I recently attended a conference in Chicago on how to improve statehouse reporting—looking not just at the reporters physically in our nation’s 50 state capitols, but also those covering the effects of Statehouse policies on agencies, departments, and the executive branch.
Why is this important? (At least) two reasons: First, fully half of the state legislatures that met in 2012 passed more bills in one year than congress passed in two years. That’s a lot of bills.
Second, just as with the broader field of journalism, statehouse reporting has experienced dramatic reductions in coverage in recent years. Pew Research Center estimates a 35% decline in statehouse newspaper reporters since 2003, an even steeper decline than that in newsrooms overall during the same period. That leaves fewer than 1,600 journalists in America’s capitols—and only 47% of those are full-time. That averages out to 15 full-time reporters per state, but the actual numbers vary widely, from a high of 53 in Texas to just two in South Dakota. According to Pew:
“Less than a third of U.S. newspapers assign any kind of reporter—full-time or part-time—to the statehouse.”
“Fully 86% of local TV news stations do not assign even one reporter—full -time or part-time—to the statehouse.” This is especially problematic in that most Americans (particularly less ideological ones) still get the majority of their news from local TV.
“Students account for 14% (223 in all) of the overall statehouse reporting corps.” In fact four states—Missouri, Nevada, Kansas, and Arizona—have more students than FTEs.
We discussed three primary goals that a healthy Statehouse reporting field would help to support:
Holding officials accountable (and thereby helping to deter bad behavior)
Engaging the public with relevant, useful information
Leveling the playing field between special interests and the public
We then discussed a LOT of barriers to these goals—the discussion filled up four or five flipcharts (in pretty small print). These fell into a couple of loose, often overlapping categories which I’ll attempt to summarize here:
Lack of sustainable business models. This was the background to all of our discussion.
Public trust in information. Including discussion of coverage that is more “horse-racy” than substantive, polarization of the media, lack of journalistic standards, and the increasing influence of special interests.
Public engagement with the news. Including news’ lack of nuance / personalization, and the perceived lack of understanding (on the part of news producers) of “consumers’” preferences. All driving low public interest in political news.
News quality. Including concerns that news has become more “reactive than proactive” and that so little is translated into Spanish or other languages. This also touched on the lack of “data or journalistic standards” and of “data interoperability” (e.g., overarching taxonomies) that would allow data to speak to each other across geographies or organizational silos, which would allow for better trend interpretation.
Reporter efficiency. Including the lack of training and institutional knowledge, declining reporter relationships (e.g., access to tips, time to conduct interviews, etc.). This discussion also touched on reporters’ limited access to (and ability to interpret) public records.
Government accountability. Including the lack of government transparency, as well as the perceived shift of government resources away from governing towards communications/PR.
The (increasingly?) negative tone of news. Including whether / how this serves to undermine other democratic goals of civic engagement.
Undaunted (well, maybe a little daunted), we then broke into groups to brainstorm solutions. Ideas included:
Creating either a national hub or regional hubs of accountability journalism, making data and research available for easy customization by local reporters.
Creating a mobile, time-limited (3 year), highly-publicized team to help improve state media that would focus on specific states. (The benefit of it being time-limited and highly-publicized being that the public might feel a heightened responsibility to support the effort and focus attention on longer-run sustainability.)
Auditing—and creating a central database of—existing journalistic data resources, collaborations, players, etc., with a goal of helping to inform others about what is available and identifying the gaps.
Improving data standardization across states to provide reporters with, for example, standardized data on bills’ statuses, so that journalists have tools as good as the lobbyists.
But while the discussion of problems facing statehouse journalism was rich and the ideas generated interesting, none are silver bullets. Addressing the issues plaguing statehouse reporting will require time and effort from many actors across the news media. The question remains which, if any, of these ideas could be implemented, iterated, and scaled—and which might make a demonstrable difference.
My husband (a former venture capitalist) and I recently had a fascinating conversation about mergers and acquisitions in our respective sectors. If you’re the leader of a for-profit company who manages to pull off a merger, it’s a coup worth celebrating, with real financials benefits to the parties involved. Even board members get a cut. But if you’re in the nonprofit sector and announce a merger or acquisition, the most likely response is “Oh, I’m so sorry,” (and you can almost see the thought bubble: “Ouch, they must’ve run out of cash.”)
