The black, white and grey areas of donor funded journalism

Updated: Jan 14, 2020

Donor funds can help a cash-strapped newsroom survive but there is a concern that donors may kill editorial independence by driving their own agendas in the newsroom.

In her 2017 research, Anya Schiffrin from Columbia University said media houses are sometimes funded by private charities and foundations who want to achieve their “philanthropic goals” in what she calls “marriage of convenience”.

There is therefore pressure between what journalists believe is objective or neutral analysis, and the aims of people advocating things such as social change. This can be a challenge.

​“Journalists should not divorce themselves from editorial independence for the sake of donors,” said Code for Kenya country lead Catherine Gicheru.

She added that some African media houses are more concerned about securing the next grant and then forget the audience they serve.

“I find it strange that no one asks the same question about advertising in traditional media. A media house can criticise the government and still let it advertise on their platforms,” said Bhekisisa founding editor-in-chief and executive director Mia Malan.

Malan explained that news publications now need to find other ways to survive after digital disruption collapsed advertising, print media’s model of income generation.

“Donor-funding is one such solution, although it’s part of a basket of income-generation models, including membership and subscription models,” she said.

Bhekisisa started as a health desk with a health editor and two reporters at the Mail and Guardian in 2013 with the help of the German government. When Bhekisisa parted with the Mail and Guardian in 2017, Malan said it was the biggest desk at the publication, five times bigger than the political desk.

While donor funding is a model to sustain the media, Malan said it also empowers media houses to do solution-based and social justice stories on themes such as health, education and the environment.

“Specialists desks, be it health, education or the environment, was simply unaffordable, because they didn’t traditionally make money in the way that say political desks, that would uncover corruption or report on the movements of of high profile people on front pages, could,” Malan said.

Botswana-based INK Centre for Investigative Journalism managing partner Joel Konopo said donor funding allows newsrooms to tell the stories they want to tell.

For example, in 2017, INK reported that former Botswana President Ian Khama used the Botswana Defence Force for construction work on his private lodge located in central Botswana. To support their claim, the publication included a satellite image of the lodge where military trucks and construction vehicles are seen.

“We paid $5000 for the satellite picture. Taking the picture physically was difficult, so went for option B which was getting the shot from out of space,” Konopo said, adding that ordinary newsrooms would be unable to do that due to limited resources.

Botswana newspaper Mmegi accused INK of being funded by the American spy organisation CIA in 2016. Konopo said that article was in retaliation to INK’s own which linked Mmegi to Seyed Jamali, a controversial businessman.

“Most of the time, people who are critical of your work want to silence you. They don’t question the quality of your work because they can’t do so. Instead, they go for your donors,” Konopo said.

He said journalists need to be transparent with their funding from the onset to avoid any backlash in the future.

“We know people are watching us, so we try to be as open and thorough as possible.”

At the same time, Gicheru said media houses and donors need to view their relationship as a “partnership” where roles and expectations are made clear before signing off any agreement.

“Donor funding for journalism isn’t a one-size-fits-all. It is informed by circumstance, country and need,” Gicheru said.

Malan said it is important for media houses to choose a donor who has similar objectives to their organisation.

“At Bhekisisa, for instance, much of our reporting aims to hold the government and the private sector accountable for creating and implementing policies that ensure good governance and we want to reach policymakers, academics, political leaders and activists.

“We would therefore want to work with donors who want to reach the same audience and have an interest in good governance,” she said.

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