What’s A Foundation For?

Posted on April 1st, by Michael Rosenblum in Journalism. 2 comments


Yesterday, I participated in Dave Cohn’s Carnival of Journalism.

He invited people thinking about the world of journalism (apparently he thinks I am one), to contribute their ideas on a single topic.

In this case, the topic was The Knight News Challenge – which pretty much everyone in the business enters.

It was a good idea.

Upon reading most of the feedback, I find myself in the position of having to disagree with a lot of what the vast majority wrote.

It was interesting to see a cross-section of the respondents – many of whom teach in Universities across America.

Many were in favor of funding journalism projects that would result in self-sustaining businesses at some point.

Entrepreneurial journalism.

Now, I am a big fan of entrepreneurial journalism. I prefer to think of myself as more entrepreneur than journalist, actually.

But when it comes to foundation grants like Knight, I don’t think they should be seen as seed money for start ups in the world of journalism

There are plenty of other sources of funding for that kind of thing – and frankly, if it’s going to be a workable business, then the market will pretty quickly dictate if you’re going to find financial backers or not. That’s kind of the first test. If you can’t pass that, you are wasting your time.

Too many of my fellow ‘carnivalians’ (so to speak) seemed to look at places like The Knight Foundation as VCs, but perhaps more ‘friendly’, less ‘rigorous’.  “Oh, come on… It’s a cool idea”.

That does not a business make.

If it works, you’ll find the investors, or prove it was not such a good idea.

Rather, I think, places like The Knight Foundation should be funding complete flights of fancy. Things that no VC would touch. But things that over the long run could prove really culturally interesting.

This is why Foundations fund museums exhibitions or archaeological excavations or public art.

I live over the Museum of Modern Art. A lot of Foundations pour a lot of money into exhibitions there.

If each artist had to start their case for funding by saying that in the long run they could turn their performance piece into a profitable business, the world would be a lot poorer for it.

So, no, I don’t think that their “Looking At Music” exhibition (above), currently on, is going to turn into a profitable business, but you know what?  That’s OK/ That’s what a Foundation should be for. Likewise with journalism.

Let’s be brave enough to push the envelope way way way out of shape without having to worry about ROI.


2 thoughts on “What’s A Foundation For?

  1. Wouldn’t it be more prudent for Knight to go in the complete opposite direction? To fund ONLY those projects they thought had an excellent chance of becoming profitable or self-sustaining businesses? So, become more like actual VC’s who are very careful about where they invest their money and often the investment comes with strings attached like dictating a company’s operations, salaries, etc. The way I see it, Knight is already funding flights of fancy now, many of which do not turn into viable businesses. Why not turn that around and really focus on making every dollar count?

  2. Michael,

    I think you are very right about the Knight Foundation fueling experimentation, fanciful flights, (failures for that matter), and risky excursions into entrepreneurialism by journalists who’ve never been there before.

    As a public journalist, I’ve always had to straddle that line between what the market wants and what the society needs. The future of journalism can’t be left to the marketplace entirely.

    However, we should point out that some of the Knight News challenge winners got attention via the contest and then did succeed in attracting VC funding they might not have found otherwise. So, maybe there’s some middle ground here where a flight of fancy + support + marketing = viability?


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