Why philanthropy is crucial for independent journalism

A reflection on the Journalism Funders Forum’s in-person event, 16 February, Brussels
By Are We Europe

On 16 February, Philea and the Journalism Funders Forum (JFF) held their first ever in-person event together, bringing together representatives of foundations to discuss their mission of supporting public interest journalism in Europe.

The role of independent journalism in society has never been more important than in the current moment. It is what builds a bridge between communities and ensures balanced information is available to all. Over the past decade, media oppression has been on the rise in both authoritarian states and open societies in Europe. Media organisations and freelance journalists alike increasingly turn to philanthropic funders for support to continue their work despite increasingly difficult conditions.

JFF aims to support the funding landscape for journalism in Europe through three strands of work. Firstly, by improving learning opportunities and knowledge about journalism funding across the continent. Secondly, the forum works to diversify and increase the number of journalism funders in Europe, as well as foster connections between them. Thirdly, the forum strives to help build a more effective, transparent and equitable funding environment for journalism in Europe.

At the event in Brussels, funders had the opportunity to share successful strategies, learnings and challenges that they face in supporting public interest journalism. Openly sharing one’s challenges and hopes is the only way to entice other funders that are not yet active in journalism to do so. Just like in journalism, honesty is key.

A pillar of democracy

While many would hope that quality journalism can fund itself, the past few decades have irreversibly damaged most media outlets’ business models. The internet is the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, paving the way for higher outreach but also forcing many publications to put their content behind a paywall in order to remain sustainable. Some would say the latter hinders journalism’s duty to contribute to public discourse.

Throughout the day, an ever-present topic on the discussions was democracy. After all, journalists and their work are essential contributors to informed communities. While many foundations do not explicitly name journalism in their mission statements, it is through their commitment to upholding democracy that they, too, should support this field. Independent, quality journalism contributes to a healthy democracy. And journalism should be free from any influence that may impact their editorial output. Protecting this independence plays a crucial role in what philanthropic funding can do for journalism today. But how can this work be funded sustainably? 

The challenges to funding independent journalism are not unheard of. Funders, of course, need to find quality journalism to support. In turn, many journalists would argue that they simply do not know the relevant funding organisations to contact. The interdependence between journalists and their funders is evident, but it is discussions around the type of funding needed, and how funders can work together to maximise impact, that made the gathering in Brussels so uniquely impactful.

Stability is key

When investigating the ways in which philanthropy can support media organisations, core funding is of great importance. Core funding allows for the necessary breathing room between projects that contributes to better journalistic output. It furthers the creation of sustainable structures within a media outlet and offers opportunities for professional development. It also removes the incentive some might receive from project-based grants to just “go for the money” to survive. Simply put, not worrying about whether they can break even next month allows journalists to thrive. Stability is key. 

This very stability is the one that can allow for the time and resources for journalists to tackle extensive or sensitive topics that can often be more labour-intensive. Unrestricted support from a funding body can help to bring out the best of what journalism can do, speaking truth to power and contributing to societal change. 

The case for pluralism and funder collaboration

As much as cross-border journalism is becoming a reality in newsrooms today, collaboration should be of equal importance among funders. Like most things in life, it’s a two-way street. Pluralism in funding is essential to a system in which pluriform media thrives. And media diversity is vital. When funders act as a group, they send a clear message of support.

While stability is vital to journalists, it is equally important to funds. But there are solutions. Pooled funds are aggregated funds that allow interested parties to fund journalism without being experts on the topic. As the idiom goes, there is safety in numbers. Pooled funding creates quality assurance among funders who may not have the requisite knowledge to select suitable projects. It essentially creates a comfort zone for those who would otherwise hesitate to begin funding journalism. The hope however is that in the future more funders will become comfortable enough to begin funding journalism outside of the access point of a pooled fund.

However, this is not the only way in which funders can collaborate. In sharing knowledge and expertise across the European funding landscape, philanthropic organisations can work together to co-create new projects and grantmaking initiatives. In this sense, funders can co-fund projects independently but work side by side collaboratively. This kind of collaborative decision-making also accounts for the disparate geographic landscape of funding. For example, a country like the Netherlands is comparatively well-funded compared to other regions in Europe like Italy or Spain. Through collaborative processes, funders can contribute to journalistic diversity in landscapes and languages they might not be familiar with. It is a matter of shared trust. 

Looking forward

The first in-person meeting of the Journalism Funders Forum, since it found its new home with Philea, clearly showed that foundations are eager to connect more often. There is a drive to have funders communicate with one another in a casual setting, but also to facilitate communication between funders and potential grantees and partners. The repeated mentions of how difficult it is to communicate, match the need for better understanding between those who support journalism and those who create it. Both JFF and Philea are strengthened in their resolve to keep building connections between journalism funders in Europe and to advocate for the crucial role that philanthropy plays in safeguarding independent media.

Speaker list