This essay is part of “Charting new ground: The ethical terrain of nonprofit journalism,” API research exploring the philanthropic funding of journalism. Read the other essays.

The business model of newspapers is — how can one put this politely? — challenged. The unluckiest journalists today are those working for publicly listed companies with shareholders used to the glory days. They have suffered a decade of cost-cutting and chiseling away at the sort of projects that take time and money – and may not pull in vast audiences.

Very rich proprietors range from the altruistic and wonderful to the strange and interfering. Public service broadcasters such as the BBC can still do patient, serious, time-consuming journalism. But they are virtually all under assault from traditional media and their friends in governments and the future looks a little less rosy for them than in the past.

Finally, there is a tiny subset: newspapers owned by trusts. The Guardian, which I edited for 20 years, is such a beast. The family which steered its birth and development for its first 115 or so years then did something very unusual. Instead of cashing in and making a personal fortune, they established the Scott Trust to preserve the paper in perpetuity.

The Scott Trust is not a charity. Its way of securing the future of The Guardian was to establish a diversified media company alongside The Guardian. Happily, this made consistently good profits over the years and — now that it has mostly been sold — the paper can rely on an endowment of more than $1 billion to help it make the transition into the next phase of the digital age.

But $1 billion is not a sufficient sum entirely to nurture and protect a newspaper at a time when so much about the economics of news is in flux. The Guardian, like all media companies, is having to keep a tight control on costs. We have kept a strong investigative muscle in our newsroom (WikiLeaks, phone-hacking, Edward Snowden in three years) but there was much journalism which we would have wanted to do — or that we would once have done – which was impossible or under threat.

$1 billion is not a sufficient sum entirely to nurture and protect a newspaper at a time when so much about the economics of news is in flux.

Readers paying cash for newspapers are probably the least ethically problematic way of funding news. If they don’t like what they read, readers can theoretically, at least in some parts of the world, buy another newspaper. But even this has difficulties. A newspaper whose sole goal is to garner as many paying readers as possible may well dip into sensationalism and drop the complexity or nuance. The primary hurdle is that — with most forms of general news — there are as yet very few examples of digital paywalls that look even close to providing a sustainable path to the future.

The ethical problems with advertising are obvious. Equally — according to one distinguished press historian Francis Williams: “The daily press would never have come into existence as a force in public and social life if it had not been for the need of men of commerce to advertise … Only through the growth of advertising did the press achieve independence.”

That leaves foundations as a source of funding for newspapers. At The Guardian, we had, over the years, experimented modestly with forms of foundation and other funding — notably, a three-year project concentrating on the development issues around a single village, Katine, Uganda, backed by Barclays Bank and donations from Guardian readers.

Another early experiment involved money from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation for a joint collaboration between The Guardian and the London School of Economics (LSE) to explain and analyze the terrible riots that tore through several inner city areas of the UK in 2011.

The government had decided against holding its own inquiry into the causes of the disturbances, so we decided it would be an admirable project for a newspaper — especially allied with the rigor provided by a university.

In 2013 we launched an Australian edition of The Guardian with what we called “venture philanthropy” funding from Graeme Wood, a businessman who has given away much of his money to support environmental and editorial causes. His concern here was the lack of diverse ownership of newspapers in his country. The deal we struck was that he would have no say at all in the editorial content of the Australian edition. If we managed to turn the venture into a profitable exercise, The Guardian would then repay Wood his original capital. Currently, the site is growing 20% a year, with nearly 7 million unique browsers a month visiting The Guardian. From every point of view this has been a very successful experiment.

The Katine coverage was on the radar of anyone studying development issues and we soon started a conversation with The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation about creating a Global Development Hub so that we could build on the expertise and experience we’d garnered in Uganda and elsewhere to provide special focus on the Millennium Development Goals — the eight targets set in 2000 by the United Nations Millennium Declaration with the aim of improving the lives of the world’s poorest people by 2015. After a trial period the Gates Foundation agreed a $5.7 million grant to last for six years.

By now we were getting used to the idea of attracting money from foundations and established clear and transparent rules. Here is an extract from the framework we drew up in order to make it clear how these arrangements worked.

“Ideas for future fundraising emanate from senior editorial colleagues based on the longer term editorial strategy. They are invited to a monthly meeting to present concepts to the managing editors. Any journalism produced as a result of charitable grants is completely independent and does not promote or refer to any of the activity of the funder.

“All funding generated is to support editorial budgets with some central costs included in order to fund the philanthropic partnerships team to manage the grants. As these are charitable grants there can be no “profit made” on these partnership – instead the revenue supports the core editorial budget.

“As with commercial relationships there is clear transparency on the sites which have received charitable funding. All content in this category appears with the logo of the funder (top left of the page) beneath the terms ‘supported by.’ This logo links through to an ‘explainer page’ which explains the funding relationship in more detail.”

