A group of foundation leaders is making the case that healthy news ecosystems are critical to the well-being of our communities, planet, democracy – and funders’ missions.
It was one of those grey and snowy end-of-January days in southern Ontario and a crowd huddled outside the doors of the Guelph Mercury. It was time to say goodbye to their community’s 149-year-old newspaper. “These people are my family,” an emotional general manager said of the 26 staff members who had just lost their jobs. But journalism is much more than a job, he said: “It’s in our blood.”
In 2016, the Guelph Mercury’s shuttering was newsworthy. But these days, closures have become so commonplace they barely cause a ripple, let alone a tear. For the past 15 years, a crowd-sourced map has been tracking local media launches and closures. Nearly 400 red “Xs,” accompanied by epitaph-like blurbs, document a coast-to-coast history of demise (an additional 114 outlets have closed due to mergers). “We’ve just gotten used to things disappearing,” says Jesse Brown in a recent Canadaland podcast. “Forget cancel culture – this is collapse culture. This is cultural collapse. This is civic collapse.”
Forget cancel culture – this is collapse culture. This is cultural collapse. This is civic collapse.Jesse Brown, Canadaland
This is not a breaking-news story. In 1970, The Uncertain Mirror: Report of the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media issued a warning: “This country should no longer tolerate a situation where the public interest in so vital a field as information is dependent on the greed or goodwill of an extremely privileged group of businessmen.” A half century’s worth of books, articles, and reports swirl around who or what is to blame for what’s been described as the “slow-moving train wreck” of a “bleeding out” Canadian media industry – from government blundering to hedge-fund predators to the digital revolution to journalism itself.
But one thing is clear: journalism is at a crossroads, and it’s not just about money anymore. The industry grapples with new threats, such as record-low trust levels and a disinformation crisis. In Redefining News: A Manifesto for Community-Centred Journalism, Damian Radcliffe, the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon, writes, “Unless we do some things differently, the trajectory for the industry is clear.”
But this is not a bad-news story. All over the world, those who believe in the power of journalism have been working to alter the course of this trajectory. And the 14 interviewees for this article and a follow-up in the coming weeks – from media critics to academics to funders to journalists – agree that philanthropy, if done right, is an important part of the puzzle. Dwayne Winseck, director of the Global Media and Internet Concentration Project, says that including philanthropy in the equation recognizes “an underlying and intractable reality” that news has never been a commercially viable product. It has always been “shored up by some form of subsidy – advertising, government, rich people,” he notes, buoyed by a philosophical notion of a public good. “It’s like your spinach and your broccoli and your kale,” he says, “and we should encourage people to eat as much of it as possible.”
News is like your spinach and your broccoli and your kale, and we should encourage people to eat as much of it as possible.Dwayne Winseck, Global Media and Internet Concentration Project
In 2009, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy put it this way: “Information is as vital to the healthy functioning of communities as clean air, safe streets, good schools and public health.” A recent research review of four years of academic studies supports this statement, showing the positive effects of local news on communities, from reducing pollution to increasing social cohesion.
But not all news is good for you. Magda Konieczna, associate professor of journalism at Concordia University, worked as a reporter at the Guelph Mercury and was laid off in 2009. While she misses working at a community paper, “I’m kind of embarrassed to tell my students about it,” she says. Journalism school had taught her “that I was an expert on what people in communities need, because I knew what the news values were on page 57 of the textbook.” She’d arrived in Guelph, a place she’d never been, and never thought about asking her community what they cared about, what they needed to know. “So today I come from a really different perspective,” she says.
Journalism is failing, but there’s a new wave of news, and its rising stars are non-profits.Magda Konieczna, Concordia University
After spending more than 15 years researching and teaching journalism in the US, where she wrote the book Journalism Without Profit: Making News When the Market Fails, Konieczna notes an evolution in the idea of a failing business model, that we need “to find a new way to do old-school journalism.” Journalism is failing, she says, but there’s a new wave of news, and its rising stars are non-profits. Since 2009, the number of members in the US-based Institute for Nonprofit News has grown from 27 to more than 425 (including a few Canadian additions, such as The Narwhal and the Investigative Journalism Foundation). These new independent outlets are finding ways “to do journalism better,” she says, because journalism has strayed from its original mission: representing people in their communities and giving people the information they need.
