Foundations That Care About the Spread of Ideas Should Finance Journalism

Foundations That Care About the Spread of Ideas Should Finance Journalism

As foundations and nonprofits continue to think through the new political reality, much of their collective mindshare is being spent on a central conundrum: How do organizations that focus on big issues support and promote their causes in a world where, seemingly, facts don’t matter? How do they ensure that the public is getting the information it needs to support informed decision making and understanding the consequences of major policy shifts?

We would argue that facts matter more than ever in an environment of proposed sweeping policy changes and sometimes substance-challenged rhetoric. And one of the best ways foundations can help drive thoughtful decision making is through deeper investment in the news media and spinning off new communications outlets. The philanthropic world has a special opportunity to create new and better approaches to building news organizations that are nimble, make efficient use of precious resources, and can have outsized impact.

For some time now, we have been watching the erosion of traditional news media, and the factors behind it have been widely studied and dissected. But while the hollowing out of legacy media has adversely affected cities and towns across the nation, new and exciting leaps forward also have taken place:

Nonprofit journalism has become a proven model for excellence. ProPublica, for example, won its fourth Pulitzer Prize on Monday for an investigative series with the New York Daily News on abuses in the New York City Police Department’s enforcement of the city’s nuisance-abatement law. Started in 2007 by Paul Steiger, a former Wall Street Journal managing editor, and funded in large part by the Sandler Foundation, ProPublica has become an important voice for investigative journalism, also winning Pulitzers in 2010, 2011, and 2016.

Newer nonprofit journalism experiments continue to unfold. Among the most influential new nonprofits is the Marshall Project, which covers the U.S. criminal-justice system. Under the leadership of Bill Keller, former New York Times executive editor, the Marshall Project, in partnership with ProPublica, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism.

Gaps in state and local reporting increasingly are being filled by nonprofits. In part in response to financial turbulence in the news industry, organizations like Mississippi Today came on the scene in 2016 under the guidance of NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack. In Nevada, veteran journalist Jon

Ralston founded the Nevada Independent in January. Other notable news services include the Texas Tribune and the Voice of San Diego.

Another important nonprofit news service playing a critical role as Congress and the administration consider revising or repealing the Affordable Care Act is Kaiser Health News. Established in 2009, and now with a staff of more than 40 journalists, Kaiser Health has arguably become the most important news and information service in health policy. With a nationwide network of media partnerships, Kaiser was the first foundation-operated news service and was crucial to coverage of the initial Affordable Care Act debate — just as it is positioned now to provide comprehensive reporting on the Trump administration’s scrutiny of this landmark law.

This surge of energy from nonprofit news outlets should similarly fuel momentum within the philanthropic world, particularly as the new administration embraces aggressive anti-press rhetoric.

So what should foundations do?

  • By all means, continue to support successful and innovative nonprofit news services of all stripes. At a time when facts are under attack and the president of the United States is calling the media an “enemy of the American people,” that support is needed more than ever.
  • Support new proposals that might spur creation of new nonprofit news outlets or help build a lasting movement. A study of existing players that catalogs their editorial and funding models and best practices could be hugely beneficial to nonprofit wannabes — as could enhanced funding and strategic expertise for existing organizations aimed at being nonprofit news hubs.
  • Consider designing and launching new communications and news-media projects. Kaiser has shown that with proper editorial firewalls and guidance, such efforts can be highly influential and budget-friendly ventures that can establish crucial journalistic credibility and objectivity.
  • Embrace the possibilities of the technological revolution — and challenge nonprofit news organizations to do the same. More legitimate news sources need to up their game in understanding how to reach important constituencies through smart social-media work, targeted analytics, and, perhaps more important, technologies like virtual reality. This takes investment, but, again, these are highly cost-effective when weighed against many other major media projects that foundations typically support.
  • Invest more in academic journals. Foundations invest millions of dollars in important research that either gets into public discourse too late to have an impact on policy decisions or delays important advances that can save lives and help people in need. The peer-review process can be accelerated with minimal investments, and for the cost of a few seasoned editors and a release strategy, important research work can more quickly be put to use.

Winston Churchill once said that the truth “is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”

To keep the truth incontrovertible, foundations must add their voices to the debate in an even more concerted way. Whether in doubling down on supporting nonprofit news organizations or developing original content streams of their own, philanthropies must act. The truth itself is at stake.

Bill Nichols, former founding managing editor of Politico, is vice president of Freedman Consulting, where Matt James is a senior fellow. Mr. James, who helped create Kaiser Health in his role as executive vice president of Kaiser Family Foundation, is also visiting scholar at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Corrections: Due to editing errors, a previous version of this article misrepresented Kaiser Health News and mistakenly said that the authors wanted to make academic journals free rather than saying they wanted to see more foundation investment in such publications.