Now is the moment to fund innovation for news equity

Farai Chideya
August 12, 2020

In 2020, journalism went from rapid economic disruption to a full-blown existential meltdown.

Already wracked by #MeToo scandals, major outlets found themselves failing to meet the political moment sparked by the killing of George Floyd.

These failures of perspective and inclusion don’t just affect communities that have historically been left out of the national debate, but they also have ripple effects for democracy. As I have said before, we cannot have a functioning civil society without racial justice. And we cannot have racial justice without real reform in newsrooms. The old ways of doing journalism simply aren’t working: we need true innovation if we want equity in journalism. Equitable news coverage — fueled by innovative new processes and the culturally-competent and empowered staff needed to produce it — is a powerful lever which can move civil society toward justice.

The Ford Foundation, where I work, has been in alignment with the overall mission of the Engaged Journalism Lab. We have worked on the launch of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, along with Democracy Fund, the American Journalism Project, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Google News Initiative, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the News Integrity Initiative. The REJ Fund is helping to bridge the gap in funding and institutional support by supporting organizations such as Buffalo’s Fire, which is fighting for independent media and freedom of information while serving Indigenous communities that have been especially hard hit by the pandemic; La Noticia, a Spanish-language newspaper serving the information needs of over 300,000 community members in North Carolina; and MLK50, an award-winning Black-led newsroom whose investigation of flawed hospital debt collection policies in partnership with ProPublica led to the forgiveness of more than $11 million of debt.

We’d like to issue a challenge to other funders — not just to fund equity in news, but specifically to fund innovation to achieve these ends.

Now, we’d like to issue a challenge to other funders — not just to fund equity in news, but specifically to fund innovation to achieve these ends. Innovation can take many forms, including taking more risks in funding; expanding the pool of who gets funded; rethinking how we assess impact and return on investment; and more. We invite funders to consider what equity looks like within our current funding systems — and what it might look like if we built something new altogether.

To support this exploration, the Ford Foundation has recently released three research papers:

  • Reconstructing American news: Investing in the transformation of journalistic processes and power relations to strengthen civil society, written by Katie Donnelly and Jessica Clark of Dot Connector Studio, takes on the question of how the journalism industry and the funders who support it can innovate in service of media equity. Until recently, much of the focus for funders in the journalism funding space has been on supporting innovation in terms of products and platforms. It’s now time to resource new people, processes, and power relationships instead. This paper explores the challenges we’re facing with regard to how equity-centered news is currently funded — and how possible interventions might work in practice, with insights from 10 individuals in the field on how they are adapting given the upheavals in the space caused by the pandemic. This analysis doesn’t focus on journalism philanthropy exclusively, but rather approaches the entire ecosystem with a particular focus on investment, philanthropy, and sustainability.
  • Gender equity in the news media: Analysis and recommendations for newsroom leaders is a companion report that found two major challenges that prevent gender equity from becoming a reality in newsrooms: gender gaps among content creators and those who make decisions about coverage, and slow progress in women’s representation in leadership roles. The report offers key solutions for organizational and newsroom leaders, including taking a public stance, appointing organizational catalysts, and creating incentives. Ford commissioned the report from two researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government — Ariel Skeath, a Master of Public Policy candidate, and Lisa Macpherson, fellow in the Advanced Leadership Initiative.
  • Investing in equitable news and media projects, a report from Andrea Armeni and Wilneida Negrón of Transform Finance, takes a deep dive into the investment space for equity-centered news and media projects, exploring three pivotal questions: Who is currently investing in equitable media (and why)? What are adjacent investing/investor spaces that could yield additional capital, and what would be needed to attract them? And what are the major pain points for current investors (and potential adjacent investors) and news and media entrepreneurs? There has been a dearth of research into the investment space outside of philanthropy for equity-centered news projects, and this paper fills in some very important gaps in understanding. Among other key recommendations, the report encourages foundations and private investors to “jointly explore the entire ecosystem of equitable media from a holistic perspective, rather than separating investment and grant funding.”

Taken together, these three reports point the path forward: current funders and investors must approach news equity in new ways, individually and together. They also highlight the need to educate and recruit a much broader array of funders and investors into this space. We hope you will use them to explore this work from multiple angles, and to continue to bring new funders and investors into the conversation. We’re excited to work with you to build a new, innovative and equitable journalism that strengthens civil society and finally truly serves communities in the U.S. and around the world.