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Making Sure the Important Stories Get Told

October 20, 2009

(The following was posted earlier today on the Communications Network blog and is posted here with the permission of Commnet director Bruce Trachtenberg.)

Hechinger_medium_logo It seems that philanthropy abhors the absence of news outlets and news services as much as nature abhors vacuums. Increasingly, foundations are funding a range of non-traditional ventures to fill the growing gap caused by the shrinking number of newspapers and disappearing beat reporters who used to specialize in topics of national importance such as education and health. Examples range from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Kaiser Health News, an independent news service that provides coverage of the policy and politics of health care, to ProPublica, which specializes in traditional investigative reporting about issues of national importance such as tracking how the federal stimulus money is being spent and which is primarily funded by the Sandler Foundation.

One of the latest examples of a foundation-funded project to increase national and regional coverage, this time of education, is the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University. Through initial support from the Gates and Lumina foundations, the Hechinger Institute is transforming itself from a training organization for journalists to "a source of in-depth, analytical and explanatory journalism about education." According to the institute's director, Richard Lee Colvin, who previously was the lead education writer at the Los Angeles Times, this change is occurring at a time "when traditional news media outlets have cut their spending on news-gathering due to a loss of advertising revenues."

Colvin says the institute will function like a broker -- seeking funding from foundations that want to increase coverage of education and then using that support to write and publish stories in partnership with mainstream publications as well as publish on and distribute through its own Web site.

Even as recently as "five years ago the idea that some outside entity, and one supported by foundations, would have anything to offer a commercial news operation would have been laughable," Colvin adds. "It would have been viewed as compromising journalistic integrity." Today, things have "completely changed. All sorts of new arrangements are being set up every day."

While being supported by foundations, Colvin is quick to add that the institute operates without any editorial oversight by its benefactors and that foundations are not the focus of its coverage. Instead, it's the issues driving the foundations' work that the institute seeks to focus on and, in the process, raise awareness of, especially among policy makers.

"What we're doing is just another way of demonstrating that the 'old rules' of the communications and news businesses no longer apply. Any foundation trying to affect policy understands the importance of engaging audiences. In the past, a big part of that might have been done working with and cultivating reporters and sending out releases and advisories. That practice will undoubtedly continue. But these days the number of people who specialize in certain topics or who can devote the time and attention that some subjects require, is shrinking."

Colvin notes that the institute is "agnostic as to platform and media." He says that in addition to print partners, it also will seek opportunities to create content for online outlets and produce radio and video stories.

Kevin Corcoran, a program officer at Lumina who previously was on the foundation's communications staff, sees the institute as "a credible third-party intermediary" that is able to produce content that both news organizations and the public "can trust." In particular, he adds, because the institute has focused on training journalists to be better at covering education issues, "the staff there knows these topics" as well as any beat reporter.

The fact that the Hechinger Institute can set itself up to produce independent journalism financed by a foundation and then offer the reporting to traditional news outlets is another example of how the news business is continuing to remake itself. And, maybe more importantly, the pairing of hybrid or non-traditional news organizations with foundations is helping to ensure a steady flow of information to inform both the citizenry and policy makers.

-- Bruce Trachtenberg

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