Field Notes in Philanthropy: What’s the Story?
Episode 3: What’s the Story?
We set out to talk about how and why journalists and the media struggle to cover the news of philanthropy. What we discovered is that it’s often a struggle to cover anything at all. Since the 2016 election, U.S. philanthropy has woken up to the idea that fact-based, independent journalism might need their help – as long as there’s a strict editorial firewall in place.
Nina Sachdev, Communications Director for Media Impact Funders and Bruce DeBoskey, writer of the Denver Post nationally-syndicated column On Philanthropy, join the hosts to discuss a blossoming symbiotic relationship between the free press and the charitable sector.
PC: Welcome to Field Notes in Philanthropy, I'm Patrick Center.
TM: I'm Tory Martin.
MD: And I'm Matthew Downey. So in our first episode, we talked about really the impetus for this podcast series in the first place, which was really about reflecting on how the media covered foundations and non-profits in the election, for example, the Clinton Foundation and the Trump Foundation, and really feeling like the media struggled to tell that story. Maybe created false equivalencies between the two stories. And that kind of helped us think and launch this podcast. And so, Tory, you went to go put this episode together, and what did you find?
TM: I actually found that it was darn near impossible to find anyone who wanted to talk to us about this subject. I actually was fortunate enough to come across an Alliance magazine volume from December of 2017, so very recently, in which they were also going to talk about this issue of philanthropy in the media. And there are seven or eight individual articles in here and you know, none of them are about how the media covers philanthropy. They're all very much about what the special editor for that issue, Miguel Castro, who works for the Gates Foundation, called “the pursuit of mutually assured survival” between philanthropy and media. So he really talked about the nature of that relationship and the importance of philanthropy funding and supporting media, but it really had nothing to do with media coverage of philanthropy. So that was out.
And then in my, uh, poking around I found a New York Times article that was supposed to be about, um, advocating for more transparency in the charitable sector. I got all excited about it, only to click on the link and discover that it was written by David Callahan who is the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy. So, even though David has perfectly legitimate opinions in this and is very knowledgeable, you know, he's an insider. This is not a New York Times journalist writing about philanthropy. This is philanthropy talking about itself. So, you know, for a number of people we've reached out to hear a) we had trouble finding people in the first place and secondly, a lot of them just declined to talk to us because they didn't feel like they could speak on this subject.
So fortunately we are really lucky in this room to have our own journalist from the not-for-profit space, Patrick Center. How are you engaging with this? I mean obviously the question of philanthropy and the media is near and dear to your heart. So what has been your perspective and experience here?
PC: Well, most journalists aren't focusing on philanthropy, right? I mean it's, it's the burning house, it's the accident, whatever it might be. Of course, we do a little bit more in-depth reporting here and look at more issue-oriented stories. But when the Grand Rapids Community Foundation approached us to forge a partnership and to focus on local non-profit stories, uh, the series is called “Gifts for the Greater Good: Philanthropy in West Michigan,” you know, I really took it upon myself. I'm curious and I wanted to know more about the sector. And so I began taking courses with the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University, learning about the history, learning about management, learning the nuances of the non-profit sector. And it really opened my eyes because you really understand the history, and I always do the 30,000 feet perspective, and that is, you really have three sectors in this country, right? You have government, you have the private sector, and philanthropy. And so essentially philanthropy fills the void, in many ways. The things that government doesn't do well, philanthropy steps in. The areas where our capitalists aren't going to make money, philanthropy steps in. So that's kind of the big picture. But I think this conversation and where we want to go is we're looking at how philanthropy and media are really intertwined and what is that common thread. And I think what we're going to see here, in this conversation, is it's really about building relationships and building trust. And I think we're going to have a really fascinating conversation, uh, with our guests and I'm really looking forward to getting to it.
MD: And I think reflecting back on where we started, right? From this, wanting to tell this story in the media. I think there's really important points that I think we're going to get the chance to talk about today. I think it's really looking at, um, what's democracy and the role and the relationship that media, and journalism has to a surviving and thriving democracy, and that the not-for-profit sector and philanthropy has a critical relationship to democracy as well. I think this is about also an understanding about what it means to be non-profit and that, um, this is not about how much profit you make. It's about what you do with the profits and the non-distribution constraint on non-profit organizations and Americans’ on-going distrust or growing distrust of institutions comes up here, I think. And um, this notion that philanthropy is very deeply personal and when people are making philanthropic decisions, but that the benefit is as equally external as it is internal and there's this interplay. And so I just think these are all really relevant points that are ongoing dialogue in our sector that I'll just come up in this issue.
