Philanthropy’s growing role in American journalism: New study reveals increased funding and ethical considerations

A new study conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago in partnership with Media Impact Funders and The Lenfest Institute for Journalism that examines the role of philanthropy in American news.

August 24, 2023

A new study conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago in partnership with Media Impact Funders and The Lenfest Institute for Journalism that examines the role of philanthropy in American journalism found strong growth in support for nonprofit news over the past five years, an increase in funding to for-profit newsrooms, and a growing focus on communities of color. At the same time, the study reveals the need for more newsrooms to disclose donors and adopt clear conflict-of-interest policies to protect editorial independence and public trust.

A total of 129 funders and 431 news organizations responded to the survey. The study received additional funding from the MacArthur Foundation and Arnold Ventures, and builds on the last comprehensive survey of funders and newsrooms in 2015 by the American Press Institute (API).

More than half of funders said their journalism grantmaking had increased in the last five years, with roughly a third reporting funding journalism for the first time. The trend is set to continue, with more than half saying they anticipated bigger investments in the future. These philanthropic investments follow more than two decades of decline in commercial revenue for the U.S. daily newspaper industry, which peaked at $89 billion in 2000.

“We’re seeing more and more foundations that haven’t historically supported journalism move into the sector,” said Vince Stehle, MIF’s executive director. “But equally important, we are seeing many other foundations that have supported journalism with modest grants in past years doubling down and increasing their commitments in order to protect democracy and civic engagement in their communities.”

While 64 percent of funders said they prefer to fund nonprofit journalism, most of the others said tax status doesn’t matter (19%), they prefer a mix (12%), or they preferred supporting for-profit outlets (2%). Responding to a separate question, 38% of funders said they’ve supported a for-profit news organization in the last five years.

“Funders are drawn increasingly to the importance, the impact, and the independence of the journalism they support across a broad array of news organizations and business models,” said Jim Friedlich, executive director and CEO of The Lenfest Institute. “Thankfully, there is no one-size-fits-all model for journalism funding.”

Funders describe making grants in multiple areas, with 74% reporting they fund journalism that addresses a specific topic or problem and 71% saying they make investments to increase local journalism. More than 50% say they make grants to help journalists increase community engagement, produce investigative reporting, or support news organizations with fundraising and business sustainability.  

Six in 10 funders said they had made grants to news outlets primarily focused on serving communities of color, and of those, seven in 10 said their grantmaking to outlets serving communities of color had increased. Respondents from outlets serving people of color painted a slightly different picture, with only half reporting their funding had increased.

The new study offers mixed signals about the perceived editorial independence of news from funding sources. Newspaper publishers historically maintained firewalls between advertisers and newsrooms to protect editorial independence, and having multiple advertisers meant no one could have undue influence. But most nonprofit newsrooms are small, some are focused on a single topic, and some funders are also advocates in the issue areas covered.

The survey shows progress on funding disclosure and conflict of interest policies since the 2015 report. Seven in 10 nonprofit news operations now have written policies about disclosing funders, up from four in 10 eight years ago. Nearly half have written guidelines about what money they will accept, up from just over a third.

But the risk of conflict of interest has grown alongside funding. More funders are financing journalism in areas where they also do policy work (57% vs. 52% eight years ago), and four in 10 outlets take money to do specific reporting suggested by a funder, though that percentage has dropped significantly from 59% eight years ago.

Still, 92 percent of respondents from nonprofit news organizations and 83 percent from for-profit news outlets said funders never saw editorial content prior to publication they helped underwrite, a key safeguard of editorial integrity.

“To earn and keep the public’s trust, funders and news organizations should agree on clear and universal guidelines to protect against conflicts of interest,” said Tom Rosenstiel, the Eleanor Merrill Professor on the Future of Journalism at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism and a senior fellow at NORC. “In an era where anyone can publish a web page that looks like a news site, unflinching commitment to ethics will set independent news organizations apart,” said Rosenstiel, who oversaw the 2015 survey as then-executive director of API.

Read the toplines from the funder survey.

Read the toplines from the nonprofit survey.

Read the toplines from the for-profit survey.

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