Refining my question list about how non-profits help journalism thrive

Posted on July 28, 2011 by Janet Coats

Last week, I attended a gathering of journalism funders in Chicago to talk about ways we can help journalism thrive during the transition from old models to a social, mobile age.

This was my first time to attend this meeting, and while it was exciting to share what we are working on at The Patterson Foundation, my primary goal was to listen and learn. With more than 25 funders represented -- including foundations such as the Knight Foundation, the McCormick Foundation, and Ethics and Excellence in Journalism -- there was a lot of opportunity to hear about both what is working and what needs tweaking.

As part of the meeting, we heard from journalists working in independent news organizations, both those that have been around for awhile and startups. One group of journalists were focused on investigative reporting, the other on providing local news in the Chicago market.

While I’ve been listening to and learning from news entrepreneurs for the last 18 months, being in a room with other funders asking questions and adding their own perspectives to the conversation was enlightening. I’m not sure I found any new answers, but I certainly refined the questions I’ve been asking in my own work:

How does supporting local news connect to developing strong accountability reporting?

Investigative reporting is vital to holding the powerful accountable, and it is a powerful draw for support from foundations. But how do we best support developing health local news systems – a more diffuse and difficult field to enable?

In the New Media Journalism Initiative, one of our interests is in building capacity for local news entrepreneurs. As an editor, I always believed the best investigative journalism grew out of consistent local coverage. We are at a stage in journalism now in which those who learned investigative journalism in traditional news organizations are starting some truly inspiring independent investigative sites.

But unless we develop strong local news sites that are both of the web and of their communities, that develop increasingly nuanced and complex local journalism, I’m not sure where the next iteration of investigative journalism will come from.

For those of us who want to help enable local news entrepreneurs, we have to be thinking beyond the already daunting task of building financial sustainability and spend time thinking about ways to help build journalism sustainability.

What exactly does financial sustainability mean, anyway?

We all talk a lot about financial sustainability. Entrepreneurs talk about it terms of creating enough financial momentum to keep their sites vibrant – and to make a living themselves. Funders use it as a goal, a measurement of the success of the initiatives they support.

But the actual definition of sustainability is more than a little mushy. Is it building a strong enough business to support the journalism from earned income? Is it a blend of non-profit funding and for-profit enterprise? Is there a role for foundations in helping build for-profit models, and if there is, what does that look like? Are there some forms of journalism that are vital to a functioning democracy that the market just won’t support – how will we know that, and if it is true, how do we respond to that need?

How best can foundations connect to help journalism thrive? Should foundations connect to help journalism thrive?

I’m the new kid on the block when it comes to the funders around that table in Chicago, but this is clearly something others are thinking about as well. A couple of the conversations I had with my peers centered on this. The need is so deep, and the problems so complex that they extend beyond the reach of even the largest journalism funders. How do we best extend the work of all those invested in journalism’s future while maintaining autonomy? How do we build on what we are learning and avoid duplication? How do I better identify those opportunities for collaboration or sharing in our own Patterson work, to help expand the reach of our work beyond our own horizon?

As I said, no answers here, but a more nuanced set of questions to help guide my thinking and my work. And as I learned in all those years in the newsroom, the quality of the question has a direct bearing on the quality of the answers.

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