Let’s Think About Journalism Funding More Reflectively Than This

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Much as I share some of the concerns expressed in this Nonprofit Quarterly article about philanthropic funding of education journalism (A Scary Mix of Journalism & Strategic Philanthropy , I didn’t come away from reading it with the feeling that it grappled authentically with the issues that are involved or was trying to urge readers to reflect on the many dynamics.

Instead, I came away with the sense that the author (Ruth McCambridge) was trying to scare readers by waving a big “Gates Foundation!” sign at them.

It doesn’t help much that the NPQ piece starts out by mis-attributing the news that the Gates Foundation spends roughly $7 million on education media partnerships a year to Poynter rather than to this site. (The Poynter writeup is based on it.)

More substantively, the NPQ piece ignores issues related to advertiser-based funding models that preceeded the new philanthropic funding model. What are the different effects on newsrooms between a funder and a sponsor or advertiser?

Controversy and concern are one thing, actual instances of coverage or behavior that is problematic is another. There’s no specific article, outlet, or incident that is provided as evidence that we should be scared. The closest NPQ comes is to claim that “there is plenty to be concerned about in the relationships between philanthropy and journalism.”

Last but not least, the NPQ article discloses but doesn’t do much with the reality that it also is foundation-funded. Does “scary” outside funding apply only to journalism?

It’s true, not everyone believes that the Gates Foundation’s agenda is benign, even compared to some of the other foundations with strong education programs. And it’s a good reminder that there are other funders out there supporting topic-specific journalism such as The Marshall Project and The Trace — as well as the long-running funding relationships between Public Television stations and outside funders that have occasionally created serious problems. 

But this discussion deserves more nuanced discussion that it seems to receive here.

Related posts: EdWeek Sets Standard With Detailed Gates Foundation DisclosureWhat The Gates Foundation’s Learned About Funding Education Journalism.

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.