An Expansive Survey Assesses Funders’ Surging Interest in Journalism — and Potential Growing Pains


Nonprofit news is having a moment. On August 23, Media Impact Funders (MIF) published the first comprehensive survey of journalism funders and nonprofit newsrooms since 2015 and found “strong growth in support for nonprofit news over the past five years, an increase in funding to for-profit newsrooms, and a growing focus on communities of color.”

On August 30, American Journalism Project President Sarabeth Berman reported that since the project’s launch in 2019, it has committed over $42 million to 41 nonprofit news outlets and galvanized $53 million to stand up local news initiatives. And a week after that, a coalition of 22 funders, including the MacArthur, Ford and Hewlett foundations, announced Press Forward, a five-year initiative that aims to disburse more than $500 million to boost local news.

The MIF report anticipated these developments, noting that half of funders anticipated “bigger investments in the future,” while citing challenges that come with growth, such as concerns about editorial independence. Add it up, and the report doubles as a useful roadmap for funders and outlets navigating a rapidly maturing field.

In an email to IP, Jennifer Preston, an MIF consultant who conducted the research with senior fellows from NORC at the University of Chicago in partnership with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, said the report’s most important findings are funders’ increasing focus on local news and the need to support outlets serving historically marginalized communities. “What we learned is that about only half of the BIPOC-led newsrooms reported receiving increases in funding for the last five years,” she said. “With this research, we can begin to see how we can track and measure impact.”

“It’s been challenging to track and measure philanthropic giving for journalism,” said Preston, a former New York Times journalist who previously oversaw the Knight Foundation’s journalism program. “This survey is a first step toward deepening our understanding of philanthropy’s role in journalism.”

Pervasive concern for the body politic

The study, which also received support from the MacArthur Foundation and Arnold Ventures, drew on survey results from 129 private foundations, community and family foundations, as well as 431 news organizations. It found that more than half of funders said their journalism grantmaking had increased in the last five years, with roughly a third reporting funding journalism for the first time.

I was struck by the surge of new entrants in the field, and when I asked Preston to speculate on why this was the case, she cited three reasons, the first being “growing concern about the future of our democracy.” To this point, when asked about the “most important possible factors in their funding decisions,” 81% of respondents said promoting “civic engagement with trusted news and information” is “extremely or very important.”

The finding suggests that concerns about misinformation, which arose during the 2016 election and reached a crescendo following January 6, 2021, have attained critical mass. “Funders recognize the importance of an independent free press holding the government to account and providing the public with reliable, independent nonpartisan reporting,” Preston said. “We have all seen the impact on communities when the public is making decisions based on misinformation and disinformation spreading on social media and powered through hyper-partisan media sources.”

This civic-minded impulse undergirds the new multi-funder Press Forward initiative. I recently spoke with MacArthur’s president John Palfrey, and he explained that the foundation’s journalism giving historically focused on national newsrooms like NPR and outlets in its home city of Chicago. But that changed when the foundation’s efforts to identify new priority areas revealed that “solving problems together and doing it through trusted local news providers” could restore trust in democracy and institutions. 

“Moving off the sidelines”

Another reason that funders are entering the fray is the same motivating force that compels many philanthropists to reach for their wallets — it’s personal. 

Place-based funders “are seeing critical gaps in local news coverage in their communities as newspaper chains continue to eliminate more reporting positions and more newspapers shutter their doors or become ‘ghost newsrooms,’” Preston said. “They see the impact of fewer journalists reporting on local government and issues of local concern” and are “moving off the sidelines and rallying their communities to address the problem” by supporting intermediaries like Report for America, the American Journalism Project and the Solutions Journalism Network.

That brings us to a third driver behind the influx of new entrants to the field. “We have a lot more promising solutions in cities and rural communities across America for funders to explore and to invest in,” Preston said, citing Outlier Media in Detroit, Resolve Philly, the Institute for Nonprofit News’ rural news network, the Pivot Fund (which cultivates outlets led by and serving organizations of color), and for-profit newsrooms like the Seattle Times that are attracting philanthropic dollars by “by combining reporting and community engagement around health inequities, investigative reporting and education.”

