Foundation funding helps keep journalism alive—but most money goes to a select few nonprofit media outlets

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Nonprofits funded by major foundations are filling the void left by shrinking legacy media outlets, according to a new study by researchers from Northeastern University’s School of Journalism and the Shorenstein Center who have published what they believe is the largest ever data analysis of foundation-funded journalism.

The study found that most funding was concentrated among a few dozen media nonprofits; that certain topics such as climate change were funded more generously than others; and that a “disproportionate number” of partisan outlets received grants.

“The most surprising finding was the heavy concentration of funding among a few dozen media nonprofits at the national and local or state levels and the dependency of digital news nonprofits on a handful of national foundations,” said Matthew Nisbet, a professor of communication studies at Northeastern and one of the co-authors of the study.

As the commercial news media make cuts to counteract losses in revenue and a shrinking workforce, nonprofit news outfits such as ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, and VTDigger have stepped in to fill the gaps.

These media outlets are funded primarily by large national foundations such as the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which form the financial backbone of the nonprofit news sector. But without a bigger picture of the nonprofit news ecosystem, there’s no way to know whether the same communities that lost newspapers to bankruptcy might also be missing out on funding for nonprofit news.

The most surprising finding was the heavy concentration of funding among a few dozen media nonprofits at the national and local or state levels and the dependency of digital news nonprofits on a handful of national foundations.

Matthew Nisbet, Professor of Communication Studies

The problem is that such an overarching analysis of nonprofit news has never existed—until now.

The researchers—including John Wihbey, assistant professor of journalism, Silje Kristiansen, a postdoctoral associate in communication studies, and Aleszu Bajak, a lecturer in journalism—analyzed more than 30,000 journalism and media-related grants totaling nearly $1.8 billion from more than 6,500 foundations between 2010 and 2015.

“In the media discussion circles, ProPublica and the Texas Tribune are the darlings of all of us who are hoping for a brighter future in news,” said Wihbey, who is writing a book on the future of news in a networked world. “What our research shows is that when you really drill down, there’s not that much funding going to local or state news nonprofits.”

The researchers found that nonprofit public media outlets that receive federal funding and grant funding, such as NPR and PBS, are compounding the problem.

“We don’t think this is a zero-sum game,” Wihbey said. “We’re not saying that foundations should take their funding away from public media, but that perhaps with this wide view, other foundations will focus funding elsewhere.”

The researchers also discovered that foundation funding has been subject to geographic disparities. Twenty-five public media stations and content producers accounted for 70 percent of all funding, with grant money going primarily to stations or content producers based in 10 states, Nisbet said.

“Such concentration means that public media organizations across the great majority of states lack the funding necessary to evolve into digital news hubs producing local reporting that fills gaps in newspaper coverage,” he said.

The researchers did not set out to provide answers to journalism’s big questions, Nisbet and Wihbey said, but they hope their findings will inspire discussion and highlight the desperate need for more nonprofit news funding.

“Good research generates discussion, debate, and self-reflection, and that is what our study aims to do. Only by way of constructive dialogue informed by data can more effective decisions be made about how to move forward in the news nonprofit sector,” Nisbet said.

“Going forward, the focus should not be on re-allocating funding from one area like journalism education to digital news nonprofits, but on growing the overall funding pie by bringing a greater diversity of national and local foundations to the table.”