Investing in an Independent, Robust Free Press

March 28, 2017

A healthy democracy cannot exist without a vibrant public square, including an independent, trusted, and robust free press. At a time when news organizations increasingly find themselves under attack, the Democracy Fund along with our partners at First Look Media are announcing major commitments of more than $12 million to support a robust free press the largest grants either organization has made to date in support of journalism.

For years, the media industry has struggled against major economic threats that have severely undermined our fourth estate. In response, the Democracy Fund’s Public Square program has worked with journalists across the country to experiment with new models that can reinvigorate local media and ensure that newsrooms are able to fulfill their core responsibilities to a healthy democracy. But 2016 media trends were deeply alarming. Viral deceptions and bogus information sometimes seemed to overwhelm the facts and fact-checkers. Newsmedia coverage only partially reflected vast swathes of the country. And media institutions continued to struggle financially and with earning the public’s trust. In short, America’s lively and contentious public square stands to become choked, chilled, and full of claptrap.

However, sometimes the moments where challenges are revealed prove to be turning points. It’s not clear that this is the case, but we can say without doubt that this moment has provided a renewed focus on the critical role of our nation’s press. Many individuals and organizations who have been raising alarm bells about the future of media are newly energized.

It is in this moment that we all have an opportunity to act.

Standing With Those Who Seek the Truth

With that in mind, the Democracy Fund is announcing a number of new grants this week, and I wanted to take this opportunity to describe them within the longer arc of our work.

The bedrock of our press rests on a robust interpretation of the First Amendment. Free press advocates are battening down the hatches. Trends in digital and platform rhetoric may, if nothing else, spark violent speech and even violence towards journalists, chilling freedom of expression. Without robust defenders of the First Amendment, all American journalists will struggle. We hope that our support will enable the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to continue and expand on its work to provide legal resources and guidance for independent journalists, nonprofit news outlets, and partners in broadcast, print, and online news media. With public support for the news media dangerously low, we need a community of press freedom advocates that is able to engage with the public around these issues.

Supporting Bold Ideas for Big Investigations

The craft of journalism and, critically, the accountability journalism that larger non-profit outlets are well positioned to deliver without fear or favor, are an important asset to the field. Each of the following institutions is unique. In partnership with our colleagues at First Look Media we made five significant grants.

A grant to the Center for Investigative Reporting provides general operating support as they pioneer new models of investigative reporting rooted in collaboration, community engagement, and creativity. A grant to the Center for Public Integrity provides general operating support to expand their watchdog reporting and strengthen their ability to hold institutions accountable to the American people. And, with our additional support, ProPublica is positioned to expand its groundbreaking work that combines hard-hitting investigations and cutting edge data journalism in service to communities.

Finding New Partners and New Funding

Two other grants take a different approach, but are to us complementary pieces of the puzzle. We have to find the best way to flexibly deploy resources towards reporting. The Investigative Reporting Workshop (IRW) at American University achieves this through partnering with newsrooms and exploring new paths to engage others who previously might not have seen themselves as accountability experts. In contrast, a New York University grant will establish a laboratory for community-supported investigative journalism and focus on developing sustainable business models for U.S. newsrooms rooted in new membership structures and drawing on the lessons from a world leader in community-driven accountability journalism.

(As part of this announcement of our support, we want to underscore that Democracy Fund will never try to influence the journalism of our grantees, and explicitly ask grantees not to discuss their editorial strategy with us, or any stories they may or may not write.)

A New Fund for State and Local News

Sustainability is key at the local level, too, and through the announcement of a commitment of $1 million towards a new fund for state and local investigative journalism, we hope to serve as a beacon for those who want to support local and state news, investigative beats, and nonprofit news. Many of the dozens of nonprofit outlets that have sprung up over the last few years are maturing and looking to the future.

Let’s be clear: the degradation of trust in news media is real, and public support needs to be renewed if we are going to have a flourishing public square—an essential component of a healthy democracy.

At the Democracy Fund, we believe the practices that will build the truthful, trusted journalism that we need focus on the public. The public should know that the journalism being produced has fidelity to the facts. The public should be engaged and connected to journalists in a very real and not superficial way. The news media and journalists the public relies on must be diverse in sources, stories, and staff. For any of this to come to pass, journalists must be able to continue to practice hard-hitting accountability journalism without fear, represent diverse points of view, be relevant to the public, and be sustainable.

We hope that these new commitments will build effectively upon the $18 million in grants that the Democracy Fund’s Public Square program has made over the past five years to support efforts that help journalism to become more audience-centered, trusted, and resilient.

This is all very much a work in progress. But we believe there is a strong future for journalism and we look forward to continuing to work with our grantees, the wider community of those working in news and engagement, and the public towards this mission.