It's no secret that times are tough for journalism. We keep seeing newspapers laying off reporters, combining beats and generally making work harder for the limited number of employees who remain. The Godbeat in particular has had a rough go of things, with the loss of some of its very best professionals. So I'm pretty open to innovative methods of keeping the beat going. And that includes taking grants from foundations who push a particular agenda. When I first heard that Religion News Service had taken a $50,000 grant in 2011 from the Stiefel Foundation, which says it exists to provide "financial support and volunteer strategy consulting to the Freethought Movement," I had some questions. It just seemed so risky. Would RNS have to write favorable stories? Would it be covering events it otherwise wouldn't? Would it skew the coverage?
Well, it sounds like getting additional coverage was precisely the plan of Todd Stiefel and his foundation. Under its list of accomplishments, we see news of an additional gift for this year, along with a report on last year:
SFF donated $15,000 to Religion News Service to support the second year of its increased coverage of freethinkers. Year one resulted in a total of 41 stories, most of which were picked up by outlets such as The Huffington Post, USA Today and The Washington Post
The Blaze has a big piece up analyzing these gifts and discussing whether they're ethical to receive. It also has an interesting response from RNS editor Kevin Eckstrom. Eckstrom explains that the organization went from being for-profit to non-profit just a year ago and that part of the reason was to be able to solicit and accept donor support. The group's development director had worked with Stiefel previously and that helped lay the groundwork for that initial gift. Most importantly, Eckstrom says:
“We have fairly limited contact with the Steifel [sic] Foundation by design,” he explained. “When we were first talking, we were very clear and we remain very clear that all editorial decisions would be up to us — that we would not take direction from anyone including the funders in regards to what we could or could not cover.”
The editor also says that Stiefel’s goal in providing the funding was for “unbelievers to be treated with the same degree of coverage as believers.” That being said, Eckstrom reiterates that there are “firewalls” setup to prevent editorial influence from Stiefel and his foundation.
The Blaze raises the concern that this could be seen as directly paying for coverage. Eckstrom says, basically, that he understands and is sensitive to those concerns and that while this is obviously a different journalism model than has been traditionally followed, that model is not sustainable any more. Oh, and Eckstrom says if anyone else wants to give the group money, they're all ears!
Anyway, my one area of concern is how the arrangement should be handled publicly. And I really don't have any easy answers for this. I'm just curious what you think:
TheBlaze did explore how fervently RNS made Stiefel’s funding known to readers. A search conducted on the organization‘s web site didn’t show any notation that the $65,000 had been received by RNS. When asked about this, Eckstrom said that, over the past year, the outlet has gone through a major evolution in moving from a for-profit to a non-profit model.
“When we were getting off the ground, it was an absolute chaotic mess. We were moving offices, changing computer systems,” he said. “It was just sort of a gigantic whirlwind. I think this was one of the things that fell between the cracks — there was never a decision not to publicize.”
Eckstrom says that 80 to 90 percent of the atheism-themed stories on RNS come from Winston’s work (which is a direct result of the SFF funding), noting the relationship with Stiefel on the web site could be problematic.“Not all of our atheist stories comes from Kimberly or the grant — we have staff writers here who are separate from the grant,” he explains. “If we had to label some, we’d have to label all — it seems kind of redundant and unnecessary.”
I think the grant has largely accomplished at least part of what it was intended to do, increase significantly the amount of coverage. I don't think this is a bad thing and I sympathize with the plight of funding the new journalism model. And I'm sure we'll start to see more of this type of funding. Heck, the Ford Foundation just gave the Washington Post $500,000 and the Los Angeles Times $1,000,000 to increase coverage of some pet areas of theirs. I suppose for mainstream outlets such as Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and RNS, it might be helpful to have a prominent disclaimer that can be linked to in stories.
I also worry -- in the long term -- that poorly funded groups or even just groups that choose not to fund journalism won't get good or prominent coverage in the new model (should we ever get to the point that we're all swimming in piles of cash under this model!). Any other concerns? Also, anyone have a problem with direct funding of the Godbeat for projects such as this? If so, why? Any better ideas?