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September 2018 (2 posts)

An Interview with Jennifer Humke, Senior Program Officer, MacArthur Foundation…On How Bottom-Up, Citizen-Made Media Strengthens Democracy
September 19, 2018

Jennifer Humke is senior program officer for Journalism and Media at the John D. and Catherine T.  MacArthur Foundation. Jennifer focuses primarily on grantmaking in participatory civic media as part of the journalism and media team. In this role, she makes grants to enable more individuals and groups to use participatory media for social change.

Recently, Janet Camarena, director of transparency initiatives for Foundation Center, interviewed Humke about how supporting citizen-made media can improve our democracy. This post is part of the GlassPockets’ Democracy Funding series, designed to spotlight knowledge about ways in which philanthropy is working to strengthen American democracy.

Jennifer Humke 2GlassPockets: The MacArthur Foundation has long supported media. How has the way that the MacArthur Foundation thinks about the connection between journalism, media, and a healthy democracy changed over the years?

Jennifer Humke: MacArthur has invested in media for more than three decades. The first grants made in the 1980s focused on supporting independent and diverse perspectives on broadcast television and documentary film to ensure a multiplicity of voices and viewpoints were contributing to and represented in the media.

Of course, the world and the media have changed and evolved enormously since then, introducing new opportunities and new challenges. Our grantmaking also has evolved as a result, but we still hold strong to the fundamental belief that a high-functioning democracy is dependent upon a well-informed and engaged American public.

”Investments are designed to strengthen our democracy by supporting just and inclusive narratives that inform, engage, and activate Americans to build a more equitable future.“

Today, our Journalism and Media program makes grants totaling approximately $25 million each year to support nonfiction storytelling (primarily documentary film), investigative and accountability reporting (primarily through the support of national nonprofit newsrooms), and participatory citizen-made media (and I use the term citizen in the broadest sense to include everyone living in this country). Investments are designed to strengthen our democracy by supporting just and inclusive narratives that inform, engage, and activate Americans to build a more equitable future.

A priority of this grantmaking is to ensure all Americans, and especially those from historically marginalized groups, are able to have their voices heard and help us move toward a more inclusive and pluralistic American society.

GP: While on the topic of inclusion and pluralism, more foundations are developing initiatives around diversity, equity, and inclusion. How is the lens of racial equity informing your grantmaking strategies and practices?

JH: When Julia Stasch became President of the MacArthur Foundation, she charged all of us -- her staff -- to lead with a commitment to justice in all that we do. This included everything from elevating the voices of those who are not always heard in policy discussions to ensuring that our grantmaking considers and supports a broad diversity of organizations and helps to address historic and structural inequities. You can read an update by Julia Stasch about MacArthur’s “Justice Imperative” here.

The Journalism and Media program has an explicit focus on inclusion. Our grantmaking focuses on amplifying the voice and influence of often excluded and under-represented individuals, organizations, and communities, and on facilitating leadership opportunities for people of color.

Macarthur foundationGP: “Elevating the voices of those who are not always heard in policy discussions” makes me think of young people today. Since the students who survived the Parkland High School shooting have so effectively organized around gun control, there seems to be growing interest in youth movements and youth organizing. Yet, when I look at Foundation Center’s historic data about the populations served by most foundation democracy grants, youth-focused democracy grants have received less than 1% of funding. Is this changing at MacArthur? Do you think this is changing field-wide?

JH: MacArthur does not have a strategy to support youth movements and youth organizing. But our grantmaking in participatory civic media was deeply influenced by findings from a research initiative MacArthur supported to explore new strategies and approaches for preparing young people to be good citizens in a digital world. Called the Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network, it was a nearly decade-long effort, carried out by an interdisciplinary group of academics and practitioners, who worked together on a range of intersecting projects. One of the Network’s main insights was that young people are as engaged today -- if not more so than in any era in the past – in civic and political activity, but that it looks different today. Young people are not engaging through traditional civic and political institutions, but rather their engagement and participation is reflected through their media making online.