TM: Because that's what we're really getting at here is that philanthropy and media as we understand it, as Americans, going back to the Alexis de Tocqueville days – there, I did it again – is the notion that independent journalism is absolutely fundamental to a functioning democracy. You have to have reliable, consistent, fact-based independent journalism available to the people, and the people have to read it, which is the second half of that statement, in order to have a fully functioning democracy. It's about civic engagement. It's about civic empowerment. And to a great extent that is also philanthropy's mission. Philanthropy is about causing a change in your community, a change in your environment, you know, for the greater good, however you see that. And that of course can go many ways, but fundamentally they're both working towards this notion of the greater good and you know, I mean you say the word history, Patrick, who do we think of when we think of the great reforming journalists? Nellie Bly, uh pretending to have mental health issues to be in an asylum for 10 days and overturning that system. It's all about reform and the connections between philanthropy and media here are just limitless, if they are, you know, undergirded by these notions of money, trust, clarity, independence--
TM: transparency, all of the above.
PC: But of course everything is kind of blurred right now. And I don't know if that's a product of the 2016 election or if it's, if it's strictly the ideologies of people in where their political tents are staked. But as a journalist, you know, there's really there, I mentioned the blurred lines. You have journalists, true journalists who are doing good work each and every day, and then you have political pundits and I think you're seeing this friction right now, taking place. Plus there's just an overload of information for people to process right now. And so there's this muddied landscape that we live in as consumers of media and you probably see this happening also in the non-profit sector. I mean people don't always understand how it all works, and so you're just seeing all this at play right now in society and it takes so much for people to figure it all out. So that's why we're here.
TM, MD, PC: *Laughter*
TM: And that ya know, it's--
PC: *Laughter* to clear it up.
TM: And that is sort of about journalism justifying itself to a certain extent. I think we're in a space where journalism is being asked to make the argument for itself again. And I think, you know, especially in the wake of tax reform conversations, in the wake of some of these scandals or questionable practices between the Trump and Clinton Foundations and other organizations, philanthropy's being asked to justify itself a little bit too. And there's this kind of give and take of what, what both sides of this seesaw can really do to help support each other and to support this ultimate outcome of strong, civically-engaged citizenship
MD: Because, for democracy to work, Americans have to be able to associate. It's free association, and free association with institutions, that we stopped trusting those institutions. Democracy falls apart if we stop trusting journalism. Democracy falls apart. It's a very critical conversation.
TM: You're listening to Field Notes in Philanthropy.
PC: Nina Sachdev is the Communications Director for Media Impact Funders. Nina, thank you for joining us today. Can you tell us a little bit about your organization?
NS: Sure. Media Impact Funders is a member-supported network of funders who support media in the public interest. Uh, we're a learning resource for grantmakers who want to use journalism um, documentary film, immersive technologies like VR, and other types of media to further their missions of creating long-term and sustainable social change. We're also a catalyst for collaboration and innovation. So our meetings bring together leaders in the field to advance knowledge about issues that are critical to the public interest regardless of topic area. For example, with support from the Rita Allen Foundation, we've launched an initiative to develop resources to help funders support productive engagement with science and evidence. And we hosted several meetings on the science of science communications to explore why people accept or reject information, which is a hot topic right now
TM: Yeah, certainly.
NS: And how that data might affect our storytelling strategies.
MD: Nina, I wonder in the conversations that you have with your members and at conferences and things about sort of the role with philanthropy, and it's supportive as you talked about issues that are important to the public. How does, how does the conversation around trust and firewall, and how does that emerge so that funders approach this perhaps in a way that, um, they're making sure that conversation happens. But how does the public trust that they’re not shaping the conversation in any way?
NS: Well, that's an interesting question. You know, there's a, there's an active and robust conversation inside of philanthropy about defining the firewall. Funders understand that any perception of influence taints their investment and funders address this firewall in a variety of ways. You know, you have foundations like MacArthur [John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation] who provides general operating support and lets the experienced journalists do their jobs. And of course there are many other funders who want to target their funding to issues that align with their interests, which is great. But the nature of that relationship needs to be discussed in the grantmaking process, and you know, not when the story is ready to go to print. Ultimately, editorial independence and transparency are the hallmarks of journalistic credibility. And ya know, we found that research shows that the more transparent a news organization is about its mission and ethics, the more trust the public places in it. From, you know, from the funders’ side, there's, you know, there’s a growing field of non-profit news organizations and um, they finally have a set of ethical guidelines. For, you know, for-profit journalism organizations, they've typically been able to rely on the Society of Professional Journalists because they have a standard that they've been following for years. But there's obviously a set of issues that are specific to foundation-funded journalism. And these guidelines were established by the American Press Institute and they cover best practices and offer detailed guidelines with respect to ethics and transparency and they have a set for newsrooms and they have another set specifically for funders. And going back to your question about what was it specifically, whether the public knows about the transparency...