This poses a problem. There are over 1.8 million active nonprofit organizations in the US, and almost 80,000 foundations. Just looking at the campaign finance reform field, there are at least 100 organizations competing for an estimated $14M in annual foundation grants (according to the Foundation Center). For those of us who haven’t had enough coffee yet today, that works out to $140,000 per organization per year (not counting c4 and other non-foundation contributions). Needless to say, if we were starting from scratch, we probably wouldn’t design a field this fragmented.
Donors are no doubt part of the problem – both by funding a proliferation of organizations and by not properly facilitating later collaborations. That’s why the Hewlett Foundation recently co-sponsored a convening with the Bechtel Foundation on Bold Strategies for Accelerating Impact: Nonprofit Mergers and Foundation Spendouts. I’ll focus here on the former topic, which (given that we are not a spend-down foundation) was our primary area of interest.
The upshot of the convening—which was sold out, with almost double the number of attendees originally expected—is that social change efforts need (obviously) to grow their impact if they’re going to succeed. And there are only two primary ways to grow: organic (expanding one’s own scope of work or reach) or inorganic (acquiring or merging with another organization with a broader scope or audience/geographic reach than one’s own). Some argue that the latter may be easier than the former.
It’s interesting then to examine why a nonprofit (or any organization) would consider merging. There are at least three primary reasons:
Scope: to expand an organization’s goals, competencies, etc.
Scale: to expand nationally or internationally
Streamline: as a cost play, to free up more resources for impact. (Though a Chronicle of Philanthropy article notes that this may be less realistic for nonprofits, where transaction costs for mergers tend to be higher—“most nonprofit groups are too small to realize the kinds of cost savings that often make for-profit mergers attractive.”)
And of course not all “mergers” are created equal. Instead the nonprofit consultancy Bridgespan lays out a helpful spectrum of collaboration, the appropriateness of which may vary depending on the goal:
There are obvious benefits to mergers (or other less complete forms of collaboration). So why isn’t there more of it? I’ve heard it suggested that, for mergers in the nonprofit sector, ego is the primary barrier. I suspect there’s something to that view. But maybe it’s closer to “mission attachment.” Unlike the for-profit sector, nonprofits are launched with social impact, not money, in mind. But social missions can be clouded, understandably and even unconsciously, by leaders’ attachments to their own organizations. Mergers present leaders with (real or perceived) threats to their own job security and that of their staff. But it is no doubt more complicated than that.
In addition, it’s easy to forget that most for-profit mergers (more than 80% by some recent measures) fail to achieve the goals of the merger. For nonprofits the risks of merger are essentially the same in as in business—but the rewards “are much smaller and less tangible,” yielding a less favorable calculus overall. As with business, if nonprofits are going to create value through greater collaboration, a host of questions must first be addressed:
Which organization(s) are sufficiently similar in purpose and goals, but ideally with different but complementary skill sets—“something to offer you, and something you need?”
How can alignment between the boards be established?
What branding is optimal? For example, rather than taking one brand or the other, nonprofit brands could be arrayed on the website as business units.
What steps will incentivize leaders to give up place or power? (A good severance package probably doesn’t hurt!)
How will new roles be defined for senior staff? The risks (and pushback) here may depend on the motivating rationale for the merger (increasing scope isn’t a threat, streamlining probably is).
And that’s just a few of the questions that need answers. A number of tools have been developed to help. Bridgespan has a whole series of papers and blogs dedicated to the topic. Other resources include the Foundation Center’s Nonprofit Collaboration Database, which provides detailed information on more than 650 collaborations nominated for the Lodestar Foundation Collaboration Prize.
But perhaps the most important challenge in the nonprofit sector (or at least the most relevant to my work) is funding: For good due diligence beforehand to proactively identify likely problems; and for successful implementation—keeping in mind that merged organizations may need more (not less) funding to increase impact.
Given all of the promise (and challenge) that nonprofit mergers present, I was pleased to hear that two colleagues of ours in the campaign finance reform space, Fund for the Republic (a Hewlett Foundation grantee) and Americans for Campaign Reform, just joined forces to become Issue One. This is a great example of something I hope we see more of, if and when it makes sense.
Given the potential benefits and the clear pitfalls to avoid, I’m left wondering: When and how should funders encourage mergers among our grantees?
One of our grantees, the Pew Research Center, just released another great report in its series exploring political polarization in the United States, and how that relates to government, society, and people’s personal lives.
