One of the biggest trends in philanthropy this year is an influx of funding for nonprofit journalism groups. Shortly after election night in November, the number of donations to these organizations began to skyrocket, and small donations from people across the country have continued. By the beginning of 2016, individual donations to nonprofit journalism organizations were up by 70 percent compared to the end of 2015.
Certain organizations witnessed extraordinary growth after the election. The pool of donors to the Marshall Project grew 20 percent in the month after the election, and ProPublica raised more in the weeks after the election than in all of 2015 combined.
Motivation Behind the Rise in Donations to Journalism Groups
Not everyone agrees on the reasons behind this sudden increase in donations to nonprofit journalism groups. Some people say that it is a partisan response to the election results, while others point to a larger motivation—the viability of the industry as a whole. After all, there was a significant surge in support for journalism after the election. The New York Times reported 132,000 new subscribers between Election Day and November 26, 2016.
Nonprofit journalism organizations are now poised to become some of the most important news sources in the United States. These organizations pledge to provide honest news that is not motivated by traditional advertisers. At the same time, the field of journalism as a whole faces serious financial challenges, and it remains unclear whether this sudden uptick in small gifts will sustain the news organization without larger donations from foundations and wealthy individuals. However, such support may also ramp up in 2017.
Philanthropy-Backed Journalism Stands Out at Polk Awards
In February, the George Polk Awards for Journalism, which are some of the most prestigious accolades in the industry, were announced, and nonprofit journalism was heavily represented. For example, the national reporting award went to Alec MacGillis, who works for ProPublica. Last year, a ProPublica reporter also won a Polk Award. Since its inception, the news outlet has won three Pulitzer Prizes and a number of other honors.
Beyond ProPublica, the Marshall Project also won a Polk Award for its work on criminal justice issues. The organization also won a Pulitzer Prize last year and a National Magazine Award earlier this year. The Polk Awards also recognized the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which is backed by a number of major foundations, along with two public radio outlets, which are counted among nonprofit journalism organizations.
While there is a not a demonstrated link between nonprofit journalism organizations receiving greater donor support and recognition in the form of prestigious awards, the results of the Polk Awards demonstrate how much these outlets are gaining the respect of the public.
Ethical Considerations Surrounding Nonprofit Journalism
The rise in donations to nonprofit journalism organizations has drawn attention due to ethical considerations. These matters were brought to the table long before the election because donations to these organizations have been steadily increasing for years. However, due to the current journalism climate in the United States and the recent spike in donations, these concerns have again come to the forefront.
Accepting small donations from individual donors does not cause a great deal of concern. The problem arises when individuals offer sizable donations or foundations become involved, which is ultimately the kind of support that these organizations need to remain solvent.
In New Orleans, a nonprofit organization reported on a university president and shortly thereafter lost its office space at that school. Such conflicts of interest are not uncommon. In Texas, a nonprofit came under fire for not revealing its donors, which raised suspicion and resulted in the creation of new transparency rules. Another case arose in New York in which a public television station returned a large grant made to create a documentary series due to a connection that was revealed between the donor and the topic of the project.
All of these incidents have resulted in the creation of a report by the American Press Institute on the ethical considerations involved in nonprofit journalism. The report will be followed by guidelines for accepting donations so that there is trust between media outlets, readers, and media critics.
Moving Forward in the Age of Nonprofit Journalism
Many people are turning to nonprofit journalism to serve as a watchdog role in today’s world, where trust in traditional media is wavering. Nonprofit journalism organizations have a duty to establish trust and maintain transparency. The recognition that these organizations have received in recent years confirms their potential for playing such a crucial watchdog function. At the same time, ethical considerations remain, particularly if funding from major donors and foundations ramps up in 2017. Adherence to the guidelines established by the American Press Institute will become even more important as foundations step up to support this quickly expanding form of media.