What The Gates Foundation’s Learned About Funding Education Journalism

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Washington DC students learning to ride bikes at school, in an image used to accompany a recent NPR education story.

The Gates Foundation spends about $7 million a year in grants to education journalism organizations, and has done so for the past five years or so, according to an interview with deputy director for global media partnerships Manami Kano last week.

These “media partnerships” include well-known examples like NPR’s expanded education team as well as EWA, Hechinger, Chalkbeat, and EdWeek and are designed to be a supplement to the foundation’s programmatic and policy work. See them here.

During the phone call, held on the eve of the foundation’s conference celebrating its 15th anniversary working in education, Kano talked about both well-known media efforts and less well-known ones (with Univision, for example), and both perceived successes (NPR Education) and efforts that might best be described as valiant efforts (Marketplace’s Learning Curve).

Gates isn’t the only foundation involved in this kind of funding. Other examples include Carnegie, Ford, Spencer, and MacArthur. Outlets that have worked with foundations include the LA Times and the PBS NewsHour.

The main motivation for getting involved, according to Kano, is to help keep the public informed about what’s going on in schools during a time when journalism is downsizing especially at the local level. “The gap in information continues to be a major issue,” said Kano. “We’re trying to make sure the ecosystem is strong.”

This includes working with large national news outlets and smaller nonprofits and local organizations. The type and format of the grantmaking has evolved over time, says Kano, in terms of figuring out which kinds of organizations benefit most and what kinds of support make the most difference. “It hasn’t been a straight path for us.”

With a national outlet like NPR, the goal was to do more than just add staff to the effort. “We’re not just going to subsidize your reporters to do news of the day that would already be covered,” said Kano. Instead, the goal of the funding was to help NPR “make education interesting and compelling with in-depth coverage of what’s happening it the classroom to both existing listeners and those that you might not have gotten yet through digital and social.”

The foundation also wanted NPR to “go deep on a few key areas, develop a voice, and test some new things” like integrating broadcast, digital, and interactive. According to Kano, the effort has been really successful. “The numbers have been increasing since they launched, and a lot of their traffic coming through Facebook.”

Just this week, NPR’s education team launched a new effort focused on innovation.

Another successful partnership from the foundation’s point of view is Univision, with whom the foundation has been working for a while now both supporting the website and the broadcast division. Some efforts include quarterly broadcast specials and longer in-depth features. The foundation’s 2014 grant to Univision was just over $2 million

A smaller, time-limited pilot project called Learning Curve launched in partnership with Marketplace and American Public Media didn’t turn out quite as successfully as had been hoped. The effort — linking the economy, technology, and learning — made a lot of sense on paper, especially given the success of other efforts at telling connecting stories in entertaining ways such as Planet Money. But the effort was much more broadcast-driven.

The team at Marketplace “produced a lot of good digital content but it never quite built an audience,” noted Kano. The station wasn’t as aggressive with social media as NPR has been – which may have been a factor. The grant was also much smaller.

The foundation and Marketplace parted ways earlier this year, both sides agreeing that the experiment hadn’t worked as we had hoped. They are, however, continuing conversations about other projects they could do on higher ed, which might be a better fit.

Other grants that ran their course include NBC News’ Education Nation, which included both an annual conference in New York City that was considered successful and a year-round platform for education coverage that did not thrive as much as had been hoped. (It’s also worth noting that there was a big shakeup at NBC News during which the folks who brought in Education Nation left.)

One investment that was perhaps the most controversial and least successful of the foundation’s media-related endeavors was the $875,000 given in 2010 and 2011 to the Center on Education Reform to create and expand its Media Bullpen.

The foundation gives to both nonprofits and for-profits, based on overlapping interest rather than tax status. “Who is interested in covering teaching and learning? What’s the audience we’re trying to reach, and who’s best suited or has the capacity to reach that audience?”

The Seattle Times is an example of a for-profit partnership — as well as an effort to explore “solutions” journalism that might make education coverage more appealing in the long run.

In Seattle and elsewhere, the solutions approach also can “help make everyone accountable for how we’re going to solve the problem,” said Kano. 

She described the Seattle Times’ effort as “an unexpected gem” because it’s gone well and led to ideas and approaches that weren’t promised or anticipated including online chats and real-world events. “Our ideal is when we can be catalytic.” 

The solutions approach is being replicated at the Boston Globe, though without Gates support.

The Hechinger Report produced a guide on solutions journalism for education reporters that was released last week. 

Possible influence over story selection and coverage have been a chronic concern in Seattle, at NPR, and some other places where the foundation has provided resources — but not so much that any of the outlets has declined funding or felt the need to return it or stop taking it. NPR ran an explainer. Marketplace responded to an item in Current. 

The topic has been discussed in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (To Shape the National Conversation, Gates and Lumina Support Journalism), Twin City Business (Impartiality, Journalism, and Philanthropy), and the NYT (Journalism, Even When It’s Tilted).

Gates Foundation funding has become a flashpoint in other organizations, such as the AFT (which stopped taking Gates money last year) and, according to Kano, for at least one media outlet focused on global health.

According to Kano, the program operates under principals (editorial independence, transparency) that are intended to protect the credibility of the grant recipients and the keep foundation from being accused of meddling with media coverage.

Ironically, the foundation sometimes provides more details about the grant amounts and time periods than the news sites it funds. EdWeek is an exception.

Kano declined to identify any other grants as failures, though you can see the funding list to figure out who has or hasn’t received additional rounds of funding. Sometimes news organizations aren’t challenging themselves with new storytelling approaches, or exploring social media, or trying live events. Lots of well-intended efforts don’t make the splash that they were intended to make. Everyone’s doing their best. “It’s a very crowded environment.”

Other times, according to Kano, the grants were meant to be catalytic rather than perpetual. “Ideally, for example, [the] Seattle Times won’t need our funding to sustain their Ed Lab project a year from now.”

Looking ahead, Kano is migrating over to global health work and someone else at the foundation will be the point person for media partnerships focused on education. I’m planning on talking with editors and reporters who have worked with the Gates Foundation and other outside funders on their experiences, as well as with other foundation staffers who work on media partnership programs.

Related posts: EdWeek Sets Standard With Detailed Gates Foundation DisclosureThis Week In Education: Events: Gates Foundation Stays Course In Much-Changed Environment“Solutions” Journalism Gets A New Education GuideBoston Globe Launches Expanded Education EffortThe Promise and Peril of “Solutions” Journalism.

Disclosure: The Gates Foundation does not fund The Grade, but it did ask me to moderate a recent panel and paid for my travel expenses. I wrote about the experience here. CER was kind enough to give me a backstage tour of the Media Bullpen, as part of the research that led to the creation of The Grade. 

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.