This latest report, Political Polarization and Media Habits, explores what sources people turn to for news, which ones they trust (and which they don’t), who they tend to talk to about politics, and how all of this varies by ideology. The short answer is that ideology predicts a lot.
Several of Pew’s findings were not entirely surprising. For example:
Consistent conservatives are “tightly clustered around a single news source, far more than any other group in the survey, with 47% citing Fox News as their main source for news about government and politics.” They also “express greater distrust than trust of 24 of the 36 news sources measured in the survey. At the same time, fully 88% of consistent conservatives trust Fox News.”
Consistent liberals are “less unified in their media loyalty; they rely on a greater range of news outlets [and] … express more trust than distrust of 28 of the 36 news outlets in the survey. NPR, PBS and the BBC are the most trusted news sources for consistent liberals.”
But a few things did surprise me:
That the Wall Street Journal is the only source more trusted than distrusted by all five of Pew’s ideological groupings.
That audiences for NPR (National Public Radio), PBS, the New York Times, and BBC are as liberal as Pew finds. I would’ve assumed liberal, but not that liberal.
That 45% of people hadn’t even heard of NPR
That so many more people get news from Facebook than from Twitter. I had assumed Facebook was maybe 2x more common, but it’s more like 4x (48% vs 9%)
That consistent liberals are “more likely than those in other ideological groups to block or “defriend” someone on a social network—as well as to end a personal friendship—because of politics.” Forty-four percent of consistent liberals who use Facebook “say they have blocked someone on a social networking site because of a political post” (versus 31% of consistent conservatives). I would’ve assumed the practice was equally common (and much more rare).
That consistent conservatives report both talking about (68%) and “enjoying talking about” (81%) politics much more than consistent liberals (of whom only 57% talk about politics “at least a few times a week”, with only 69% reporting they enjoy it).
In short, the most ideologically extreme Americans have very different news consumption and discussion habits, many of which tend to reinforce their own belief systems. And of course those on the farther left and right ends of the spectrum, who together comprise about 20% of the public, have a greater impact on the political process—they vote much more, and are more likely to be driving the political conversation amongst their friends. “Nearly four in ten consistent conservatives (39%) and 30% of consistent liberals tend to drive political discussions. In other words, they talk about politics often, say others tend to turn to them for information rather than the reverse, and describe themselves as leaders rather than listeners in these kinds of conversations.”
The silver lining in Pew’s findings is that most Americans still do rely on an “array of outlets—with varying audience profiles—for political news. And many consistent conservatives and liberals hear dissenting political views in their everyday lives.” Figuring out how to encourage more of this could go a long way toward fixing our dysfunctional politics.
This week a new nonprofit news site is launching in the U.S. Given the thousands of online news sites that already exist (an estimated 170+ of them nonprofit), you might be questioning why you should care. But you should, because this one is a bit different.
The Conversation is an independent news and commentary site produced by a team of professional journalists who work closely with academic authors to leverage the academics’ expertise, apply it to important issues, and make it available to the public.
We recently made a grant to The Conversation through Special Projects, because their work struck us as potentially illuminating on a couple of dimensions. As pretty much everyone who reads news knows, since the advent of the Internet, journalism around the world has been struggling. Two big challenges dominate, at least for those who care about democracy:
The old journalism business model no longer works. Many newsrooms have had to reduce staff or close entirely. According to a recent report on the State of the News Media in 2013, employment of full-time editorial staff in the U.S., which peaked at 57,000 in 1989, had fallen by 29% by the end of 2011. The same report found that the number of U.S. newspapers with daily circulation has fallen by about 14% since 1990.
What remains is much more fragmented, and often much more ideological. So far as television goes, much has been made of the ideological extremity of Fox News (“regularly watched” by only 20% of Americans) and MSNBC (regularly watched by only 11%). They are pretty different. A recent Pew study, which the Hewlett Foundation helped support, found that “consistent conservatives” expressed overwhelmingly positive views of Fox (74% favorable). Meanwhile 73% of “consistent liberals” held an unfavorable view of the network. Talk radio is notoriously ideological, though much more popular amongst conservatives than liberals. Seven of the top 10 outlets are considered conservative, the rest are independent or moderate—and have grown from 400M in the 1990s to 1.4B in recent years. Given the breadth of online news sites it is essentially impossible to register their ideological tones, but suffice to say that many occupy a quite specific ideological niche. In short, people have a very hard time agreeing on what the facts are, much less on what to do about them.
