Learning from BIPOC publishers how to make journalism philanthropy more effective
by Tracie M. Powell and Meredith D. Clark, PhD
While well-intentioned, the failure of philanthropy to recognize the unique challenges facing BIPOC-led news startups and the communities they serve lessens the impact of funding, and in some cases reinforces the inequities it is meant to upend, our research has found.
The findings point to ways that journalism funders can significantly increase the impact of their support to BIPOC publishers and help meet the news and information needs of communities of color, strengthening democracy in a country that will be majority-minority by 2050.
The research combined a survey of 100 news startup founders, all BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), a focus group, and a survey of academic literature on funding for journalists of color. We analyzed the findings using Critical Race Theory (CRT), an academic framework that recognizes the inherent bias of power structures that treat whiteness as normative.
You may read a summary of our research here, or read the full, peer-reviewed research paper published at the 2023 International Symposium on Online Journalism, a program of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin.
Seventy-nine percent of BIPOC-founded news organizations that responded to our survey stated that current funders are not meeting their primary needs.
Most cited the scale of philanthropic funding, which was generally not enough to sustain operations for a significant amount of time or to make game-changing moves, such as hiring additional staff.
Reporting requirements were often described as burdensome, with one publisher saying he would not advise a news startup to apply for philanthropic funding unless it had dedicated development staff to handle the requirements.
Boot camps and accelerators received mixed reviews. While many appreciated lessons learned and connections made, some experienced journalists and publishers called it “paternalistic” to make participation a requirement of funding.
Some were put off by having to buy memberships in professional organizations to gain access to training programs. Even those who were positive about their experience with accelerators and boot camps expressed frustration that the grants unlocked by participation were too small to hire staff to put into practice the lessons learned.
“We're better off in that the funding allows us to continue operations, but what would be better than stretching limited staff even thinner would be general operating funds to hire an additional employee who could make the most of the accelerator training,” said one respondent. “We are getting a little bit here for reporting, a little bit there for digital development and sustainability, but together it doesn't add up yet to make the hires we need to pursue our vision and achieve the work that funders want to support.”
BIPOC founders were clear about what they need: General operating support, streamlined reporting requirements, and investments large enough to build capacity. Being able to hire additional business-side or journalism staff is how they can produce game-changing results.
They also want to see philanthropy tailor its approach to BIPOC publishers, recognizing that it may take more investment to scale and acheive sustainability. And they want philanthropists to find ways to work with for-profit publishers, who are filling a vital civic role but aren’t set up to receive donations as easily as a nonprofit.
It’s not by chance that BIPOC news founders aren’t finding that journalism philanthropy matches their needs. Our analysis, informed by CRT, reveals that they are disadvantaged by unexamined decisions and values that have been normalized in the system. It starts with the research into the political economy of entrepreneurship: While funding is a concern for all startups, most research fails to acknowledge the historic wealth gap between people of color and whites in the United States.
Although the digital news era has enabled more journalists to become publishers, either individually or as part of collectives and/or startups, a “Silicon Valley ideology” underpins an assumption of colorblind neutrality among founders, funders, and audiences—that is, a failure to consider how the social construction of race influences everything from funding acquisition to the positioning of “desirable audiences,” who are willing and able to pay for/sponsor news products.
While philanthropy has been vocal about uplifting people of color, especially since the 2020 killing of George Floyd, the metrics of news organization success do not take into account that audiences of color often have fewer economic resources, and the publishers who serve them have a longer, harder path to sustainability. Some may always need philanthropic support, with the return in the form of vital public service.
“Our organization has been rejected for funding by foundations, or received a tiny fraction of funding relative to ‘general audience’ news outlets, even after winning numerous awards and recognition from peers,” said one respondent.
“Often the reason funders provide is that we are not established or large enough. Occasionally the reason from white program officers has been that they don't think our reporting will have an impact if it is only reaching low-income communities of color. Other times, it is because journalism funders are focused on sustainability, and they cannot see how a newsroom focused on a low-income audience will be sustainable.”
While foundation program officers would never express racist sentiments, many BIPOC publishers believe that whiteness can be a credential for funding. It may be indirect – white journalists are often the ones promoted to the highest levels within news organizations, so when they leave for a startup, they are able to leverage the prestige of their position, their network, and other social capital to land significant, unrestricted funding.
As a result, 87% of respondents said they believe BIPOC news organizations do not get as much funding as organizations of similar size and type.
As a tactic for assessing the return on their investments, journalism philanthropic organizations invest heavily in program evaluation, which forces BIPOC founders to “prove” their worth according to a priori measures of success. This poses a dilemma for BIPOC publishers – they must show impact in their communities, but risk alienating funders if they are candid about the difficulties that funders do not see because of their focus on performance indicators. From a CRT perspective, this reinforces systems of racial capitalism.
If journalism entrepreneurs are "agents of innovation," then the color line compels BIPOC publishers to become architects of necessity, balancing the constraints of digital news production with the information needs of the communities they serve and the demands of the philanthropic support that make their work feasible.
The fact is, many of these architects of necessity are experts at doing a lot with a little, and the experts on what they need to serve the information needs of their communities. Here’s what we heard during our research:
1. Don’t approach BIPOC funding like a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. Recognize that many BIPOC publishers don’t serve wealthy audiences and design investment strategies that match reality.
2. Streamline reporting requirements that take time away from journalism, especially for small startups. If the reporting is non-negotiable, supply staff time to help.
3. Provide general operating support, and recognize that game-changing progress comes from grants big enough to support at least one new position.
4. Find ways to invest philanthropic dollars in for-profit BIPOC publishers, for example through fiscal sponsorships, recognizing they play a vital civic role in serving their communities.
5. If you make boot camps and accelerators a requirement for funding, make the funding large enough to build capacity and execute on lessons learned.
By listening deeply to BIPOC publishers, grantmakers can significantly increase the impact of their investments, in service of the information needs of some of democracy’s most valuable audiences.
Tracie M. Powell is the CEO and founder of The Pivot Fund, which raises money to invest directly in BIPOC-led news organizations, both nonprofit and commercial, which have earned community trust. Meredith D. Clark is the Founding Director of the Center for Communication, Media Innovation and Social Change at Northeastern University, where she is an associate professor in the School of Journalism. Both are former journalists.
Survey data was collected between November 2021 and March 2022, drawn from a survey of 100 journalists of color operating news startups across the country, supplemented by focus groups with seven. Journalists of color who work as publishers (39.4%) and/or editors in chief (22%) of their operations comprise the majority of respondents in our survey. They represent outlets in more than 19 states and U.S. territories, and are largely concentrated on the East and West Coasts, as well as in the Southeastern U.S. Sixty-one percent of the outlets represented are for-profit; another 29% were identified as nonprofits, while 10% identified as operations that did not fit either of these categories. On average, respondents’ outlets had fewer than eight staff.