”Young people are not engaging through traditional civic and political institutions, but rather their engagement and participation is reflected through their media making online.“

The fact is that most young people, especially youth of color and from other marginalized groups, do not believe that many of our country’s institutions care about or are interested in meeting their needs. As a result, their organizing and engagement is taking place in spaces where they are better able to influence policy, culture and institutions, and that is oftentimes online and fueled and scaled using social media and other digital technologies.

The March for Our Lives is a prime example. The scale, reach and pace of that effort to organize youth in support of gun control happened largely outside the realm of adults, and it was made possible by new media tools, practices and platforms. It was the result of a highly distributed network of young people who together were able to shift public debate and, in some cases, sway multinational corporations to change their policies in support of the young people’s demands, through their media making and organizing online.

It is clear that Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have become the new public sphere, and our grantmaking is designed to enable inclusive and equitable participation in our democracy through these platforms and practices. We are supporting a number of youth-focused organizations -- such as Youth Speaks, Youth Radio and Voto Latino -- in part, because young people have been historically marginalized from public debate, but maybe more importantly, because they tend to be the leaders in using participatory media for social change. 

GP: It’s interesting to hear about some of the organizations in your portfolio. To help bring your work to life a bit more, can you describe some of the new grants you are making as part of your Participatory Civic Media grantmaking? And how does this complement the other longer-standing parts of the program?

JH: The participatory civic media strategy is the newest part of our Journalism and Media Program. It encompasses the media produced, remixed, and circulated by individuals and small groups to express their lived experiences, viewpoints, and concerns with the goal of influencing policy and culture. A significant hallmark of this type of media making is its low barrier to participation. Advancements in technology and communications have dramatically expanded the ability of non-experts to use media and storytelling for social change. Today, anyone with a smartphone can help to shine a light on long-ignored issues, such as police brutality or violence against immigrants. These are issues that have been marginalized from public debate for decades, if not longer, because they disproportionately affect communities that hold little political power, and as a result do not have access to traditional gatekeepers of news and information. New media platforms, tools, and practices are enabling bottom-up citizen participation in our democracy by knitting together the individual voices of those from marginalized communities that, together, have significant influence over public debate and agenda setting.

We are supporting organizations and activities that are doing work in various ways at the national level to create more opportunities for individuals and groups, especially those that have been historically marginalized from inclusion or representation in mainstream media, to contribute to public dialogue.  This ranges from improving the media making and media literacy skills and knowledge of youth in news deserts across the country (with grants to organizations such as Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute and Utah’s SpyHop,) to supporting storytelling initiatives that amplify the voices of under- and misrepresented communities (examples include, Pillars Fund, Define American and The Opportunity Agenda.) The goal of this grantmaking is to increase civic participation in our democracy, largely through the making, sharing, circulating, and critiquing of media online.

”Social media platforms have disrupted traditional news business models, diverting most ad revenue away from publishers and into the coffers of large technology platforms.“

Of course, we recognize the negative impacts these new platforms and practices are having on our democracy. Social media platforms have disrupted traditional news business models, diverting most ad revenue away from publishers and into the coffers of large technology platforms. At the same time, the participatory nature of these platforms has empowered extremists and hate groups to spread and, in some cases, mainstream misinformation and lies. These, of course, are messy problems with no simple answer. We have entered into this space with great humility, making a small number of exploratory grants – to organizations such as The Tow Center for Digital Journalism and Data & Society – to examine the dynamics of these problems with the goal of identifying interventions and seeding and building alliances and processes to address them.

GP: What you’re referencing reminds me that #FakeNews is a hashtag that has grown in prominence since the presidential election. Since working toward a more informed citizenry is at the heart of much of your Journalism and Media portfolio, how has the aftermath of the election and what we’ve learned about how misinformation played a role, affected your grantmaking moving forward?