MD: Yeah, how can that be communicated to the public or, you know, how can trust be built with the public so they know, yeah, this fair journalistic reporting that I'm getting? That the funder’s merely making sure that the conversation happens. Or am I getting information that's been shaped by the funder in some way?
NS: Yeah, that's a great question. And I think it's up to, it's up to the news outlets and the funders to be transparent about that. And I mean, I can give you some examples. For instance, The Texas Tribune, which is a non-profit news site, they do a really great job of being transparent about all of their donors and all of their members and they actually list those members on their website dating all the way back to their inception in 2009. And they also publish all their tax forms um, a code of ethics that includes their journalism practices and sources of revenue. So that's one example of a news organization that's trying to go above and beyond in being transparent. And I do think that, um, you know, there's a lot of, there's a lot more work to be done in this space, but I think, again, on behalf of the funders, they're doing everything they can to make sure that they're not influencing the coverage.
TM: I'm curious about this. Some of the things you were talking about here are codes of ethics from the American Press Institute and elsewhere that are fairly new, um, that had been put together and really publicized and shared as resources for the industry in the last couple of years. Um, that that does seem to beg the question of, you know, why now? Why are we having all of these conversations, all of a sudden, about making sure that the firewall is both clearly lived and operated by funders and journalists, but also understood by readers? Um, is, is that just simply part of, you know, this kind of general ethos of distrust, unfortunately, that has been building up in the last 20 years or so of, you know, various institutions failing on us so we questioned things? I mean, what's, what's bringing this, this need to the front? I mean, do you suddenly have people knocking down your doors at Media Impact Funders saying, “how can we help?” that three, five years ago that wasn't happening? Basically the “why now” question. Sorry, there was a lot there.
NS: That's such a complicated question and I think there are a lot of answers to that, but mostly I think, you know, misinformation, disinformation and propaganda are creating confusion and doubt about who and what to trust. And I think it's left us with a culture that is growing more fearful of science and fact,s and so when you have a population that is dealing with declining local news in their communities and news deserts, combined with news is being shared by their peers on social media, you know, and they're not taking the time to figure out if it's true or not – where it's really coming from – I think that's the answer to the “why now?”
PC: And so much of this too is just so much information that's out there and really the population not always taking the time to search and to know whether or not the outlet is legitimate. Plus, they're saturated in social media. And it's uh, how much time do I have in the day? It's this 24-hour news cycle and then people view the world through their own political lens. I mean, there's so much to tackle and to wade through, and then it just becomes a question of how much time do people want to devote, or care to devote, to knowing what is legitimate and what is true news?
NS: Yeah, absolutely. In today's information exchange, people like you said, are dealing with so much overload and I think there seems to be a growing disconnect between expert scientific consensus and public belief and the more research coming out today is telling us, unequivocally, that people, because they're overloaded, they're seeking out information that supports their worldview. And so this opens up another issue that I think is worth discussing, which is we need more media literacy in this country. I think we're focusing on telling stories so that people can understand the world, but I wonder if we also need to just go back to basics a little bit and say, OK, “what is a credible source?” That seems to be the world we're living in now because of all the information that's out there and because of all the bad information that's out there. So you know, if public trust is an issue, and if it continues to be an issue, no matter how many charts and numbers and graphs and facts we throw at them about climate change and vaccine safety and any number of issues we can think of, then it sounds like we need to focus more on media literacy and transparency about where the information is coming from.
MD: I think there's such, really innovative things going on in education today that's responsive to this issue. Um, some really fascinating ways that they're preparing eighth graders to look at the media that they're getting into and become more critical in understanding how to identify what a good source is are not. I think that's amazing. This makes me think about a conversation in our last episode around foundations and this nature of foundations to be very in the background. Like they want to fund things, but yet, culturally, they want to not be out in front on an issue and they want to stay to the background. And I think it isn't just about where information is coming from and how do we as a society think critically about its validity and how to investigate whether it's a true source or not. There's the other side of that is how do foundations and what does, what does society’s confusion over foundations and non-profits and what their role is, and understanding that there are these firewalls could legitimately exists and that organizations have values that they to and live by and um, that we can be in a, in a good confident space in certain funding sources or information sources. It's just a really interesting topic to see that there's, I think, confusion on both sides make this more complicated.
