What kind of communication do nonprofit news organizations and funders have about the news content that those funders underwrite?
The answer varies depending on whether you ask grantors or grantees.
In general, media organizations are less inclined to believe funders have input than funders are.
For instance, when you ask nonprofit media outlets, just 6 percent say they talk about coverage with funders with some specificity, either about specific stories (3 percent) or more generally the problems coverage might expose the conclusions the reporting might come to (4 percent).
When you ask funders, 17 percent said they discuss the coverage they finance at this level of specificity. Six percent said they usually discuss specific stories and 11 percent more generally revelations and implications.
About 1 out of 10 funders (13 percent) said they like to receive a “heads up” when a story is about to drop but otherwise don’t discuss what they are working on.
Do nonprofit media show funders work pre-publication? Not usually. Nearly three-quarters of nonprofit media organizations said they never show content to funders pre-publication, 4 percent do sometimes or rarely, and just 1 percent do it as a matter of course. (A fifth of the nonprofit media surveyed did not answer the question.) Even more, 8 in 10, said their funders do not ask for it, though 2 percent said their funders informally expect it.
Funders agree that it’s not a general policy, but they are far more likely to say they sometimes see content they have funded in advance (though it is the exception not general practice). In all, 40 percent said they never see content prior to publication, 22 percent say do they but only rarely, and 8 percent only sometimes. Just 3 percent said they typically do.
Most commercial media interaction with nonprofit organizations is in the form of partnerships and collaboration. Only about a quarter of commercial media organizations surveyed (28 percent) said they had accepted direct grants themselves to pay for reporting. (While that is a minority, such grantmaking was almost unheard of with commercial media 15 years ago.) Those commercial outlets who discuss the specifics of stories are generally partnering on reporting or editing with a nonprofit media organization, not discussing the work with a funder. “We work with public radio often, but this is collaboration or a funds swap, not a (direct financial) contribution,” said the representative of a local newspaper.
And what happens in those relatively few cases where funders have seen coverage pre-publication? Just five publications said they had made changes based on the reactions of funders, and in all cases it was a rarity. No funder said they expected to have the right of editorial review. A few said the nature of their input varied case by case depending on the story.
Some of the variance between the communication that funders say they have and the perceptions of the nonprofit media they underwrite may be a reflection of who answered. The universe of both funders and nonprofits is still relatively small, and while the response rates here are high, the sample is still limited by who is in the space.
But the differences may also reflect a matter of perception. Funders having conversations with grantees may imagine the discussions imply one thing, and the grantees may perceive them to be something else. In other words, a funder may think they are having input. A media grantee may tell themselves they are will ignore whatever advice is being given.
Not asking for an editorial review is not the same thing thing, however, as having no influence over the content produced. That can happen in different ways, subtle and not so subtle, and there may be issues of perception and ways to think about or perhaps blunt such perceptions.
The surveys asked a series of questions that probed some of the ways that nonprofit media can protect their reputation for editorial independence.. The first of these had to do with written rules.