The S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at syracuse. debra millet/shutterstock

The S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at syracuse. debra millet/shutterstock

Trivia time. Syracuse University (SU) recently netted a gift to the tune of $75 million, the largest in its 189-year history. Can you guess what the gift was earmarked for?

If you said a new data sciences school, financial aid for underserved students, or an ambitious capital project, you’d be wrong. The correct answer is the purportedly dying field of journalism.

The pledge came from the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation, whose namesake was one of the 20th century’s most influential publishers and businessmen. It supports academic initiatives of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications under the leadership of the school’s next dean. The university hopes to have a new leader in place by July 1, 2020.

We rarely see a gift of this magnitude to a journalism school—arguably the closest analogue was back in 2010, when the Annenberg Foundation committed $50 million to a new building for the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. That said, the Newhouse pledge makes sense given its source, as the family’s support for SU dates back to the early 1960s. This is a legacy gift in the truest sense.

It also suggests that while “creative disruptors” generate breathless headlines for their innovative ideas to revitalize the Fourth Estate, old-line funders like the Newhouse Foundation continue to play a vital role in preparing journalism students for the uncertainties ahead.

“The Newhouse School resulted from my father’s dream to establish the finest journalism school in the world,” said Newhouse’s son, alumnus, and Honorary Trustee Donald E. Newhouse. “In this era in which public communications is undergoing continual and radical change, my family and I expect to continue our long-term commitment to ensure that the school my Dad helped found almost 60 years ago remains the leading communications school in the world for another generation.”

Heirs to an Publishing Empire

Born in 1895, Samuel Irving Newhouse Sr. was an American businessman and magazine and newspaper publisher. He was the founder of Advance Publications, which, as of October 2014, was ranked as the 44th-largest privately held company in the United States. Newhouse Sr. founded the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation in 1945. He had two sons, Samuel Irving “Si” Newhouse Jr. and Donald, who inherited Advance Publications after Samuel Sr. passed away in 1979.

Newhouse Jr. ran the Advance Publications subsidiary Conde Nast, whose brands include Vogue, the New Yorker, GQ, Glamour, Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair and Wired. In 2015, the Newhouse brothers sold cable TV outfit Bright House Networks to Charter Communications for $11.4 billion in cash and stock. A year later, Forbes pegged Newhouse Jr.’s net worth at $13 billion. He passed away in 2017 at the age of 89. In 2019, Conde Nast sold W Magazine, Brides and Golf Digest for $435 million.

According to Forbes, Donald, who was born in 1929, has an estimated real time net worth of $11.1 billion. In 2016, he had the distinction of being the richest resident of the state of New Jersey. A gift from Donald and his wife Susan established the Susan and Donald Newhouse Center for the Humanities in 2004. Susan graduated from Wellesley in 1955. The couple has also provided support to the New York Public Library, the University of Pennsylvania and the Metropolitan Opera.

While Donald is in his early 90s, it’s safe to say the Newhouse family legacy will live on at Syracuse. His son, Michael, is a director and senior executive officer in the Advance/Newhouse companies, and is a voting trustee at the university.

Years of Support and a Big Fundraising Campaign

Huge gifts often come to pass after years of steady support, and this commitment is no exception. In fact, the gift was over 50 years in the making. In 1962, Newhouse Sr. gave SU $15 million—the largest gift in university history at that time—for the construction of the first of the school’s three buildings, Newhouse 1. The Newhouse Foundation also supported the construction of the school’s third building, Newhouse 3, which was dedicated in 2007 by Chief Justice John G. Roberts.

The Newhouse Foundation has also supported the school’s Newhouse Minority Fellowship Program, established under former Dean David Rubin in 1994. The program, which provides graduate students in journalism with full-tuition scholarships and on-the-job training at Advance Media New York, foreshadowed funders’ efforts to boost racial diversity in the journalism workforce by over two decades.

Big gifts are frequently tied to larger fundraising campaigns, and SU does not disappoint. Last November, the school launched its $1.5 billion Forever Orange: The Campaign for Syracuse University. SU already raised more than $770 million during its quiet phase, including a record-breaking $163 million in 2019.

