Journalism Funders Confidential #005: The power of peer networks

[Cross-posted from the Journalism Funders Forum website, where you can sign up for this newsletter.]

Earlier this month JFF hosted its first Journalism Funders Lab bringing together 50 representatives from the world of philanthropy and media to discuss ways how to make journalism funding in Europe more effective. In this edition, drawing on the main themes of the event, I turn the lens on journalism and media philanthropy itself.

TL;DR: 

  • Simplify – journalists and funders want to see simplified, streamlined application processes.
  • Trust – funders realise the need to trust journalism grantees, by giving them core grants for multiple years and particularly not tying grants to specific content.
  • Open up – more transparency around strategies, lessons, successes, failures and grants data among donors, as well as the field more broadly, is vital.
  • Aim high – all stakeholders need to think bigger and laterally to address the complex challenges confronting independent public-interest journalism.
  • Get or fund expert advice – funders and grantees need specialist help on business fundamentals, technology, security and other aspects vital to media’s viability.

We’re keen to hear your thoughts on these issues. You can contribute further research and links in our Google doc, or via Twitter to @ejcnet or @sdp, or at #JournalismFundersForum.

The power of peer networks

If you’re a philanthropic funder, and you’re curious about funding journalism, where do you go to find out what you can and should do? Whom do you ask? Since many funders with responsibility for journalism and media funding are not media specialists, there’s a growing amount of work trying to help them understand better how to get started, how to avoid pitfalls and doing harm, and how to improve. 

A little bedtime reading

 Reading up is an essential first step, but things really only accelerate through debate, discussion and exchange, and that is best done in person.

Hello, my name is…

There are very few spaces in European philanthropic circles where you can actually do this. The EFC’s Democracy cluster is one, the odd session in other thematic funder networks, and for German funders, the annual FoME meeting and Expertenkreis ensure that they have regular access to peers, but elsewhere?

This Hewlett Foundation-backed research about US grantmaking crystallises something that many European funders also recognise – foundation staff rely mainly on colleagues or peers in other funders when looking for information. But if you don’t have those connections, it’s quite hard to get started and develop trust ex nihilo.

The Journalism Funders Lab (JFLab)

The main idea of the JFLab, a sister initiative to this newsletter, was to accelerate the growth of connective tissue between European foundations funding, or interested in funding, journalism and media – and to make open as much of the content and discussions as possible (for further background on the event read this Medium article). 

Broadly speaking, here’s what the experts in the room thought funders particularly needed to do: 

Simplify: 

While due diligence is always important, both journalists and funders wanted to see simplified, streamlined application processes. Journalism organisations aren’t used to dealing with lengthy and jargonistic applications more suited to civil society settings – and there are many cases in which they shouldn’t have to. Sharing tips or videos, or hosting live chats, on how best to apply for funds can be really helpful. 

Trust: 

Amid debates about philanthropy’s power and legitimacy, funders talked about the need to trust journalism grantees, by giving them core grants for multiple years – and particularly not tying grants to specific content. This signal of trust in an organisation’s or network’s capacity and strategy is both respectful of editorial independence, and is more free to focus on its priorities and development than those of its donors. 

Open up: 

Application processes and funding decisions – and the rationale underpinning them – can often be very opaque. While there can be good reasons for this, e.g. security, in the vast majority of cases everyone stands to benefit from more transparency. Sharing plans, experiences, successes, failures and application tips is increasingly vital. One funder said the aforementioned Hewlett-funded research was worrying, as it showed how some are relying on a funder echo chamber for new grantee pipeline. They now try to take every call and enquiry, to be on the lookout for new talent. Where it is available, the data on funding of journalism and media is uneven. Publishing grants data to open data standards and platforms like 360Giving or Media Impact Funders is getting easier. 

Aim high: 

The challenge facing those who care about public-interest news is huge. Whether it’s because of market failure, or media capture, philanthropic funding at current rates will never pick up the slack, as the level of funding is nowhere near commensurate with the scale of the challenge. Donors, civil society and the field need to think bigger and think laterally (like eg. UNDP’s 60 new Accelerator Labs serving 78 countries). Coordination, collaboration and commons-based approaches may be part of the answer, as might pooled funds like Civitates – but also pushing governments and regulators to expand the range of options for how journalists might incorporate their businesses. 

Develop or fund expert advice: 

Most media funders, even those with some experience of journalism, struggle to stay across the complex challenges that media organisations around the world confront on a daily basis. Journalists too need expert support and advice – how can they access support to cover core aspects of running a business or organisation that they may not be trained or qualified to do? Some donors support field organisations that do this, others pay for independent consultants, and others pay for new specialised staff. 

Full session notes from the JFLab can be found here.

What else we’re reading this month

  • The State of Open Data is an accessible, comprehensive, collaboratively written overview of the open data field, 10 years after it emerged.
  • Forbidden Stories is leading this investigation into environmental reporters facing genuine threats to life and limb on the frontline.
  • The Reuters Institute’s 8th annual Digital News Report sees some real shifts of focus with news organisations increasingly looking to subscription and membership models to pay the bills.

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