More on Intermediaries and Funders (Including from Critics and Fans)
Last week’s column was, unsurprisingly, controversial. What’s the debate about?
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
Last week’s edition of this column, about what I see as the imbalance in giving to intermediaries as opposed to nonprofit news organizations by institutional funders, sparked quite a number of interesting responses. If you haven’t read the column, you may want to do so before finishing this one, as I want to use this week’s edition to address those responses. I’m doing this because I promised on Twitter to answer critics, and because I think regular readers are entitled to know what others thought, pro and con. This week’s Second Rough Draft is publishing a few days early to avoid getting swamped in post-election hot takes.
Broadly speaking, most reactions fell into two categories—public criticism and private support. I want to tell you about both, but, as this is my newsletter, I’ll start with the support. What’s especially noteworthy was that it was, as I say, mostly private, because some people are afraid of offending the very intermediaries who purport to represent them, as well as the funders deciding to give those intermediaries so much money. Good people talk about the power imbalance in philanthropy, but some of those same people are blind to the fear it engenders.
Some people applauded, softly
One funder wrote, “I expect you are catching some heat for your piece. Please know that there are those of us who appreciate your speaking truth to power. Funders and the industry need to talk about this out loud, not in whispered conversations.” The note concluded, “keep doing what you’re doing!” Another funder’s message: “Hallelujah.”
A nonprofit executive said “we’re all talking about your ballsy column,” and were “admiring you for saying the quiet part out loud.” I appreciated that, even if it was being said quietly, as were more notes, a number from people I have never met. One of those said, “I appreciated the column and I imagine a ton of folks at smaller nonprofits will be loudly shouting ‘amen!’” They continued, “so many grants given to these organizations don’t really trickle down in any noticeable way.” When I asked if this person wanted to leave a comment, the response was “I’d happily post anonymously, but I wouldn’t want to risk injury to my organization for being ‘that ungrateful [person].’” Someone long involved with a leading intermediary expressed the same frustration about “how much money doesn’t trickle down much to publishers.”
Another nonprofit leader wrote that, “I just applauded today’s newsletter. I’ve already gotten two emails about it from colleagues.” They added that “I couldn’t believe so much money was being sent [to the intermediaries] particularly under the guise of serving publishers of color. I thought that last point was shocking and if I’m being honest disingenuous. As one of my colleagues from another newsroom wrote to me this morning, ‘I’m glad Dick is saying the things none of us can say out loud.’” About half of my private correspondents, by the way, were people of color.
Another nonprofit veteran wrote, “it’s great to be the flavor of the month. But in the nonprofit arena, we all know that doesn’t last. So kudos for drawing attention to this. It’s long overdue.” More than one correspondent observed that the work of various intermediaries seems to be increasingly overlapping as they grow. Yet another nonprofit leader said, “Someone needed to say this.” They added, “there are only so many webinars and Slack channels and various other similar things that one can take part in—and many of these organizations are focused on this stuff. Actual funding for local journalism seems to me to be more important.”
And now for the critics
Not everyone was happy, of course. Tweet threads of criticism came from a number of people employed by intermediaries, as well as one from a funder with Facebook, and some people at nonprofit newsrooms concurred. A few of the criticisms were ad hominem, but I want to try now to grapple with the substantive disagreements, the vast majority of which were expressed civilly and intelligently. Here are the points I saw made, and some responses:
We need more investment not in nonprofit local newsrooms, but in for-profits.
This is a subject on which reasonable people can disagree. In general, I do disagree. The number of for-profit local newsrooms on an encouraging growth path seems to me vanishingly small. That is why they have so much trouble attracting investment capital, and look instead for help to nonprofit intermediaries (and, in some cases, to conversion to nonprofits).
The newsrooms being helped by the intermediaries are “too small”
Too small for what? Not, I would argue, too small for a few of them to be singled out for transformative grants. One person at a funded intermediary wrote privately to say that funders deserve the criticism here for not making such grants (presumably on top of current grant budgets).
We aren’t intermediaries, we are “service providers”
Sometimes this is true, and things like bulk buying and inexpensive pre-packaged infrastructure certainly qualify. Let me repeat: a lot of the work being done by the intermediaries is important and useful. But an increasing amount of the “services” offered are things I believe many newsrooms are saying they would not choose to purchase if the money could instead be given to them.
The intermediaries help the newsrooms “develop to the point where they can get bigger investments.” They are “teaching to fish” instead of “giving a fish.”
Yes. But the much slower growth of the newsrooms than of the intermediaries suggests (at least to me) that this simply succeeds too rarely to justify the amount of the indirect “investment.” And it’s why so many of the “ultimate beneficiaries” are privately resentful. If the intermediaries think they are better described as “incubators,” what’s their rate of successful incubation? It strikes me as low.
“No one is getting rich from local news” so my reference to the Wall Street question ‘Where are the customers’ yachts?’ was ‘rude.’”
If I left the impression that individuals were unduly profiting here, I am truly sorry. I do not think that. My “yachts” metaphor was meant to apply to organizations, which are, especially compared to their members, getting rich, as the numbers— which no one disputes— make clear. Moreover, I want to say again, as I said at least twice last week, including at the beginning of the column, that much of the work being done by intermediaries is quite valuable. And this wasn’t my first column on what funders might be doing differently, nor, I suspect, will it be my last. In this case, my point was about whether the proper balance is being struck between competing needs. I’m very glad if it sparks more discussion on that question.
 Along with an appeal for subscribers in light of the possible collapse of Twitter as an acceptable distribution vehicle, it also spurred a gain of more than 2% in subscriptions, bringing those who subscribe for free to this newsletter to over 2000. Thank you.
 I was described as “biased” (unspecified) and self-interested (I’m actually a consultant these days, not a grantee, so if anything the piece was arguing against my own narrow interest), the column was described by the head of one intermediary as “pathetic,” and someone working for Facebook (!) criticized the pay I used to receive at a job from which I retired 14 months ago.
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We appreciated your column on intermediaries -- something we've noticed and been discouraged by at our small newspaper from the get go. We are not a nonprofit, though we have a partnership with one we launched alongside our newspaper to fund our educational mission. It supports fellowships for generation reporters which has been challenging and wonderful for us, and it's thrilling, too, to watch these young writers go on to pursue "bigger" journalism goals and jobs (we are a small weekly). But at the paper, we are trying to make it on community advertising and investment. I wonder if you might report on some of Google's initiatives that we have looked at and that leave us lukewarm: We've found that their work with Wordpress on Newspak and now Knight + Google at Indiegraf now come with requirement not just to receive their advice on what to monetize and how (that will be good for us! But obits will monetized at our community newspaper over our dead bodies), but also to purchase their platforms into the future. It doesn't feel right. Are we applying for help becoming more effective at mission-driven work that benefits our communities or to become their customers? Does the former really require the latter?