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Foundation Journalism 'Definitely a Trend'

By Andy Alexander

For those who read last Friday’s Omblog item on the collaboration between The Post and Kaiser Health News, here’s evidence that financially-stressed media outlets will continue to look to nonpartisan foundations for help in providing content.

Bill Mitchell, who has been writing about foundation-funded journalism for the Poynter Institute on media studies in Florida, reports that The New York Times has started exploring ways to have foundations help underwrite news-gathering costs.

In a story on Poynter’s site last Friday, Mitchell quotes Craig Whitney, an assistant managing editor who serves as the paper’s standards editor: “We’ve begun to ask ourselves whether it would be possible to get the kind of support that NPR does from foundations for its journalism.” No decisions have been made, Whitney told Mitchell, but he said that the notion of seeking foundations to underwrite specialized coverage areas “seems conceivable.”

In his Sunday column, my friend Clark Hoyt, The Times’ Public Editor (equivalent to an ombudsman), wrote about how the newspaper has given permission for California freelance journalist Lindsey Hoshaw to use an innovative Web site, Spot.Us, to seek donations to pursue a story that she would then try to sell to The Times. “For The Times,” Hoyt wrote, “it is another step into a new world unthinkable even a few years ago.”

ProPublicaand Kaiser Health News have been involved in some high-visibility collaborations with The Post and other nationally-known newspapers. But now, nonpartisan regional and local foundations are starting to explore ways to provide content to media organizations.

The Kansas Health Institute News Service, established about three years ago, covers health policy news about Kansas and posts stories on its Web site while also offering them to newspapers throughout the state.

Jim McLean, who oversees the news service for the institute, said in an interview that the idea grew out of a recognition that staff reductions at Kansas newspapers were making it harder for them to provide adequate coverage of health issues.

With three reporters, McLean said the KHI News Service does “original reporting.”

“We’ve had some moderate success in getting newspapers to use our stories,” he said. “There were certainly some reporters and editors who were (initially) skeptical... that there was an agenda that we were prosecuting. We’ve had to prove to them over time” that this isn’t the case. He said the news service has been able to gain credibility because his reporting staff includes respected reporters who previously worked at Kansas papers. Also, he said, the news service is “absolutely objective and independent.”

“It’s definitely a trend,” said Matt James, the senior vice president for media and public education at the Kaiser Family Foundation. The foundation funds Kaiser Health News.

James said a growing number of foundations, including those operating on the regional or local level, have contacted Kaiser to learn more about how they, too, might help provide nonpartisan journalism for specific issues.

They “want to know ‘how did you do this, why did you do that, (and) what should we look out for,’” James said in an interview today.

He said he stresses two things. First, foundations need to take a “long-term investment” approach. That is, they can’t launch a journalism program and then hope to secure funding to continue operations after the initial year or so. He said he tells inquiring foundations that they need to ensure that their involvement in journalism is a “core part of your operating program.” He cites the fact that the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not a grant-giving operation, has made a long-term and enduring financial commitment to fund Kaiser Health News.

Second, he said, he tells foundations that “if you have any sort of an agenda, leave that at the door.”

To be credible with news organizations, he said, “there has to be an absolute firewall” that ensures that the foundation’s journalistic enterprise is totally independent and free of outside influence.

In the case of the Kaiser Health News collaboration with The Post, for instance, the newspaper maintains full control over the editorial content. Any KHN stories receive final editing by The Post, which is free to reject them if they don’t meet Post standards. If a KHN story appears in The Post, the reporter is clearly identified as being with KHN and this description appears at the bottom of each piece: “This story was produced through a collaboration between The Post and Kaiser Health News. KHN is a service of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health-care-policy research organizations unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.”

By Andy Alexander  | July 20, 2009; 6:02 PM ET
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I don't think citing the NYT as a model is a very good idea. But you guys do what you think...What could possibly go wrong?

Posted by: d1carter | July 20, 2009 7:27 PM | Report abuse

“For The Times,” Hoyt wrote, “it is another step into a new world unthinkable even a few years ago.”

Let's not confuse "unthinkable" with "unthought". This is the newspapers' fault for sticking to an old business model during the years when it was becoming clear that it would not be viable in the long run.

Posted by: charlesbakerharris | July 21, 2009 6:15 AM | Report abuse

The Post is not that objective in the first place, and I think many readers will be dubious of these nonprofit news sources.

I would have more confidence in AP Health reporting. See for current AP Health News.

