Building a Stronger Foundation for Press Freedom and Accountability Journalism in a Digital Age

Today I’m part of an incredible team launching a new project focused on strengthening nonprofit news and accountability journalism.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation is unique in its scope, its substance and its style. The Foundation is rooted in the idea that, while the structures of journalism are changing, the critical role of journalism in our democracy is not. It will fund critical and cutting edge work by nonprofit journalism organizations, transparency and watchdog groups and independent journalists.

This project builds on some of the key threads I’ve been working on and writing about for years and addresses three key problems head on:

Problem: Journalism Collaboration Usually Stops at the Checkbook

Since I began covering new journalism collaborations years ago, partnerships have become an almost commonplace part of reporting. However, when it comes to funding, in most cases, it is everyone for themselves. This project asks, what if we extended journalism collaborations from the newsroom to the development office? Could we raise more money together than we could apart?

The Freedom of the Press Foundation forgoes competitive grant-making and instead focuses on collaborative fundraising. The Foundation groups nonprofits into bundles and seeks funding for them together. It’s an opportunity to bring more unity to the nonprofit media sector and introduce new people to each outlet.

Problem: Decentralized News Consumption Diminishes Donations

A few years ago Pew’s Project on Excellence in Journalism coined the term “news grazer” to describe how we get our news today: from many sources, across many platforms, throughout the day. If you listen to NPR every morning, you know you should donate to your local station. But if you are consuming news from 30 different newsrooms over the course of a week, where should you contribute?

The transaction costs of tracking down donation pages for every journalist or organizations is way too high, so most people end up with choosing one or more often not donating at all. The Freedom of the Press Foundation lowers the transaction costs by giving people one place where they can support a range of journalism organizations with one donation. And, donors get to decide how much of their money each group gets. This is not just crowd-sourced, but also crowd-driven.

Problem: We Need New Networks of Support for Independent Journalist

As the landscape of journalism is changing, increasingly the people on the front lines, in the halls of power, or digging up dirt behind the scenes don’t have the backing or protections of traditional journalism institutions. We desperately need to build new networks of support that can adapt to the changing structures and demographics of journalism.

Consider, for example, the financial blockade against WikiLeaks put in place after it published leaked documents from the  U.S. State Department. Major payment processors, at the urging of a few members of Congress began blocking donations to the site. Similarly, last year members of the House tried to cut off NPR from federal funding, telling local stations how they could spend their money and the IRS has been blocking journalism organizations for getting non-profit status, threatening their ability to get grants and accept donations.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation circumvents the Wikileaks blockade and as it grows, will provide an innovative infrastructure for a new era of aggressive public-interest journalism. Right now, too many organizations are struggling for funding, over-reliant on a few large foundations or competing for donors. One of our central goals is to help make accountability journalism more resilient by routing around gatekeepers and broadening the base of support for non-profit news.

Building a Stronger Foundation for Press Freedom in a Digital Age

One of the things that attracted me to this project was the idea of building a new foundation – both physical and fiscal – for nonprofit journalism and press freedom. For me, this is about more than just crowdsourcing donations, it is about expanding the community around nonprofit journalism and empowering more people as advocates of press freedom.

In their recently released report, “Post Industrial Journalism,” C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell, and Clay Shirky describe the fundamental change of the last decade in news and information as such: “Everybody suddenly got a lot more freedom.” However, at the same time as the Internet and technology have democratized the tools of media making, our rights to use those tools are increasingly coming under threat. The evidence is in the stunning number of journalists arrested in the past year, the debates over whistleblowers and leaks, as well as the credit card companies blocking Wikileaks funding, and the spike in government surveillance of citizens and journalists.

With more freedom for more people comes the critical job of engaging those people in protecting their freedoms. The Freedom of Press Foundation hopes to give people new tools to fund and fight for the future of journalism.


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