“Long Live Real News.” How an Environmental Reporting Site Funds its Work



The annual Golden Globes Awards: a night when millions tune in for turned-out stars, scripted jokes, and awards for films, shows and… journalism? Apparently so. This month, during the 76th Golden Globes, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) announced a $1 million grant to InsideClimate News (ICN), an acclaimed nonprofit news site producing watchdog-style coverage of climate, energy and the environment.

ICN Executive Editor Stacy Feldman tells Inside Philanthropy that the publication’s main goal right now, which the grant will support, is “to expand the scope and depth” of their work. She explains:

We want to broaden our investigative reporting. We're eager to expand our National Environment Reporting Network, to train more reporters and collaborate with more newsrooms all over the country to produce in-depth local environment stories. And we aim to train more students in our High School Institute for Environmental Journalism to educate the next generation of journalists.

Along with this grant to ICN, the HFPA announced it will donate $1 million to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit that gives free legal assistance to journalists. The HFPA declared a funding concentration on a free press in 2018 — an apt focus for a group of journalists — and has since also awarded million-dollar grants to the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism. The HFPA has donated more than $33 million to 80 nonprofits over the last 25 years.

As we’ve reported, philanthropic support for nonprofit news organizations has been on the rise since the mid-2000s, and the “Trump bump” in funding following the 2016 election does not appear to have worn off. In addition to managing long-term financial sustainability, these publications must also navigate the potential pitfalls of donor sway, especially in niche and highly politicized content areas (like the environment and education). Meanwhile, research has found that journalism grants are highly concentrated, with national outlets like ICN benefiting while state and local news nonprofits often remain critically underfunded.

A persistent concern for observers of this funding space is that the present levels of support will be unsustainable. If foundations shift to other interests, as they so often do, sites in the nonprofit news ecosystem, like ICN, may be forced to downsize -- unless they have effectively diversified their sources of funding. Below, we’ll explore how ICN has made headway in this area.

ICN has stayed on our radar since it launched in 2007 because of the many grants and recognitions it receives, and it’s a good case study of the durability of nonprofit news. In 2013, ICN reporters Elizabeth McGowan, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for "The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You've Never Heard Of," a seven-month investigation into the 2010 million-gallon spill of Canadian tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River.

ICN’s many backers have included the Ford Foundation, Common Sense Fund, Energy Foundation, Educational Foundation of America, Grantham Foundation, Knight Foundation, Marisla Foundation, Park Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Despite its fundraising accomplishments, ICN—like many nonprofit news sites—is keen to diversify its revenue base.

It has had some success on this score during the last few years. In 2014, foundation funding made up 88 percent of ICN’s budget, and it expressed a goal of eventually getting that number down to 51 percent. In 2017, ICN received 70 percent of its $1,870,000 operating budget from foundations, while sponsors, syndication, a gala and individual donors made up the remainder.

Grist is another award-winning environment nonprofit news outlet that’s been thriving in recent years, with grants coming from the Energy Foundation, Grantham Foundation, Surdna Foundation, Salesforce, Noya Fields Family group, Kendeda Fund and others. Grist has been around a lot longer than ICN—it launched in 1999—and has created a larger and more varied funding base. It pulled in more than $4.3 million in a recent year. About 46 percent came from grants and about 40 percent from donors. Other sources included in-kind donations, advertising and reader support.

A hopeful sign for these outlets' long-term sustainability is that more funders have come into the environmental space lately, including major individual donors from the worlds of finance and tech. Many of them understand the important role media can play in advancing their goals as environmental givers. One example is Evan Williams (Twitter's co-founder and the current chief executive of Medium) and his wife Sara, who support environmental issues in California and also back Grist. At this point, there appears to be ample funding out there to ensure the continuation of both ICN and Grist, as well as to bolster environmental reporting by other nonprofit outlets like ProPublica. And there’s no shortage of topics for these sites to dig into, as climate change accelerates and the Trump administration continues its drive to dismantle environmental regulations.

Recently, ICN has featured stories on greenhouse gas reduction, warming oceans, and how the government shutdown may lead to the loss of scientific data. David Sassoon, ICN founder and publisher, said that for 12 years, its newsroom has been “covering one of the most consequential stories of our time with depth and consistency.”

“Climate and environmental reporting are only getting more vital with each passing day. Long live real news.”