the money could jeopardize editorial independence. Reporters whose salaries depend on foundations may not feel they can pursue stories that might upset their donors or that do not align with the foundations’ advocacy positions, say some observers.

Mr. Ironside said The Post and other grantees retain their independence.

“Ford will have no role beyond the grant—The Post will select what to cover” and “how to cover it,” he said.

Though $500,000 is a large grant, it’s still a tiny share of The Post’s costs. The paper’s print advertising in the first quarter of 2012 brought in $52.7-million. Its newspaper division, which includes other media properties like Slate, posted an operating loss that quarter of $22.6-million.

People concerned with the future of journalism look at figures like those and worry philanthropy can do little to shore up the industry. They worry, too, that the grants will have little overall impact because newspapers will be forced to keep cutting jobs elsewhere in the newsroom.

Mr. Ironside said grants to The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times are made with a “good-faith understanding that this is helping them to expand coverage in ways they really want to expand, not as an offset.”

“All these news organizations are under heavy financial pressure,” he added. “And that’s exactly why we believe this experimentation with economic models is so valuable.”

Send an e-mail to Caroline Preston.