Why All of Us Need to Give to Nonprofit News Outlets
If less than half a percent of all private contributions went to journalism nonprofits, we could replace the loss of local newsrooms and strengthen democracy.
The for-profit journalism model is broken.
Fox, MSNBC, and CNN air opinion disguised as news because they know anger, fear, and conflict draw eyeballs, which in turn result in greater advertising revenue. Speculation on who leads a political race more than a year away, with pundits pontificating on soundstages, costs a lot less than sending reporters out to cover communities. Local for-profit news intensifies misconceptions on the prevalence of crime. And all the while, journalists increasingly disappear from the landscape
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The for-profit journalism model is broken.
Fox, MSNBC, and CNN air opinion disguised as news because they know anger, fear, and conflict draw eyeballs, which in turn result in greater advertising revenue. Speculation on who leads a political race more than a year away, with pundits pontificating on soundstages, costs a lot less than sending reporters out to cover communities. Local for-profit news intensifies misconceptions on the prevalence of crime. And all the while, journalists increasingly disappear from the landscape as newspapers operate under antiquated, failing business models in which they compete with popular search engines and social media for advertising.
But a well-informed public is crucial for democracy to thrive, and journalism is an essential service — a public good — needed to make that happen. It’s just that we need to redefine how we think about journalism and profit.
We need to reward news that intentionally makes no profit for an owner but rather funnels all proceeds back into the organization.
Thankfully, there has been an increase in foundation spending for journalism over the past few years, according to last week’s study by NORC at the University of Chicago, Media Impact Funders, and the Lenfest Institute. But it’s not enough. Another report, by Boston Consulting Group, estimated that $150 million is donated to nonprofit news outlets each year, when the industry needs up to $1.75 billion.
And in the same week as the study’s release, we saw two disheartening examples of how this shortfall can play out. On Wednesday, the Texas Tribune, one of the earlier nonprofit successes, laid off 11 percent of its staff. And on Thursday, Futuro Media, one of the greatest examples of nonprofit journalism focused on an underrepresented community, which won a Pulitzer Prize last year, announced its own layoffs. (Full disclosure: Heising-Simons, the foundation where I work, funds Futuro Media.)
In 2022, private sources — individuals, foundations, and corporations — gave an estimated $499.33 billion to U.S. charities. If less than half a percent of that went to journalism, we could improve democracy and save powerful journalism like that being created at Futuro from being threatened.
Foundations have the power to lead by example — making it clear that nonprofit news is the future of journalism — and influence donors through matching-gift programs such as NewsMatch. Individuals give to religion, education, human services, health, arts, and culture. So, too, should we all give to nonprofit news organizations. Communities need journalism to hold the powerful accountable and to provide the information and insights needed to make decisions.
For grant makers and others that are just making their first investments in supporting journalism, here are three principles to ensure that philanthropic grants make a difference.
Invest in leaders.
First and foremost, foundations should scout out restless and relentless leaders of nonprofit news organizations. Look for the leaders who are working every day to hold the powerful accountable, who are passionate and creative at telling the untold story, and who see themselves as accountable to the community they seek to inform.
We must supply those leaders with unrestricted funds to support their vision and organizational growth. That is a smart approach for many types of foundation giving but even more essential for nonprofit news organizations. As the just-released study by NORC noted, newsrooms need to protect their editorial independence and work hard to win the public trust. They’re in a better position to do this when they receive unrestricted grants, as opposed to funding that dictates particular aspects of coverage.
And when you have found journalism leaders worth supporting, you can trust that they will put your funds to work to improve news coverage in powerful ways — as well as in efforts that will help the nonprofits gain greater sustainability, such as building sponsorship and membership programs that will diversify sources of revenue.
Lift up underrepresented voices.
Far too often members of one class in the United States — typically straight, white, urban men— have held the pen that writes the first rough draft of history.
But in this richly diverse democracy, hoarding the pen hoards the power and can only be seen as a form of greed. We need to expand which people get to tell the stories that matter.
Journalism has a critical ability to foster greater understanding, and the way to do this is to make sure those who are underrepresented — and misrepresented — in journalism are at the forefront of telling stories, providing perspective, and sharing insights.
Sending our dollars to nonprofit newsrooms run by people who have too often lacked access to leadership roles in the media is a crucial way to ensure that in the future, the first draft of history is written by our diverse population.
Make local journalism an essential charitable donation.
Donors in communities across the country invest in their local schools, places of worship, and cultural arts centers.
It’s time that we persuade affluent donors and everyday givers that local journalism is just as crucial as those institutions when it comes to community vitality.
The school board functions differently when it knows a reporter is in the audience. So does the city council. And unless reporters are paying attention to policymakers in the community, local residents are deprived of an opportunity to make information-based decisions when they go the ballot box.
It’s especially important that everyday donors know why their gifts matter; that a broad base of support can ensure that local journalism is accountable to the community, not just to the whims of a few big donors.
At a time when journalism often leaves out the voices of those most affected by important decisions, we need nonprofit newsrooms to fill the void left as for-profit journalism organizations shut their doors. And we need to realize that our dollars can unleash rigorous journalism that cares about communities in ways America’s for-profit newsrooms never imagined.