The Conversation touches upon both of these problems.
On the business model side, the plurality of The Conversation’s funding comes from universities, at least in the U.K. and Australia (the two countries where it has been active to date). Academics benefit from an increased audience for their research, and the universities themselves benefit from increased visibility. Free to read, share, and republish, The Conversation makes its articles available to other news outlets for distribution (see recent publications by the Washington Post here, here, here, and here). In short, the financial side appears promising.
On the ideology side, public trust in institutions is falling across the board. There is some hope that university researchers will be viewed as credible sources of information, at least by some subset of the population. A recent U.K. study found that “90% said they trusted scientists working for universities.” But U.K. scientists may fare better on the trust dimension than American ones. Huffington Post recently found that “only 36 percent of Americans reported having "a lot" of trust that information they get from scientists is accurate and reliable. Fifty-one percent said they trust that information only a little, and another 6 percent said they don't trust it at all.”
Another source for the same data actually gets to the point of The Conversation—a members-only American Sociological Review study: Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010. The full study has a handy chart showing the changes in trust of science by ideological affiliation, but unfortunately, it’s only accessible if you pay for it and figuring out how to even show the chart here, in a legally permissible way, would take a few days to sort out). On top of that, the whole study is a bit hard to read (for a layperson), and it’s very long—all challenges with the accessibility of academic knowledge that the Conversation is designed to help overcome.
In addition to the challenges of presenting complex information in a way that a lay audience can understand it, The Conversation also recognizes the challenge of being pigeonholed ideologically—and thus either being ignored entirely, or helping to further the growing problem of U.S. political polarization. Academic authors must “abide by protocols that help rebuild trust in journalism: they sign on to an editorial charter; disclose funding and conflicts; abide by community standards; and write in areas in which they have demonstrated expertise.”
Given all of this, I’m cautiously optimistic that The Conversation can find a good foothold here in the U.S. at a time when our public, and our policymakers, badly need to re-find more sources of agreed-upon facts and expert knowledge. I would welcome your thoughts!
October 16, 2014 — By Kelly Born, Tom Glaisyer , and Jonathan Kartt
Kelly Born is a Program Officer at the Hewlett Foundation, where she works on both Special Projects and our Madison Initiative. Tom Glaisyer is the program director of the Democracy Fund and Jonathan Kartt works in Programs & Evaluation for the Rita Allen Foundation. This is the second of two posts on voter information platforms.
We partnered to explore dozens of these platforms, and quickly realized that we weren’t sure how best to support the field, or which groups to partner with. So the Hewlett Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation crafted an RFP to solicit proposals from a handful of potential nonprofit partners, with the goal of funding them in a rapid-cycle innovation project. We were open to all kinds of ideas, and suggested a few possibilities:
Consulting Support: Because the ultimate success of any voter information platform depends on the quality of its design and resultant resonance with users, we suggested potential projects aimed at supporting design iteration and experimentation.
Implementation Support: These needed to be projects that were essentially shovel-ready, capable of being fielded before (and tested during) the 2014 election cycle.
Learning Support: There is much to be learned during this election cycle that might help inform later work in 2016. So we were open to jointly establishing a learning agenda for 2014 and then pairing nonprofit partners with researchers to test the effectiveness of different innovations.
Ultimately the proposals we received included some combination of all of these options.
Independently, the three foundations reviewed and assessed the pros and cons of all of the proposals, and between us we are now funding three public charities that responded to the RFP:
The Healthy Democracy Fund, to pilot its deliberative ballot decision-making approaches in Arizona and Colorado, and to conduct communications research around the efforts to understand what kind of messaging works with voters.
Maplight, to further develop its Voter’s Edge tool such that it can be more easily embedded in other platforms (e.g., news sites, civic organizations).
Seattle City Club’s Living Voters Guide, to further develop the site and to expand it to encompass not just ballot information but candidate data, including information from Voter’s Edge.
All of these projects include a research component to help understand what nonpartisan information resonates with voters, in hopes that we can learn and improve in future election cycles.
We are optimistic about the possibilities of these charitable projects, and about innovations in the sector more broadly - both for-profit and non-profit. These efforts offer hope that in future cycles citizens will have access to—and use—a wealth of information for even down-ticket races.
