Ford backs for-profit newsroom

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A recent Ford Foundation grant to the Los Angeles Times highlights the heightened competition pubcasters face for philanthropic dollars in a fast-changing media world.

The $1.04 million two-year grant to the newspaper, a subsidiary of the Tribune Company media conglomerate, marks the first time Ford has directly supported a major for-profit daily. The money will be used to hire staff members to cover new and expanded beats, including immigration and California’s prison system.

The decision to pay for additional reporters, Ford spokesman Alfred Ironside explains in an email, resulted from the grantmaker’s exploration of “new models for sustaining quality, independent journalism that reaches more people at a time when newsrooms are under stress.” Ford is considering similar grants to other for-profit news organizations, he writes.

Such developments worry observers of public broadcasting.

“My concern is that many of the foundations and other entities — think corporate funders — who have looked to Ford’s leadership and followed in terms of support of public broadcasting may also start turning their attention elsewhere,” says Adam Clayton Powell III, senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.

“If the Ford Foundation, which, one could argue, paid for the start of public broadcasting is now saying that the LA Times and other newspapers are in the same category as public broadcasters, that’s something other funders will consider.”

Likewise, says Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, plenty of for-profit news outfits are likely to take a lesson from this, discovering that new money may be available from a source they haven’t traditionally considered.

“Newspapers are pretty sensitive to the capacity they’ve lost and are much more willing to partner with other entities, like Politico,” he says, referring to the nonprofit print/online publication covering national politics, “and maybe now with philanthropies. They see what Ford did and they see an opportunity to find new resources.”

Ironside insists that Ford remains dedicated to supporting public broadcasting, even as it broadens its media portfolio. In an email, he points to a recent Ford grant for about $500,000 — the same amount the LA Times is receiving this year — to American Public Media’s Marketplace. It backs expanded coverage of the impact of the financial crisis on wealth and poverty in America.

A scan of Ford’s online grants list, updated through 2011, showed that six-figure grants have been flowing to traditional pubcasters. Top producing stations such as Minnesota Public Radio ($480,000), New York Public Radio/WNYC ($700,000), WETA in Washington. D.C. ($500,000) and WNET in New York ($400,000) received substantial sums last year.

The Ford Foundation quickly jumped in with a grant when New York Public Radio needed money to buy and revive four struggling public radio stations that had been part of the New Jersey Network, said Laura Walker, NYPR president, in an interview earlier this year. She is just as upbeat about Ford’s recent support for the LA Times.

“I don’t think it’s a question of funding for-profit organizations at the expense of nonprofit organizations,” Walker said in a written statement, “but rather a reaffirmation that the foundation grants funds to organizations that are committed to in-depth, independent journalism.”

Dennis Haarsager, president of the Public Television Major Market Group, agrees that it’s not “an us-versus-them issue.” But he says Ford’s move should serve as a wakeup call for pubcasters who may need to sharpen their case for foundation support.

“It’s a more competitive world out there,” Haarsager says. “That means those of us in the nonprofit world have to work on telling our stories, putting out the best proposals.”

Competition for grant dollars has been heating up over the last few years for a number of reasons. Investment losses from the recession cut into foundation budgets, leaving grantees to vie for pieces of a smaller pie. The downturn has also driven more pubcasters to look to foundations as potential funding sources. Meanwhile, a host of new nonprofit and for-profit journalism entities have emerged, throwing their hats in the grant-seeking ring.

Ford has supported such startups, including the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica, which supplies content to both nonprofit and for-profit outlets. And it has supported the for-profit digital newspaper Global Post.

While the LA Times grant was not the first from a foundation to a major newspaper — the California Endowment, for example, has been supporting coverage of healthcare news at the Sacramento Bee for the last couple years — it quickly gained the attention of pubcasters watching their territory.

Says Poynter’s Edmonds, “When Ford does something like this, it’s going to at least implicitly raise the question: Where is the next $1 million going?”

Copyright 2012 American University


If the Ford Foundations’ decision was a rebuke of any kind, it was less direct than the Markle Foundation’s 1991 decision to give an election programming grant to CNN instead of PBS. Lloyd Morrisett, Markle’s president and a co-founder of Sesame Street, predicted CNN would become the go-to place for election coverage, a role he wanted for PBS.


Columbia Journalism Review publishes its take on the “unprecedented” grant. Also, it reports that the Times, which laid off seven journalists this month, will now be able to hire five.

Los Angeles Times editor’s memo to the staff about the grant.

Times coverage of the grant.

USC Annenberg fellow Adam Powell ponders implications of the grant.

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