JH: As a foundation, we spent a lot of time post-election reflecting on whether our grantmaking strategies were addressing the most pressing issues in our fields of operation. The spread of false and misleading information and the role it played in the election was of great concern to us in the Journalism and Media Program. As I mentioned earlier, we have made some new grants since the election to more deeply explore the role large technology platforms have played in spreading lies and amplifying hate, but we also believe that our continued investments in the range of efforts we have supported over the years to ensure all Americans are well-informed and highly engaged is the most important contribution we can make to strengthening our democracy in the current media environment. We will continue to support nonprofit newsrooms and independent documentary filmmakers to create and distribute rigorously researched and nuanced news and narratives and support individuals and citizen groups to use participatory media to engage civically. Together, we believe, these strategies work to hold power to account, uncover injustices, and result in more just and inclusive narratives that reflect the needs and aspirations of all Americans. 

--Janet Camarena

Staff Pick: If a Free Press Can Strengthen Our Democracy, Who Will Strengthen Our Free Press?
September 13, 2018

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.

This post is part of the GlassPockets’ Democracy Funding series, designed to spotlight knowledge about ways in which philanthropy is working to strengthen American democracy. The series will highlight new research and interviews with top democracy funders and recipients.

Janet Camarena PhotoA free press is central to our democracy, but a strong, robust news operation does not come free. As the collapse of the newspaper industry leaves gutted newsrooms across the country with reduced capacity for news gathering, policy analysis, and original reporting, can the information needs of voters be met? Does the rise of social media, #FakeNews, and ideological media bubbles threaten our democracy by filling gaps in local and national news coverage with misinformation? And can foundation philanthropy help to turn around these troubling trends?

A new report published earlier this summer by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy attempts to answer such weighty questions by analyzing $1.8 billion in foundation giving to journalism and media from 2010 to 2015 to see what we can learn from existing funding priorities and special initiatives. A central finding of the research is that though there is much experimentation and innovation taking place as a result of these investments, it is not enough to address decades of shrinking revenues and shuttered newsrooms. The report also finds that it has fallen to too few national funders to fill the media gaps, and there is an urgent need for greater investment by a more diverse group of funders.

As Transparency Talk continues our series illuminating philanthropy’s role in strengthening democracy through the body of knowledge it has commissioned or produced on the topic, we shine the spotlight on this deep analysis of the impact of foundation funding into journalism and media, and implications for the health of our democracy. This report, and others like it, are all openly available via the new Knowledge Center in the Funding Democracy portal. The Knowledge Center, powered by IssueLab, is an open repository to which any foundation can freely add its knowledge.


STAFF PICK

Funding the News: Foundations and Nonprofit Media

Download the Report

PUBLISHERS

Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School

Northeastern University's School of Journalism

FUNDERS

Barr Foundation; Heising-Simons Foundation; Media Impact Funders

QUICK SUMMARY

The analysis of more than 6,500 grant makers suggests the money they are pumping into journalism-related ventures is neither advancing the media's democratic function nor filling the gap left by rampant newspaper closures.

FIELD OF PRACTICE

Journalism and Media

WHAT MAKES IT STAND OUT?

NewsMany foundations commission and produce reports assessing the impact of their funding. Sadly, precious few make these kinds of report public, particularly in cases like this in which there is a focus and diligence on identifying the gaps, pain points, and insufficiencies of the existing funding. This comprehensive review of the foundation funding flows offers both a helpful snapshot of the top funders, and funding trends, while also providing an honest assessment of what is needed to improve the effectiveness of these efforts.

The report is arranged into three parts: section one charts the growth of the nonprofit news sector leading up to the 2016 election; section two provides a detailed analysis of 32,422 journalism and media-related grants totaling $1.8 billion distributed by 6,568 foundations between 2010 and 2015; and the final section highlights the report’s main findings and gives the reader a sense of the direction of the field with a look at significant emerging initiatives.