While journalism is at a crossroads, Canadian philanthropy has an opportunity to become part of an international movement to realign media toward building community. Teresa Gorman, associate director of Democracy Fund’s Public Square program, which seeks “to ensure every community in the US has access to accurate information,” says the rolling closures and layoffs in the media landscape have “actually created space for thinking differently, and push both those in the news space and outside of it.” Funders in this space aren’t “saving journalism for journalism’s sake,” she says. They’re strengthening local news ecosystems, with a focus on equity, and racial equity at its core. Gorman invites Canadians to join a “huge and growing” community of funders “who are figuring this out together.” While we may look to the thriving non-profit media landscape south of the border with envy (including ProPublica and the Nieman Foundation), Gorman says the US is not that far ahead, and Canada has the advantage to be able to “leapfrog” and learn from its failings.
Recently, LION Publishers, an association for independent news publishers in the US and Canada, noted “the potential for significant growth” in Canada, identifying 270 new independent, “digitally dominant” media outlets.
If philanthropy wants to be a part of creating healthy news ecosystems, it’s not just about the news. It’s about the dialogue, the deliberation, the conversation and engagement that needs to happen.Michelle Ferrier, The Media Deserts Project
For more than a decade, Michelle Ferrier, principal investigator for The Media Deserts Project and the Media Seeds Project, who describes herself as “jacked into news and information on a cellular level,” has been a main driver in this new wave of journalism. Focusing her lens on underserved and underprivileged communities in news deserts – “geographies lacking fresh, daily news and information” – she has pushed for coverage that is diverse, inclusive, and representative of the population being served. If philanthropy wants to be a part of creating healthy news ecosystems, Ferrier says, it’s not just about the news. It’s about “the dialogue, the deliberation, the conversation and engagement that needs to happen before, during, and after any news happens or is reported.” And conversations surrounding inclusivity and representation need to include the foundations themselves: “Many of these place-based philanthropic organizations are not themselves diverse, equitable, or inclusive in the ways in which they do business,” she notes, and are unwilling to examine how their own processes may be complicit in “suppressing the voices and silencing underserved and underrepresented people in their communities.”
In recent years, a long overdue reckoning has been taking place in both philanthropy and journalism, revealing surprisingly similar challenges. As Canada’s philanthropic sector looks itself squarely in the mirror, the reflection isn’t always pretty: a diversity deficit in its upper echelons, systemic anti-Blackness in its granting practices, and a call to decolonize giving and examine a host of “isms.” Canada’s media sector also has cause to grimace, from consistently scoring poorly when it comes to newsroom diversity, to limiting the voices of visible minorities, to coverage that has “aided and abetted” the marginalization of Canada’s Indigenous population.
Amid such soul-searching, a chance for philanthropy and journalism to do things better, together, beckons. In September, an op-ed in La Presse pointed out that if the sector aims to shift from “traditional” to “transformative” philanthropy (what some describe as a shift from charity to social justice) there is no better ally than journalism. Responding to a media crisis exacerbated by Meta removing Canadian news from all its platforms in response to Bill C-18 (the controversial Online News Act), the authors write, “Canadian philanthropy can no longer remain silent” (translated from French).
Journalism is essential to philanthropy: if we lose the media, we lose everything.Karel Mayrand, Foundation of Greater Montréal
Karel Mayrand, CEO of the Foundation of Greater Montréal and one of the op-ed’s authors, says journalism is “essential” to philanthropy. “If we lose the media,” he says, “we lose everything.” Eleven years as an environmental activist for the David Suzuki Foundation showed him that journalism is a vital link in the chain to disseminate information. “If you lose the media, you lose the capacity to have a public dialogue on issues, to convey ideas to the public. Without the media, you end up in some kind of, like – it’s not even a market of ideas, it’s a market of disinformation.” Whether it’s to relay accurate scientific facts related to the climate emergency or “address root causes of inequality, poverty, environmental destruction, racism – you need to have democratic institutions that work,” Mayrand says, “because solving systemic issues will require governmental action.”
Philanthropy needs to take collective action, to add a credible voice, a voice that conveys a lot of weight.Karel Mayrand
While Canada’s “risk averse” philanthropic sector may be wary of funding journalism, viewing it as a political position, this is not a partisan issue, Mayrand says. “We have to be allies, the same way that we need to be allies on diversity and inclusion, on reconciliation.” This is a critical time for democracy, he says, “so why would we stay outside the political realm while the very tools that we need to reach our goals are being dismantled and we’re doing nothing to stop it?” We need to take collective action, he says, to add a “credible voice, a voice that conveys a lot of weight.”
