Funder Conversation ’11

Videos and Notes from GFEM’s 2011 Funder Conversation at the Paley Center for Media

GFEM Funder Conversation, “Media + Technology Funding Outlook: The State and Future of the Field”

1) Keynote: Steve Waldman; Special Advisor to the Chairman, Federal Communications Commission

Description of the media landscape:

  • Tremendous amount of innovation, Internet’s very good for journalism and reporting in many ways, but with exceptions.
  • Huge contraction of the newspapers.
  • Time spent on interviews has gone down; number of stories goes up without reporters increasing, so less depth.
  • Local coverage has not dropped in volume, but in ambition.
  • Twenty-seven states have no Washington bureaus, number of papers with bureaus down by half since 1980s.
  • Not catching key stories in time – Bell California and Big Branch Mine disaster examples.
  • Radio: 50 all-news radio stations in the 1980s, now 30.
  • Local cable news: 25-30% of people with access to this type of news.

None of this would matter if the new innovations were filling the same functions or better.

  • Internet has profoundly improved the nature and practice of journalism in many ways: lowered barrier to entry; more data, links and resources; reduces cost of news-gathering; increases citizen involvement; hyper-local and citizen reporting thriving and growing.

What is and is not abundant?

  • Growth in number of outlets, but not necessarily growth in number of stories. A lot of people using the same stories from a few sources.
  • Local full-time accountability reporting is what’s missing. Not a crisis of news, but of investigative journalism in general. This area is labor-intensive, costly, not huge readership, not interesting to advertisers.

Nonprofit sector has to play a bigger role than it has in the past. Collaboration between nonprofit and for-profit entities is a good sign/trend. Public policy could encourage this, but foundations will need to play a role. There are opportunities for policy, like shifting government ad spending to local media, and tax code changes to encourage public media to do work on civic affairs. But philanthropy has to act, because government can’t subsidize on a large level.

 

2) Keynote response: Steve Coll; President and CEO, New America Foundation

Observations on Waldman’s report:

  • Clear, well-written, reliable facts.
  • Strong on some neglected regulatory policies and makes important recommendations.

Public policy implications beyond the report:

  • Report acknowledges that the FCC has a weak regime in place in terms of regulating scarce spectrum.
  • System is “unclear and ineffective,” FCC has almost never denied license renewals based on failures to meet public interest requirements.
  • Public interest goals Waldman observes have not been met.

Problems that need to be addressed:

  • Weak public media institutions.
  • Investment in journalism and public media would need to be in the billions to fill the gap, and only millions are being invested.
  • We may be losing the public discourse that lives up to our traditions. Crisis of public speech in this country.

On policy:

  • Public policy should manage intersections between public interest and private markets. Suggestion: in media and communications, public policy’s effort to balance interests is the weakest regulatory regime that we have (compared to skies, forests, oceans). Why is there a more robust push and pull in other regimes than around media?

 

3) Q & A discussion – Steve Coll and Steve Waldman:

Steve Waldman:

  • Thing that merits more discussion: 1) Debate on NPR’s funding has dominated public policy, but important structural issues within public media, and less well-known chunks of the landscape deserve more attention. 2) Tax code: massive government subsidy for media, called the charitable deduction. Newspapers could survive under nonprofit status/different tax code, though profit would not be at the same margins as the past. Possible to have sustainable institutions, but it needs to be done through the nonprofit sector to a greater degree than it used to be.

Question:

Aren’t all of these issues highly politicized right now? Already fait accompli?

Coll: Yes, certainly in Washington. But the politics of constituents for public media are immature – not cliché left, urban people. A lot are rural, more conservative, where there aren’t any other channels. More complicated politics than has been explored.

 

4) GFEM statement regarding the FCC’s Future of Media Report:

GFEM has always supported greater engagement of philanthropy in media.

“GFEM welcomes the FCC report on the Information Needs of Communities. We believe that a comprehensive solution to the urgent problem of declining public interest media and accountability journalism will require a multi-pronged response involving both public and private sectors. GFEM specifically applauds and endorses the recommendation within the report that calls for increased philanthropic support for nonprofit and public interest media and journalism.” 

