Protecting Independence: Who Pays the Piper?

Session notes from the Investigative Practice Series

Chair: Maria Teresa Ronderos
Open Society Foundation

Matt Kennard
Journalist and author of The Racket

Rachel Oldroyd
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism


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While the mainstream media withers, investigative practice is thriving, but it’s easy to lose sight of who’s funding it; big tech companies and philanthropic foundations, partisan NGOs and think-tanks. As investigative journalism becomes funded by practitioners outside its traditional field, are journalists still calling the tune?
In this seminar, Investigative Practice looked into the emerging new funding landscape for investigative journalism, and tackled the issues this raises for real, truth-seeking independent journalism.

"There are many conspiracy theories around philanthropic funders controlling the media, but in the four and a half years I have worked on the Independent Journalism Programme at the Open Society Foundation, I have met George Soros only once. I introduced myself as the Director of the Programme and he said: ‘Is that with us?’"

Maria Teresa Ronderos

The truth lies somewhere between the extremes of total independence for funded journalism and total control from the funder.

There are some key questions and potential problems with a philanthropically funded model of journalism:

  • Does it skew the market and ultimately the angles and perspectives that journalists and stories take?
  • Is this more or less of a problem than the model of advertisers funding journalism?
  • Is there a real danger that funders alienate local communities by enforcing US and European agendas?
  • There is currently a lot of philanthropic funding for technological ‘fact-checking’ solutions to the problem of ‘fake news’. Does this risk overlooking problems with the algorithms that are intended to create the solution?
  • There is also an increased drive for ‘impact’ when journalism is funded philanthropically. Does this result in a push towards click-bait to give favourable metrics for funding reports? Or is that necessary to ensure that journalists consider their audience and push for change?

"All funding models are flawed, but the advertising model has the most significant flaws."

Matt Kennard

Matt Kennard’s experience working for places like The Guardian and the FT is that the concerns of advertisers are prioritised by editors. At The Guardian, they have a difficult business model because they refuse to put up a paywall, and as a result they have given sections of the website over to businesses.

Even with formal independence this has subconscious effects since editors are always aware of the interests of the funder/advertiser. Kennard has seen advertisers given a free space to respond to criticism – and would seriously question whether they would be given this space if not for the financial support.

Case Study: SAB Miller

Just three days after publishing Kennard’s investigation with Claire Provost which examined the multinational brewing company SAB Miller’s role in damaging water security for communities in El Salvador, The Guardian published an 800-word interview with the Latin America division president of SAB Miller, blaming water insecurity on politics and poor infrastructure. Kennard argues that the company’s involvement in The Guardian’s then ‘Partner Zone’ scheme where corporate funding paid for content on a specific section of the website had, at least in part, an influence on the decision to publish this interview as an indirect response.

However, there are also problematic elements in foundation funding. Even in cases where a philanthropic foundation publicly promotes the aim of building independent media, their own organisational biases and agendas will still exert an influence often in indirect or unacknowledged ways. Many large foundations are quite risk averse in what they fund, which produces a chilling effect and discourages organisations, media and journalists from addressing potentially controversial subjects.

Kennard has seen instances and experienced this phenomenon when at The Centre for Investigative Journalism where organisations have been told to distance themselves from a particular issue or group by potential funders. The indirect influence that this has is clear.

The only real model which meaningfully addresses the editorial influence of funding sources is that pursued by the Bristol Cable, which is working towards being fully funded by membership donations and can then be democratically accountable to their membership, rather than influenced by more powerful interests, whether those are corporate advertisers, press barons, or philanthropic organisations.

"There’s a real need to turn conversations around these issues from pessimism to optimism."

Rachel Oldroyd

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is totally philanthropically funded, with an annual budget of £12 million that comes from around 13 different funders. They describe themselves as independent, but the facts are that good journalism requires resources, and therefore all journalists and media organisations are dependent to some extent on the source of those resources. The idea that there’s a truly independent media model is a bit of a myth, though the model of the Bristol Cable is certainly an interesting one.

Most media organisations across the world are majority owned by press barons or other wealthy individuals. These people own media organisations in part because they are seeking profits, but also because they recognise that the media exerts influence, both socially and politically. This is particularly true in the ‘global south’. Although in India there is actually a growing media industry based on a traditional advertising revenue model, in the UK; in wider Europe; and certainly in America, there is a crisis of advertising. The model is completely collapsing.

Alongside this, there is also a rapidly developing crisis of trust and a proliferation of information and ‘news’ sites. As professional journalists, this is our industry to save and it’s up to us to come up with ways to save it.

Causes for optimism

In the midst of these crises though, there are reasons for optimism. The philanthropic, not-for-profit model, while not a silver bullet, is certainly a stepping stone that can help us get to the point where we have a model that’s more reflective of an independent media.

The huge drop in advertiser funding is well documented and recognised, but there’s a need to acknowledge the problems that existed in the old models that are being undermined by this drop and see the opportunities that the new landscape presents. With the new plurality of models and forms, this is actually a very exciting time for investigative journalism.

One of these opportunities exists in the potential of not-for-profit philanthropically funded journalism. The not-for-profit model changes the drive, from one of maximising clicks, readers and revenue to maximising ‘impact’. Despite the controversy of that term, when the currency of journalism becomes transformation rather than transaction, then the objective of providing evidence which can lead to real change becomes increasingly important. You do not see that in the commercial media space and that’s an incredibly exciting model for the world in which we live.

In China and Asia there are interesting things happening in independent media that weren’t before. The majority of media organisations are increasingly aware of these questions and of the need to have a diverse range of funding sources. The Open Society Foundation aims to support the risky and controversial parts of journalism primarily, but that does mean that other media organisations need to find new models with which they can continue funding themselves.

