Journalism Funders Confidential #006: How to fund investigative journalism

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

This time we’re taking a closer look at investigative journalism in the context of philanthropy. As with many other areas focused squarely on the public interest, investigative journalism (IJ) is systematically underfunded, including in Europe. 

The Global Investigative Journalism Conference returns to the continent this September, with investigative journalism thinkers, doers and funders from all over the globe converging on Hamburg to share ideas, lessons, tactics, techniques, and perhaps the odd portion of Labskaus or Aalsuppe… 

On this occasion, the Deutsche Welle Akademie will present a briefing paper (researched and written by Sameer Padania) aimed at potential funders of the IJ sector. Today, to whet your appetite, we’re giving you an exclusive sneak preview of the paper’s main findings.

We’re keen to hear your thoughts on these issues. You can contribute further research by adding links to our Google doc, or share them via Twitter with us by using @ejcnet@sdp, or #JournalismFundersForum.

How to fund investigative journalism

Moves are underway to try to support potential donors to think through why and how they might help investigative journalism. Already this year, two separate major international funds to support IJ have been proposed and discussed: one focused on IJ, from OCCRP and GFMD, and another with a significant IJ sub-fund, from Luminate and BBC Media Action.

As part of this, DW Akademie will soon release a briefing paper featuring a quick tour d’horizon of investigative journalism around the world, its major strengths and challenges, and a practical guide to getting involved in funding the practice. The paper is based on expert interviews with practitioners from many regions of the world, and funders, primarily from Europe. 

Key findings

1. Free, independent, quality information is the lifeblood of healthy communities, democracies, and open societies. By unearthing new information of importance through in-depth, rigorous research, investigative journalism is a key part of the flow of that information. That said, it is a small field, with perhaps fewer than 7,000 investigative journalists worldwide, and needs support to counter the many threats and challenges it faces.

 2. As investigative journalism – through lack of resources, government pressure and other factors – gets squeezed out of many newsrooms, investigative journalists have been setting up or working with independent investigative organisations. Some of these are – like the challenges IJ faces – hybrid, cross-disciplinary, new forms of organisation or investigation, including with or inside civil society organisations and universities, which donors need to find ways to fund, even those that don’t always fit easily into internal grantmaking categories. 

3. Independence is critical for IJ, but it does not automatically bring stability or control – for some, yes, but for most, the price of independence is increased precariousness. 

4. Many IJ units are reliant on a handful of primary sources of funding, including philanthropic funding, making them vulnerable both to donor priorities per se, and to changes in those priorities, e.g, project funds or thematically-tied funds. Donors have a responsibility to help IJ grantees maximise their independence, and minimise the risk of being seen as donor sockpuppets. 

5. Core funding is key to the field (everyone always say this, but it is especially true of IJ). Specialist funders tend to provide core multi-year funds as these provide a measure of stability and flexibility to the grantee, and maximise its independence. But there aren’t many of these specialist funders, and their resources are, of course, finite. 

6. Many funders worry about their grantees’ financial sustainability – DWA’s recent discussion papers encourage donors to think more about their ‘viability’. There is some debate about this in the field – is fundraising or working towards greater revenue diversity (and in theory greater independence) the best use of IJ groups’ time, or does it in fact distract them from their core purpose? 

7. Some in the field – and some donors – argue that IJ is a public good that is beyond such market-driven logic, and should be wholly subsidised. The notion that it may just be more efficient to give IJ groups some form of universal basic income is also floating in the ether… 

8. Some organisations have adopted an approach – also attractive to donors – that seeks to increase their engagement with their audiences – for income through donations and membership, for solidarity, for collaboration with expert audience members. They stress, however, that such routes are not just a bolt-on activity, but lead to having to rethink how the organisation works – and, crucially, bring new overheads. 

9. The IJ field itself has challenges it needs support on, and many of the grantees interviewed on this occasion said they especially appreciate those donors who are willing to fund the ‘unsexy stuff’: a finance person, a business development manager, support on organizational management and development. Some also talked about the role donors can play in helping the IJ field develop more diversity in who defines it and speaks for it, at all levels from local to international. 

10. And lastly, donors need – as well as increasing core funds for the investigative sector – to be talking, sharing data, expertise and experiences, coordinating, developing common standards and ways of making funding easier to access (and more journalist-friendly) and less burdensome to report on. If only there were a European forum where this kind of thing were possible…

We hope that this provides some food for thought over the summer months, and that some of you may be in Hamburg in September to engage with these ideas, and with the field more broadly. If so, start brushing up on your Plattdeutsch, and Adjüüs for the summer!

What else we’re reading this month

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