NS: Yeah, I think so. And you know, I'm, I'm on the foundation side so I don't, I'm not necessarily at the forefront of what people think about foundations or what they say about foundations, but I can say that I think foundations are getting a lot better at telling their own stories. They're not operating in the shadows as much anymore. I think they're embracing transparency. There's an organization that's solely dedicated to helping them use their voices for change and it's the Communications Network. So I think, I think, you know, there is a consensus that foundations need to be transparent and need to tell their stories so that people understand what it is they do, because they do so much.
TM: And there’s the second question there that foundations are becoming much better at sharing their own news, but then there's the question of getting that news shared by media outlets. I mean it's, it's one thing to put out a press release if you're the Ford Foundation, or to put out a tweet, but you know, there are far fewer people, I don't have it off the top of my head, but far fewer people follow the Ford Foundation on twitter, than follow NPR. Then follow the Washington Post. Than follow any number of other news outlets. So that's a question, too, of how is philanthropy thinking about getting their story covered? I mean, is that something that your funders are asking about or interested in?
NS: You know, we're not getting a lot of that from our network, but again, we've, we support media funders. So I think, for them, they're focused on getting attention for the projects they support. So for example, the Peabody Awards were just announced and Chasing Coral, which is an excellent documentary and a foundation-supported documentary, just won a Peabody. That's a win, I think, for the foundations who are supporting projects like that. That's a win for them. And I agree that, you know, the Ford Foundation is not, doesn't have a lot of, you know, the most followers on Twitter and foundations in my experience, and in our experience, aren't getting public attention the way you know, WaPo is or the New York Times. But I think it just depends on what their, what their goals and what their mission is.
PC: Well, we have a relationship with the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, underwritten for several years, and essentially the idea is that we go out and we tell the stories of corporate philanthropy or an individual who's doing good work in the community, but the Grand Rapids Community Foundation does not dictate to us what to cover, who to cover. But the idea is to shine the light on those organizations, those people in our community that are doing good work. And by doing that the Grand Rapids Community Foundation gets, gets its name in the community, but then also we help to educate people in our universe of listeners and followers. They get to hear and see those stories that are impacting their lives.
TM: And that's so much the beauty of local journalism's ability to be on the ground in places where, you know, small nonprofits or small foundations, family foundations, um, are doing a lot of great community work that isn't necessarily going to get the attention of a national newspaper, but is able to be shared and well worth sharing among community outlets who can really, you know, know people and provide regular updates on the work of philanthropy and non-profits. Um, it's a real argument for local journalism. Nina, how are you seeing funders, especially new funders who are joining this space, What are their goals in entering this arena?
NS: Well, I think it depends on who the funder is. A growing number of foundations have stepped up to address so many of these issues because they see that an assault on journalism is an assault on democracy, which, um, you know, a lot of people are talking about. I think community and place-based foundations have a real opportunity to support their local media ecosystems, um, because there are a lot of citizens in news deserts that just, just need information and need to be informed. So I can give you an example. There's a place based foundation called the Greater New Orleans Foundation, which traditionally has supported communities along the coast of Louisiana and they support, you know, they offer health and social services and what they're seeing is that their coast is rapidly transforming. And so to better inform their constituents, they funded the creation of a coastal news desk for its local public radio station. So it's residents could just have more information about what's going on. So I think funders are understanding that journalism is a critical, crucial tool in civic engagement. And that's what we're seeing across the board. You know, regardless of whatever topic their funding, if they care about gun violence, they're seeing that documentary can help further that mission. So sometimes supporting media is a means to an end and sometimes it's a way to make progress on the issue they care about. And they're seeing that, you know, today they may not necessarily be making the progress that they would like to see without supporting media.
TM: Absolutely. Because that's all back to the kind of news wasteland concept that overall staffing is decreasing significantly. The Pew Research Center does a State of the Media report annually and they've noticed just drastic reductions in newsroom staffs in the last couple of years. Things like, um, you know, between 2004 and 2015, the number of Americans working as reporters or editors dropped 37 percent in just that 11 year period. And that is just a huge reduction in workforce size. So they're just are fewer people to cover the news entirely, let alone specifically cover Gulf issues, or philanthropy issues, or crime and safety issues. Um, it's just kind of a, a huge issue that maybe philanthropy is stepping in to fill the sort of personnel gaps.