Introductory context also helps clarify the severity of the situation, and after reading the gloomy financial picture of the media landscape it is enough to make anyone wonder how philanthropy alone can turn things around. For example, at the beginning of the Internet era in 2000, ad revenue for print advertising in newspapers reached $67 billion. In 2014, adjusting for inflation, digital and print revenue yielded only $20 billion, meaning that once you adjust for inflation, newspapers were making less revenue than they did in 1950! This field-wide crisis set the stage for a number of resourceful journalists to create a variety of local and national nonprofit digital news start-ups, which were mostly supported by donors and foundations. However, this led to a “Darwinian” ecosystem of support that created more challenges than solutions given the state of competition, local economies, and “the fickleness of funders.”

Other media funding challenges that the report surfaces include:

  • A “Pack Philanthropy” culture in which a few nonprofits are able to quickly scale due to large investments from a number of foundations, leaving others financially vulnerable with too little support;
  • The new field of start-up journalists had little experience running nonprofits and were not savvy at donor cultivation or diversifying revenue streams;
  • The tendency among foundations to finance innovative start-ups with “seed funding” only to move on before the start-up is equipped to overcome the funding deficit;
  • Because foundations tend to generally be risk-averse, convincing them to fund news start-ups is a hard sell;
  • According to an API survey conducted in 2015, 52 percent of funders reported they make media grants in areas where they want to affect public policy, and a third of funders indicated they fund media in order to advance a “larger strategic agenda” indicating there may be pressure on news nonprofits to align their work around the political objectives of their funders;
  • Local news has been particularly hard hit as most small, place-based funders and community foundations lack the expertise or track record in funding local media, and this has led to the creation of “nonprofit media deserts” outside of the large metro areas on the East and West Coasts where most large foundations that support media are based.

Highlights of foundation funding patterns between 2010 to 2015 include:

  • The largest funder of nonprofit media related activities is the Freedom Forum giving nearly $175 million in funding, almost all of which goes to support the museum activities of the Newseum, which it operates;
  • The second largest funder in this area is the Knight Foundation with approximately $133 million in support of a broad array of journalism activities, including being the leading funder for the majority of start-up news nonprofits with $53 million given to such activities, and Knight also accounts for a 20 percent of all grant dollars supporting local/state nonprofit news;
  • Approximately half of all funding was earmarked to established, “legacy” media nonprofits such as public radio and television stations, and long established magazines;
  • An estimated $331 million or 19% of all foundation funding supported mostly newer, digital nonprofit media including national nonprofit news organizations, local nonprofit news organizations, and university-based media;
  • Foundation funding for public media tends to be highly concentrated across a small number of grant recipients. About two dozen recipients accounted for 72 percent of all foundation funding to public media;
  • Ten states accounted for 83 percent of total foundation funding to public media indicating that large regions of the country lack access to nonprofit news apart from what might be provided by public television and radio;
  • Nationally, news nonprofits depended on about two dozen foundations for nearly 70 percent of the grants awarded.

The report provides an open invitation for a greater variety of donors to become involved. The transparency a report like this provides is a good strategy to motivate additional funding for the ambitious goal of sustaining a robust press in order to preserve the health of our democracy.

KEY QUOTE

“A final concern voiced among those we interviewed is that patterns in foundation funding to date reflect ‘elites supporting elites,’ financing those nonprofit journalism initiatives most likely to be consumed by audiences who already read the New York Times or Washington Post and listen to NPR. Our findings specific to the concentration of funding within a few national news nonprofits, the disproportionate focus on the environment and health as subjects, and deep geographic disparities in funding that favors the East and West Coasts all suggest there is merit to these critiques. Apart from these geographic differences and subject biases, several of our interviewees not only expressed concerns that minority and ethnic communities are being underserved, but also that women who found or run news nonprofits are receiving insufficient funding in comparison to their male counterparts, a likelihood that merits further analysis.”

--Janet Camarena

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About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
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    Foundation Center

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