 

5) Eric Newton remarks by video:

Two key recommendations in report:

  • Philanthropy should do more grantmaking in journalism and media work. Don’t believe that you can fix the infrastructure of communities without a healthy flow of news and information.
  • Tax laws involving nonprofit media are confusing and may be inhibiting growth.
  • Knight and colleagues will be working on two specific projects to advance these. First, Guidestar, Foundation Center, GFEM and Ford will be working to create better metrics so we can track how much journalism and media grantmaking is going on.
  • Second, Knight will be creating a task force with the Council on Foundations on nonprofit media tax rules. Looking specifically at question of commercial media converting to nonprofit media.

 

6) Panel One: Nonprofit Journalism and Public Media

One of the key findings of the FCC report was the growing problem of the decline in local accountability journalism, and one of the most important recommendations is the call for increased philanthropic support for nonprofit journalism and public media organizations to close that gap. This panel addresses the current problems and opportunities facing the news business, including new models, whether government support is the best approach, and public media’s role in revitalizing our country’s news reporting.

Panelists

  • Paul Steiger, ProPublica, Editor-in-Chief
  • Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!, Host and Executive Producer
  • Maxie Jackson, National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB), President & Chief Executive Officer
  • Moderator – Emily Bell, Columbia University, Professor of Professional Practice and Director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School
  • Resource – Rodney Benson, NYU, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication
  • General agreement about the FCC’s report, though concern about too much reliance on a donation structure for business model. Not looking for more government intervention but wanting to move beyond treading water and becoming the strong news organizations they need to be to build and inform communities.
  • People want authentic information and will support it.
  • Public funding for media is way behind other developed nations. Foundations do not make up the difference.
  • Worth the investment, if we look at democratic outcomes. Study of 14 leading democracies: What difference does strong public media make? More and higher-quality public affairs information, wider diversity of voices. Just as critical or more critical of government and business than private media.
  • Independent journalism is critical and there are resources to ensure foundations, or advertisers, don’t interfere.
  • Examining community needs – and how to serve the community – rather than an audience, is key to strengthening public media.

7) Media Interlude 1: Grant Oliphant; CEO, The Pittsburgh Foundation

Responding to the declines in traditional journalism, Pittsburgh’s robust philanthropic network has collaborated to shore up local newsgathering, leading to the purchase of public radio station WDUQ, the main NPR news station. The Pittsburgh Foundation has gone further, gaining support of the Knight Community Information Challenge to expand community news coverage, and it has established its own community video platform, Pittsburgh on Video.

Lessons:

  • Much harder work than it seems. Need courage on issues that are tough for foundations/nonprofits. Build in support for courage.
  • Suspend foundation instinct to know what outcomes will be. Have to invest in vehicles and hope people use them well.
  • Focus on storytelling, not just the story. How story is told is important too – making media that’s capable of getting the word out.
  • Don’t get locked into a model – there isn’t a model yet. Have some fun with it too.

8) Panel Two: New Trends and Practice in Documentary Film

Documentary film is in the midst of a revolution in practice. Driven in large part by rapid changes in communications technology, documentary filmmakers are changing the way they produce and distribute their films. And they are increasingly working closely with outreach and engagement partners early on in their creative process, in ways that enhance the quality of their work and deepen the impact of engagement strategies.

Panelists

  • Orlando Bagwell, Ford Foundation/Just Films, Director
  • Rick Allen, Snag Films, CEO
  • Pamela Yates, Skylight Pictures, Co-Founder
  • Moderator – Cara Mertes, Sundance Institute, Director, Documentary Film Program
  • Resource – Yvette J. Alberdingk Thijm, WITNESS, Executive Director

New trends in documentary world:

