When Media Organizations Take Outside Funding for Events – But Not News Coverage

The other day appeared an eye-grabbing headline from a newish site called Inside Philanthropy: What’s Up With That Big [$550,000] Grant to the Atlantic Monthly From the Walton Family Foundation?.

There’s a lot of foundation money in education journalism these days — part of the reason this blog exists (and how it’s funded). Foundation funding isn’t just for nonprofit sites like Hechinger and Chalkbeat these days but also public media sites like NPR and KPCC and even commercial outfits like NBC News. The Washington Monthly, which hosts this blog, is another.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with news outlets being supported by foundations rather than advertising sales, as long as the funding is disclosed and the invisible barrier between funding and editorial decisions is protected.

However, so far at least I had thought that The Atlantic wasn’t among the many who are doing it this way. And, as it turns out, that may still be the case. According to Inside Philanthropy (and confirmed by the Walton Family Foundation), the money that Walton (and others) gave The Atlantic was for a couple of big events where education was being addressed rather than for education coverage in the magazine or online.

According to Atlantic spokesperson Emily Lenzner, the organization received support from Walton and others for the two Ideas Festival events but underwriters “have no say” over conference agendas or topics and are always disclosed.

Inside Philanthropy doesn’t see any real evidence of Walton’s pro-charter influence on the magazine’s education coverage: “Natasha Lindstrom’s largely favorable in-depth look at the implementation of California’s parental trigger law…” is “balanced by Meredith Simons piece the same month, “The Student-Led Backlash against New Orleans’s Charter Schools.”

Should The Atlantic disclose event funding in its education coverage anyway? Inside Philanthropy’s David Callahan told me a disclosure on all education coverage in the magazine or online “might be cumbersome.”

I’m inclined to agree, but the question is a good reminder of how complicated financial arrangements are between private foundations (and other funders) and media outlets that are getting into events and other activities as a way of increasing revenues.

Disclosures: The Walton Family Foundation supports education coverage at Education Week and Chalkbeat, among other outlets and funds the nonprofit Education Post, which sponsors this blog. The AFT has sponsored the Aspen Ideas Festival that is co-hosted by The Atlantic (and is a sponsor of this blog).

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.