The past several decades have been marked by two trends in journalism, neither of them conducive to an informed public or the furtherance of democracy. On the one hand there is the growing consolidation of media ownership and a precipitous drop in national and global reporting. On the other there is a fragmentation of the media creating a hyper-competitive landscape that drives the news market to deliver infotainment, soft news, and more ideologically defined, or 'opinion' media. Notions of 'public trust,' responsibility and the 'fourth estate' seem to increasingly fall to the realm of citizen journalists, bloggers and advocacy organizations. And yet, despite a few exceptions, many still depend on traditional news outlets as points of departure for their information. And in a world of algorithm determined headlines, popularity usually beats public interest and the information the public needs to make informed decisions too often gets lost. The bottom line: If commercial incentives are the driving force of information gathering and dissemination — be it traditional or new media — what's in the public interest (and not just what the public is interested in) will likely be ignored and the American public will pay the price.
In this shifting landscape of today's news media, nonprofit journalism has been gaining significant attention as a potential solution. In the past few months the Columbia Journalism Review and the American Journalism Review have each featured stories about the growing importance of foundation sponsored journalism. And it should come as no surprise. As Charles Lewis suggests in CJR's "The Nonprofit Road," nonprofits have long played a critical role in providing quality journalism to the American public. But as Carol Guensburg points out, foundation-sponsored journalism has both inherent benefits and risks: "Done right, the journalism-funder relationship benefits both parties as well as the public they aim to serve. It supplies important news resources, and it satisfies a grantmaker's mission — maybe even bringing a touch of prestige. Done wrong, the association raises concerns about editorial objectivity and whether it has been compromised by a funder's agenda."
So what does getting it "right" look like?
One nonprofit that has asked this question is the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which seeks not to replace traditional or new media, but to build on the existing strengths of both and fill in the gaps where needed. It's not the only answer, but it's a model that is already delivering a promising 'Return on Investment.' Founded just two years ago, the Center is forging a model of journalism dedicated to raising the standard of international reporting in the United States. The Center's model combines quality reporting, comprehensive media dissemination and educational initiatives to raise awareness of critical global issues that have been largely ignored in the American media. We work across media platforms and embrace the promise of pro-am collaborations as reflected in our recent partnership with helium.com. By reaching out into schools we hope to inspire the next generation of news consumers to ask for better information and engage in the news gathering process more directly.
As a nonprofit, our goal is to strengthen the media system as a whole, not to create more competition. We bridge traditional and new media, working with organizations as established as The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR and as current as YouTube, One World and Witness.
As a small, nimble organization built on principles of collaboration over competition and on long-term change over short-term fixes, we're able to achieve significant impact without looking to monetary profit to measure our success. Pulitzer Center-supported reporting spanned more than 20 countries in 2007, including a 14-month investigation of factory working conditions in China, pioneering work on human rights abuses in Ethiopia, environmental challenges across the globe including Peru, Rwanda and Alaska, the HIV/AIDS crisis in the Caribbean, rehabilitation efforts with former child soldiers in Liberia and the U.S., and in-depth reporting that challenged official U.S. optimism on the "surge" in Iraq.
Jon Sawyer, the Pulitzer Center's executive director, is at WeMedia this week actively seeking new partners who, like us, believe the benefit of quality information can not be measured in dollar signs.
For more about the Pulitzer Center see: "Funding for Foreign Forays," by Carol Guensburg. AJR, February/March 2008
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