Non-profit journalism should become a focus for European funders, says Active Philanthropy
In the last decade US foundations have funded a $1bn journalistic revolution in a bid to safeguard democracy threatened by a decline in local quality media and investigative journalism. And the hope, says Michael Alberg-Seberich of Berlin-based Active Philanthropy, is the movement will spread to Europe.
A new study, commissioned by Prof. Holger Wormer of the Institute for Journalism at the Technical University of Dortmund and edited and coordinated by Active Philanthropy, documents the rise of non-profit journalism in the States. It shows how many of the US’ largest foundations along with community and family foundations have created a vibrant and diverse non-profit news sector, helping to restore the media’s role as ‘the fourth estate’ that can perform crucial watchdog and monitoring functions.
Seberich says the aim of the report is to provide inspiration for Germany which is experiencing a similar decline in local media. “An opposing voice can provide a key lever for change in society and its disappearance in Germany is a worry. Many donors have raised the issue which is why we have produced the report,” he says.
“In the US we see how foundations have helped to establish good quality local journalism, allowed minority and diverse voices to be heard, have funded special interest topics such as healthcare that are not well-covered in traditional media and helped innovate and create new business opportunities from the data.”
The report, The Field of Non-profit Funding of Journalism in the United States, for the first time provides a comprehensive overview of the media projects that American foundations and non-profit organisations support in order to combat the threat of extinction of quality journalism. It analyses more than 700 journalistic projects established since the 1930s.
According to the study, financing from foundations provides a basis for new ideas that plug gaps in a media landscape that has undergone a number of shifts. The American example also shows that big experiments can be started, and new forms of quality journalism tested, with relatively modest resources.
At the same time the report clearly shows the limits of foundation financing for journalism – with regard to the sustainability of projects or refinancing by the public, for example.
The lack of a dissenting voice in the UK media was highlighted in an inquiry into the future of civil society by The Young Foundation and Carnegie UK Trust.
The two-year Inquiry looked at the possible threats to, and opportunities for, civil society between now and 2025 in UK and Ireland. Its final report Making Good Society (March 2010) identified four interrelated priority areas where a stronger civil society could make the most difference including democratising media ownership and content, and helping to develop participatory and deliberative democracy.
The report identifies that in the push to democratise media ownership and content, philanthropists can support community and civil society media. “Philanthropic funding can help preserve journalistic independence and secure guarantees on public service content,” it says.
“There is a massive imbalance in how media organisations are organised in the UK, “ said Geoff Mulgan, then Young Foundation CEO and now chairman of Nesta. “For example, when Channel 4 was set up it was required to spend its advertising revenues on public broadcasting – that’s a good model but it was 28 years ago. There has been nothing since. Philanthropists can help by supporting alternatives, particularly digital platforms such as community websites, and including radio and local newspapers.”
"The lack of scrutiny involved in the commercial production of journalistic content when reporting on civil society organisations was an issue raised time and again in the discussion groups," according to the report.
However, as news-gathering is excluded from the 2006 UK Charities Act’s interpretation of public benefit, the Inquiry called for a change in the legislative framework to make it easier for civil society associations with charitable status to be associated with news gathering and dissemination.
Philanthropists can also encourage the use of social media as a means to correct the power imbalance, the report says. “An extraordinary amount of innovation is taking place through the internet, SMS, twitter and social networking sites, turning them into tools for mobilisation, education and direct action. Funders should be backing this innovation, partly to ensure that it really does open up participation and deliberation, and partly to find better ways for the online world to connect into the largely offline world of councils, boardrooms, parliaments and global summits.”