Greater Scrutiny For Nonprofit News? |

In this time of vast upheaval in the form and function of journalism, nonprofit newsrooms now find themselves being held to a higher level of scrutiny, writes Kevin Davis of Investigative News Network. He explains how nonprofit newsrooms are mitigating the perceptions and risks of undue influence.

In this time of vast upheaval in the form and function of journalism, nonprofit newsrooms now find themselves being held to a higher level of scrutiny. It’s coming from for-profit peers suspicious of funders who appear more interested in the democratic function of the Fourth Estate rather than traditional capitalistic consideration.

Many see successful nonprofits such as ProPublica, Kaiser Health News, the Center for Investigative Reporting, Voice of San Diego, the Texas Tribune and more than 90 others as invaluable assets, willing partners and producers of socially necessary, but commercially difficult, investigative and public service journalism.  

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Other members of the for-profit media have of late publicly questioned the validity and sustainability of the nonprofit news movement, even going so far as to denounce nonprofits as illegitimate, impermanent or worse: shills of the foundations and philanthropists that have invested in what is undoubtedly one of the fastest growing segments of the news media landscape.

At the core of the various op-ed pieces, blog posts and Tweets is a fundamental question: Can mission-driven organizations with limited access to and, therefore limited number of, financial resources legitimately, sustainably and ethically perform the core public accountability functions of the fourth estate. Or, as some of the more public media watchers such as Jeff Jarvis and Michael Wolff have suggested, is for-profit journalism the only legitimate and logical area for media investment.

As the CEO & Executive Director of the Investigative News Network, a coalition of 94 nonprofit newsrooms in the United States, I admit to be nothing less than a dedicated and tireless advocate for the nonprofit news movement. Having previously worked in and with for-profit news organizations of all shapes and sizes over my nearly 20-year career, I have seen a fair share of stories spiked, advertisers aggrandized and legitimate story ideas suppressed out of fear of rocking the now ever-shakier boat.

Yet there appears to be a double-standard as it relates to nonprofit news. That somehow, because of the perceived lack of market-driven economics, nonprofit newsrooms are inherently more prone to manipulation by the people that fund them. Ethics and the elimination of real conflict of interest are legitimate and important issues with which every media outlet, not just nonprofits, ought to be concerned.

That said, the primary argument and case that I see in the media is in regards to the perceived lack of editorial independence of nonprofit news organizations. Specifically, it has been suggested in some circles that the small number of journalism-supporting foundations and philanthropists (which are in aggregate the largest sources of funding currently for the nonprofit news organizations in the United States) have agendas which influence the coverage of the nonprofit news organizations that they support.

This has been the argument behind a series of pieces by PandoDaily, which has interestingly written extensively on the topic of late.  Two reports in particular have alluded to this issue: one about a large gift to WNET by the Arnold Foundation, the other on entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar’s supposed conflict-of-interest between his investment in First Look Media’s The Intercept (featuring renowned journalists such as Glenn Greenwald) and his interest in pro-West Ukrainian opposition groups. (Full disclosure: the Democracy Fund, which is currently a project of the Omidyar Network is a funder of the Investigative News Network.  Also, WNET’s CEO, Neal Shapiro, is a member of our board).

Rather than rehashing the accusations within the reports or the veracity of the rebuttals, it is important to note how the nonprofit newsrooms of INN are actively mitigating these inherent risks and trying to avoid the appearance of impropriety in order to be able to produce news and information that is valued and utilized by the audiences and communities that they serve.

Editorial independence for non-profit news organization’s is the freedom of journalists and editors to make decisions without interference and/or direction from any funding source be that a foundation, corporate underwriter or individual philanthropist.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism – an INN-member nonprofit news organization – clearly states in its “about” section that “The Center’s Policy on Financial Support… requires that the Center’s news coverage be independent of donors and that all providers of revenue will be publicly identified.”


The Center goes on to cite INN’s  own policy on transparency, which requires members to disclose information about donors and financial practices, produce nonpartisan investigative journalism, and “apply high journalistic standards for accuracy and fairness and which prevent conflicts of interest that compromise the integrity of the work.”

In short, the reason our organization requires the disclosure of all donors above $1,000 is because we believe that the public has a right to know who is funding the content and draw their own conclusions about the implications that funding may or may not have. The only exception to this rule is if an organization can demonstrate a clear need for a donor to remain anonymous and demonstrate how that donation does not and cannot influence or affect the journalism being produced.