  • Access to technology democratizes documentary storytelling.
  • Global.
  • New media evolving quickly.
  • Shifts in journalism have created opportunity for documentary to provide extended analysis – a related form of journalism. Documentary as campaign.
  • Private capital.
  • Independent documentary’s relationship to news sector not fully understood or recognized.
  • Feature-length docs are the flagship for a number of related media offerings – modules, 2-3 minute docs, digital projects (every one of Skylight Pictures’ films has a related digital project).
  • Outreach needs to happen as film is being made – getting input early on helps them bring more nuanced understanding to telling the story in a balanced way.
  • New docs have exploded, traditional journalists have moved to filmmaking. Worldwide demand from audiences for enriching entertainment.
  • Can’t separate documentary from journalism, in terms of seeing the world and activism.
  • Foundations bring not only funds, but their reputations to this work.
  • Partnerships with NGOs and commercial media can be successful. At SXSW 2 years ago, film on family detention used by ACLU, provoked discussion; August of same year, Obama administration closed the prison, film got credit from NYT.
  • Challenge: how can key human rights values make their way into this?
  • Audience is consistently growing, theatrical release market issues are specific to that marketplace?
  • Technological environment – What happens to the visual privacy of protesters? How do we provide solutions to ensure making video is effective and safe?
  • Movies that stream for free online sell more DVDs – because social network has grown.

 

9) Media Interlude 2: Josh Fox and Emily Verellen:

Gasland is a provocative and influential documentary film, which was instrumental in the movement to establish a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in the Adirondack Mountains. This moratorium protects a watershed that serves approximately 15 million people from New York to Philadelphia.

Presenters:

  • Josh Fox, Gasland, Filmmaker
  • Emily Verellen, The Fledgling Fund, Director of Programs and Communications
  • Got into Sundance, got finishing funds, then exploded at Sundance.
  • Did huge tour. 100,000 people saw in theaters, two runs on HBO, another run coming.
  • Taking advantage of grassroots network that exists – all these little towns have local groups concerned about water safety.
  • Was an obvious choice for outreach, audience engagement. Not about moving people to opposite votes, moving people one step at a time – more engaged. Meeting them where they’re at on the subject.
  • Doing a part 2 of Gasland, to tell the continuing story. Disconnect between what people know on the ground and what’s being reported in the mainstream media. Rising stars in the movement can go and support the next film – going forward, this is “campaign as documentary,” the campaign is more important than the film.

 

10) Mini Keynote: Luis Ubinas, President, The Ford Foundation

  • The Ford Foundation has long been a leader in supporting media in the public interest. Currently pursuing major focus in documentary film and media policy reform efforts to preserve a free and open Internet. But the foundation also employs media and communications strategies to enhance its work in all program areas.
  • Radio and television have the power to shape a culture. Images establish cultural norms. Coverage on the civil rights movement showed it as heroic, and that gained support. Saw the same imagery in the Arab Spring. Told a story of liberation instead of risk, trouble.
  • The capacity to narrate is essential to democratic society. Where that’s not possible, democracy is weakened.

Digital technology needs more philanthropic dollars.

  • The decline of newspapers has been going on for generations.
  • The digital era isn’t bad, though – more people are consuming more news from more sources than ever before.
  • So what’s the problem? It’s that the Internet has to be free, open and accessible to preserve this state of affairs. But it isn’t that way for poor, disadvantaged Americans. The barriers are high and rising.
  • Digital have-nots are invisible, and are being left behind in a digital future. Access to digital technology is access to economic opportunity.

Internet access:

  • Ford is the largest funder of efforts to ensure that all Americans have equal, unfettered access to the Internet. Not enough partners, though. This is one of the most unfunded areas in philanthropy. How do you do any other work without this, though? Access to services is all through the Internet.
  • We are disabling the next generation’s ability to create change if we disable their access to the Internet. We need to think of new ventures to create a right to open access to technology. A right, not a privilege.
  • The struggle for Internet equity has to be as relentless as the struggle to create public media in the 1960s.
  • U.S. is deep in the bottom quartile of developed countries in terms of access and access per dollar spent.
  • Successful venture capital firms look to the distant future, and make investments based on where the curve is going to bend, to get there first. If they’re not willing to sustain those investments over time, they’re not meeting their mission. Must invest in early stage ideas and entrepreneurs.

