How should the Godbeat be funded?

How should the Godbeat be funded? August 28, 2012

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?

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21 responses to “How should the Godbeat be funded?”

  1. You can delete this comment after reading it, but it’s Todd Stiefel, not Peter! 🙂

    • I try to keep up comments such as this in case someone wonders why something changed. Thanks for the correction!

  2. Mollie, I don’t know the answer to the funding problem. I suppose it could be compared to selling advertising in a paper or during a newscast. But when an out fit pays money, they’re going to keep track of whether it’s hurting or helping them. Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, I got my first radio job at a tiny rural station doing the 30 minute 6:00 local newscast. (Tough, when there was barely 30 seconds of local news.) One evening, I read a story off the wire about mafia involvement in a construction project. After the newscast, the station manager gently explained to me that we did not as a rule cover such stories, nor did we use words such as “mafia” or “cosa nostra” as they were offensive to some people.

    A crusty and colorful old reporter put it to me this way: “They stuff a ten-spot in your garter, they expect you to dance on the table.”

    • I get that, but it’s also true that RNS is nothing without its reputation. And a hit to its reputation would be a much larger threat to its business model than a $15K-$50K gift they may or may not get each year. They made the terms of the deal clear and everyone agreed to them. There’s a tension, but I think this new model can work with the right guidelines and safeguards.

  3. Well, frankly, GetReligion has been advocating increased coverage of secular folks and the religious left since we opened our doors. If the funding tie is public, as opposed to hidden, I don’t see a problem.

    The key, for me, is whether the coverage is warranted. Are we talking about journalism stories or advocacy essays? It that’s the standard, the key is to judge the contents of the stories themselves.

    Now, the massive influx of Soros money at NPR strikes me as being much more problematic.

    • Mollie, Tmatt, I don’t disagree with your points. It may be the only way to keep the doors open. And certainly 15 or 50K is not a lot of money. But is does warrant caution.

  4. “We keep seeing newspapers laying off reporters …”
    And copy editors, and designers, and photographers, and … you get the idea.

  5. In Texas, the saying goes “you dance with him what brung ya.” I agree that this can be ok. But we have another saying in Texas: “when I buy a politician, he stays bought”. Actually, that may be from Louisiana, but it’s pretty valid here, as well.

    Thirty years ago, I read that TV was killing newspapers. Today, it’s the internet. I don’t buy papers, but the truth is I don’t read much from our local paper. The content just isn’t there. So my question is whether store-bought coverage will provide us with interesting, credible coverage?

  6. Newspapers are products of businesses. Religious articles are features of those products. The features appeal to some prospective readers. Readers used to be newspaper customers — i.e. they were folks who purchased newspapers — but increasingly readers are “eyeballs” who also may view ads, and ads are a primary source of revenue.

    How should the Godbeat be funded? It should be funded via ad revenue. The folks managing newspapers should be tracking how many folks are viewing Godbeat articles, gathering info on a cross-section of those folks, and providing that info to advertisers who want to target folks like that.

    It’s Marketing 101.

  7. meant to say that I don’t read our local paper online.

    But I agree with Chris Bolinger. Department store advertisements are pushing products, not an ideology. Contributions from partisans is a different matter. Again, not saying it’s wrong, but it is tricky.

    So how much are you GetReligionistas thinking on this contribution thing. 🙂

  8. Chris — what if there aren’t enough eyeballs for quality religion reporting, and advertising doesn’t work as a source of funding? Online advertising pays very little, so you have to get enormous eyeballs — pop culture sort of eyeballs — to bring in any real money. It may seem like 101, which is why you should ask yourself why people who know the business aren’t doing it. Either they are not very bright or your guess is off the mark.

    • Ben, the businesses that offer newspapers need to operate like businesses. If they don’t, then they will fail, which many of them are. The people who operate them may be bright, but they are not business-savvy, at least not for the current business environment. They are living in the past and operating their businesses for the markets of 10-15 years ago, which are long gone and not returning. Grants and gifts may prop them up for a while, but their ultimate fate is inevitable. Change or die.

    • I think the hook for this piece was actually the new $15K grant, not last year’s $50K grant.

  9. Chris and Passing By,
    Advertisers have never been entirely value-neutral; owners and boards will refuse to advertise in some venues due to conflicting values and/or fear of customer reprisals. Look at the recent Chick-fil-A brouhaha. Jim Henson Productions pulled out of a planned collaboration that would have benefited both companies. There is no question that many media outlets self-censor to conform to advertiser and consumer expectations. The Stiefel grant is simply more overt.

  10. Chris, you didn’t address the point that current ad rates are too low to sustain a journalistic operation, particularly one focused on religion. The following is an oversimplification but generally illustrates the state of play. Current online bulk ad rates pay from $0.10 to $3.00 per 1,000 impressions, meaning that if your story got 100,000 reads at the top ad rate you would get $300. That’s just enough money to pay a (probably not great) freelance reporter, but does not cover the cost of editors, web hosting production and maintenance, business overhead, etc. It’s very few stories outside of pop culture that get that many views, and the top rate would likely only go to sites with highly targeted audiences that advertisers want, like auto enthusiasts not religiously-interested people. Now, you could go for higher paying sponsored ads but you would need to pay for expensive ad sales staff. There are some other small revenue streams you can monetize off a story. But basically, this is the abysmal state of play. Here is the source of my data:
    Print ads paid a lot better, which is why the transition to web has been a bloodbath for journalism.

  11. I tried to post a comment twice but seems not to have gone through? Maybe because it mentioned money…? Anyway could you post one of the two?

  12. sari –

    So you are saying that Sears advertising furniture is an ideological statement?

    But of course, some companies choose their venues, and some venues choose to refuse advertisers. Some advertising is even promotion of an ideology. However, most advertising is product promotion, and it’s different in kind from handing a chuck of money to what is supposed to be a neutral entity.

  13. Hey Mollie:
    I know that there’s a new grant. But the Blaze framed the story as if they discovered these grants and RNS had to admit taking the money. That doesn’t exactly fit if RNS put out a press release announcing the first grant.
    The other issue with the Blaze story is that the author claims that the grants are controversial and mentions unnamed “critics” of the grants but never quotes any critic or shows any sign of controversy

    • Oh, right. I didn’t even bother critiquing the Blaze story since it’s not a mainstream outlet. But yes, the controversy claim was not substantiated.

  14. Passing By,
    I’m saying that any ad can become a statement (political, religious) if it either reflects the advertiser’s beliefs or, when contrary to its target consumer’s beliefs, the advertiser’s bottom line. Large, well-run boycotts, threatened or implemented, have been known to modify advertiser’s behavior, just as community standards dictate to some degree what is covered by the local media and from what perspective.

    The business end dictates more than anyone likes to admit.