8 April 2024

The Vital Connection: How Journalism Strengthens the Impact of Philanthropy

In a world where the pillars of democracy face unprecedented challenges, the relationship between philanthropy and journalism is mutually beneficial. While independent media grapples with daunting challenges and crises, the decision to fund journalism emerges not merely as an act of altruism but as an indispensable strategic imperative, wielding profound influence in shaping societal narratives and driving transformative change.

The significance of journalism often gets overshadowed by the buzz of social media, flashy headlines, and the discussions on misinformation. Yet, on 15 March, at the annual event of the Journalism Funders Forum, representatives from the philanthropic world discussed why independent media and philanthropies mutually need each other, how journalism strengthens the impact of philanthropies, and the importance of new players entering the journalism funding field.

Journalism as a Tool for Societal Objectives

Quality journalism and media organisations face numerous substantial challenges. Media capture, where media are controlled by governments and/or non-state groups with vested interests, the general decline in trust in the media, and the rise of social media platforms are just a few examples. Additionally, the media industry has struggled to recover from the 2008/09 financial crisis as its traditional business model crumbled. While there is a continuous rise in global advertising expenditure, a significant portion of it is monopolised by tech behemoths, therefore, the biggest challenge lies in financial sustainability – maintaining operations without relying excessively on external funding sources – highlighting the need for journalism grants. As Jonathan Heawood, Executive Director, the Public Interest News Foundation argued, “80 percent of the headspace of brilliant journalists is taken away by worrying about bills.”

This stark reality underscores the critical need for more funders, especially new players in the field, to step forward and support journalism. However, convincing potential funders has proven to be a daunting task, as many of them carry a prevailing reluctance to invest in media, often perceived as a failing enterprise. Moreover, journalists themselves may not always be the most effective advocates for their own cause. Compounding these challenges is the general erosion of trust in traditional media, fuelled by the proliferation of mis- and disinformation. Despite these hurdles, the imperative to fund journalism remains clear.

For philanthropy seeking to champion press freedom, the rationale for funding journalism is self-evident. However, even for those with different philanthropic goals, investing in journalism can serve as a powerful means to achieve broader societal objectives. This might prompt potential funders to consider thematic funding, involving grants for reporting on specific topics such as social justice, healthcare, or environmental concerns.

As Jonathan Heawood argued, while this approach may lead to some immediate or medium-term improvements, achieving long-term impact necessitates considering the sustainability of journalism. He urged a deeper understanding of the underlying ecosystem. Just as biological ecosystems require productivity, resilience, and organisation, the information ecosystem must also be nurtured to yield the desired outcome: democracy. Adrian Arena, Director of International Human Rights, the Oak Foundation, echoed this sentiment, emphasising that at its core, the endeavour to fund journalism is fundamentally about safeguarding democracy.

Harnessing the Power of Journalism

However, selling the concept of democracy as a noble cause has become increasingly challenging. Democratic rights are under attack by populist movements and authoritarian governments across various regions. Programs promoting such rights often result in backlash, leading to the stigmatisation of involved organisations. For instance, many countries employ narratives that label such organisations as foreign agents meddling in sovereignty, with civil society organisations and independent media being vilified as adversaries and frequently subjected to smear campaigns. Consequently, for some philanthropies, the perceived risks associated with supporting democracy, human rights, or journalism in certain regions may deter their involvement.

Still, regardless their focus, it is imperative for every philanthropy to engage the public, creating critical pressure and fostering long-term results. Public outreach and storytelling are indispensable elements of every successful program, which underscores the critical role of journalists in defining narratives. As a conference participant argued, to achieve systemic changes, decision-makers need to feel responsible and inspired to act, and a powerful driving force behind this is evidence-based, balanced and solutions-driven narratives driven by independent journalism.

The power of influencing hearts and minds cannot be overstated, and media serves as a very potent avenue for achieving this goal. Failure to harness the potential of journalism means missing out on a significant opportunity for outreach and impact. Furthermore, even a relatively modest investment in journalism funding can yield substantial results, making a meaningful impact on society.

Speaking of impact, Miguel Castro, Head of Global Media Partnerships, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, emphasised the critical importance of demonstrating impact to convince potential funders, highlighting its dual role as also a tool for media outlets to attract subscribers by showcasing the value of their journalistic product.

However, measuring the impact of journalism funding projects presents challenges due to the difficulty in establishing causal relationships between positive impact and journalists’ publications, given journalism’s multifaceted nature which encompasses informing the public, shaping opinion, fostering accountability, and influencing policy, with these effects often being indirect and hard to quantify. Fortunately, various metrics, such as public revelations, can be utilised, with journalism funding projects proving relatively easy to monitor due to their daily publication cycle, facilitating continuous monitoring.

The ultimate impact of journalism funding, however, extends beyond mere metrics, encompassing discourse shifts and policy changes. The unique ability of journalism to elevate issues onto the agenda creates fertile ground for tangible policy transformations.

Navigating Challenges and Strategies for Effective Funding

Navigating the landscape of journalism funding requires a strategic approach, but, as a participant emphasised, it is not as daunting as it may seem, and it works similarly to other fields. Prospective funders must clarify their objectives from the outset. It is paramount to collaborate with local consultants and partners possessing in-depth knowledge of the media landscape and organisations, whether they are trustworthy and produce quality journalism. Due diligence is also important, particularly in regions with high levels of media capture and limited press freedom.

Engaging with other funders fosters mutual learning and advocacy efforts. Coordination among funders is essential not only to prevent unnecessary overlaps but also to share experiences and insights. Additionally, coordination can extend beyond information sharing: pooled funds offer an alternative entry point, facilitating more significant capital involvement and expertise aggregation. Adrian Arena highlighted their benefits, including expanded geographic reach and collective peer strength in managing potentially sensitive programming.

Journalists’ sensitivity to editorial independence is paramount, necessitating programs built on mutual trust and respect for the autonomy of news organisations. While financial support is crucial, capacity building can be equally vital for sustainability, encompassing legal counselling and assistance with SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), brought by individuals and entities to deter their critics from continuing to produce negative publicity. In certain cases, even psychological support can be valuable. In conclusion, while funding journalism might seem daunting, it presents an opportunity also for new players and thematic funders to make a significant impact.

The Journalism Funders Forum stands as an entry point for funders new to the field, providing a space for European philanthropies to engage proactively in supporting independent, quality journalism and its role in democracy, harnessing its power to shape narratives, drive systemic change, and foster accountability.

Portrait photo credit; CEU Democracy Institute


Robert Nemeth
Journalism Expert, Media and Journalism Research Center, and Journalism Funders Forum newsletter editor