Other funders in this sector, such as Kathryn Geels, Director of the European Journalism Centre’s (EJC) Engaged Journalism Accelerator project agree with this. “The EJC sees ‘impact’ as the achievement of grantees' aims, rather than the EJC's own. The engaged journalism accelerator grants aim for resilience rather than sustainability, since resilience allows organisations to survive the inevitable changes in systems and adapt to take advantage of these.”

It is a positive change that our media and information is no longer owned by a handful of press barons. There are a huge range of new and interesting projects happening now experimenting with a variety of different models, encompassing subscriber, membership, co-operative, collaborative and cross-disciplinary:

Collaborative, Cross-border, Cross-disciplinary
  • International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) — The collaborative network of 220 investigative journalists in over 80 countries responsible for the Panama Papers exposé among others.
  • Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project — Consortium of investigative centres, media organisations and journalists operating across several regions.
  • Investigate Europe — Cross-border collaboration between investigative journalists from eight different european countries.
  • Bureau Local — Network run by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism bringing together data journalists, local reporters and many others with diverse skills and experiences to collaborate on projects to report on issues both in regions across the UK and nationally.
  • DataLEADS — organising boot-camps all over India, bringing together journalists with doctors and scientists to collaborate on data work around topics such as health and education.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism — non-profit, foundation-funded investigative journalism outlet.

Centre for Investigative Journalism Korea: Newstapa — funded entirely by donations from members of the public, eschewing grants from philanthropic foundations as well as businesses and government bodies.

Correctiv — German national non-profit outlet focused on investigating injustices and abuse of power.

Bellingcat — publishes the findings of citizen journalist investigations into war zones and the criminal underworld.

Disclose — a new project aiming to be the first non-profit journalism in France.

Cooperatives, memberships

The Bristol Cable — new model for local news delivery where the readers are the shareholders, also free media training courses for the public.

The Ferret — non-profit investigative journalism for Scotland working on a supporter-funded model, and again training their community network in investigative skills.

El Diario — membership-funded online newspaper, used Google start-up funding to build the software behind its member management system.

De Correspondent — The Dutch investigative journalism outlet that crowd-funded more than €1M in just eight days during its start-up phase in 2013.

Tortoise — Membership-funded journalism outlet dedicated to open, transparent slow news.


MediaPart — French non-profit investigative news organisation funded exclusively by subscription revenue from its 140,000 subscribers. Actively involves its subscribers in the news process, through Club Mediapart.

Novara Media — Independent subscriber-funded journalism outlet self-identifying as radical left-wing.

Real Media — Cooperative of journalists funded by individual donors and subscriptions.

There are also more and more organisations working to support the sector

Centre for Investigative Journalism — Provides guidance, support and training for community journalism projects across the UK.

Centre for Community Journalism — Offers networking, information and training for community journalists, and set up a representative body for the sector, The Independent Community News Network, to provide a stronger voice to champion new sustainable forms of local digital and print journalism.

European Journalism Centre — International non-profit that runs the Engaged Journalism Accelerator, providing grant funding, mentoring and resources for innovative projects on engaged journalism.

Membership Puzzle Project — Public research collaboration investigating methods for rebuilding trust and finding a sustainable future for public-interest journalism through membership schemes.

Gather — Digital hub for the community of practice emerging around the concept of engaged journalism.

The Media Fund — Co-operative working to advocate for and crowd-fund for 50 independent media partners.

Changes in methods as well as models

Other changes are also happening within the industry. Beyond experiments in new business models for journalism, new practices and working methods are also emerging from the crises that face the profession. Collaboration is becoming more and more embedded in how a lot of journalists work. This is evident in models like the ICIJ, but also in different contexts such as the Bureau Local network, which is about to be replicated in Germany by the Correctiv.Lokal project.

It’s important to understand things from the perspective of local communities as well, media in the UK has traditionally been very London-centric and this can be identified as one major cause of the recent crisis of trust in journalism.

There’s a need for much more collaboration and conversation not just between different organisations and different journalists, but also between journalists and their audiences. There are several examples of activities that work towards this two-way conversation.

It can be argued that even the idea of what a journalist is has changed. For example, for the last couple of years Kennard has been working for NGOs. In his opinion, they are producing some of the best journalism, meaning a real democratisation of what it means to be a journalist is possible. Kennard cites Greenpeace’s investigative work around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and other trade negotiation leaks which had a major impact and in Kennard's opinion is one of the most important bits of recent journalism.

Threats and challenges

Despite the optimism, there are still downsides to the new models and methods that are emerging. It’s problematic, for instance, to rely on philanthropic billionaires to fund an industry, since there’s little to stop them from getting bored and moving on to the ‘next new toy’.

The funding and interest is still increasing, but there’s little guarantee it will last into the future, so there’s an urgent need to use the current situation to find other ways to fund independent journalism that are both sustainable and resilient.

There’s also a danger that a foundation-funded model will merely preserve the undemocratic hierarchical structures that currently exist. If we wish to make sure that the outcome is not just a replica of the old models, but with different sources of funding, there’s also a need to genuinely embrace new ideas and models and the full potential they carry.

There’s even a potential problem in the more democratic funding of membership models in outlets becoming hostage to their readerships. A major part of the role of investigative journalism has always been to challenge received wisdom and provide new perspectives which can sometimes be controversial. Is this still possible if the findings of an investigative project are unpopular with those readers who provide the funding through their membership donations?

We also need to be careful to ensure that those communities that access more influence in member-funded journalism outlets are not restricted only to the more affluent sections of society, excluding those who do not have the capacity to make regular donations.

This discussion was part of the Investigative Practice series at the Logan Symposium, Oct 2018