Speaking of which, in what Preston considered the study’s most surprising finding, 38% of funders said they had supported a for-profit news outlet in the last five years. This suggests “funders see that there isn’t a silver bullet solution,” she said.

The question of editorial independence

Last February, the Associated Press received a three-year, $8 million grant from five funders to hire new reporters to cover the impact of climate change. As I noted at the time, some commentators raised familiar concerns that philanthropically subsidized, topic-specific journalism can erode the recipient outlet’s editorial independence.

The abnormally large AP grant, coupled with the MIF study’s finding that 74% of funders support “journalism that addresses a specific topic or problem,” would suggest that this mode of giving is increasing. However, the report found that while 40% of nonprofits have been offered funding to do specific stories or investigative reporting suggested by a funder, that figure is actually down from 59% eight years ago.

Nonetheless, 40% isn’t minuscule, so I asked Preston for her thoughts on the issue. She pointed to how, after a 2015 American Press Institute survey raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest, a cohort of funders and leaders in the field drafted guidelines to help involved parties navigate “a tricky terrain for funders who do not have experience supporting independent journalism and newsrooms.” Judging from the MIF survey, the effort seems to have succeeded. “There’s more public disclosure than we had in 2015, and newsrooms and funders better understand the importance of making it clear that the funder has no influence on the editorial content,” Preston said.

That all suggests that despite breathless analysis to the contrary, journalism funders aren’t (at least for the most part) driven by a desire to “buy” coverage. The more mundane reality is that sometimes, they need a roadmap and generally have no interest in “helicopter editing” — which is a term I just invented — since 92% of nonprofit survey respondents said funders never saw editorial content prior to publication they helped underwrite.

“I don’t think it is anyone’s intention to undermine public trust,” Preston said. Looking ahead, she’ll be working with MIF, the Lenfest Institute and leaders in the field on potentially updating those post-American Press Institute survey guidelines and “use this research to help foster adoption and promote donor education.”

Causes for optimism

The Media Impact Funders report speaks to two big issues facing the field going forward. Preston already alluded to the first one, which is that while 68% of funders said “ensuring racial equity and inclusion in the production of news is extremely or very important,” only half of organizations that primarily serve communities of color have seen increases in philanthropic funding. This discrepancy underscores the need for funders to remedy historically tepid support for organizations serving communities of color. 

The second question is whether this surge in funding for journalism has legs. Preston, for one, doesn’t see evidence of “support waning or diminishing, especially because we see growing awareness about the problem and promising solutions.”

Consider those promising solutions. Ten years ago, when the journalism intermediary ecosystem was still a figurative desert, leaders at fledging sites were “almost exclusively focused on their reporting,” Preston said. Now, however, “we are seeing news leaders focus on putting their organizations on a path to sustainable growth” thanks to organizations like the American Journalism Project and Pivot Fund, neither of which existed before 2019. There’s also the comparatively ancient seven-year old NewsMatch, a collaborative initiative that provides nonprofit news organizations with matches for their end-of-year fundraising campaigns.

There’s a direct correlation between the emergence of these kinds of efforts and a profound shift in how nonprofit outlets go about their work. “In the last decade,” Preston said, “we have learned that the most successful nonprofit news outlets run their organizations like a business with a sharp focus on financial management and analysis and generating multiple revenue streams, meeting and building audience and producing a product that people want and demand.”

All that being said, a bit of perspective is order. If we zoom out to the broader philanthropic landscape, journalism funding is “still small compared to other charitable sectors,” Preston said — so small, in fact, that “journalism” is still not included in Giving USA’s tracking methodology, nor is there an NTEE code specifically for journalism under IRS guidelines. “We need more funders to move off the sidelines and support independent journalism,” Preston said. “National philanthropic support can be a catalyst for change and the Press Forward Fund will do just that.”