NS: Yeah. Absolutely. And we desperately need that representation, especially when our society is facing so many challenges and it's important that journalists and people who tell stories become aware of all of these dynamics so that they can tell stories and deliver them to the people who need to hear them the most. So if there are, you know, there's a group of climate deniers and how do we get those stories in front of them. I think we're learning that different people need to hear different things at different times. So that's one thing that philanthropy is working on. And also going back to staffing, I think philanthropy has stepped up in a number of ways to, to try to address these questions and one of them, um, which is close to you guys, is an example out of Flint. The ACLU of Michigan is the only ACLU chapter in the country to have an investigative reporter on staff. And that position was made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation. At the time they recognized that there was a serious and immediate need to understand what was happening in Flint during the water crisis and they stepped up to, um, to hire a veteran reporter, uh, Curt Guyette, who told us later that the work he was doing there for the ACLU was the most important work he had ever done. So that's, I mean, that's pretty powerful stuff.
MD: You know, as you've been talking, Nina, I've been thinking about this, um, where I, I don't know the full details of the story, but NPR I know was working with some environmental funders and they were doing focus groups with Americans on what kind of messaging they need to hear or when they hear messaging, how do they react? And so this issue around, like, dams and the effect that dams can have on the environment comes up. And they test the issue out on sort of removing dams and how do people respond to that. And this group of, you know, red blooded American said, “well, why would we ever remove any dams?” Like “we're Americans, we build dams, we don't take them down.” And I thought it was just so fascinating that I think that foundations and philanthropy needs to hear that, that we need to know that these messages need some, some translation and some tweaking in order to have them be effective. And media needs to know how people respond to messaging in order for any of this to, I think, at the end of the day, have the impact that we want it to have. Thank you so much for your time, Nina. I think this is a really enlightening conversation and I'm just so much to think about.
NS: Thank for having me on!
MD: You’re listening to Field Notes in Philanthropy.
TM: Our next guest is Bruce DeBoskey. He's the author of a column called, On Philanthropy, which is actually a nationally syndicated column that starts in the Denver Post and uh, is distributed to over 600 news outlets by the Chicago Tribune New Service. So, welcome Bruce! Thanks for joining us today!
BD: Happy to be here.
TM: Wonderful. So now, you are a particularly interesting person to talk to right about now because the Denver Post is sort of at the nexus of a lot of these conversations we've been having so far. So, in early April, just for some background, the Post’s op-ed page, which is called “Perspective,” ran an entire weekend section in which they denounced the venture capital firm, Alden Capital Group, that had purchased the paper in 2010, and runs it through their Digital Media First arm since that point. So, this is all kind of going on right this second, right Bruce?
BD: Exactly. We're all, we’re all dealing with this here in Denver.
TM: So, can you tell us a little bit about how this happened, and why?
BD: So, Alden Capital Group is a venture capital group that bought a bunch of newspapers around the country, and its business model appears to be to squeeze, and squeeze, and squeeze, and cut costs, and cut costs, and squeeze the profits out of newspapers. And actually, newspapers are still profitable. Less so than they used to be in their heyday, but there's still money flowing into advertising, um, and subscriptions for newspapers. And so they're, they're, they're making money, but they're doing it by reducing the quality of the content by reducing the number of journalists who actually report.
BD: And investigate and write. And so that's what's happened here, is that a newsroom that once had over 200 people in it, now it's down to 60. And ya know, 60 [people] to cover everything from news to business to sports to arts to entertainment to everything, it’s just, there's just, they can't do it. And so, what appears to be happening is that this venture capital group is going to continue to cut, continue to squeeze the lifeblood out of this great, over a hundred-year-old newspaper, until, it's predicted, that in two or three years it won't even exist anymore. And, and that would be catastrophic for a lot of reasons, which I'm happy to talk about, for Colorado.
MD: What you're proposing is almost a state capital without a local paper to cover all the stories. I know that in, in places where I interact, there's always like uh, a phrase everybody talks about when the newspaper comes up, they always say, “and well since there's no more newspapers,” it's just sort of becomes ingrained into, um, sort of the, um, you know, public psyche about newspapers. I mean, what are the people in Denver, Bruce, doing, about this issue?