But we also have (lots of) questions:
When do people search for this information? How do they find it?
How do you expand the audience beyond political junkies to reach a broader population?
How useful do voters find this information? When and how does it actually influence decision-making?
What formats do voters prefer?
Do the platforms increase public trust in the political process or might some, particularly those that offer candidate matching, increase polarization?
How can the platforms be sustained?
Are the approaches scalable? What level of data standardization is desirable or feasible? For example, it is currently easy to get information on Congressional candidates, but much harder to digitally aggregate even the names of candidates for down-ballot races, let alone any meaningful information about them.
We are wrestling with these questions, supporting some research with these partners to test aspects of them, and exploring more broadly how we can aid the emerging community of practice that exists around this next generation of nonpartisan voter information tools. As always, we welcome your comments.
October 8, 2014 — By Kelly Born, Tom Glaisyer , and Jonathan Kartt
Kelly Born is a Program Officer at the Hewlett Foundation, where she works on both Special Projects and our Madison Initiative. Tom Glaisyer is the program director of the Democracy Fund and Jonathan Kartt works in Programs & Evaluation for the Rita Allen Foundation.
How will voters find information in 2014? For those who care about US democracy, this question is front and center in a world where both the structure of the news media and the channels through which voters get information are in flux. In the not too distant past, voters received most of their information about candidates and ballot measures through mass market dailies and TV or radio—places where the message was mediated by gatekeepers. The only opportunity to directly communicate with voters was through paid advertising or in-person contact. Nowadays, candidates have limitless options to directly reach voters—even television, when delivered via satellite, permits hyper targeting of political advertising messages.
But it’s not just campaigns that are exploiting these new digital opportunities—a host of (mostly new) organizations, non-profit and for-profit, are seeking not to win a vote, but to inform voters about their options.
It’s an exciting time for the field. Abroad, websites that match voters to policy positions held by parties, so-called voting advice applications, have seen significant adoption. In Germany, for example, Wahl-o-Mat was queried 13.2M times in 2013—not bad when you consider there are only 80M people in the country. In the US, we have encountered dozens of similar sites such as Vote411, ethePeople, and Project VoteSmart.
The digitization of data permits an increasing amount of contextual information to be added to what was previously just a thumbnail sketch of a candidate or issue. For example, information on candidates or ballot initiatives can now be combined with “rules of the road” on where and when to vote, and what materials to bring. This digital “plumbing” is often under-appreciated—Google’s Civic Information API provide a way to lookup polling places in 2014 and listed the candidates on the ballot. It builds on data from the PEW Charitable Trust's Voting Information Project and augments a recently developed iOS app.
Recognizing the possibilities in this emerging ecosystem of voter information, the Hewlett Foundation, the Rita Allen Foundation and the Democracy Fund partnered to explore the dozens of voter information websites that have developed in the last few years. We examined a number of dimensions:
Geographic Scope: Many provide national coverage, whereas others, like ethePeople, partner with media and civics groups in specific states or localities. Maplight’s Voter’s Edge cover national races while also offering some down-ballot coverage in particular states (in this case, California).
Audience: Some, like Ballotpedia, provide detailed information that might appeal more to policy wonks like ourselves, whereas Voter’s Edge or Who’s On The Ballot seek to serve those who prefer a less detailed view.
Approach: Sites like Voter’s Edge provide “just the facts” (on a lot of dimensions, including candidate’s prior jobs, campaign funding sources, etc.). Others, like the newly launched Crowdpac,use campaign funding sources to predict candidates’ positions, in an attempt to address the challenge of comparing a 30-year incumbent’s record to that of a first-time challenger who has never held office. ISideWith uses matching algorithms – and has now paired more than 11 million users with their “ideal” candidates based on answers to basic philosophical and political questions (e.g., “what is your stance on taxation?”). Still others actually involve citizens in the deliberative process: Healthy Democracy in Oregon convenes a representative panel of dozens of citizens for a week to evaluate the pros and cons of a particular ballot initiative. The information is then shared with voters in the official voting guide. Research has shown how valued that information has been—a majority of Oregonians were aware of the tool, and roughly two thirds who read the CIR statements found them helpful when deciding how to vote. In Washington State the Living Voters Guide has utilized a deliberative platform to allow voters to share why they are in favor of or opposed to a particular initiative.
