Non-profit journalism as a tool for change


Claire Hoffman


Over the last six months, I’ve had the chance to participate in two panels on non-profit journalism and philanthropy, in partnership with the Synergos’ Global Philanthropists Circle as well as the Philanthropy Workshop.

When I first connected with Peggy Dulany, the co-founder of the Synergos’ Global Philanthropists Circle, with this idea of introducing her members to the non-profit journalism model, the hope with these events was to explain the field of independent journalism to a new audience and to ask leading practitioners and funders of non-profit journalism to share best-case scenarios about how the process works.

I see non-profit journalism as a response to two crises, which are of course entangled in each other. A decade ago, as a young print journalist, the biggest story and concern in my newly chosen industry was the shifting business model. Newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, they were all having to adapt to a proliferation of outlets on the web, many of them simply aggregators of news, as opposed to original reporting.

It was right around this time that ProPublica launched, with its mission of long investigative projects that take on tough subjects that large news organizations could no longer afford to finance. I remember how strange that idea seemed to me—stories that didn’t belong to a media brand, stories that were just meant to create change—and yet today this idea has proliferated and expanded.

In more recent years, I’ve had the chance to work through the Goldhirsh Foundation, my husband’s and my family foundation, to help fund a variety of social impact endeavors that include journalism organizations- like ProPublica and CalMatters, as well as the Columbia Journalism School, which is educating a new generation of young journalists.

But in the last year, a second sort of crisis in journalism has surfaced, the underside of all that proliferating and shifting technology has now become a crisis in the credibility and independence of the press itself.

Our first Synergos meeting in March came at a low point for the field of journalism. A Gallup Poll put out last fall found that 32% of Americans trust the Media. This is the lowest figure in the history of such polling. And, this poll was conducted before the concept of fake news had really caught on.

Given this moment—where journalism is vulnerable and where the average American believes you can not trust what you read and hear, what do philanthropists and non profits do with journalism as a tool for change. How do we support an empowered, intelligent press with resources to conduct their work grounded in sound research and responsibly analyzed data?

Our panel consisted of Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Stephen Engelberg, the Editor in Chief of ProPublica, and Molly Bingham, a GPC member and founder of ORB Media.

One big idea that struck me in that conversation was how so much of the journalism we consume these days is coming from urban coastal cities and that the regional news outlets at the center of the country have been the hardest hit by the shrinking of the news business model.

Coll suggested that part of the erosion of trust in media is that it’s coastal and not representative of the country. In response to this crisis, ProPublica has recently asked for a request for proposals for smaller news organizations to fund a year-long, ProPublica-style investigative project in their town.

By the time we gathered in October at a joint Philanthropy Workshop/Synergos event much had evolved. This time, it was two key funders of journalism who led the conversation: Kathy Im, who runs investments in journalism and media for the MacArthur Foundation and Simone Otus Coxe, who is Co-Founder of CalMatters, a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.

Here, the conversation centered more on the various ways funders can work both with organizations and with each other. Kathy Im described exciting new philanthropic efforts such as NewsMatch, a collaborative funding effort between the Democracy Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and MacArthur that provides up to $3 million in matching funds to support nonprofit news organizations that play a vital role in informing the public.

Simone Otus Coxe described how an organization she supports, InterNews, helps refugees arriving in Greece get basic information critical to their survival, alongside the news they receive via their mobile phones from other local news sources.

In the end, these conversations underscored that independent non-profit journalism is a tool in the social change tool chest to educate and empower people. Whether a philanthropist is passionate about education reform or the environment, non-profit journalism is an exciting and meaningful mechanism for change.

Claire Hoffman is a trustee of the Goldhirsh Foundation.

Alliance‘s December 2017 issue has a focus on philanthropy and media. Subscribe here

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