Can Philanthropy Save Public Service Journalism? – Signing time
Rodney Benson assesses pros and cons of US nonprofit news organization funding model and wonders if it could help end relentless layoffs in UK journalism
As the UK media industry experiences the latest wave of layoffs in a repeated tidal wave of job losses, US-style philanthropic solutions are seen as a potential lifeboat.
Public media funding in the United States is among the lowest in the world. As the advertising-dependent business model collapsed, philanthropy was invited to step into the breach. And why not?
America has the largest philanthropic foundation industry in the world, with total assets of over $ 1,000 billion and annual donations of over $ 75 billion. Only a tiny fraction of this largesse goes to journalism: According to the Media Impact Funders database, the average annual donation to the broad category ‘journalism, news and information’ was around $ 320 million from 2016 to 2020 (up from 192 million dollars per year between 2011 and 2015). Still, it’s far more than in any other country – including the UK, with an estimated annual philanthropic giving to journalism of £ 30million (roughly $ 50million).
The Foundation’s support has been crucial to the growth of America’s nonprofit news industry, accounting for nearly half of its total funding, with the remainder coming from individual donations, events and advertising. America’s 250 nonprofit media outlets generate an estimated $ 500 million annually, providing jobs for 2,300 journalists.
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Some of the best investigative reporting in the United States is now produced by national nonprofits such as ProPublica, the Investigative reporting center (CIR / Reveal), and the Center for Public Integrity. These nonprofits can conduct investigative reporting largely free from the commercial conflicts of interest that sometimes plague advertising revenue-dependent platforms. For example, CIR / Reveal was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on worker injuries and the human toll of robotic technology in Amazon warehouses, a topic unsurprisingly ignored by the Washington post – owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
U.S. nonprofits also provide excellent specialist reporting on criminal justice (The Marshall Project), the environment (In the climate news) and education (Chalk beat). The Texas Tribune, MinnPost, and San Diego Voices, among many others, provide comprehensive reporting on local public affairs. Cooperation and sharing, rather than competition, increasingly define the realm of nonprofit information. The recent launch of the Colorado News Contributor, which brings together 100 journalists from 60 nonprofit news organizations with the aim of “providing more comprehensive coverage in an era of scarce resources.”
Yet philanthropic support is not a panacea.
As the number of nonprofit media outlets grows, their ranks are vastly overtaken by newspaper closings in all states in the United States. Hedge funds like Alden Capital now control half of American dailies: they only “save” newspapers to reap profits through staff cuts until they are eventually closed. Even when 2,300 new nonprofit media jobs are added, the total number of newsroom jobs in the United States has declined by 26,000 since 2008.
The story is similar in the UK. In 2010, the New statesman reported that 40,000 mainstream journalism jobs had been lost over the previous decade – about a third of jobs in the industry were lost.
While access to media websites supported by philanthropic organizations is free, nonprofit audiences are remarkably similar to paid subscribers to quality commercial media such as the New York Times. As a result, nonprofit media end up primarily producing information for the elites, further widening the digital information divide. However, to their credit, some foundations are starting to shift their priorities to serving an economically and racially marginalized audience with news that affects their communities.
Foundation support is also inconsistent, more focused on start-up than maintenance. While some foundations have signaled their willingness to provide long-term support, most will inevitably move on in search of the next big thing. The majority of grants are project-based, supporting journalism not as a civic end in itself, but as a vehicle to advance the political agenda of foundations. If journalists retain formal autonomy, if they wish to renew their scholarships, they must remain on good terms with their sponsoring foundations.
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As these shortcomings have become more apparent and the COVID-19 crisis further accelerates newspaper shutdowns, even the most ardent advocates of philanthropy in the United States now recognize the need for more direct government support.
Three main policy approaches attract attention. The first aims to expand existing tax breaks for charities in order to increase information funding. A report from the University of Chicago Business School proposed a “voucher program” modeled on the provision of public funding to presidential candidates of the United States: citizens would only have to indicate on their form tax they wish to participate and a contribution of $ 50 would be provided at their chosen point of sale without increasing their tax liability.
Providing more targeted assistance, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act – with bipartisan support in Congress – would offer taxpayers refundable tax credits of $ 250 (more generous than existing tax deductions) that they could use to purchase a. subscribe to news or donate to a local news nonprofit; it would also offer employers additional refundable payroll tax credits to help them hire more journalists
A second approach addresses the problem of concentration of ownership of hedge funds. One proposal combines antitrust enforcement with tax incentives to make it easier for hedge funds to divest themselves of newspapers so that community groups can more easily buy them.
A third approach would build on the already existing public television and radio infrastructure to support more local news reporting: expanding government funding for already existing public media, while difficult, is more likely to gain traction. than to start from scratch elsewhere. This initiative could be modeled on the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporting Service, which has financially supported 150 local journalists employed by other media outlets.
In short, a pluralism of forms of ownership and financing can contribute to a more pluralistic public sphere. In the United States, philanthropic funding is important because public funding is so small, and yet it is still not enough – and the terms attached can be prohibitive for journalists. Of course, philanthropy should be part of the mix, both in the US and UK, but in its quest to revitalize public service journalism, I hope the UK does not take its long tradition of strong public funding – it’s a legacy the United States is increasingly desperate to emulate.
Rodney Benson is Department Chair and Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. This research is part of the UK component of the Media influence matrix, set up to investigate the influence of changes in policy, funding and technology on contemporary journalism, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. He should report in summer 2021
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