It was a great story – or at least it would have been.
U.S. broadcast journalist Peter Klein was heading to Africa to cover the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and found a fresh angle that would continue the conversation, he says – but it required a couple of extra production days. "And the guy who ran the newsroom said: 'I love the story, but we've blown every penny of our foreign budget on Iraq.'"
Mr. Klein, the Emmy-winning, long-time 60 Minutes producer who is now director of the school of journalism at the University of British Columbia, has an ambitious plan: To establish at UBC the Global Reporting Centre (GRC), which would produce in-depth journalism on complex international issues using a different kind of funding model – philanthropy.
"I really feel if you take the profit motive out of global journalism, you could have an exceptional global journalism," says Mr. Klein, 44. "Really, it does come down to money."
He's not starting from scratch. The GRC would be an extension of the school's International Reporting Program, which each year sends 10 master's students out into the world to report deeply on a neglected global issue, such as illegal logging in Russia, Indonesia and Cameroon; the societal costs of the Thai shrimp industry; or the murder of indigenous people in Brazil.
"Pretty obscure stuff. Not the kind of thing that people sit around at their dinner table worrying about necessarily, because they don't know about it," says Mr. Klein, who this week departed for India as part of the class's current project on global mental health. (Students have also been dispatched to Jordan, Benin and Togo.) "And yet we've gotten audiences really engaged and interested in these topics."
The program was set up in 2008 with a $1-million endowment from philanthropist Alison Lawton's Mindset Social Innovation Foundation – enough to fund it for 10 years. "Her only limitation in terms of the donation was: 'I want to help you guys do stories that are undercovered globally, just sort of neglected stories,'" Mr. Klein says. "'And you should try to get some reach. Don't just do this as a little class project that you put on the school website.'"
To ensure that reach – and credibility – the program has partnered with various established media outlets, including The Globe and Mail (as well as The New York Times, PBS, CBC and others).
With the endowment, the program is funded until 2018. By then, Mr. Klein plans, the education program will fall under the umbrella of the GRC, which he aims to launch next year.
He's developed the concept, has great journalism world contacts, and has trained dozens of young reporters. Now, he has millions of dollars to raise.
'Hope around philanthropy'
To call this a disruptive time for news organizations would be burying the lead in understatement. As newsrooms continue to deal with the digital age fallout(witness a huge shake-up at The New Republic in the U.S. this week), it is "absolutely crucial" that new ways are found to fund journalistic endeavours, says Kelly Toughill, director of the University of King's College School of Journalism in Halifax.
"I think it's the central dominant issue of our age," says Prof. Toughill, who teaches a course on emerging business models in journalism. "It's not just about finding new sources of funding; it's about finding new business models that translate into long-term sustainability."
Philanthropically funded public-interest journalism is becoming a big part of this conversation, particularly in the United States, where organizations such as ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and the Center for Investigative Reporting are contributing to a thriving non-profit journalism culture – particularly for domestic investigative reporting. In a study last year titled Nonprofit Journalism: A Growing but Fragile Part of the U.S. News System, the Washington-based Pew Research Center identified 172 digital non-profit outlets launched between 1987 and 2012.
"There's a lot of hope around philanthropy," Prof. Toughill says.
Anyone who listens to NPR is familiar with the frequent shout-outs to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which supports public-interest journalism (in addition to being the Genius Grant givers and other initiatives). Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay Inc., is pouring multimillions into his independent not-for-profit startup First Look Media. The sole shareholder of the media group that owns The Guardian is a trust – set up to ensure editorial independence "in perpetuity." Mother Jones is a non-profit funded by a foundation. In Canada, The Walrus is published by a charitable foundation.
Then there's crowdfunding: Vancouver's The Tyee recently raised more than $100,000 to send a reporter to Ottawa. Jesse Brown, the freelance journalist behind breaking the Jian Ghomeshi story, crowdfunds for subscribers to support his Canadaland podcast. You'll find a journalism section on Kickstarter, proposed "transmedia" projects on Indiegogo, and a U.S. startup Beacon Reader – all crowdfunding specific works of journalism. (Projects currently crowdfunding on Beacon Reader include an examination of post-apartheid South Africa, and a look at how language barriers diminish the culinary experience in Paris.)
"I think it's become the new model already," Mr. Klein says of non-profit, public-interest journalism. "Not that awards should be the be-all and end-all, but certainly it is one indication of stories that have been successful in some respects, that have had impact. The stories that tend to win awards, that tend to have the high profile, are fully or partly funded by non-profits."