Posted by: RossEmery | July 21, 2009 9:18 AM | Report abuse

Another trend another day another love.
In Virginia Beach, nothing beats kayaking with dolphins. Their effortless grace and aerial acrobatics make them a definite fan favorite. Not to mention the sheer number of them that call our shores home. Don’t be surprised to see some other aquatic creatures on your paddle as well. Sea turtles, birds, schooling fish, rays and the occasional whale love to share the spotlight.

Next summer I am going to Virginia Beach. Keep schooling fish. I'm having them for lunch. Thanks Dr. F.

Posted by: Dermitt | July 21, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Nonpartisan is not the end of the analysis as to whether such a partnership presents a journalistic conflict of interest. I'm very wary of the agenda of such partners who would very much like to use the perceived legitimacy of a news outlet to broadcast propaganda and thus influence legislative outcomes.

Posted by: SarahBB | July 21, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

um. Why are you trying to sell this notion, Andy?

Posted by: bmschumacher | July 21, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

I just don't understand the naivety of the Post, or their lack of respect for their readers IQ's, but nobody, and I mean nobody down here in the non-post newsroom is ever going to think that Kaiser Health News is in anyway ever going to investigate/write a news article that would hurt Kaiser permanente's business, or the health insurance business in general, period! No matter how much they claim to be independent, no one who has any life experience, or read much news will, or should believe it.

And the other example of soliciting donations to persue a story is a great road map of how the newspaper industry is now only going to persue stories that are of interest to the wealthy that can afford to donate to reporters. Great idea guys! That's the official death knell for any reporting on issues important to the poor!

Posted by: TheCaptainDamnIt | July 21, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

OK, Andy.
Now tell us what lies behind these carefully crafted words:
"(Matt James, senior vice president for media and public education at the Kaiser Family Foundation) said, “there has to be an absolute firewall” that ensures that the foundation’s journalistic enterprise is totally independent and free of outside influence."
And yet:
"that the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not a grant-giving operation (whatever THAT means), ... fund(s) Kaiser Health News."
Yet, its parent is Mr. Kaiser of Kaiser Aluminum and Kaiser Permanente Healthcare Insurance.
'Splain to me how that "firewall" works again?
Can we the readers can be assured the newspaper, putting all these articles out there for us to peruse, hasn't actually become an organ of information for the parents in the middle of this monumental healthcare debate in which this country is currently engaged?
What's to prevent this from being another sales job like the run-up to the Iraqi War?
What's to indicate that we're not being snookered again?
Last summer, just before the financial markets went nuts, Andy, we had our savings in Merrill Lynch.
I began to worry; nothing looked good for the repository of our retirement savings.
I called a good friend, over 80, a retired professor of economics.
My question: "Who can we trust?"
He gave me a good name, we switched and then in September, when lightning struck, we breathed a lot easier.
Now the country is engaged in a great debate (shades of Abraham Lincoln) with massive financial forces vying for the control over us consumers and our very lives.
And mostly our money, as in how much will all this cost us?
Who can we trust?
What's under the surface?
Will anyone look before we jump into the fire?
After all, the presence of a "firewall" seems to me to predicate that there's a raging firestorm on the other side.
Or will this just be another fairy tale, to be uncovered bit by disgusting bit after the fact?
Your corporate integrity is what we depend on.
Katherine Graham's legacy is on the line, it seems to me.

Posted by: Judy-in-TX | July 21, 2009 3:33 PM | Report abuse

Integrity? Foundations have their own agenda. Foundations are basically corporations that do not pay taxes. Many people make good money - even get rich - working for foundations. If the Post intends to maintain any shred of independence, or at least a modicum of objectivity, they should think twice. Being funded by kaiser is really not much different than being funded by the Heritage Foundation or MoveOn. Or even Haliburton.

Posted by: rwyoung | July 21, 2009 5:34 PM | Report abuse

The numbers look fired up. She could go up to 1,650 before the year is over. Perhaps more. Who knows? I'm looking around for an old T-Bird. One for my baby and one for the road. Starbucks is going koffee bar. Have a drink and stay alert all at once. Line them up Joe.

Posted by: Dermitt | July 22, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Alexander, "nonpartisan foundations" are not necessarily unbiased.

Posted by: las100 | July 25, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse

You won't be hearing from me anymore. At least until the next disaster. It's been interesting. Her grace were wealth alone. They couldn't see that. I couldn't stop looking out for her and always will.

Posted by: Dermitt | July 27, 2009 7:50 PM | Report abuse

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