The idea began to take further shape and it was clear that – so long as the rules were clearly stated and observed – we were finding a way of financing some extremely worthwhile and serious journalism that otherwise would be hard to fund in the current economic climate. For the funders the benefits were similarly obvious: they were attracting extremely talented and committed journalists to write about the things they were most passionate about. And that journalism was reaching extremely large audiences and, occasionally, hitting the headlines around the world.

Practically, this funding supports a desk dedicated to covering development, slavery and gender inequality from a global perspective. As well as incubating story ideas, the team has also been able to nurture and sustain communities online. This investment in people and resources is key — there are of course existing fellowships and grants available for ambitious individuals with strong ideas they wish to pursue for an intense period. But having a small team focused on covering a beat that is often passed over embedded within a newspaper/digital news publisher is both rare and special. It’s often from our day to day news coverage and contacts that our bigger stories have emerged.

The editor of the Global development site, Lucy Lambie, says: “For obvious reasons, our stories attract a more global audience than The Guardian average, especially from countries with high populations of English speakers. While traffic often originates from the country covered in any given article, and the US, UK, Canada, and Australia are still our four biggest audiences overall, India is consistently our fourth biggest readership and South Africa, Singapore, Kenya, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines and Nigeria also feature highly. One in ten of our readers currently come from the global south.”

An outstanding example of how the funding leads of aggressive, high-impact reporting was the grant to look at Modern Day Slavery, funded with a $700,000 two-year grant from Humanity United. The issue of modern slavery is one to which the mainstream newspaper or broadcasters have not given enough attention. It’s hard stuff to uncover because so much of it is illegal, criminal and hidden.

The money went into two stories that were followed up globally. The first was on migrant worker abuse in Qatar’s preparations for the World Cup — showing that dozens of Nepalese laborers had died and thousands more were enduring appealing labor abuses.

Meanwhile, another team of journalists produced a powerful film which, for the first time, established a direct link between slaves on boats in Thailand and the prawns being sold in Walmart, Tesco’s and Costco. Before there had always been culpable deniability.

The actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, supplied the voice over and the investigation made dramatic impact throughout all Europe and the US: Secretary of State John Kerry cited the Guardian investigation and for the first time Thailand was seriously threatened with having it trading status with the US downgraded — with huge financial consequences.

Other partnerships have followed. A grant from the Open Society Foundation has helped support The Guardian’s New East Network, our Sudan coverage and the Tehran Bureau. This enables us to tell stories and support local journalists from the world’s most closed societies. Our aim in 2015 is to expand this work, increase our ability to build capacity in these regions, and introduce a comprehensive training and workshop programmed for journalists in hard-to-report areas, thereby improving and localizing our coverage of these highly sensitive regions.

[A grant from the Open Society Foundation] enables us to tell stories and support local journalists from the world’s most closed societies.

In early 2014, the Guardian joined a campaign to try to stem female genital mutilation, and in three weeks more than 230,000 people backed it by signing a petition asking the then British education secretary, Michael Gove, to insist that all schools teach their students about FGM. Following on from this success, Ban Ki-Moon announced his support for the campaign, which aims to revolutionize how female genital mutilation is reported and perceived across the world — the end goal being to end the practice altogether. The UN’s population fund, UNFPA, and The Guardian have agreed to co-fund five international funding grants for journalists in Kenya to report on FGM with the hope that this will end its practice within a generation.

Between 2016 and 2020, The Guardian intends to build a media campaign in Africa- following the tribal pathway of FGM from Kenya and setting up a network of media activists — via Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan and Somalia

In all these countries, Guardian editors intend to engage at a national level with the major media houses — and empower the activists training in all the new social media platforms and giving them the means to communicate directly with the national media.

A final example is the $3 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for a micro-site: Guardian Cities, which created a fresh and engaging hub for reporting and discussing urban life and the future of cities around the world. The site hosts opinion and analysis from a range of voices across the globe, along with news, graphics and data.

I recently asked the editor of the site, Michael Herd, about the privilege of editing such a site with foundation funding. He listed five benefits of this kind of arrangement:

“When we launched Guardian Cities in January 2014, my primary remit was to create content that was editorially distinct — in subject matter, tone and presentation — from all that The Guardian already produced. There was no “story quota”; there just needed to be an obvious sense of “added value” emanating from everything we did.

“So from the outset, I have thought hard about why exactly we are here — and in particular, what opportunities foundation funding gives us to do things differently. In many ways, this has ended up being an analysis of the ways in which our editorial processes differ from those of a traditional newspaper desk …

1. Not following the news agenda

“In the midst of a newspaper office, I actually think it’s quite a challenge to resolutely not follow the news agenda. There are so many ways in which the events of the day suck editors in, leading to content that can all feel too similar and ‘monotone’ – particularly if there is close oversight by a small number of senior editors/managers.

“There’s no question that having a ring-fenced budget offers a clear psychological freedom to take oneself out of the normal rhythms of the newspaper, and dive deeply into new and uncharted territory for the newspaper. This, I know all too well, is an increasingly rare blessing for an editor.

