Ford Foundation grant signals shift away from public broadcasting

The Ford Foundation, which for decades funded much of public broadcasting, last week shifted its media grantmaking to a different medium – newspapers.

The Los Angeles Times announced the $1 million grant, which according to the Times will pay for reporters to cover “Vietnamese, Korean and other immigrant communities, the California prison system, the border region and Brazil.”

The Times story noted that the new Brazil-based reporter will be the newspaper’s first full-time correspondent in Latin America in “several years.”

Until now, the Ford Foundation has been more closely associated with public radio and television. Ford used to give National Public Radio six and seven-figure grants each year for international news coverage and reporting of certain topics. In 1967, Ford paid the entire cost of starting a national public television network in the U.S., with a $10 million grant to create what became the Public Broadcasting Service.

Last year Ford continued to support some public broadcasting projects, such as $700,000 to New York Public Radio But the Ford grants database do not include any grants to “NPR,” “National Public Radio,” “PBS,” or “Public Broadcasting System” in 2010 or 2011.

“[W]e and many other funders are experimenting with new approaches to preserve and advance high-quality journalism,” said an unnamed foundation spokesman quoted by the Los Angeles Times.

That journalism evidently will not be on public radio or TV.

Ford’s shift to newspapers follows the announcement last month that the National Endowment for the Arts was eliminating much of its funding for PBS arts programming, moving instead to fund arts projects that are based on the Internet.

Ford already supports Pro Publica “to produce investigative journalism,” which then appears in U.S. newspapers, according to page 83 of the Ford grants database.

In 2010 and 2011, Ford made over $700,000 in grants to The New Press, Inc., to publish reports “on key topics in criminal justice reform,” according to page 101 of the database.

However, both Pro Publica and The New Press are non-profit entities, as are U.S. public radio and television. With this grant to the Los Angeles Times, Ford is committing major funding to a for-profit company, an arrangement described as “unusual” by the Poynter Institute.

But this arrangement may not be as unusual as it seems. Some public broadcasting programs are produced by for-profit commercial companies, which receive grants from foundations and from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

For example, the PBS NewsHour is produced by MacNeil-Lehrer Productions, begun by Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, the broadcast’s original anchors. But in 1981, MacNeil and Lehrer sold half of their firm to the Gannett company, which owns commercial TV stations and publishes USA TODAY. And then in 1994, according to its website, two-thirds of the company was sold to another commercial company, Liberty Media. Liberty Media is headed by longtime cable TV pioneer John Malone, and according to its website owns properties including the Starz movie network and the Atlanta Braves.

And Charlie Rose, who just began anchoring the morning broadcast on CBS, produces his nightly interview program at the commercial Bloomberg TV network, which televises the program it each evening before it is seen on PBS.

But returning to the Ford grant to the Los Angeles Times, much of the initial reaction has been critical.
“Frankly, we find it bizarre that the publication would have to turn to nonprofit help to cover its own communities,” wrote Dennis Romero in the LA Weekly “..[T]he Times says it’s going to use its newfound cash to ‘hire journalists who will focus on the Vietnamese, Korean and other immigrant communities…’ In other words, to do the job it’s supposed to be doing anyway.”