This culture of foundation-sponsored journalism, however, does not exist in Canada the way it does in the U.S., where it has had far more traction. "Americans tend to look more toward charity to solve social problems whereas Canadians tend to look more toward government to solve social problems," says Prof. Toughill. "We, for example, have something called the CBC and the U.S. has nothing comparable to that. So the structure of our news industry is very different. We already have a recognition that quality journalism is a social good, so we're already 10 steps ahead in funding that through the CBC."
Mr. Klein, who is American (and a permanent resident in Canada; his wife is from Vancouver; his kids are dual citizens), recognizes that there is not the same level of "interest and engagement from the philanthropic community in Canada" on this issue. He knows he has his work cut out for him.
A business plan for the Global Reporting Centre proposes an annual budget of $2.5-million – which would require an endowment in the range of $30-million (with the same kind of naming rights opportunities offered in other areas of philanthropy). The budget, however, will ultimately depend on what he can actually raise. He doesn't anticipate having that $30-million in place before launching the centre in September, 2015, but he's not going to wait for those funds to get going.
However, attracting an endowment is key to this ambitious vision. "I don't want to spend all my time going back to the usual suspects and raising funds all the time, and there's only a certain number of people who are going to want to support this," Mr. Klein says. "And we really want to have that independence to be able to focus on the editorial."
'Follow the money'
The question of editorial independence looms large in discussions about philanthropically funding media.
"I personally have real concerns about philanthropy as a long-term source of sustainable journalism," Prof. Toughill says. "I think there are some dangers in philanthropy around conflict of interest the way there are with any funding sources. But they're perhaps more acute if you put all of your trust in one or two donors."
Those who do this kind of journalism, or want to, will ask: What's the difference between mainstream media accepting advertising dollars from corporations, and alternative media outlets accepting sponsorship cash from foundations or others?
Prof. Toughill points to a "fundamental disconnect" in the model. "Charitable organizations are set up to achieve very specific aims, whether the aims are to alleviate child poverty or to improve the quality of the air, to improve the environment," she says. "And that's sort of fundamentally at odds with traditional journalism, which deliberately avoids trying to further specific aims. So, we have some interesting creative tension here. I think there's lots of promise. But I wouldn't bet the future of the information needs of my society on a philanthropic model."
You have to trust that good journalists will not allow the opinions of their funders (philanthropic or not) to bleed into their stories, but if dollars are tied to areas of coverage (environmental, health), will certain subjects receive more coverage than topics that are perhaps perceived as less sexy?
Mr. Klein says he is "absolutely" aware of this concern.
"Which is why I think it's important for any non-profit journalism organization to have really diverse funding. What do we always say in journalism? Follow the money. That also applies to us," he says. "I think it's critical to have a really diverse kind of funding so you can walk away if you have to. And that's another reason we were trying to endow this. Once it's endowed, it's arm's length. You can't pull the money if you don't like the story we do."
'Something with integrity'
In their last class before heading abroad for their global mental-health project, International Reporting Program students summarized their plans for their teachers, including Mr. Klein and David Rummel.
Mr. Rummel, a veteran journalist whose credentials include the major U.S. networks and The New York Times, asked the students to think about what they want to get out of each of their interviews, and the other elements they'll need on the ground for their stories.
Student Hala Kamaliddin is part of the team that, for the global mental-health project, landed in Jordan this week to cover the trauma experienced by Syrian refugees.
Born in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War, Ms. Kamaliddin, 28, lived through the Persian Gulf War, and witnessed multiple subsequent bombings in the country of her birth before moving to Canada in 2005.
"Watching how these things were covered both by Arabic and Western media, there's a lot of room to improve," she said during a break in class. She said it's important to be on the ground and tell these stories "to give you a much more realistic and truthful picture; something with integrity."
While the ambitions for the Global Reporting Centre are much broader, the work of the International Reporting Program has received some traction and acclaim, with a list of awards, including an Emmy for Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground. Last month, its China's Generation Green project won a gold medal in the category of Best Interactive at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.
And the work has had impact. Mr. Klein proudly explains that another project, profiling the lack of access to pain medication in India, Ukraine and Uganda, has been used by physicians and human-rights activists to advocate for change, and that there has been some progress as a result. "That's a much bigger reward for us than any little plaque."