BD: The people are really upset here and this latest round of cuts, which is what, what really triggered a, a public outcry and the um, the um editorial comments that you were just talking about, couple of weeks ago, when they cut another 30 people from the news room. And these are trained, professional journalists. I mean the concern is, is that without a newspaper, how do people get their news? And how they get their news is increasingly from non-journalist sources that have, proven to be not terribly reliable. And uh, local journalism and on the ground journalism, is one of the ways to keep people informed, educated, active, involved in democracy. It's, it’s a critical, critical component of our democracy.
So, people are responding in lots of different ways. Um, there's really two major efforts that are going on now and one is, is there uh, a business community that recognizes the value of a good newspaper in a community that's willing to invest - and is Alden willing to sell? And so far the answers to those questions are, are, aren't yet determined. And then is there a non-profit alternative? Where the news can be run without regard for the profit bottom line, but just for the social purpose of, of good journalism. And so both are being actively pursued by many community leaders and business people and philanthropy leaders in an effort to try to save the Denver Post. And ultimately, save a newspaper in a major state capital.
TM: Which, you know, uh just taking this a step back for just a second. Uh Matthew, you made an interesting comment about people saying “there are no newspapers” and pulling that in with what Bruce is saying is that, in fact, there are many newspapers and newspapers are still profitable in many spaces, that I think there's a real danger that people are just going to start assuming that they don't have access to that news, even if they do. I mean, I'm new to Michigan. I recently asked some of my colleagues, OK, so where do I go to learn about state news? And was fascinating that all I got in reply was lists of uh, newsletters that I could get from various bloggers. And ya know, we have many very high quality newspapers in Michigan, but it was just fascinating that their responses were, in many cases very political, and very much not, ya know, traditional high quality journalism spaces.
PC: And Bruce can answer this question too, because you're, you're limiting the number of reporters, the boots on the ground. I'd, I’d be curious to know, is there a quota of stories that you're supposed to turn every day or at least some of your staff members? Is there a quota, and are they really turning the quality stories that readers and listeners expect?
BD: Well, I'm not on the staff. I'm a freelance columnist, so I'm not. I'm not part of the news room, but I can tell you as a 40-year subscriber to the Denver Post, the quality of the reporting and the ability to report on local stories and investigative journalism has gone down, particularly in these last five to eight years. Because there's, it’s just a matter of capacity. There's just only so many, as you said, boots on the ground, where real journalists are doing real journalism and reporting real information to the readers. So we're watching the papers shrink in size and quality every, sometimes it feels like every week.
TM: And so, you say you're not in the newsroom, but we know you are obviously integral to what's going on there. So, can you tell us a little bit more about what your role is in the Denver Post’s future or at least in these conversations about what the future is gonna look like?
BD: Well, I, I met, I, my lens is a philanthropic lens. So I'm talking to various stakeholders about the potential philanthropic model and fortunately, there are other philanthropic models around the country. The most prominent of which is in Philadelphia, where a newspaper, or at least a newsroom, is owned by a foundation or a non-profit organization where people can make charitable contributions in order to support journalism, just like they do public radio, for example. So, I'm involved in the conver – in some of the conversations. I think there are many conversations going on, in many circles, but I'm involved in a number of the conversations in which people are saying, “is there a viable philanthropic model?” And, as of yet, the answer, hasn't become clear.
TM: So, what kind of pros and cons are you hearing in that space?
BD: Well, see, historically, newspapers are, are a for-profit business and had been driven by advertising and subscription revenue. And, profit motive has always incentivized people to make investments.
BD: One of the challenges here is the cost of the newspaper may be prohibitively high to make an investment scenario make sense. So, if you remove the necessity of a financial bottom line and only have a social purpose bottom line of providing good journalism, the question that's being explored is whether or not it makes sense to pursue that philanthropic model. And, whether sufficient philanthropic capital exists in order to either buy the Post, or set up a competing organization. There's a lot of out of work journalists in Colorado. Remember, for those of you who aren't familiar, Denver used to be a vibrant two-newspaper town. We used to have the Rocky Mountain News, which was an over a hundred year, newspaper and the Denver Post. So, at one point we had 600 journalists covering the news in Colorado, from a state-wide basis, from the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post. The Rocky Mountain News went out of business, uh in the last decade, leaving only the Denver Post and now the Denver Post is being squeezed out of business. So, the question is, ya know, does the Denver Post get repurposed, rebought, refocused, reinvigorated? Or is there a competing organization that starts to, to run a newspaper in this town and compete with the Denver Post? Cause there's no shortage of good journalists.
