Funders finally bet on next-generation news entrepreneurs

As long as journalism foundation funders and investors have worried about saving the institution of journalism and its anchor role in a healthy democracy, it’s been frustrating that the industry continues to struggle to make the civic (and thereby business) case for journalism and next-generation audiences.

Building on previous Nieman predictions, sizable investments have been made to legacy institutions “too big to fail”, or to noteworthy journalists from prestigious institutions endeavoring to start-up a new enterprise — and not many of them people of color.

In 2017 there was a fireside chat between Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, and Ava DuVernay, the esteemed filmmaker, where DuVernay spoke about the experience of finally having a decent film budget and “being invited to the party,” when folks of color tend not to have the built-in networks to have a chance to be invited. The same goes for who gets grants and investments to do good journalism and why.

Over these last few years in particular, the world continues to dynamically change epistemologically with regard to next-generation audiences and the news industry so desperate to keep up — yet refuses to let go of many of its legacy ways. As such, making bigger bets to the entrepreneurs who have rejected secure jobs at large newsrooms and have instead started their own ambitiously designed but modestly (or, most often, anemically) supported ideas for next-generation journalism models seem like true areas of investment opportunity.

Using a race-forward lens, given the reality of next generation audiences, we might also use an ecosystem approach in identifying the existing levers of support to sustain enterprising new leaders and their ideas. Below are key points that lay the groundwork for more investors to lean into meaningful change for journalism in 2023:

Redesign grantmaking so it doesn’t feel like the Hunger Games. It makes it hard for long-time, vetted grantees to make space for — let alone support — new ones. If the perspective is that the well is only for one person to drink from, then it’s not a resource. It is a vehicle for perpetuating the lack of creativity and unjust systemic practices around capital allocation.
Prioritize investing in new ideas and perspectives — the same way we try to ensure that our sourcing is diversified and thoughtful for good journalism. Audit the names of the “go-to” experts and see how many times the same folks get asked for their thoughts. Examine the selection criteria and question the validity and rationale behind the vetting process.
If you’re going outside the “usual suspects” list, follow up every “getting-to-know-you” invitation to attend a high-stakes meeting with actual support (i.e., a grant). Avoid being extractive. Partner with practitioners as true thought leaders. Show that you’re listening.
De-stigmatize succession planning. It’s the difference between defending a status quo that is deeply entrenched and acknowledging that, through this change, there will be transformational and accessible opportunities, making way for growth.
Realize audiences will thrive and engage in places we may not have explored yet. These can be further developed and expanded upon by those with contextual expertise and understanding.
Use tools for rigor in pursuit of institutional accountability and flexibility to be expansive and truly equitable, instead of as an excuse for an easy no to more due diligence and exploration, or an easy yes to validate our egos and existing worldviews. More safe bets is not what the journalism industry needs to move forward for the public.

There’s a strong case for applying a racial justice lens in grantmaking and diversifying the entrepreneurial pipeline, given an industry that needs new solutions to age-old problems. There are a lot more DuVernays out there doing good work without ever having been asked to engage in the investment process. The power dynamic between funder and grantee can get in the way of constructive, authentic, and collaborative problem-solving. Re-engineering the way we choose our investments can help to move the needle in delightfully unexpected ways.

Jennifer Choi is the program director at the Media Democracy Fund. Jonathan Jackson is a co-founder of Blavity and a 2019 Nieman-Berkman Klein Fellow.

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