Q: Business model problem? Two billion Internet users in the world, the next two billion won’t be from the western world, and this doesn’t seem to be the philanthropic world’s focus.

Ubinas: Not a business model problem. No – this works other places. Costs money to run fiber to rural environments – we have to start thinking of alternatives. What can we do on 2G phones? We can do a lot before broadband gets everywhere, if we set up for it. How do we make use of the assets already on the ground?

11) Media Policy and the Impact of Innovative Tools and Techniques in Policy and Politics

Media and telecommunications policies hatched in Washington and state capitols have enormous impacts on issues of justice and equity that are central to philanthropy. At the same time, emerging communications technologies are having a dramatic impact on the way that politics is conducted. Our panel of experts will help us navigate the complex labyrinth of media policy and will explore the latest practices in digital democracy.

Panelists:

Andrew Rasiej, Personal Democracy Forum, Founder
Josh Silver, The Democracy Fund, CEO
Jean Cook, Future of Music Coalition, Director of Programs
Moderator – Helen Brunner, Media Demcoracy Fund, Founding Director
Resource – Geoffrey MacDougall, Mozilla Foundation, Partnership Lead

Broadband:

  • Affordability is critical. Competition is stifled – we have the highest cost per megabyte of any industrialized nation.
  • Media and technology are built on policy, not just entrepreneurship. The grossest failings of the system are the result of structural problems. These can be fixed through policy. Working in policy demands a very long view – there will be a lot of defeats along with the victories.
  • Two years ago Broadband plan was launched – most important element is competition, and this is totally missing from the Broadband plan.
  • Half a billion dollars has been spent by the five largest communications companies over the last 20 years. Their influence is so pronounced that simple ideas about competition are off the table.
  • Municipal broadband/community fiber networks being challenged by cable/telcos who refused to build infrastructure, but still sue the town.

Cable monopoly:

  • Duopolies in 98% of the country – cable or DSL.
  • As Internet speed demand increases, cable is becoming the only physical wire that’s fast enough to deliver super-high-speed Internet.
  • Phone companies have stopped wiring fiber-optic cable – phone companies can’t make a profit against the cable companies because of cable’s infrastructural advantage.
  • History shows, though, that one monopolist gives you the traction to fight back and prompt government oversight.

Openness:

  • Openness can and does win. By espousing openness, Mozilla provides and builds public benefit – Google and Microsoft do not. Building things and giving them away does public good – they can be in same category as government that way.
  • Q: On Geoffrey’s comment – how many are committed to openness as a principle in your work? (About half?)
  • Q: Believes in the power of open source, would people consider funding open source programming? E.g. Inkscape, Scribus, etc. Really basic, great wikis. Are people really going to fund these programs and make them available to underserved communities?
  • Dissonance between support for openness and actual funding of it is striking – should more closely investigate that space. There are opportunities for more conversation here.
  • Battle between closed systems and open systems is the 21st century battle.

AT&T/T-Mobile merger:

  • Former president of one of the world’s largest telcos is now the president’s chief of staff. There’s a reason AT&T’s trying to buy T-Mobile right now.  
  • AT&T/Verizon will control 80% of the cell-phone market post-merger, a huge deal. The Comcast/NBC merger was the only significant media merger in the past decade. There have been backlashes in the past, people can stop this. Net neutrality rulings of last year were not ideal, but Washington knows providers can’t do the egregious abuses of net neutrality that were threatened, because of organizing around the issue.
  • Fighting for good public policy may have to get a little dirty – it’s a fight.

Low-power FM radio:

  • Really significant opportunity for communities and nonprofits in rural AND urban areas. Low-cost, once in a generation opportunity. Once people apply for licenses (and well-funded syndicates have been snapping these up), they disappear. Organizing to get these set up is hard, but hugely valuable.

12) Open discussion, Jeff Jarvis, Director, Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism

Do you think that this is more a crisis to save journalism, or an opportunity to do new things?

  • Most think opportunity. More about investing in the future than protecting the past.

What are the opportunities?

  • Web’s ability to join traditional and non-traditional media makers in one place.
  • Showcases foundations’ role as conveners.
  • Opportunity to invent new tools, whole new approach to craft.