Business Models: Half of what we found are for-profit operations like Crowdpac and Poll Vault. The other half (most of what we’ve discussed herein) are nonprofit. So we spoke with venture capitalists who had invested in several of the for-profit competitors to understand their reasons for doing so, and to ensure that we felt there was a good rationale for philanthropic investment in this space.
Operating and Partnership Approaches: Some, like Project VoteSmart, rely on teams of dedicated interns, while others are striving towards more automated systems. We also looked at organizations’ partnerships—many like ethePeople are collaborating extensively as part of their model, others are closer to independent operators.
Use: Finally, we looked at use. Not much is known about the end-users of these types of voting information services beyond broad demographic statistics. In terms of numbers, some platforms have received a fair amount of uptake, whereas others are so new that no usage data is even available yet—however, no site appears to have come close to Wahl-o-Mat’s success in Germany.
This wide variety of activity left us with lots of questions: whether and how to support this field, who to partner with, and on what kinds of projects? We have begun to explore these questions, and will discuss our early work on this topic in a follow-up post next week.
The Pew Research Center released one of the largest political studies in its history last week, which we were pleased to help support. Its findings, when coupled with longitudinal data from Pew surveys over the last two decades, reveal a complex picture of what is, and what is not, changing in the American electorate.
Some context: since 1987, Pew has conducted a periodic “Political Typology” survey exploring the causes, consequences, and extent of variations in American political values. Over its 20-year history, this study has surveyed the political beliefs and values of about 3,000 Americans, allowing for very useful insights about the country at large, but less nuanced understanding of how these values vary by age, geography, race or ethnicity, level of political engagement, or socio-demographic background. With this poll Pew has expanded this survey to include 10,000 respondents—enough to help us understand the many, many different flavors of American political opinions and values. It reveals an American public that is far more nuanced than our party structure allows for—some are very liberal, some are very conservative, but the vast majority (79%) doesn’t consistently fall within either of these camps.
Let me share a few of the insights I have gleaned from the expanded typology data thus far:
“Overall, 21% of Americans today are consistently liberal or conservative in their political views, up from 10% in 1994.”
The partisan gap in opinions on more than 40 separate political topics (including the environment, immigration, and the role of government) has doubled over the previous quarter century.
People don’t just disagree more, they also like each other less. “Levels of partisan animosity—holding a very unfavorable view of the other political party—have more than doubled over the past two decades….Today 38% of Democrats hold a very unfavorable view of the Republican Party, and 43% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party. Those figures were 16% and 17%, respectively, in 1994…”
And it is those who disagree more (and like the other side less) that increasingly dominate our politics: Of the most consistently conservative Americans, 80% say they “always vote”. Of the most consistently liberal, 61%. Contrast this with moderate turnout around 40%, and we have a problem…
I love data. Even somewhat depressing data like these. And the data don’t stop here. The findings are so robust that they cannot all be discussed in one release (much less one blog post). So Pew will be releasing findings on a rolling basis over the next six months, and I imagine we that we at Hewlett will continue to blog about it. The series will soon look more closely at the relationship between polarization and media consumption, social networks, exposure to political messaging, geographic location, and economic status, amongst other things. This has given us much to think about. I hope that others are likewise inclined to wrestle with these data, their implications for our democracy, and what we can do to improve the American political landscape moving forward.
When the Hewlett Foundation first began considering work in the democracy reform space in 2012, we had the same question that every new funder has upon entering a field: “Who is funding whom, to do what?”
We wanted to ensure we had a good feel for the landscape before we got too far out into it—both to avoid duplicating efforts and to enable more effective teamwork with other foundations. Not knowing the answers to these basic funding questions makes coordination, let alone collaboration, unnecessarily difficult. It can take dozens of calls with other funders to begin even to get the lay of the land. Details learned are often forgotten, so every time there is a funder convening, or every time a new funder comes along, the landscape analysis must be redone. It wouldn’t surprise me if, when we were first entering the field, there was a collective groan from longstanding democracy funders—yet another freshman to educate!—who nonetheless graciously helped us get up to speed.
