The idea that non-profit foundations, or even the government, should step in to fund news organizations has been gaining some currency among those thinking about the future of news. Often, NPR and PBS are held up as models of what this new world could look like. Last week, however, we learned more about some cracks forming in the foundations of those organizations.
The New York Times just published an article discussing problems with funding of the â€œThe NewsHour with Jim Lehrerâ€ on PBS. The article states that “The financial squeeze was precipitated last summer when Archer Daniels Midland ended its 14-year sponsorship of the program. That sponsorship provided nearly $4 million (and some years as much as $7 million) of the programâ€™s yearly budget, which varies from $26 million to $28 million.” So, the first thing that is obvious from this story is that despite receiving government, foundation, and donor money, a major component of PBS funding is still advertising. In fact, for those worried about the integrity of journalism, this may be the worst of all worlds – to the usual coverage pressure that advertisers occasionally exert is added the more constant pressure of foundations and government. Government funding, of course, should be anathema to those concerned about the First Amendment, since freedom from government influence is exactly what the amendment is meant to prevent.
An interesting example of this new kind of influence can be found in ProPublica, a new investigative news organization funded by Herbert M. and Marion O. Sandler. Describing itself as “an independent, non-profit newsroom that will produce investigative journalism in the public interest,” ProPublica’s major funders, the Sandlers are large Democratic Party and MoveOn.org donors. This fact prompted an article in Slate questioning the Sandlers’ motives. To be sure, it’s the fact that ProPublica claims it will provide unbiased reporting while being funded by donors with a cause that causes concern, not simply the possibility of a news organization with a mission. It may be that the Sandlers can stay out of coverage decisions, but their biases should still be made clear, particularly given the self-importance the organization attaches to itself. Transparency is key.
The fact is, they who hold the purse strings control the news, be they private owners, donors, or governments. Among those three choices, I prefer private owners. Owners want one thing – they want to make money. And they realize that compromising their journalistic integrity will lower the value of their investment (that integrity, by the way, may mean staying true to a transparent bias, as in the case of the Guardian). The worry today, of course, is that those owners will decide that reporting the news no longer pays, but we’ve yet to see any examples of that happening. Those who believe there is no value in that mission sell, and they’ve so far been able to find willing buyers (although at steadily decreasing prices). We need to stop worrying about how to continue funding the way we’ve done reporting in the past, and start thinking about how to make that reporting engaging and valuable in the present and future.