Other campaign gifts include $20 million from life trustee and Carlyle Group co-founder Daniel D’Aniello and his wife Gayle for the construction of the National Veterans Resource Center (NRVS) at the Daniel and Gayle D’Aniello Building, $25 million from alumnus John Lally and his wife Laura to support Syracuse Athletics and the Martin J. Whitman School of Management, and $5 million from alumnus Kwang Tan toward an auditorium in the NVRC.

The university hasn’t set a timeline for the campaign, but the public fundraising phase will likely last four to six years, an SU representative said. Of course, that was four months before COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill. The big question moving forward for SU’s campaign—and every ambitious campaign currently in progress or in its planning stages—is the extent to which fundraisers move the goalposts as the economy plunges into a recession.

Whistling Past the Graveyard?

Scan Inside Philanthropy’s journalism vertical and you’ll find that most of the funders devoted to resuscitating journalism fall on the “edgier” end of the spectrum, whether it’s the Knight Foundation’s $300 million initiative, Craig Newmark’s efforts to rebuild trust, or the American Journalism Project’s belief that venture capitalism can revitalize small outlets.

But the Newhouse Foundation gift reminds us that tried-and-true funders who’ve been supporting journalism schools since the Kennedy administration haven’t folded up their tents just yet.

The gift comes roughly five months after 73-year-old, third-generation publisher Walter Hussman Jr. gave $25 million for the newly named University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. And in 2018, the Scripps-Howard Foundation, which launched in the early 1960s, provided $3 million in grants to launch investigative reporting centers at Arizona State University and the University of Maryland. 

These gifts, earmarked for an industry where outlets laid off 2,100 employees within a two-week span in 2019, raises an uncomfortable question: Do the Newhouse Foundation, Walter Hussman Jr., and the Scripps-Howard Foundation know something that we don’t?

The Associated Press’ David Bauder raised this question in a November 2019 piece exploring the financial struggles facing college newspapers, including, ironically enough, Syracuse University’s the Daily Orange. “If they’re being honest,” Bauder wrote, “most journalism educators have at some point wondered to themselves: Am I preparing young people for a dying industry?”

To prove this point, Bauder noted that in 2000, Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication routinely welcomed 48 new students each year into its master’s program in journalism. A few years ago, that number slipped into the teens, according to Joel Kaplan, who runs the program. “It’s one thing to go into debt if you’re an engineer or a graphic artist, because you know the jobs are going to be there,” he said.

Nationally, the number of undergraduates in college journalism programs dropped 9% between 2013 and 2015, according to the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication (AEJMC).

Getting Creative

In response to these trends, the Newhouse School has begun emphasizing its advertising and public relations majors. “Syracuse used to have a separate newspaper journalism major; now, it’s the magazine, news and digital journalism program,” Bauder wrote. Meanwhile, other schools are “breaking down internal barriers that once kept writers, broadcasters and photographers separate.”

This is a savvy move for practical and financial reasons, as funders have shown a willingness to support both more specialized and multidisciplinary journalism initiatives. Knight, for instance, has provided financial support for the Associated Press Sports Editors’ Diversity Fellowship in Leadership program, while last year, the TEGNA Foundation awarded grants for professionals in the broadly defined “media field.”

At the higher ed level, in 2016, a $50,000 endowed gift by the Smeyak family established the G. Paul Smeyak Sports Journalism and Communications Internship Endowment at the University of Florida. In December 2018, a gift from alumnus and financier Brad Davis created the Brad and Bailey Davis Media Innovator-in-Residence Fund at Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. The fund, which emphasizes entrepreneurial skills, recognizes that journalism students may have to create their own career paths in the years ahead.

In late February, Syracuse alumnus Jim Weiss, chairman, founder and CEO of the San Francisco-based integrated marketing and communications firm W2O Group, and his wife Audra announced two gifts to the Newhouse School in support of the W2O Center for Social Commerce and the W2O Emerging Insights Lab. The couple created the W2O Center for Social Commerce in 2012 to ensure that students and faculty are trained in social commerce, social media, technology and analytics.

The Newhouse Foundation has another compelling reason to continue its long-term commitment to the university: The post-election phenomenon known as the “Trump Bump” continues to raise all boats. The AEJMC found that undergraduate enrollment in journalism programs went up nearly 6% between 2015 and 2018. And according to the Newhouse School’s Kaplan, the master’s program at Syracuse welcomed a robust 35 new students last fall.

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