Funding the News: Summary of Shorenstein Center study on foundations and nonprofit media

June 18, 2018–In a new Shorenstein Center study conducted with colleagues at Northeastern University, we assess major patterns in foundation support for nonprofit journalism and media in the half decade leading up to the 2016 election, focusing specifically on support for digital news nonprofits.

Launched over the past fifteen years, digital news nonprofits at the national and state/local level such as ProPublica and Texas Tribune, along with their public media peers, have aimed to fill gaps in coverage created by the dramatic decline of the newspaper industry. Most news nonprofits rely heavily on foundation funding as a primary or major source of revenue. Assessing foundation investments is therefore crucial, since they remain the financial backbone of nonprofit news, playing a behind-the-scenes role in guiding the direction of the field, including the types of subjects covered, organizations supported, and regions prioritized.

We assessed 32,422 relevant grants totaling $1.8 billion distributed by 6,568 foundations supporting journalism and media-related activities between 2010 and 2015. About a third of this funding or $570 million was dedicated to journalism higher education, the Newseum, journalism fellowships, and journalism research, legal support, and technology development. An additional 44% or $795 million supported public media and 5% or about $81 million backed nonprofit magazines.

In comparison, 20% or about $331 million directly supported national, local/state, and university-based digital news nonprofits. In evaluating direct support for digital news nonprofits, we conclude that many innovative projects and experiments have happened and continue to take place, but that grantmaking remains far below what is needed, even in an era of increased journalism giving following the 2016 elections. Our analysis identifies sharp geographic disparities in foundation funding, a heavy concentration of resources in a few dozen successful digital news nonprofits and on behalf of coverage of a few issues. At the national level, there was also the granting of money to a disproportionate number of ideologically-oriented outlets.

Although there are some success stories, neither the digital news nonprofit sector, nor any other form of commercial media have yet been able to meaningfully fill the gaps in coverage created by the collapse of the newspaper industry. A major challenge is that despite more than 6,500 foundations supporting journalism- and media-related activities during the first half of this decade, just a few dozen foundations have provided the bulk of direct support for news gathering. At the state and local level in particular, digital nonprofit media funding depends heavily on the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and a few other philanthropies. Several trends since 2016, however, offer reason for optimism, including the launch of the NewRevenue Hub and NewsMatch, along with the considerable “Trump bump” in revenue at ProPublica, which has used the funds to expand its operations at the state and local level.

Key Findings

Several funding categories assessed in the Shorenstein study were not directly related to news nonprofits but represented activities or initiatives intended to enhance the field of journalism generally and its public understanding. These other categories of grants reflect the tough choices that funders face, as prioritizing one of these areas, even if to improve the practice and reach of journalism in society, may take away from direct support for nonprofit news production. Specific to these other activities:

  • Journalism and communication programs at universities along with the Newseum received $369 million or 21% of the $1.8 billion in relevant funding distributed over the six-year period.
  • Journalist professional development received an estimated $122 million or approximately 7% of the $1.8 billion in funding analyzed. These grants supported journalist associations, awards, training workshops, and fellowships.
  • Journalism-related research, technology development, legal support, and philanthropic coordination received approximately $79 million or 4% of all funding during the six-year period analyzed.

Relative to direct funding for non-profit news production, among the study’s key findings:

  • Public media received approximately $796 million or about 44% of the $1.8 billion in grant money analyzed. Much of this funding supported non-news content such as programming related to the arts, music, culture, or entertainment. Twenty-five public media stations and content producers accounted for 70% of all funding, with grant money going primarily to stations or content producers based in 10 states. Such concentration means that public media organizations across the great majority of states lack the funding necessary to evolve into digital news hubs producing local reporting that fills gaps in newspaper coverage.
  • Magazines generated an estimated $80.1 million in grant support over the six years assessed, accounting for about 5% of all funding. The nonprofit magazine field has winnowed to the degree that a few dozen publications received 99% of foundation funding with a similar number of foundations providing most of the support. Grant making also flowed heavily in the direction of ideological perspectives, with nine liberal/left wing magazines and five conservative/right wing counterparts ranking among the top 25 grant recipients.
  • National news nonprofits were backed by approximately $216 million in foundation funding or about 12% of the $1.8 billion analyzed. Eight out of 10 foundation dollars supported just 25 news nonprofits, with four investigative journalism units topping the list. The leading two dozen recipients were also notable for featuring six deep-vertical news organizations that specialize in coverage of topics like the environment, and six nonprofits that have a clear ideological perspective. Overall, national news nonprofits are highly dependent on about two dozen institutional funders for nearly 70% of the grants distributed over the 6-year period analyzed.
  • Local/state nonprofit news organizations received approximately $80.1 million or about 5% of the $1.8 billion analyzed. As foundations pursued strategies designed to fill gaps in local newspaper reporting, they focused primarily on 11 state/local public affairs news sites, six state/local investigative news units, and coverage specific to health care and the environment. Other major investments backed the Institute for Nonprofit News and related initiatives aimed at building capacity and collaboration across the nonprofit news sector. Local/state news nonprofits also depended on a limited pool of funders for their support, with the Knight Foundation driving most of the growth in the area, accounting for 20% of funding during the six-year period we analyzed.
  • University-based journalism initiatives that produce either local or national coverage of public affairs were backed by an estimated $35.9 million or about 2% of the $1.8 billion analyzed. Just five universities accounted for half of all foundation funding, and 16 of the top 25 grant-receiving campuses were based in either California or the Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. metro areas. In terms of major grantmakers, 25 foundations provided 91% of the funding in the area, with the Knight Foundation accounting for nearly a third of all grant dollars distributed.