PC: Ya know, we had invited you on the show for this conversation even before the Denver Post dropped this, this editorial bomb. We had originally invited you to talk about the notion of media's coverage of philanthropy. But it, it seems like the two are inextricably linked. Um, we're not going to be able to separate the conversation about philanthropy supporting the media from a conversation about media's coverage of philanthropy. Do you, do you agree with that, that notion?
BD: Well, yeah, I think, I definitely think they're connected. And, and one thing that I want to point out about that bomb, that whole section of the newspaper that was devoted to saving the Denver Post is that the people who wrote op-eds, of which there were many, were from every part of the political spectrum, right? From the far left to the far right, people were saying, “I may not agree with what the Denver Post does, but we need a good newspaper.” Every community, every state, every state capital, needs journalists reporting on all the various things that are happening in the community to keep the citizens informed and democracy vibrant.
MD: I always wonder, if, if more understanding about what a tax-exempt model, exactly what you're reporting on, but more what that really looks like, and what the nuances and intricacies of that business model, more knowledge about it, seems like, it could actually lead to a, a model that would work. Because I think in the for-profit context, it seems like, the relationship to investors and the expectations [of] investors, is what in fact makes that almost financially implausible, or too expensive. And that, you know, the, the newspaper in um, not-for-profit context can do all the things that a newspaper did prior. They can have advertising. They can have even more sources of revenue. You can have subscriptions, you can have donors, you can have sponsors, you can, ya know have all sorts of different ways of bringing in money, without the expectation of investors that they're going to get money back on their investment. So, it seems like it's almost a more efficient business model.
BD: Well, what it does is it takes a double bottom line business model, and it reduces it to a single bottom line and that single bottom line is no longer profits. It's providing a quality product that the community needs. And, and, and there are examples around the country, and philanthropy is playing an increasingly important role in supporting good journalism in not-for-profit and for-profit settings. And then we have the NPR model, which many of us are familiar with, as a way to provide journalism and reporting and information, on a completely nonprofit model.
TM: Right. Which is fascinating because it's, it's sort of like the media, funding media question is similar to a lot of other philanthropy questions right now, is that the traditional model of simply receiving gift dollars, or grant dollars, is now considered to be a pretty narrow view of what philanthropy can really do. I mean, when we look at how philanthropy has stepped in to support journalism, it's not just in models like NPR or like a community newspaper that is supported by a community foundation. There are also really stunning examples like Jeff Bezos, at the Washington Post, and Laurene Powell Jobs in the Emerson Collective with The Atlantic, who are stepping into quote-unquote save, underwrite, help, support, whatever word you want to reuse, some major journalistic ventures, The Washington Post and The Atlantic, but they're not turning them into non-for-profit institutions. They are still, to a great extent, operating as they always have and that's kind of the point is that Jeff Bezos doesn't need to make any money off The Washington Post in order to operate it and continue to see value in doing it. So, it's interesting to consider, too, what other, what other ways philanthropy is stepping into the space.
BD: Right, there are hybrid models, so it doesn't have to be all of one or the other. And some other examples of, of great newspapers that are doing that are the New York Times and The Guardian.
BD: Are exploring hybrid models, where you have a for-profit component of a newspaper to satisfy the investors, but a not-for-profit component to be more responsive, perhaps, to the community's needs.
MD: Mhhm. It matters with um, expectations, right? And what, and what people's expectations are for either the bottom line or, or the quality and, and being clear on, on what expectations are set for the publication in terms of, of “if I am going to own it as a for-profit context, what, what are my revenue or, ya know, income expectations from it?” It's fascinating because when you think about all the blurring of the lines, you, you see this blurring of the lines. I'm thinking of Mark Zuckerberg and his new foundation and how it's an LLC and it's not a tax exempt organization at all. So, we just see this on all sorts of fronts, it’s just a really interesting time to reflect on it.
BD: And you can add the whole, the whole concept of impact investing, right?
MD: Oh yeah, yeah.
BD: And journalism, and a free press, and good newspapers may well turn out to be a classic impact investment where you, where you have some return on your investment, but you're also providing an important social good.
MD: Brilliant. That's a future podcast topic right there.
TM: *Laughter* So it is, but you know, really coming back to this one. So, as Patrick mentioned, we actually had asked you to join us on this podcast before the news of the Denver Post broke, and we'd really kinda like to bring it all the way back to that question too of, ya know, how do you see media's coverage of philanthropy? You know, you are a freelancer, but you are very much in this space. You're a prominent voice, in quote-unquote “mainstream media coverage of philanthropy”. Do you think media is doing a good job? Uh, Yes? No? Challenges? What, what do you see in that space?
