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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, July 24, 2009

Will New Funding Models Hurt Public Broadcasting?

The recent musings by The New York Times' Assistant Managing Editor, Craig Whitney must have run a chill down the spines of public broadcasting fund raisers everywhere.

Whitney suggested that the venerable Times might look at setting up a foundation, "like NPR's" to assist the newspaper's core business - reporting.

While the Times hasn't officially endorsed this idea, it feels like a trial balloon to me, even if some in the not-for-profit world have pooh-poohed the idea. Some have suggested that the firewall between funders and Times journalists would a tempting target for lobbyists, politicians and corporations. The Times is already partnering with the foundation-funded ProPublica to do some of its investigative reporting and so far, to good effect.

There are some serious issues here, for both public broadcasting and commercial journalism.

First and the most serious is the effect on American journalism. Public radio in general and NPR in particular does a great job in giving its audience smart and contextual information, presented in a timely way and with a presentation that treats the audience as adults.

But public radio and television are not instinctively driven to pursue investigative reporting. There are some exceptions (Frontline, and NOW on PBS being the most obvious). It does happen, but not as often as it should. Part of that is a choice driven by economics. NPR's scope is broad, but not limitless and like other news organizations, it's tough to get an editor to give a reporter a lot of time to pursue a story that may, or may not get on the air. In my time at NPR, I saw a high level of reportorial productivity. But not a lot of original, "this just in" type journalism. And a disinclination (usually unspoken) to do the kind of journalism that might attract unwelcome attention from critics and potential funders. It wasn't self-censorship, but sometimes it felt like it.

The second and also important factor is competition. NPR does very well in attracting a large audience in part because no one else does what it does. NPR has succeeded in raising large sums from individual listeners ("like you") and from charitable foundations who believe citizens need reliable information to make democracy work. Mrs. Joan Kroc's extraordinary gift to NPR a few years ago of almost a quarter of a billion dollars was a demonstration of that idea.

But how well situated is NPR if it must compete for any future Mrs. Krocs against the New York Times? I'd guess that there are a lot of Times readers who are NPR listeners and with a limited amount of donation dollars around, foundations are going to have some tough choices to make.

What NPR has done well is raise an extraordinary amount of money to fund all of its reporting and special projects. But its the NPR Science Desk has been an astonishing magnet for philanthropies. In part - again - because there just aren't many outlets for science journalism in the US.

Editors and reporters on that desk are an impressive bunch. Many have Ph.D's from major universities. And the unit is led by an indefatigable senior editor, Anne Gudenkauf. For years, the Science Unit operated on a budgetary curiosity: the money for staff and for specific projects were not part of the base budget of NPR. Many on the Science Desk lived from grant to grant - a particularly precarious way to do journalism. Eventually, much, if not all of the Science Desk and its activities were integrated into the annual budget. That may have changed recently, but I haven't heard that has happened.

But one anomaly was that the science journalism appeared to be over represented in the overall NPR News landscape - precisely because there was so much money available for that purpose. It was always more difficult to raise money for covering Washington. Or the Middle East. Or any other subject that could be controversial. Science was safe. Or safe enough.

But philanthropic giving to journalism may have its limits, even in the US and especially in a recession. As media look at other models and see how effective NPR has been, more news organizations may opt to compete directly with NPR and PBS for those dollars. And the danger is that public broadcasting will once again be the poor(er) cousin of American media.

Under former NPR president Del Lewis, in the mid-1990s, NPR decided to wean itself from its dependence on government funding. With a concerted effort, NPR successfully reduced its intake of money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from around 30% of its budget to between 1% and 2%.

But pendulums have a tendency to swing. Might that trend have to be reversed if NPR finds itself less able to garner philanthropic support than it once did? Craig Whitney's musings should make public broadcasters very nervous.


  1. I'm glad you bring up the issue of how foundations, though well-intentioned, can drive the content production of a public news outlet. CPB is currently funding projects designed to encourage localism - but what if your station has decided due to the Internet that they need to develop their national or international presence because of issues in their communities that transcend localism, as we are now seeing in Minnesota because of its large Somali population? The personnel there doesn't have the funding or expertise to investigate, nor perhaps even the internal political backbone to defend what could be very unpalatable reportage about a diaspora sensitive to American media coverage of Muslims and terrorism.
    As you well know, these beats have to be developed and I'm curious to see how public funding at the regional and local station level will encourage improved reporting (either through training or independent funding to hire a seasoned foreign policy reporter) to dig into international issues which are sitting right in our backyards.

  2. Science is overrepresented at NPR because of philanthropic support? Surely you jest. Good science journalism is a fast shrinking enterprise in general. When "science" is done it's often health related.

    OTOH, there must be a Niagra Falls, a torrential downpour, a Noah's flood of philanthropic support for Washington political reporting considering how much it dominates NPR reporting.