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Foundations and Public Interest Media: A 'Flip' Chat With Vince Stehle, Executive Director, Media Impact Funders

June 12, 2013

(The video below was recorded as part of our "Flip" chat series of conversations with thought leaders in the social sector. You can check out other videos in the series here, including our recent chat with Mona Chun, deputy director of the International Human Rights Funders Group.)

"There's a saying: If paying for journalism is a down payment on democracy, it's a bargain," Vince Stehle, executive director of Media Impact Funders, told me during a recent chat. "The cost of corruption and a lack of transparency and accountability in government can really be a costly thing for society in many ways, so whatever we need to pay, whether it's through commercial media or through foundation and individual support for journalism, is a bargain."

The wisdom of Stehle's words has never been more apparent. And yet, with the economy stuck in neutral and cheap digital tools making it easy for anyone to be a publisher, traditional news and media outlets find themselves under increasing pressure to cut costs and "right-size" their operations -- or get out of the way.

Enter nonprofit news organizations. While the number of such organizations has increased over the last few years and the nonprofit model would seem to be more sustainable than the traditional ad-based model, a new report from the Pew Research Center suggests that nonprofit media outlets face considerable challenges of their own -- foremost among them inadequate and uncertain revenue streams. Indeed, the report (26 pages, PDF) found that while 61 percent of the nonprofit news outlets surveyed received a startup grant from a foundation, only 28 percent reported that the funder making the grant had agreed to renew it.

Many of us think that foundations are -- or should be -- an important source of funding for public interest media. But how important are they? That's something Stehle and his colleagues at Media Impact Funders (formerly Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media) wanted to know. With support from the Knight and Ford foundations, the Foundation Center has blended its data with GuideStar and built a new data mapping application that, when launched in the fall, will provide a comprehensive look at philanthropic support for media in the United States. According to Stehle, the application, which will be publicly available on the MIF Web site, shows "literally thousands of funders and billions of dollars of funding for a broad range of media in the public interest."

In the video, which was recorded at the Manhattan studios of Democracy Now!, Stehle, who spent a decade covering fundraising and management issues for the Chronicle of Philanthropy and was a program director at the Surdna Foundation, discusses how the media landscape has changed since MIF was founded in 2006, the fuzzy line between "money and influence" that media funders have to navigate, and his idea that foundations should create a rapid-response mechanism "to respond to major threats and opportunities in a more timely fashion."

(If you're reading this in an e-mail, click here.)

(Running time: 7 minutes, 19 seconds)

Have a thought or comment you'd like to share? Use the comments section below....

-- Regina Mahone

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