Thursday, September 3, 2009

Eight Foundations and a Football

A lot of important questions about foundation-funded journalism are being kicked around these days. Can foundations fill the resource void left by newspapers? Will they try to skew coverage? Is their support reliable? Or is it a fad?

I've been mulling a more basic question: Do foundations know what the heck they're getting themselves into?

I'm not so sure.

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Chuck Lewis and Bruce Sievers called upon the nation's major foundations to help preserve American democracy by helping stave off the precipitous decline of our news media. They write:

Philanthropy is in a unique position to take the initiative because it can move quickly and deliver significant resources to key players in the news media, while taking a hands-off stance toward content. Yet, with a few notable exceptions by some of the nation's biggest grant makers - Benton, Carnegie, Ford, Hewlett, Knight, MacArthur, Open Society Institute, and Pew - foundations have not become involved in this arena of public life.

While some might quibble with the assertion of the first sentence, I was more intrigued by the implication of the second sentence. And I wondered: What exactly are those eight big foundations doing to help support socially responsible journalism?

The short answer is: a lot. They are to be applauded for doing so. And others not mentioned in the article are answering the call.

But when you scratch at the surface, it becomes clear that foundations don't agree on how to define the problem at hand. And when measured against Lewis' and Sievers' call to "do the most good by financing the difficult work of journalists themselves," only one of the eight (Knight) appears to have a systematic method of doing just that - or at least one they cared to share on their web site.

Line those foundations' programs alongside one another, and you get a show-and-tell of assumptions about what's ailing American journalism. You also get a sense of the foundations' institutional tolerance and capacity for experimentation within the nonprofit model. Some simply aren't equipped to make the necessary, critical decisions involved in picking winners - and some seem uninteresed in doing so.

For example, the Hewlett Foundation gives millions to journalism practitioners. But most of it goes to proven winners such as PBS' NewsHour, and the money comes out of their "special projects" program area, where they keep the odds and ends that don't fit neatly into their seven areas of concentration.

The Ford Foundation lists 400+ grants under "advancing public service media," but they're all over the map: money for documentaries, for universities, etc.; not a lot for what could be considered old-fashioned journalism. Meanwhile, Carnegie focuses on journalism education. Benton cares mostly about telecom policy and the digital divide. Etc., etc. You get the idea.

Not that different approaches are a bad thing. As Chairman Mao said, let a hundred flowers bloom. But as Matt James of the Kaiser Family Foundation and Kaiser Health News has noted, the philanthropic effort to support journalism needs cohesion and a larger scale - and that may be a greater task than any foundation can take on alone.

This post also may be viewed at Save The News.

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