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The Fourth Estate

Posted by GVT Admin on Mar 6, 2024 10:11:18 AM

The Nonprofit Model for the press

The term "fourth estate" refers to the press and the news media and comes from the traditional European concept of the three estates of the realm: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. In our American democracy the three branches of government (Congress, Supreme Court, President) are joined by a free, independent press (our Fourth Estate) that advocates and informs on behalf of the citizens who have granted the power to govern to the other three “estates”. For our "fourth estate" to protect the people from their elected government's impulse to grab more power by governing behind closed doors, our press and news media must maintain its integrity, remaining independent and financially robust. However, since the decline of the industry’s ad-driven business model was hastened by the Great Recession, more than half of newspapers have shuttered across America and the industry has shed more than 20,000 jobs.

A Nonprofit Model

Thirteen years ago, fewer than a dozen digital news nonprofits led the charge to shift news to a nonprofit model. Now, there are more than 400 digital news nonprofits nationwide, supported by an ever-growing coalition of philanthropies that include the Walton charities. With increasing emphasis over the past decade, the Walton Family Foundation has directed tens of millions of dollars to support journalists, newsrooms, and journalism organizations. It’s not just digital news nonprofits that benefit from their giving. The Waltons also give to legacy newspapers, websites, magazines, radio stations, and trade journals. Indeed, the need for support for local journalism is so acute that a coalition of philanthropies recently came together to seed a $500 million effort called Press Forward to put more reporters in underserved communities.

A Natural Bias

All nonprofits have, and are entitled to, a point-of-view. The Walton Family Foundation is no exception. The Walton family in both their overall Walton Family Foundation and the foundations of individual Walton family members are biased toward covering such subjects as agriculture, water policy, fisheries, conservation, and climate. In fact, their giving has grown even as the family has increased its funding of groups that discuss, study, or promote policy related to these subjects and often drive the news that Walton-funded outlets cover.

An Admirable Bias

Walton family journalism philanthropy is focused in overlapping areas.

  • For example, Lukas Walton chairs the family foundation’s environmental program and, since 2021, has supported journalism-related nonprofits—such as Chicago Public Media, Grist, Sentient Media, and the Reader Institute for Community Journalism—through his private foundation, Builders Initiative.
  • Builders Initiative also gives extensively to seafood and ocean conservation related programs.
  • Much of Builders’ grant making in these areas also supports Walton Family Foundation beneficiaries like the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund for programs focused on such subjects as “market-based solutions for Kelp Recovery” and “Seaweed and Mollusks aquaculture,” as well as the “aquaculture media strategy” of seafood advocacy organization, Stronger America Through Seafood, Inc.
  • Walmart, the family business, has over the past two decades used its economic and political muscle to lower the bar for what qualifies as “organic” foods and “sustainable seafood”, and the Walton Family Foundation has also supported seafood sustainability projects that didn’t ensure safe practices for Central American lobster divers.

Independence Beyond Bias

Of course, grants are promised with no strings attached. But with journalists accepting hundreds of millions of dollars in Walton philanthropy it is important to consider how news coverage may be affected.

  • Indeed, Walton family funding is so widespread that environment-focused reporters working for nonprofit news organizations funded by Walton philanthropy often cover, interview, or analyze organizations and individuals who are also grantees of the family’s foundation and/or family members’ individual foundations. As the field of potential sources not supported by the Waltons narrows, reporters risk tilting discussions about sustainability, resource management, conservation, or other subjects toward solutions favored by the family’s philanthropies.
  • The Walton Family Foundation also supports Seafood Source, the leading industry publication for seafood news. It’s hard for Seafood Source, or anyone discussing sustainable seafood, to ignore the Walton Family Foundation and other Walton family organizations and interests and the perceptions readers might have about their influence on Seafood Source’s coverage.

Independence Equals Integrity

Let us not forget that news organizations across America have always been owned by wealthy families that harbored bias and were not hampered by a well-intentioned nonprofit philosophy. The fact that our new "nonprofit" news model is funded by private interests who certainly come at their task with a bias does nothing to compromise independent news integrity. On the contrary, we contend that the new nonprofit model perhaps has more integrity than the old for-profit model.

Thanks to the Waltons

“The Walton Family Foundation has been an outstanding funder,” said one journalist recipient. “From the beginning we were clear that we had to have editorial independence and they did not push back against that. I can thank all the previous grantees as well for making it very clear that this is how journalism works. Without editorial independence, we have no credibility. We absolutely, fundamentally, must have editorial independence.”

Topics: Nonprofit General, social issues

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