With all this in mind, in 2013 the Hewlett Foundation and seven other democracy funders joined together, under the guidance (read: leadership, execution, and pretty much everything else) of the Foundation Center, to begin to answer these questions—and to incorporate the answers in a form that would be readily accessible and continually updated. Our foundation partners were the Carnegie Corporation of New York, The JPB Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Omidyar Network’s Democracy Fund, Open Society Foundations, the Rita Allen Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
The first step was to craft a taxonomy to help structure and organize the funding data. As you can imagine, there were a lot of vexing questions and perspectives here: from what was in or out of scope and what the main categories should be all the way down to the specific wording of each primary, secondary, and tertiary category. We laughed. We cried. We iterated—and then we repeated the process. Along the way we received enormously helpful input from dozens of experts and observers in different parts of the field, on both the funder and grantee side. In short, a crazy amount of collaboration happened.
The result is an online, interactive, data-based visualization tool: Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy. Using the Foundation Center’s data set for 2011 (which was used in the search pictured below), along with partial but growing sets of data for subsequent years, the tool allows users to map, chart, and filter data to gain a deeper understanding of the democracy funding landscape. While it remains a work in progress—necessarily, but also by design—it already offers a powerful new vantage point to consider the resources flowing from foundations to nonprofits working to strengthen democracy in the U.S.
Foundation Center President Brad Smith has a blog post summarizing his observations about the process and emerging patterns in the data. For my part, I will simply encourage you to start tooling around the site. Try out a few searches and get a feel for what it has to offer.
We will be helping all of our grantees familiarize themselves with this tool. Indeed, as useful as this data set and visualization will be for foundations already working in the field or new funders considering entering it, the real killer app for this work will be to help grant seekers. They can use it to answer questions like: who is funding the work we do, in the way and / or in the places that we do it? What are the areas of focus, key grantees, grant sizes, etc. of [insert your favorite] foundation? Which foundations are we best positioned to approach for support? What other nonprofits out there share our goals and could be good partners?
The tool provides data that is very valuable to foundations. It provides information that is both important and indeed urgent for nonprofits working to secure and expand the resources they need to advance their missions to improve the health of our democracy. And that, ultimately, is the whole point!
Lately I’ve been wrestling with the collapse in media coverage of Congress, its importance to our system of government, and what if anything foundations can do about it. Congress is ostensibly the people’s branch, but arguably most people don’t know much about what Congress is up to (other than the government shutdown, perhaps).
It’s no secret that the news media is struggling greatly—the rise of the internet has been met with a concomitant fall in subscription and advertising revenues. Many newsrooms have had to reduce staff, or close entirely. According to a recent report on the State of the News Media in 2013, employment of full-time editorial staff, which peaked at 57,000 in 1989, had fallen by 29% by the end of 2011. The same report found that the number of newspapers with daily circulation has fallen by about 14% since 1990, while another recent study found that over 400 local newspapers had closed or moved to web-only between 2007 and 2011.
Other platforms (radio, TV) cannot really step in to fill the void. Another study found that 80% of all news stories simply repeat or re-package information that has already been published elsewhere. Among stories that contain original news, 95% has come from traditional media, primarily newspapers. Someone has to do the original reporting upon which everything else is based.
This negative transformation has profound implications for citizens’ understanding of Congress, and thus for the quality of representation that we receive from Congress. Consider the following trends:
A recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 27 states now have no Washington reporters. The number of papers with bureaus in the capital has dropped by “about half since the mid-1980s.”
An online news website in Maine, a state which now has no Washington reporters, describes the implications well: “In place of having someone on the scene, Maine news organizations rely on interviews with delegation members to determine what they’re up to. This method has several obvious drawbacks, the most glaring being that our elected officials in the nation’s capital aren’t likely to tell us anything they don’t want us to know.”
Not only does the demise of print journalism impact what we know about what our representatives are doing on our behalf in Washington, it also means citizens are flying more or less blind when it is time for them to vote. A study of five small-market daily newspapers in 2008 and 2010 found that the papers paid little attention to local congressional races. On average, the papers ran 2.6 articles per congressional race in their circulation area in 2008 and 3.3 articles per race in 2010. Challengers viewed as highly unlikely to win are often especially marginalized in local campaign reporting, further reinforcing incumbents’ advantage.
If small-town newspapers are bad, large-market papers do no better. A 2004 study, looking specifically at the Los Angeles market, found that “not one story about a race for the U.S. House appeared in the Los Angeles stories.”
