As at posting, today is World Press Freedom Day which is primarily observed to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and as a timely annual reminder to governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression enshrined under Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and marking the 30th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration.
This year’s theme is “Information as a Public Good” and serves as a beacon for the continued importance of information as a public asset, and exploring what can be done in the production, distribution and reception of content to strengthen journalism.
It comes on the back of a world struggling with the compounding effects of varying sources of dis-information seeking to further polarize and insulate thought and the ensuing actions of sections of our society. These alarming trends threaten our democracy on a number of levels.
While I’m not wading into politics here, the old adage ‘all politics is local’ has my own thoughts focused on the local news ecosystem.
A report that I read annually is The Expanding News Desert which comes out of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC. In just a year between reports (from 2018 & 2019) their research showed;
- 300 newspapers closed, another 6,000 journalists employed by newspapers vanished, and print newspaper circulation declined by 5 million.
- Consolidation also increased, with the largest chains, backed by private equity firms and hedge funds, racing to merge with the last surviving publicly traded companies and form mega-chains with hundreds of newspapers, and management focused on shareholder return over journalism’s civic duty.
And with the effects of COVID due to permeate through the next report, these trends are more troubling than worrisome.
Economists define journalism as a “public good” because the information in news stories informs decisions on important issues that can affect the quality of life of entire nations. In the absence of local news organizations, social media and internet sites often have become the default media for reading, viewing and sharing news – as well as rumor and gossip – exacerbating political, social and economic divisions.
The report also shared that “Despite the efforts of other media, including commercial television and digital sites, to step into the breach, they have failed to thwart the rise of news deserts, especially in economically struggling regions of the country. Independent digital sites, once seen as potential saviors, are failing to achieve long-term financial security. While more than 80 local online sites were established in 2019, an equal number went dark.”
Over the past 15 years, the United States has lost 2,100 newspapers, leaving at least 1,800 communities that had a local news outlet in 2004 without any at the beginning of 2020. To date, most of the losses were weeklies in economically struggling communities.
So how can philanthropy play a role?
The Chronicle on Philanthropy also posted about World Press Day and shared some great data on some of the underlying issues of traditional journalism that have been exacerbated over the past decade and laid bare during the past year’s pandemic. There were two major findings that had jaw dropping connotations, and both highlight the two speed approach of fixing journalism – on the one hand, those that write and on the other how we rebuild. The one thing we will probably agree with is that the foundations have to be strong in any rebuild, or that’s what HGTV has taught me.
- A 2020 report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found no discernible improvement in the representation of women in newsrooms and in leadership positions during the past two decades in any of the examined countries. In the United States, despite some recent signs of progress, just 2.6 percent of all journalism staffs and leaders are Black women, according to the Women’s Media Center.
- A 2018 Pew Research Center report found the journalism field is more white and more male than U.S. workers in all other occupations and industries combined.
Oftentimes, the news media’s claim of objectivity is nothing more than the elite, white, male perspective that casts story subjects identifying as people of color, immigrant, LGBTQI+, working class, or Muslim as the other. This conscious or unconscious bias, which has dominated newsroom culture for generations, tends also to preference statements by government officials and accept and repeat harmful stereotypes.
The article refreshingly also provides some options for how philanthropy could support this potential rebuild but I would like to add one more. Philanthropy as the actual newsroom.
I look at the future roles of a modernized philanthropy in my upcoming book. I discuss IT, organizers, data analysts and codes, noting that if organized philanthropy is going to deliver the scale and impact we envision (and need) over the next decade, they will either evolve or be replaced by positions that reflect the community dynamic or that are more tech focused with digital solutions and delivery at their core.
Journalists will be one of those roles. Whether funded to work in other organizations or to work in the foundation itself.
The fact is that journalism, as we know it, is under attack. Whether it be dangerous rhetoric around its motives from DC or a dramatic shift in the traditional revenue models, we are seeing major layoffs in staff, the consolidation of local publications, and moves from for-profit entities to a nonprofit model (for those not currently a viable venture capital acquisition option). Philanthropy is acutely aware of the need to keep quality, independent media outlets operating at the hyperlocal, municipal, and state levels and has a long history of also fueling new innovation, as the sector is uprooted by the changes in how folks get and digest their news. (The Knight Foundation is a great pioneering example of this.) Philanthropic institutions have plenty of possibilities in evolving from traditional marcom (marketing and communications) approaches as they lend their voices to critical issues in their communities, with their own virtual newsrooms setting the table for critical civic discussions.
Community foundations are built to support the communities they serve. They are trusted conveners across business, government and academia, and important partners of the social sector if they can move past their insatiable thirst for press releases and penchant for sticking their logo on funded projects.
But they still have a way to go and that’s why I agree with the majority of the Chronicle article’s argument.
Given the nature of journalism in today’s society and the one we wish to build in the future, it’s important to highlight ongoing issues around equity. Philanthropy should continue to expand its efforts to diversify its staff and better reflect the communities it serves. This begins through its recruitment efforts—job descriptions, requirements, and where open positions are advertised. In the case of journalism it will help ensure integrity and fairness in its reporting, help them independently serve the needs of their communities and shield it from the tendency to compromise their values in the pursuit of new funding streams.