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Strengthening Democracy Means Funding Independent Media

By       Message Rory OConnor     Permalink
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While it's surely gratifying that a surprising number of non-profit media outfits, such as Pro Publica, the Texas Tribune and the Center for Independent Media, have not only cropped up but actually done yeoman-like work of late, admirably filling part of the gaping hole resulting from the endless rounds of cutbacks, buyouts and layoffs in the commercial media world, it's also apparent that the amount of resources devoted to the public interest nevertheless pales when compared to what for-profit players are still pouring into more commercial endeavors.

As the annual State of News Media study by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism shows, only an estimated $141 million (not including public broadcasting) of philanthropic support has gone into non-profit journalism efforts in the last four years. That amount is less than 0.05% of the $307 billion given to charity in just 2008.

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A new survey and report released by Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media (GFEM), an association of grantmakers that serves as a resource for foundations that fund media and share an interest in the key role they play in shaping civil society, underscores that fact.

Entitled Funding Media, Strengthening Democracy: Grantmaking for the 21st Century, the study supplies the facts and figures behind what most of us in the supposedly "independent media" world already knew from first-hand, albeit anecdotal, experience: "Despite the pervasiveness of media, the amount of philanthropic dollars in support of public interest media remains minuscule," and further, "commercial interests continue to dominate media." One case in point: Within a 12-month period, more commercial money was invested in a single Hollywood blockbuster than was invested in all public service media by three of the largest philanthropic donors combined: the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. As one anonymous person described as "one of the most generous funders in the media funding world" admitted, "I know [our media funding total] seems like a substantial sum. But the magnitude of the challenge--the "creative destruction' of the media ecosystem brought about by the digital age--is much greater than anything one foundation can cope with."

The report, researched and written by Peter B. Kaufman and Mary Albon of the firm Intelligent Television, calls on the philanthropic community to embrace new practices of transparency and information sharing via technology, in order to determine how existing funds are being used and how they can best be leveraged to increase philanthropic impact within the media field. It forthrightly -- and rightly -- states, "Philanthropy, with its mission to improve the human condition, has yet to meet the challenge of keeping pace with the growth and influence of media," and recognizes the reality that, "The creative destruction of the media ecosystem brought about by the digital age poses fundamentally new challenges to the core missions of media grantmakers, as well as offering new opportunities and promise."

Over a one-year period, Kaufman and Albon collected grantmaking data from foundations large and small, government funders, other researchers and journalists using an online survey, individual interviews with key foundation executives and program officers and roundtable discussions. Their findings underscore that:

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" Despite the current flurry of foundation support for non-profit journalism, commercial media investment still outstrips philanthropy by a factor of as much as 400 to 1;

" Much of media grantmaking is invisible (even to the grantmaker!);

" Measurement of the social impact of media grants is mostly anecdotal;

" Technology-based solutions are urgently needed to enhance and leverage philanthropy;

" Public-private partnerships and other collaborative efforts are needed to enhance public interest media; and

" Whether they fund media or not, most foundations believe philanthropic support of public interest media is vital to the greater public good.

GFEM's report also makes ten different recommendations on how to improve matters for the dependent -- oops, I mean independent -- media sector, including the use of open technology systems to enhance information sharing across the field, and the creation of a system where funders can enter their grantmaking information into a shared public database to enable them to identify how dollars are being deployed and what areas are deficient and in need of support -- which ultimately would enable funders and the public to actually trace the impact the grants are having.

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"Acknowledging media as a critical component to all grantmaking is the first step," says GFEM executive director Alyce Myatt. "Autonomy and anonymity have been the norm within the grantmaking community, but what's needed, to make the dollars count, is transparency and collaboration." As Myatt concludes, "This requires nothing less than a major cultural shift in philanthropy."

Myatt says she is hopeful that the report will enhance greater understanding within the field about media's role in shaping attitudes and moving people to action. "So many of the positive social changes foundations wish to see can be expedited using tried and true media tools and by putting a face on an issue through moving-image media."

From her lips to God's ear, I say and along with God, let's add the bigwigs of the foundation world, such as the Knight Foundation's Alberto Ibarguen, and other "fatigued" funders at places like Ford and MacArthur. They should not only read but also act on the report's recommendations before it is too late for all of us" As we at Globalvision and the MediaChannel have been calling out for years, "Whatever the story is, the other story is always the media story." And as one foundation program officer quoted in the study aptly concluded, "We're engaged in a war of ideas in which you can be right and still be wrong unless you can popularize and mainstream those ideas so they get adopted."

Note: Visit to download a copy of Funding Media, Strengthening Democracy: Grantmaking for the 21st Century. A full report and separate executive summary are available.


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Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the 'Media Is A Plural' blog, accessible at

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