A new idea for how foundations can support local news coverage

By Mary Lou Fulton

People who tune in to NPR or PBS news programs are familiar with sponsorship messages such as  “coverage made possible by support from the such-and-such foundation.”  The way this works in practice is that foundations give money to pay for the salaries, benefits and other expenses of journalists who report on a particular topic area.   It’s mutually understood that the purpose of this funding is not to elicit coverage of a foundation or its grant recipients.  The grants are a vote in confidence in the value of independent journalism, with decision-making authority resting solely with editors and reporters.

I learned more about this type of funding after joining The California Endowment last year as a program manager overseeing communications and media grants, which included support of California-based NPR stations.   The Endowment is the state’s largest health foundation, and my job is make grants that increase the quantity and quality of journalism about community health.  Working with our NPR grants made me wonder:  Could this approach also be used to support health journalism at local newspapers?

I come from a newspaper background, having started at The Associated Press and gone on to reporter/editor positions at The Los Angeles Times, digital media roles at The Washington Post and new product development work at The Bakersfield Californian.   I know that beat assignments play a large role in shaping news coverage, and I wondered whether local newspapers would be open to adding a new community health reporting position.  So I floated the idea to a few newspapers, and am pleased to report that we have funded new positions at The Oakland Tribune, Vida en el Valle (the state’s largest bilingual newspaper, based in Fresno) and at The Merced Sun-Star.   Mike Tharp, executive editor in Merced, wrote a column today telling readers about this new health reporting position and why he said yes to the idea.

With all the grants I make, I spend a fair amount of time up front to discuss the scope and objectives for the project.   To help introduce the concept to editors, knowing they might be a bit suspicious, I wrote up a short description of what I had in mind for this beat:

The California Endowment proposes underwriting the cost (salary and benefits) for a full-time journalist to cover a new beat called Community Health that focuses on the ways that health is related to where you live.   Public health research has found that factors related to your neighborhood – whether you live near a park, whether streets are safe, whether you have easy access to grocery stores that sell fresh foods, whether you breathe clean air – are much more reliable predictors of your health than whether you can see a doctor when you’re sick.  This beat would include topics that are commonly covered by local news reporters, but would look at them through a different lens – that of health.   For example, a City Hall reporter might go to a city council meeting and write a story about the politics behind the approval of a new housing development whereas the Community Health reporter would write about whether health issues such the provision of parks, walking trails, grocery stores and access to public transit were considered in the planning process.  This beat would shine a spotlight on how people living just a few miles away from each other experience a different quality of life and even life expectancy based on where they live.  But this beat also could highlight solutions from government, business and  community members working to improve conditions in their neighborhoods.

This beat is NOT for the purpose of covering anything related to The California Endowment or its grant programs. This proposal is consistent with The Endowment’s focus of increasing awareness of community health issues.  We envision this model could work in the same way as our support of NPR, where we’d agree on general coverage topics but are not involved with day-to-day operations.

I then asked interested editors to send me a list of story ideas for this beat, as a way to see if we had the same understanding of the beat and to offer a starting point for the reporter.  At Vida en el Valle, which serves Latinos in California’s Central Valley, the story ideas focused on topics that are especially relevant to Latinos such as obesity prevention in rural areas and environmental health issues.  You can see the work of Vida reporter Rebecca Plevin on this community health blog. At The Oakland Tribune, the beat will have a specific focus on how urban violence impacts public health.  And in Merced, the reporter will explore topics such as why Merced County residents out-drink and out-smoke the rest of the state, water quality and more.

I’m sure there will be some traditionalists in journalism who find this idea appalling.  Having worked in newsrooms, I can make the arguments against this concept as well as anyone, so let me spell them out for you here.

1.  Is this an effort to promote The California Endowment or its grant projects?  What is your agenda? The Endowment is a private, nonpartisan foundation.  We  are prohibited by law from lobbying and make grants based on the income earned from our core endowment fund (meaning we don’t solicit or accept funds from outside sources.)  We were created 14 years ago when Blue Cross converted from a nonprofit to a for-profit health care provider, and the state legislature decided to use the tax credits on the books to create two health foundations.   Our mission is focused on improving the health of underserved people who don’t have an equal opportunity to live a healthy life because they are poor, or live in an unhealthy environment, or are not a priority for the institutions that are supposed to serve them.    To me, this mission is consistent with this century-old quote by journalist Finley Peter Dunne, who said, “”The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I hope that’s what these new community health reporters will do.

2.  These are local news reporters working in communities where The Endowment is investing money in community health projects.   Won’t this be a conflict of interest for the reporter? This is a legitimate concern, but given that news decisions are in the hands of editors, we have to trust them to guard against bias toward or against The Endowment.   I also hope that newspapers will be transparent, as Merced editor Mike Tharp was, in telling readers about The Endowment’s support of these positions just as NPR does through its sponsorship announcements.

3.  Will you complain about stories or pull the plug on funding if you don’t like the coverage? No, we understand that reporters and editors will make independent judgments about stories.   Like all readers, we will find some stories more valuable than others, but we have no wish to control the day-to-day operations of a newsroom.  We fund independent journalism across California because we believe that more and better health reporting benefits the community, raises awareness about the importance of health and helps support media organizations that play an important role in communities.

4.  Won’t editorial independence be compromised by having this new reporter be a dedicated resource focused on community health, versus being able to pull this reporter to work the night police beat or any story that comes along? I suppose you could look at it this way, although I would argue that the community health beat concept is not a huge constraint because the definition is so broad that it could be applied to a wide variety of story topics, from local government to land use to violence or health care.   And I’d also point out that newsrooms  already face the even larger constraint of local advertising revenue determining the size of their staffs, meaning the number of reporters you have is dependent on the number of trucks the local Ford dealer can sell.  Revenue diversification is a big buzzword in media, and I think that editors have an opportunity to play a role here by being willing to explore non-advertising revenue such as foundation support.

Of course, foundation dollars are not the silver bullet for local journalism; nothing is. But I wanted to spell out my thinking behind these grants in the hope that others will take up this idea if it sounds appealing.  I would never suggest that the energy beat be sponsored by the ExxonMobil Foundation, but nonpartisan foundations that focus on news  topics such as education, health and the environment could find they have a lot in common with local media organizations.

Additionally, local community foundations are great potential partners for newspapers, and the Knight Foundation has created the Community Information Challenge fund specifically to inspire local news ideas and partnerships.   In fact, the Knight Foundation was among the first to support the idea of foundation-funded beats through a grant to the Arkansas Community Foundation.

We live in a time when the traditional economic models for media are crumbling beneath our feet, but the need for high-quality information is greater than ever.   I’m glad that editors like Mike Tharp in Merced, Martin Reynolds at The Oakland Tribune and Juan Esparza at Vida en el Valle are willing to take a chance on this new idea and hope it will pave the way for others — both foundations and news organizations — to do the same.

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