BD: Well, I, I sort of break it down into, uh, the two sides of the philanthropic coin. It seems to me, that non-profits, the good work of non-profit organizations, housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, educating people, the arts, all the different work that non-profits do in communities across our country. That good work is being reported on in newspapers. And that non-profits and their great work, receive a lot of coverage. And that's, that I think on that side of the philanthropic coin, it's newsworthy. It's interesting. It's local. And when you have journalists who can cover it, it gets reported.
Where I see in the mainstream press, um of the opposite situation is, is the donor side of the coin, right? How to, how people really understand the nature of philanthropic investing. The nature of impact investing, the nature of, of what it means to contribute your time, and your talent, and your resources, to help make a difference in the world. And that I don't think is as well covered at all. And what's interesting is that if you look at the, at the role that, that non-profits play in this country, I mean, uh, one out of 10 employees, who are employed people in America, work for a non-profit organization. Right? It's a major part of our economy.
And so, not only is it important, is it important to cover what great work non-profits are doing, in helping to try to address and solve some of our, our, our most intractable problems as a society, but how to, how do people give? How do they contribute? How do they make a difference? And I think that other than for the mega donors who, you know, as you just mentioned, a Mark Zuckerberg, who's setting an example and new ways of giving, for, for most people, they don't have a lot of resources available to them. And so, that's one of the reasons why I started writing the column, is that I felt there was a need to provide help on the donor side of the coin, so that people could be more effective, have a, have a greater impact, and ultimately hopefully be more generous.
PC: Bruce, as somebody who reports on the industry every day and you admit that not everybody really gets it - what is the, the greater impact? Knowing that, and reporting on it every day, how does that impact our society when people don't get it?
BD: Well, first of all, clarification, my, my column is a monthly column. So, I am a freelance columnist and my column is distributed to those newspapers around the country and the world, monthly. I'm not a reporter, so I don't cover it from a news angle, I cover it from a column angle. But with that clarification, people are very generous. And they give for a huge variety of reasons, and if the work can be done to help people identify, not only the causes or the issues that they care about, but the reasons why they're giving and what it is they're trying to accomplish, again, not only for the community but for themselves or for their family or their business, by being philanthropic. Then, people can be more thoughtful and they can make investments, philanthropic investments that, that make them, uh, that help them achieve not only the external goals of what difference they make in the community, but the internal goals of what difference they make in their lives or in their businesses or in their families.
PC: It's great that people love to give. We know that. We have a very generous society, but, do you feel, from writing the column and talking to people, would it be beneficial though for the larger population to understand the nuance of philanthropy and how it works?
BD: I think the answer to that is yes. Because for many people, philanthropy has been, really been, really more transactional. Right? At the end of the year, they go through a bunch of envelopes on their kitchen table and they write checks to this, this, this, that and this. And that's the end of it. And they hope it does some good in the world. And oftentimes, it does. Often times it does a lot of good in the world, but what. What I'm really hoping that we can help readers understand, is that if they take a step back, and they view of philanthropic investment, just like they would view any other investment, whether it's in their retirement account or, or their home or any other investment, that's part of the fabric of their financial lives. That if they, if they pull back a little bit and take a deeper look at, at their own motivations, what they're trying to get out of it for themselves and how they're really trying to help move the needle to have a much greater likelihood of success on both fronts. They’re just doing transactional philanthropy.
TM: It's all food for thought in terms of what the knowledge of philanthropy does for a civic society, whether it's about, you know, how you use your own money to advance the impact you want to see. And also how you understand the role philanthropy is playing in public policy, in whether or not your roads get cleaned and fixed, um, whether or not your schools are funded. Um, it's a, it's a very, very broad spectrum of issues that are, are under the microscope here. So, we really appreciate you, uh, joining us today.
BD: And uh, let me add how you get the information you need in order to participate in a democracy. And that gets back to the journalism, right? That's, that's the other piece of it. Philanthropy can help people, citizens, get the information that they need so that they can actively participate in what makes this country so important and so strong and so vibrant.
TM: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Bruce. We'll have you back sometime!
BD: My pleasure, I look forward to it!
Woman’s Voice: Field Notes in Philanthropy is a partnership of WGVU Public Media, The Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, and Grand Valley State University. Our technical producer is Rick Bierling. Joe Moran composed our theme music. The views and opinions expressed on Field Notes in Philanthropy do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, The Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, or Grand Valley State University.