During a conversation last month about a journalism project that needs more funding, I was explaining to a foundation program officer our policy for disclosing grant funding in the journalism we publish noting that The Associated Press maintains complete control over our content.
This editorial independence, I said, is critical to the trust that audiences have in news organizations like AP.
But how then, the program officer wondered, could she be sure the journalism she was being asked to support really would align with her foundation’s goals?
This question gets to the heart of one of the key reasons I believe many foundations don’t fund journalism significantly, if at all.
In the five years I’ve been working with philanthropies at AP, I’ve been inspired by the number who deeply value an independent, fact-based press, see its importance for an accountable democracy, and who understand that a better-informed public is more able to act on the challenges society faces. As AP’s President and CEO Daisy Veerasingham noted in her blog post earlier this month, philanthropy is needed more than ever to power vital journalism in a time of deep and disruptive financial pressure, especially for local news.
Our missions are often in harmony, even if our methods differ. Philanthropies can do even more to support journalism, and I believe many of them want to. To get there though, we must properly acknowledge the tension between a news organization’s editorial independence and foundations’ goals to reach specific policy outcomes.
In this post, I’ll talk about how our not-for-profit news cooperative works with philanthropies to design projects they can enthusiastically support while adhering to AP’s mission of independent newsgathering. The practices AP has established may help increase understanding of the balances and boundaries that news organizations must set — or risk damaging our position of trust.
Assessing Organizational Values
With AP’s vice president/editor at large for standards, my team reviews every philanthropic funder that reaches request-for-proposal stage. We dig into the foundation’s recent strategy statements as well as actual grants (in media and otherwise). We look for a record of supporting independent news to be sure. More to the point, we want to understand the extent to which the foundation is acting as a public policy advocate on the same topic we’re asking them to support. Overall, we aim to protect our journalism from the risk — or perception — that AP’s coverage is compromised by outside influences. One corollary: We believe having multiple funders for a given coverage area insulates us from this risk.
For foundations conducting their own assessments of potential grantees, news organizations can seem like a different breed. But the ones deserving of trust have core values that should shine through. All should have an ethics code and display it publicly (AP’s is here). They should be transparent about the sources of their funding too, labelling the specific work that’s funded (if it’s not general support) in addition to an overall donor page.
AP seeks funding for broad topics, such as K-12 education or anti-misinformation efforts. We think not solely about the resources our newsroom needs but the kind of journalism audiences tell us would help them navigate the world. How can we explain complex topics through compelling visuals? How can we better reach underserved audiences? How can we help other news outlets better serve their own communities?
To develop our proposals, we convene journalists from around our global newsroom as well as managers who have insight into the services requested by local, smaller media outlets. We talk to other organizations — journalism groups like the American Press Institute but also experts in the relevant fields, including philanthropies — to broaden our understanding of the issues and challenges that need to be addressed.
In translating these ideas into a concrete request, though, we would avoid committing to specific stories. The news is inherently unpredictable, and our journalists need to go where the facts take them. Squeezing the journalism into narrow lanes to align with a “campaign” runs counter to the way journalists work and undermines its value. Just as we could not allow an advertiser to shape stories, we could not allow a philanthropic funder to set the tone or direction of coverage.
That said, we certainly expect to outline major themes our journalists wish to tackle as well as our key approaches (inclusive storytelling, collaborations with local U.S. news outlets, or visual investigations, for example). Seeing these goals can help a funder assess how they fit in with their own.
Most journalists would resist the notion that their job is to achieve policy change. Their job is to report the story as the facts dictate and, in shining that light, motivate others to act. The fact is, journalism does change the world every single day. But the industry has been unaccustomed to documenting and analyzing that impact, much less speaking the language of narrative change. Even committing to a number of stories in a given period is tricky, as the time it takes to produce a story is highly variable.
All of this is understandably frustrating to foundation program officers, who want to support the work but must demonstrate tangible results of their grant. As an industry we must do a better job of explaining how we work and what we accomplish (not only to foundations but to the public.)
The field is making progress. At AP, we hired a consultant to help us understand the multiple ways our journalism informs the public, improves the news industry, and influences policy. As a result, we are investing in better evaluation systems, including using an impact tracker. Many newer nonprofit news organizations have baked impact evaluation into their operations from launch, and we’ve learned from their examples.
Investing in journalism may give new meaning to the term trust-based philanthropy. We are asking foundations to provide support without trying to influence outcomes or have a say in how the work is done. And yet journalism’s need to operate independent of influence is in fact the very source of its value. With proper relationship-building, thoughtful program design and careful assessment, philanthropies and news organizations can do more to change the world together.
Lisa Gibbs is vice president of philanthropic development at The Associated Press. She previously served as AP’s global business editor. Find her on LinkedIn.