“Sometimes it’s good to have the voice of philanthropy added on top of all those other voices because it shows that people with money care,” he adds.
In early November, a small group of people who care about such issues gathered at Toronto’s Foundation House. For many of the philanthropists and the handful of journalists in attendance at the Toronto Regional Member Gathering: Funders and Journalism, this was the first time they’d mixed. They discussed issues such as editorial independence and “how to speak philanthropy.”
Funders are not granting to news organizations because they want to save the media. They are supporting journalism because it is much more difficult to accomplish their missions without it.Funding Journalism: A Guide for Canadian Philanthropy
An embargoed copy of Funding Journalism: A Guide for Canadian Philanthropy – created by Inspirit Foundation, the Local News Research Project at Toronto Metropolitan University, and Philanthropic Foundations Canada – circulated. While Canadian philanthropy has not traditionally viewed journalism as a funding priority, the guide makes the case that healthy news and information systems “are critical to the wellbeing of our communities, planet, and democracy.” In what the authors call the “uncharted territory” of such an endeavour, the guide explains in clear and concise terms a hitherto hidden realm, translating the language of the regulatory landscape (“qualified Canadian journalism organization”/QCJO; “registered journalism organization”/RJO), navigating the murky waters of ethical concerns, and showing funders just what’s possible when philanthropy and journalism join forces. The guide stresses that “funders are not granting to news organizations because they want to save the media. They are supporting journalism because it is much more difficult to accomplish their missions without it.”
For some media organizations, however, entering the realm of philanthropy might prove daunting. Only 11 of Canada’s media outlets – which, in a dearth of hard data about the industry, could number anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 (“Nobody knows the answer to that question,” says April Lindgren, the principal investigator for the Local News Research Project) – have become qualified donees since Ottawa announced the new RJO status for non-profit newsrooms in the 2019 federal budget. In 2020, a Carleton journalism professor wrote, “This period should create an ideal climate for small, struggling local media outlets, start-ups, and those with ideas to tap into one component of the $595-million news media bailout.” Upon further examination, he concluded that “the shift to charitable status is more difficult than it may seem and possibly not worth the effort.”
One might reason that funders have been feeling the same way: only about two dozen of Canada’s more than 10,000 foundations have funded any form of journalism in recent years. The Funding Journalism guide aims to chart a new course in this “relatively nascent field” to show there are many ways to finance journalism – and also to bridge a gap.
After years of working with both journalists and funders, Ana Sofía Hibon, program manager at Inspirit and one of the guide’s co-authors, noticed the same questions surfacing again and again. “I almost had an FAQ list in my head,” she says. Hibon identified three “massive barriers” to address: lack of funding, lack of information, and lack of dialogue between the two sectors. To put it simply, it became clear that philanthropists and journalists didn’t really know each other. For example, funders have lots of questions surrounding editorial independence, she says, “but I don’t feel like that question comes up much for journalists. For the journalists that I talk to, it’s quite clear they aren’t going to be influenced by a third party.”
Funders can be forgiven for their knowledge gap. In addition to journalism schools teaching fundamental skills, entire university departments are dedicated to the study of mass media and communications. Funders considering entering this realm, says Marc Edge, author of The Postmedia Effect: How Vulture Capitalism Is Wrecking Our News, “should realize that journalism is an endeavour unlike any other. It’s a business unlike any other, but it’s also a profession. Journalists consider themselves professionals, and they have ethics.”
Funders may be surprised to learn how eager journalists are to talk about creating healthier news ecosystems. Some have been waiting two decades. “I’ve long thought and advocated for this kind of thinking to happen around Canadian journalism,” says Jeanette Ageson, publisher of The Tyee, one of Canada’s oldest online, and non-profit, news organizations.
“We feel like it’s incredible that we’re still here,” she says, but she laments that so many others haven’t made it. This is “an interesting turning point for journalism,” she says, “where the old models are really suffering, but the new models still don’t have enough firepower behind them to really replace what’s being lost. So I’m delighted that in our 20th year this conversation seems to be happening.”
Part two of this story will speak to those behind the scenes at some of Canada’s non-profit newsrooms and examine how to create healthy news ecosystems.