The opportunities and limits of foundation-funded journalism

Barbara Hans

Journalism, it is said, is in crisis. But that isn’t strictly accurate. Journalism is actually beset by at least two different crises: a funding crisis and a credibility crisis. Philanthropy can help solve both, but it needs to observe certain conditions.

Both crises have a variety of impacts on the newsroom, both are of existential importance and both have a lot to do with each other. Yet before this article joins the currently omnipresent chorus of lamentation, I would like to emphasize that the crises facing journalism likewise represent its greatest opportunity – to return to its true function in society and vital role in democracy.

Recent months have produced telling examples of where the roots of the crises facing journalism are to be found.

The media did not forsee the rise in popularity of the right-wing AfD (Alternative for Germany) party in Germany. Credit Stephan Dinges

The media has too often been wrong and it has too often been caught off-guard: by Brexit, by the election of Donald Trump in the US, and by the rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in Germany. We journalists were too convinced that we knew better and didn’t spend enough time actually on the scene.

We weren’t curious enough. Our curiosity is why we enjoy the privilege of immersing ourselves in different worlds in order to provide access to them for others. And it is this privilege – the time for in-depth reporting – that is the first thing to be sacrificed to the financial pressures we face.

Foundation-funded journalism must understand this situation – it must understand why many publishing houses are in the condition they’re in. Therein lie the opportunities and the risks of a cooperation.

Such funding can only be successful if both crises are taken into account: the funding crisis – the shortage of personnel and resources in addition to plummeting subscriptions – and the credibility crisis – the difficulties associated with reaching readers and the challenge of approaching them across increasing numbers and varieties of platforms with journalism produced by an ever-shrinking newsroom.

It is this privilege – the time for in-depth reporting – that is the first thing to be sacrificed to the financial pressures we face.

Philanthropists must understand that a cooperation with the media is per se rooted in a dilemma. The media wants to, indeed must, retain its autonomy when it comes to choosing which issues to focus on and what stories to run – indeed, it is this independence that appeals to philanthropists in the first place.

It is also why it is vital that philanthropists recognize and respect the independence of the media. In short, the lure of foundation funding cannot be allowed to endanger the media’s credibility. Were that to happen, such a cooperation would prove to be counterproductive: for both the publishing houses and for the foundations.

After all, they too are dependent on the quality and independence of the media with whom they cooperate.

To ensure a successful cooperation, there are a few things that must be observed:

  • Funding results in dependencies, a situation of which all those involved in such a cooperation must be aware. The focus should not be on denying this dependency, but on safeguarding against it as far as possible.
  • The parameters are important and must be openly discussed by both sides, publishers and philanthropists, prior to launch. Mediation by organizations such as the European Journalism Centre can be helpful, because it relieves both partners.
  • Philanthropy is an opportunity to deepen reporting in a specific field that is already viewed as important, and not to shift focus to an issue that wasn’t previously covered. Why? Because determining which issues to report on is one of the tasks of journalism and an expression of journalistic independence.
  • Prior to any cooperation, media outlets must ask themselves: Is this project a good match for us? Would we have sought to realize this project even without a funding partner? If so, why haven’t we done so thus far?
  • Philanthropists should not limit funding to content. When it comes to storytelling formats, the development of data analysis software or similar examples, funding can ultimately result in an open-source tool from which other media can also profit. That, in turn, demonstrates the sustainability of such funding because it helps develop the infrastructure necessary for independent journalism.
  • It must be simple: the effort required for the administration of foundation-funded journalism shouldn’t be greater than the return.
  • Be realistic about what you will get. The amount of funding provided includes administration costs.
  • Be realistic about what a newsroom can deliver. The end-product doesn’t always have to look like ‘Snowfall’. Large projects threaten to become overly complex, which can overwhelm those involved – and their results are often not sustainable or transferable.
  • Milestones are necessary. The process is not a one-way highway. Benchmarks should be identified and examined to ensure that the cooperation is still working – and what might need to be fixed.
  • Transparency is imperative: if a journalistic project receives outside funding, that must be clearly indicated in the published product.

With journalism facing a funding crisis, cooperation with philanthropists can: a) deepen coverage; b) allow for the implementation of long-term projects; c) make costly trips possible; d) facilitate cooperation with other European media outlets; and e) generate lessons for such cooperation moving forward. That holds true for media outlets both small and large.

 The lure of foundation funding cannot be allowed to endanger the media’s credibility.

But cooperation with philanthropists cannot lead to a situation in which journalism becomes dependent – because funding that doesn’t also increase a media outlet’s credibility isn’t worth it. Not for the journalists nor for the philanthropists. Not for readers nor for democracy.

Barbara Hans is editor-in-chief, Spiegel Online. Email:

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