Can Private Donor Save Journalism?

While recently watching Spotlight, a movie recounting The Boston Globe's investigation of the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal, I was reminded of the important work that journalists do to keep powerful institutions honest.

But as the journalism industry contracts in the face of dwindling revenues, the nature of journalism is itself transforming dramatically, in large part because serious and in-depth journalism is expensive to produce.

Some of the change simply amounts to a bigger and steadier diet of the junk we're already being served: over-the-top crime stories, celebrity news that is increasingly leering and political coverage that is almost exclusively dominated by mudslinging instead of genuine policy discussions.

But there's one relatively new development that could transform the industry: the growing adoption of sponsored journalism -- or reporting that is underwritten by big donors; such as, nonprofit foundations. The big question, though, is whether the growth of sponsored journalism is a good thing or a bad one.

The promising side of such journalism, produced by outlets like The Marshall Project and ProPublica, is that it is insulated from the relentless demands of profit-driven business executives and shareholders who increasingly see news as a commodity, not a public service.

Earlier this month, the owner of three major news outlets in Philadelphia - The Philadelphia Inquirer, a broadsheet; The Daily News, a tabloid; and Philly.com, a news site, -- donated them to the Institute for Journalism in New Media, a subsidiary of the Philadelphia Foundation, a major philanthropic organization in the city. The owner also established a $20 million endowment for the Institute for Journalism in New Media, in a move that many hope will enable these treasured institutions to not just survive but prosper. "Of all the things I've done, this is the most important," the owner, H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, said. "Because of the journalism."

But there are serious drawbacks and even risks that come with this kind of journalism, especially if it is handled in a way that invites criticism that the political, social or business agenda of donors is driving news coverage.

Consider the criticism being leveled at an organization called InsideClimate News. Founded in 2007, InsideClimate News describes itself as a bona fide news outlet that endeavors to "produce clear, objective stories that give the public and decision-makers the information they need to navigate the heat and emotion of climate and energy debates."

InsideClimate News even makes a point of noting on its site that its donors do not have access to its editorial process or decision-making -- a reasonable disclaimer to include given the brave new world that sponsored journalism represents.

But some critics are calling into question the organizations' editorial independence. In a recent report, National Review documented several problems, including that it has ties to a public-relations consultancy, Science First, that gets money from groups with an environmental agenda. In a telling detail, National Review also found that the Park Foundation, a group that backs environmental causes, made money available for InsideClimate News to report on air and water pollution that it claims is caused by natural gas development projects.

The murkiness around InsideClimate News has drawn criticism, particularly since it conducted an investigation accusing the fossil-fuel industry of misleading the public about climate change, even as the outlet took money from fierce opponents of the fossil-fuel industry, including The Rockefeller Brothers Fund. In addition, the organization is actually an outgrowth consulting that its founder, David Sassoon, did for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, according to The New York Times.

Michael Thatcher, president and CEO of the nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator, told National Review that the lack of transparency around InsideClimate News is "at face value, troubling."

Nevertheless, as the Internet continues to deprive newspapers of traditional revenue sources like print ads and print subscriptions, the idea that private donors can help sustain American journalism has great appeal and merit.

There is some precedent for great journalism being produced under the nonprofit model. Consider The Tampa Bay Times, an outlet that has operated under the Poynter Institute since 1978. In fact, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government recently announced that the newspaper is one of six finalists for an investigative reporting prize. The Times produced a series of thoroughly researched, straightforward stories on a local school board that abandoned integration, leading to "violence and academic failure".

And what other organization is on that list of finalists? InsideClimate News!

American journalism is indeed changing. But let's hope the values that have made our journalism great are not abandoned or even compromised as the industry struggles to remake itself in a hostile economic climate. Those include truth, impartiality and accountability. Only this way will the industry maintain the public's trust and its important role in our society.