“This may sound controversial in some ways, but it is clear to me that our ring-fenced budget [separated and protected, only to be used for this project] leads to less scrutiny from senior management about our editorial decisions. This freedom is empowering – but of course it must be treated with responsibility and humility.

2. Time to think

“For editors on news desks, having ‘time to think’ seems to be regarded as an indulgent luxury these days. The pressures to produce content are extraordinary — and debilitating to one’s ability to come up with fresh ideas for covering stories. Similarly, if an ‘external’ story lands in anything less than a fully-formed way, editors just do not have the time to work with it. So content lists are dominated by the central editorial team’s ideas, and stories from parts of the world where the core reporting is strong – there is simply no time to explore new avenues and new geographies except for the most newsworthy of events.

“By contrast, a combination of time and ring-fenced budget means we can discover and work with new sources in unusual places. But even more importantly, we as an editorial team have time to talk, think about, and develop new ideas. We have time to read. We have time to actually enjoy being editors!

3. Time to be thorough

“Another regular bit of feedback we get is that our stories ‘read well’, and look distinctive. This just means we are blessed with the time to do a proper editing job — including planning the images/multimedia to go with our stories from the outset. We don’t have a limitless photo budget by any means, but again, not being tied to a news agenda means we can delay stories until all the constituent parts are properly ready. We never have to rush a story up.

4. Time to share, respond, interact

“Our editorial team of four includes a four-day-a-week community editor, whose primary role is to think about our content through the prism of social media, and do all she can to interact with, and develop, our international online community (we now have more Twitter followers than G2 — The Guardian weekly supplement).

“Without a ring-fenced budget, there is no way we would have been able to put such a strong emphasis on social media. The result is a website that has a very strong sense of community, with many stories derived from below-the-line or Twitter conversations, plus countless innovative social collaborations (such as last October’s World Cities Day Challenge, and our mapping a city project).

5. Opportunities to develop our talents (and travel)

“The twin blessings of time and budget lead us to be able to find and work with new writers, photographers and film-makers from non-traditional backgrounds — giving us a clear ability to hear from new voices all over the world.

“Furthermore, our structure has allowed us as an editorial team to periodically relocate to other cities across the world. Following previous live weeks in Mumbai and Moscow, this November we will be in Mexico City, offering a special in-depth look at the city. I cannot overemphasize how healthy the process of relocating our editorial team has been to our collective understanding and approach to cities coverage.

“Frankly, the idea that one could create a global website about cities while chained to a desk in London now seems embarrassing in its arrogance. In today’s world, I believe regular travel should be an expected part of the role for all Guardian editors – not some kind of occasional luxury. Instead, thanks to our funding structure, we are very much the exception in this – and it is a huge factor in our quest to create deeper, more insightful, more original content for the site.”

Mike Herd’s team has — like his colleagues on the other microsite — had no difficulty in finding large engaged audiences. In the very first three months of establishing the project there were more than 3 million unique visitors.

I don’t want to exaggerate the role of foundation funding: Add up all the projects listed above and you have around $13 million over a period or three or so years. That, on an annual turnover of more than $250 million, is not life changing in the sense of making the difference between profit and loss. But it is helping us to sustain a pool of reporters, visual/data journalists and editors who are producing serious journalism of the utmost impact and importance.

Does it cause us ethical dilemmas? Well, the dangers are obvious, and we have done our best to be transparent about them and to create clear rules so that people are clear about what it is they’re reading. The most high-profile stories have been followed up around there world: none has been subjected to criticism for the accuracy or quality of our reporting.

The dangers are obvious, and we have done our best to be transparent about them and to create clear rules so that people are clear about what it is they’re reading.

Is taking money from an NGO on the above transparent terms less “ethical” than being funded by a billionaire who might well have a hidden agenda and unspoken influence on the papers he’s funding? It would be hard to make that case.

Is there some higher duty to be “impartial” and above the fray? Some journalistic traditions say so. But, the longer I did the job of editor, the more I wondered about how meaningful concepts such as “impartiality” really were.

I reflected, as I prepared to step down, on how the mainstream media had covered arguably the most significant story of our times — climate change. If even half of what the overwhelming majority of scientists predict actually comes to pass, then our children’s generation is in for an infinitely more challenging life than we have had. Yet the number of times even the great American papers carry front-page stories on the subject in any given year can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Is that impartiality?

With climate change — before I stepped down — I decided on a more campaigning approach (but without foundation funding). It wasn’t impartial. But it did have an extraordinary impact – including among board rooms and fund managers who hadn’t questioned whether fossil fuels might end up being the most enormous asset bubble — simply because the human race cannot allow us to burn all the reserves of C02 we own.

So, I think there is an important future for foundation funding of journalism. It’s not a silver bullet. But it is, generally, a force of good. And no one has yet discovered the silver bullet.

Alan Rusbridger was editor in chief of the Guardian for 20 years until May 2015. He is now Principal of Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford and becomes Chair of the Scott Trust in September.

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