Troubled by the line between journalism and advocacy?

  • Blurry line, and we can all choose our lines. False question.
  • Subjectivity, disclosure, authenticity.

Transparency is the new objectivity? Controversial.

  • We can’t fix the streets and schools without a healthy flow of information. How we strengthen communities is important even if media’s not your funding area.

How does media become a platform?

  • Trickle-up journalism – In the global community linked by new media, the idea of bringing out local voices and linking them in a global conversation. The difference between what we’re doing at the local and global levels is that we’re using authentic grassroots community members as sources. This is the strength of trickle-up journalism, why it trumps mainstream media.
  • Example: Andy Carvin has been doing a great job with Arab Spring. Citizens telling the world news on their own. Journalists add value by debunking rumors, asking questions, etc.

Why do we need foundations?

  • NJ one of only two states without its own television station. Without a TV station, we can build a new platform for the 21st century. A “cooperative” to enable the NJ media ecosystem to curate news and push it out to the wider media.
  • No one’s quite figured out a financial model that works, so in the short term at least foundations will need to keep supporting public media, journalism.

We hear a lot about sustainability, can we reach commercial sustainability? Are you comfortable with philanthropy trying to support commercial sustainability?

  • Comes down to good content – if commercial entities can do it, great.
  • Paley Center has project called the Next Big Thing, sourcing new ideas and putting them in front of the financial and corporate leadership of big companies to grow the idea.
  • Hard to figure out how to get people excited about small-scale business like hyper-local blogs.
  • Funded a bunch of high-risk new ideas. Also good to fund things we know, like hyper-local blogs, community journalism – less sexy, but far higher chance of success because we know what these are and how to run them. People also need to create ad networks to support people making a living at this.
  • Media consortium thinking about sharing information so everyone can do better – developed an ad network. Can sell ads better by working together. Bigger organizations can bring up smaller ones.

What are the areas you think have the best opportunities, most need?

  • Focusing in on where there are real needs, markets, that aren’t being filled. Or where need is filled, but by private orgs like Bloomberg that are subscription only – journalism by former public journalists, now taken behind a wall. Great business model, but doesn’t help the public.
  • How do we fill the gaps at the local level? It’s piecemeal, not clear what happens once we move out. Regions might not have local philanthropy all the time.

At the end we talked about openness: the radically open foundation. Are foundations open and transparent enough? How could they be more open? How many of you use openness to determine the needs that you fill? Do you have a conversation in public before you decide where you’ll fund, where you’ll solicit funds?

  • Do open calls, but don’t ask people what we’ll be funding. Sometimes don’t even do open calls. Funds media for progressive social change – don’t ask people about their goals.

What do you think would happen if you opened up this process?

  • Mozilla does it all openly – mandate is fixed, but can join our meetings, all online all available all the time.
  • There’s still authority, still process, still management – but you hear more ideas than closed orgs.
  • Q: Is it good, or is it noise?
  • It’s both. Some people are good at filtering the noise, exercise in managing the crowd.
  • Firefox wouldn’t be possible without openness.

Comfortable opening up the process of judging proposals?

You’ve made the grant – what about requiring them to be open in their execution of the grant? Accountability to the community they serve?

  • Lesson here: we’ve seen people who are executing openness. We want transparent media, government – he’s asking for transparent philanthropy. Try experiments – spell out a goal, ask for how best to execute. Discuss proposals openly, expect grantees to be open, accountable to the public.
  • At Knight after the first year, when people could choose open or closed, there was a quality drop-off in the open category because it was a more competitive space. People worried that their ideas would be stolen.

What do you wish had been brought up today?

  • On J-schools – A lot of them view the web side of things as something to hand off to the tech guy – wrong attitude. Journalist needs to be multi-disciplinary. Rethink what the story form is itself.
  • Deeper examination of the scale of public resources for public media. Tremendous capacity for what we could do if we wanted to.
  • Opportunity for more work around policy, urgency for maintaining free and open Internet. Happy to see how many people said they were involved in that.

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