Funding the Newsroom

What should be the News Director’s role in helping to raise money for news purposes?

News Directors and those involved in news owe their first obligation to the public. After all, they promise to serve the public good and keep the trust. However, our journalism is only manifest via an economic process. In public radio, we may sidestep the excesses of our commercial counterparts, but we’re not immune from the influence of money.

Funding for public radio is fraught with challenges for journalists:

  • Government dollars help fuel our operations, opening us to political pressure;
  • Underwriting dollars comprise a significant revenue stream, yet allow the perception that underwriters may get special favor;
  • Gifts and grants help make content possible, but may come with some direct or indirect expectations or restrictions.

Only listeners’ dollars seem to be most free of potential conflict, and most News Directors willingly oblige the need to go on air to solicit direct listener support.

The rest of the funding streams — government, underwriting, gifts and grants — must be met with special editorial protections. We employ a theoretical “firewall” to keep the business side of things from mingling with or influencing the editorial side.

This firewall should be articulated in clear policy statements that are known to all staff, to funders and to the public. If the policies are breached, there should be serious consequences because the entire lifeblood of the organization depends up the trust therein.

News Directors may be among the few people who can traverse the firewall if and when it helps make the case for funding and does not expose the department to interference or compromise — real or perceived. This is because ND’s are in a position to advocate for the expense of quality news coverage, although PD’s and GM’s should be equally capable.

ND’s should NOT be in the business of recruiting donors nor asking for money directly, but they can and should be willing to be accountable for the work of their department. (For example, we see nothing wrong with a News Director espousing the many good deeds accomplished by funding. But, to preserve editorial independence, that same News Director would not engage in content-specific pre-negotiations with funders other than to insist on editorial freedom to cover the news as the department sees fit.)

Still, one of the greatest challenges remains when to say yes and when to say no to funding sources. Say YES when:

  • The source is helping you meet a need that was identified by you in advance without the lure of funding; and
  • The source supports your statement of editorial independence and integrity; and
  • The source itself is neutral or separate from controversial issues in the news (or is bundled with other sources in such a way that mitigates the possible perception of source-to-coverage linkage)

Say NO to funding when:

  • The source offers funding that distort your editorial priorities; or
  • The source insists on controlling or influencing your editorial process; or
  • The source brings an advocacy position or an involvement in controversial issues.

News Directors may also be put in the position of having to vigorously enforce the firewall should a well-meaning associate from the business side of the station go too far in linking programming considerations with funding considerations, or if management should bring heat on the department for pursuing coverage that alienates a business client or powerful constituency. News Directors should not wait for incidents like these to flare up to address the need for firewall protection. Rather they should seek prophylactic opportunities to discuss policies and assure all key players agree to them.

Added comment from Duncan Lively, a long-time public radio journalist and manager:

We worry a lot about how for-profit funders have the potential to shape news coverage or even programming decisions. I think the bigger issue is insuring that funding from advocacy organizations (land trusts, ocean conservation groups, etc.) not unduly shape our editorial priorities.

It’s a good bet that most pubcasting managers, development officers and news directors would insist on absolute editorial independence if a social conservative “hot button” group (pro-gun, anti-gay, anti-abortion, pro-fundamentalist) donated.

My point is that we need to be agnostic about the worthiness of the donor organization’s mission–something I’m not always sure is the case because our funders are oftentimes our biggest fans.
Such grants should either be unrestricted or they should be declined. The national organizations, by and large, live by this standard — or are at least fiscally secure enough to leave money on the table or give it back if a funder begins to demand “quid pro quo” coverage for funding. I don’t think that’s as likely to be the case at the local level.