Democracy Needs a Free Press

A changing media industry requires innovation and philanthropy has a role to play.

By Tony Mestres, President & CEO

A free press is crucial to democracy. It holds the powerful accountable, investigates injustices and enables the free exchange of information and ideas. It protects people who otherwise go unheard.

Unfortunately, rapid technological changes over the last 25 years have drastically altered the way the press functions in democracies around the world, unleashing economic upheaval throughout the media industry by disrupting the advertising and subscription models that long sustained it. In the United States, many cities have lost some or all of their local newspapers while the surviving outlets, print or broadcast, are increasingly consolidated by out-of-town corporations. As a result, thousands and thousands of journalists have lost their jobs and newsrooms report fewer stories, leaving communities with less of the local journalism they rely on to function.

As the media industry scrambles to adapt to today’s technological, economic and cultural circumstances, innovation is essential, not only in the ways journalism embraces digital platforms but in the ways society values and supports journalism itself.

Philanthropy has a role to play in that innovation. Seattle Foundation stands behind efforts to strengthen our democracy and empower the people of our community. In supporting democracy, we also support journalism and a free press.

The evolving media industry has underscored the value of nonprofit news outlets, including longstanding community anchors such as KUOW and the International Examiner as well as more recent platforms like Crosscut and Grist, all of which have received support from SeaFdn philanthropists. It has also given rise to new funding models that allow for government and philanthropic support of legacy publications that not only hold a deep local history but contribute significantly to the wellbeing of communities today.

A couple of years ago, our region’s own enduring daily newspaper, The Seattle Times, began such an experiment when it launched its Education Lab, backed by support from the Gates Foundation. The success of that partnership led the Times to establish a new special project with urgent importance: Project Homeless. Seattle Foundation stepped up as the fiscal sponsor for that endeavor.

Building on the momentum created by Project Homeless, the Times created the Investigative Journalism Fund last spring, with SeaFdn as its fiscal sponsor. More than 200 donors raised an initial $250,000 to support in-depth original reporting at the paper, a huge boost for local investigative journalism, which is both especially valuable and very expensive to produce due to the enormous amount of legwork it requires. The Investigative Journalism Fund uses a clear firewall to maintain the journalistic integrity of the reporting and prevent any undue influence by donors on coverage.

The Investigative Journalism Fund is the first of its kind in the nation, an innovation that caught the attention of the Knight Foundation, which last month granted the fund an additional $250,000. Created by longtime newspaper publishers John S. and James L. Knight, the Knight Foundation is a leading national funder of quality journalism and media innovation.

Seattle Foundation is committed to strengthening the health and vitality of our community for everyone who lives here. So we are proud to contribute to innovations in the free press, proud to uphold our democracy and proud to defend journalism’s undying search for truth.

To learn more about how you can support local, independent journalism, please contact your Philanthropic Advisor.