Moreover, quite apart from the supply of quality reporting, in the modern age of information proliferation, what can be done to improve demand for news coverage of “the people’s branch”—of its current and potential members. Especially when this democratically essential information has to compete with Kimye wedding videos?
We are convinced of the need to improve both the supply of and demand for quality reporting on Congress. What we’re trying to ascertain is whether, and how, we might help those forces start to reinforce each other in a positive direction.
I recently participated in a fascinating workshop hosted by Talia Stroud of The Engaging News Project. Housed at the University of Texas at Austin, the Project has a single aim: “to provide research-based techniques for engaging online audiences in commercially-viable and democratically-beneficial ways.” One of my favorite of the Project’s experiments to date explored what happens when you replace the ubiquitous “like” button with a “respect” button (spoiler alert: people share more moderate, less ideologically extreme news).
Talia’s conference proved to be one of the most thought-provoking gatherings I’ve attended in a long while. Fellow attendees included digital editors from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, NPR, the Daily Beast, and the Washington Post, to name a few. To steal a quote from one of the newsroom attendees: “I could not sleep the night I returned home [from the conference] as my brain was racing with ideas.”
I subsequently caught up with Talia to hear her insights about the state of the news business, and what it means for our democracy.
Kelly Born: An estimated 40 percent of Americans get their news online today. But many online news sites are struggling so much financially that there are very few resources left to experiment with ways to advance the “democratic bottom line.” What do you see as the biggest risks to democracy posed by these recent changes in media?
Talia Stroud: One risk is that the democratic bottom line could give way to the commercial bottom line. As the workshop participants told us, advertisers are interested in page views. If the Kardashians yield an uptick in page views, then news organizations have a financial incentive to cover them. Several studies document an appetite for that kind of soft news. Although there are cases where business and democratic goals conflict, it doesn’t have to be the case. The Engaging News Project looks to identify those sweet spots where both can be advanced. In the long run, I believe that it is important for news organizations to emphasize their democratic mission.
A second risk involves divisions in the news ecosystem. Some news organizations remain profitable and have budgets for digital innovation. Others are not as lucky. To the extent that the “have” news organizations differ from the “have-nots,” this makes me worried. Although national news outlets may thrive, more local news outlets may not. We recently analyzed interactive features available on local versus top news websites, and found that top news sites were much, much better off. For many of the features we considered, such as the availability of links to related and recommended news content, websites associated with top news outlets were more likely to have the feature than more locally-focused sites. That’s why the Engaging News Project works with diverse news outlets to create tools and evaluate audience engagement practices.
Kelly Born: What developments are you most excited about – i.e., what gives you hope?
Talia Stroud: I am optimistic about the future of the news media. Despite resource challenges, there are exciting new developments. We heard about many fantastic innovations at the News Engagement Workshop – from innovative ways of structuring the comment section at the New York Times to the Washington Post’s TruthTeller project to the Wall Street Journal’s health care interactive (a report on the workshop will be released on our website on April 29th and includes many other exciting ideas from all of the workshop participants). New approaches also are emerging, as news organizations partner with universities (Dallas Morning News, Sacramento Bee), use A/B testing (Daily Beast), and develop new funding models (Texas Tribune). Not surprisingly, I’m also really excited about what the Engaging News Project brings to this space. By helping news organizations test the effectiveness of promising practices and tools, we can better understand what works and what does not. Related organizations, such as the American Press Institute and Poynter, also are making important contributions and helping to spread the word about innovative journalism practices.
Kelly Born: What barriers do newsrooms face in making these changes on their own?
Talia Stroud: Many newsrooms do not have the resources to devote to innovation or systematic evaluations of what practices work. Over time, news organizations have more to do with fewer resources. Television news and newspaper outlets, for instance, not only maintain their traditional news products, but also create content for the web and mobile. This involves new ways of presenting information, from online videos to interactive infographics. At the same time, newsroom revenues have been declining. Television news audiences and newspaper circulations have fallen, due in part to the increasing popularity of online news. Gains in online advertising revenues have not made up for offline advertising losses. News organizations also face new competition from niche outlets attracting advertisers and audiences that used to provide a consistent revenue stream. Information about the weather was once, and arguably still is, a mainstay of local news outlets. Yet it is now easily accessed on an app dedicated to the weather. With these daunting realities, many news organizations have been forced to reduce their staff or, in some cases, to shut down the entire operation. Despite these barriers, we remain optimistic about the future of the news media.