One of the most striking findings from the research is there aren’t clear or universal rules of the road here — and very few written rules or guidelines on either side that could clarify roles and establish editorial firewalls.
When it comes how to communicate with funders, for instance, 43 percent of nonprofit media outlets said they have no written policies, while 35 percent said they do. But it is not clear to what extent the funders they deal with know about those written rules or on the same page about communication. Just 13 percent of nonprofit media organizations (or 36 percent of those with written guidelines), say they ask funders to include those policies on independence in funder grant agreements; 22 percent do not.
How about written policies on what kind of funders they will and will not accept funding from or what constitutes a conflict of interest? Nonprofit news organizations are evenly split on whether they have written guidelines for this. About 40 percent have written procedures about contributors and about the same number do not.
In the for-profit media world, specific rules for the acceptance of funding are much less common. Only 13 percent said their newsrooms had written guidelines about what type of organizations they will and will partner with. Three-quarters said they did not have any guidelines and the rest either were not sure or did not respond.
These policies, moreover, tend to be private. While most nonprofit news organizations that have written guidelines release those rules publicly, only two of the commercial newsrooms surveyed said they had done so.
The survey asked about another element that could be covered in written guidelines — regarding disclosure of funders.
There is a similar split here. Forty percent of nonprofit organizations said they have a written policy posted on their website or included in the annual report about disclosure of funders. Nearly as many, 35 percent do not.
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Nonprofit media that have public guidelines about disclosing their contributors tend to also have rules who they will accept money from. However, there is little difference in the practices of nonprofit organizations with written guidelines about disclosure or funding and those without. For example, nearly all the nonprofit organizations offered funding for a specific journalism project accepted the money, regardless of whether or not they have posted guidelines.
On the commercial side, less than 15 percent of these for-profit media organizations said they have a written policy about what types of nonprofit organizations it will or will not partner with; three-quarters said they do not. Only two of the commercial newsrooms surveyed said they post those guidelines anywhere publicly. The reasons for the absence of guidelines about nonprofit funding among the for profit media may reflect the reality that nonprofit activity is still a relatively new and small part of their revenue. Some of these projects are also partnerships with nonprofit media, not funding arrangements. And editors told us as we were developing the questionnaire that many of these partnerships may have come up on an ad hoc basis, which may also explain why they are less likely to have written rules.
Nonetheless, in his essay Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian writes that he believes clear written rules are important in the for-profit media world, too, so people are clear about what they are reading.