New Report Critiques Beat-Specific Foundation Funding For Sustainability, Influence Issues

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For now, at least, foundation-funded education journalism seems to be doing pretty well, right?

But beat-specific news outlets might not be the way foundations go over the long term, according to a blog post from the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard (A new report from Dodge says foundations wanting to support journalism should be more agile).

There are two reasons that funders shouldn’t support beat-specific journalism, according to the Dodge report.

Long-term sustainability is one issue — foundations don’t usually cover salaries and base costs over the long haul — but another is the nagging question of foundation influence over story assignments and reporting.

From the Nieman blog post:

“When foundations do decide to support news organization, [the Dodge Foundation report authors] recommend that they focus on supporting operations and infrastructure, not specific beats… funding content isn’t always in the best long-term interest of the organizations.”

But that’s just one reason. The other is the inevitable/unavoidable issue of influence.

From the underlying Dodge Foundation report itself:

“Funding content/beats is not a sustainable approach for news organizations or foundations — philanthropy can’t and won’t pay for journalist salaries indefinitely. Furthermore, funding content exposes both news organizations and foundations to criticism that foundations are deliberately influencing coverage

For now, foundations and news outlets are relying on ever-expanding disclosure statements and assertions of journalistic independence, with varying degrees of success. Just yesterday, the Education Writers Association’s announcement of its new education fellows funded by Gates and Nellie Mae noted that “Fellows and their partnering news outlets maintain sole editorial control of the work they produce.”

There are other, less drastic options than funders getting out of the education journalism business. Some experts like Columbia’s Nick Lemann have called for a code of ethics for nonprofit journalism, and some outlets like Chalkbeat are apparently working on just that approach. I’ll let you know when I find out more about that. 

Related posts: A Code Of Ethics For Nonprofit 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.