Perspectives from the field: journalism, media and the role of philanthropy


Jennifer Davis and Michelle Nelson


Americans’ attitudes about the news media are increasingly divided along partisan lines, with claims that we have entered a ‘post-fact’ era of diminished trust in the role and capacity of the media to foster and sustain a healthy democratic society.

To examine this growing tension, on October 3rd in San Francisco, The Philanthropy Workshop and Synergos’ Global Philanthropists Circle, in partnership with TPW Member and philanthropist Anne Avis, kicked off the first of a special two-part discussion with philanthropists in our networks on the rapidly-changing media landscape and exploration of the unique intersection of philanthropy and journalism.

Our workshop, ‘Perspectives from the Field: Local, National and Global’ brought together our network of philanthropists with practitioners working on this issue at a local, national, and global level.

Together, we set out to:

  • Understand the current landscape of media, including the business of media, how people access information, and new digital frontiers for the form;
  • Learn about new models in media and journalism and what they need to succeed;
  • Consider how to amplify marginalized voices and bring new stories to the fore at the local, national, and global level; and
  • Examine what is needed to shore up media’s role as a watchdog for democracy.

We kicked off our session with an overview of the field from Vivian Schiller, a media and technology executive with over 25 years of experience and the former Global Chair of News at Twitter and President and CEO of NPR.

Schiller provided us with a thorough but concise synopsis of some of the key factors influencing the trends in media we see today. One significant recent change has been the shift from news publishers to social media platforms as the main source of information.

As Schiller noted, this has given more power to social media algorithms to filter the content we see.

This shift, paired with an increasing distrust of news outlets, has created an environment in which ‘fake news’ – misleading, false, manipulated, or fabricated content – can thrive.

The rise of fake news has only added to the list of challenges currently facing the media, including failing business models and expanding news deserts.

In this frenetic media landscape, Tim Olson, Chief Digital Officer for KQED – Public Media for Northern California, mentioned an increasing interest in ‘calm news’ from public media consumers and described KQED’s ‘reach plus depth’ strategy that makes engagement central to their definition of success.

Olson expressed a desire to be ‘rich and relevant and specific in people’s lives’ and noted that, even through a time of major media change, KQED has experienced growth and stability from public media’s long-tested membership and public engagement model.

KQED is benefitting from increased trust in regional over national news.

We heard much about the gutting of local newsrooms and the expansion of news deserts across the United States, an issue that organizations like CALmatters seek to address.

We heard from Dave Lesher, Co-founder, CEO and Editor, about their nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. CALmatters works with more than 90 media organizations throughout the state that have long, deep relationships with their local audiences to put more eyes on decision makers and connect the public to its state government.

We learned that decreasing trust in journalism is not just a problem in the United States, but is shrinking around the world. Further, many nations continue not to have a free press or access to reliable, independent information.

Cristi Hegranes, Founder and Executive Director of Global Press Institute (GPI) and the Publisher and Executive Editor of Global Press Journal, described a new way forward for the field of international journalism. GPI targets the least-covered places around the world to move beyond the ‘traditional victim narrative’ in international reporting.

GPI uses journalism as a development tool to educate, employ, and empower women in developing media markets to produce professional local news coverage that elevates global awareness and catalyzes social change.

GPI’s work seeks to build a pipeline of local voices from these global markets to provide better reporting in-country and in local languages as well as deliver diverse voices and stories to global, Western media.

With these perspectives from local, national, and global media, we learned that as newsrooms are gutted, fewer journalists are covering the news and the news cycle is shorter. At the same time, philanthropic support for media is growing dramatically in contrast to the rate of domestic U.S. giving in other sectors.

The rise in media funding by foundations and individuals comes against the backdrop of drastic declines in revenue at traditional news outlets—declines that have raised questions about how citizens will acquire the information that fuels civic life.

Against this backdrop of dramatic shifts in global media markets and unprecedented change in media distribution, we were offered many reasons for hope.

We learned of a reawakening of purpose from journalists, and an increasing trend towards collaboration between news institutions. We heard that philanthropy can provide risk capital and build a bridge between business models to sustain and evolve vital institutions and platforms.

Ultimately, we left more aware of the complex issues facing media today and inspired by the incredible individuals and organizations working to fix them.

The stakes couldn’t be higher – as Hegranes said, ‘Authentic global journalism is a primary ingredient to movement building and informing public policy.’

Jennifer Davis is a Programme Director and Michelle Nelson is a Programme Coordinator at The Philanthropy Workshop.

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