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This Week in PubHub: Funding the News

August 18, 2010

(Kyoko Uchida manages PubHub, the Foundation Center’s online catalog of foundation-sponsored publications. In her last post, she looked at four reports which examine the state of the news media.)

Two weeks ago, in my post on the state of the news media, I asked: "Can -- and should -- independent journalism be saved?" This week, PubHub is featuring several reports on the pros and cons of alternative sources of funding for news operations.

Philanthropic Foundations: Growing Funders of the News, a 2009 report from the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, highlights evolving trends in foundation support for a wide range of news operations -- from nonprofit investigative reporting outfits and public broadcasting, to topical journalism in areas such as health, to community news Web sites. Foundations may have the wherewithal to support regional public media outlets and fund experiments in content generation and dissemination, but can foundation funding ever be more than a stop-gap measure for an industry in distress?And could a more substantial funding role for foundations do more harm than good by compromising the efforts of a new generation of journalism innovators and entrepreneurs? Time will tell.

The role of geographically focused foundations in addressing "information and media as a core need in communities" is the focus of The State of Funding in Information and Media Among Community and Place-Based Foundations, a report from FSG Social Impact Advisors and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. A survey of such foundations (including Knight Community Information Challenge applicants) found that half the respondents had made grants for information or media projects in the past year, with the bulk of those funds going to support information and media content ($64.5 million out of $165 million) and information and media infrastructure ($52.2 million), followed by media literacy and information and media policy. In addition, fully a third of respondents said that their funding in this area had increased as a proportion of overall grantmaking over the last three years, while another third expected it to increase in the future.

The question remains, however: Are online nonprofit news experiments -- as essential as they are to informed communities and local information ecosystems -- sustainable? The Knight Foundation's Seeking Sustainability: A Nonprofit News Roundtable Summary and Report looks at Web-based, local nonprofit news initiatives and their ability to secure diverse revenue streams and make a lasting impact. Among its findings, the report suggest that financial, organizational, and technological sustainability requires a "start-up mentality" -- that is, a willingness to be "entrepreneurial, adaptable, nimble, and collaborative." A case study included in the report cites limited but encouraging success with a variety of revenue models, including memberships, corporate sponsorships, and paid content. The report also found that community engagement with these experiments has proven elusive. One suggestion made by the report's authors is for nonprofit news organizations to expand their community focus by emphasizing civic journalism, which has the potential to increase their value to local residents beyond the news.

Finally, if well-informed citizens are vital for democracy, what role might public policy play in making high-quality reporting an economically sustainable proposition? In Public Policy and Funding the News (USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy), Geoffrey Cowan and David Westphal argue for bolstering indirect, content-neutral government support for journalism and investment in technology. While noting the increase in foundation funding for nonprofit news sites and the optimism that infuses parts of the "new news" ecosystem, the authors warn against the dangers of not having "a good contingency plan."

What role, if any, do you think philanthropy should play in securing the future of independent journalism? What is the proper mix of foundation, public-, and private-sector funding? Do you know of any local nonprofit news Web sites that are successfully fostering civic engagement in their communities? Let us know in the comment box below. And don't forget to visit PubHub to browse the latest foundation-sponsored reports on the changing world of journalism and media.

-- Kyoko Uchida

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