Photo: IrinaK/shutterstock
Photo: IrinaK/shutterstock

Reading through IP’s 2020 Philanthropy Awards suggests that climate change is arguably the hottest funding area in all of philanthropy. Givers include IP’s Philanthropist of the Year MacKenzie Scott, her ex-husband Jeff Bezos, Rihanna, community foundations and an array of other grantmakers.

Logic follows that this support should trickle down to all corners of the nonprofit world, especially the journalism and media space. After all, what better way for funders to educate Americans about urgent climate risks than through a vast and thriving ecosystem of nonprofit journalism outlets?

But IP’s 2020 survey of journalism fundraisers and professionals found that the field remains something of a climate laggard. Presented with a list of 11 funding strategies that merited “increasing commitment” from funders, 38% of respondents cited “climate change” as the most urgent need, even eclipsing “centering racial justice” (37%). (Respondents could select multiple strategies.)

“There have been cases of grantmakers supporting climate coverage,” said Frank Mungeam, who became the chief innovation officer of the industry trade organization Local Media Association (LMA) last September. “At the same time, I think it’s fair to say climate reporting has been underfunded in the past.”

The reasons for the disconnect will sound familiar. “Even within the areas that overlap with journalism,” Mungeam told me, “there have been critical and urgent, immediate needs around “news deserts,” the loss of local investigative reporting, and the need for more social justice reporting, for example. So climate, while obviously important, has seemed less immediate than some of these other crises.”

Mungeam oversees the Covering Climate Collaborative (CCC), a new partnership that will support 25 news organizations that cover the local impacts of climate change. In the short term, participating newsrooms will get immediate assistance in the form of free tools and training. LMA will be seeking funding for stipends to enable newsrooms to increase their climate reporting and impact beginning next month. Newsrooms can apply to join the collaborative here through February 28, 2021.

“There are actually well-funded and well-organized national and international initiatives focused on climate,” Mungeam said. “The biggest gap and the biggest opportunity to drive meaningful change is at the local level.”

Obstacles to funding

In 2019, NeimanLab asked journalism experts to make predictions for the upcoming year. Fiona Spruill, a former editor at the New York Times, predicted that “the climate crisis gets the coverage it deserves.”

Spruill was encouraged by an uptick in climate journalism collaborations, including a partnership between Florida newsrooms to cover local climate change stories, a Washington Post initiative on climate solutions, and the launch of Covering Climate Now, an initiative seeded with $1 million from the Schumann Media Center.

Spruill also linked to a piece by the New York Times’ Marc Tracy underscoring some of climate journalism’s nuances that, in retrospect, may explain why her prediction didn’t fully materialize.

Consider the nature of the work. At its core, “climate emergency journalism” reminds readers that, to quote Spruill, humanity is facing an “existential threat for the world as we’ve known it.” This can make readers tune out the coverage or curl up in a quivering ball.

“We have good research that in amping up the threat without actually providing people with things they can do, you end up with fatalism, despair, depression, a sense of paralysis, or a sense of dismissiveness and denial,” said Matthew C. Nisbet, editor of the journal Environmental Communication, in Tracy’s piece.

Other funders may fear that robust climate coverage could drift into “advocacy journalism” territory. Columbia Journalism Review editor Kyle Pope disputes this idea. “It’s outdated to say that covering the effects of climate change is advocacy,” he said in Tracy’s piece. “It’s an enormous story. The effects of this are completely nonpartisan.”

The anti-misinformation analog

Pope has a point, but for some funders, advocacy—however vaguely defined—is the third rail of philanthropy. This may sound counterintuitive, since journalism funders operate in the public sphere. But grantmakers are an inherently conservative lot. Many prefer to avoid funding issues that, to quote IP’s Philip Rojc in the aftermath of the January 6 attack on the Capitol building, “smack of politics, even though civic engagement and movement funding are more than fair game for foundations.”

In fact, funders’ efforts to combat the kind of misinformation that led to the attack serve as a useful analog to burgeoning work in the climate journalism space.

In both spaces, funders are navigating the fine line between advocacy and the public interest while engaging audiences with firmly entrenched beliefs. Over 70% of Republicans believe Donald Trump’s contention that he received more votes than President Joe Biden, and a 2019 study from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that one-third of Americans believe climate change is mostly due to natural trends.

Many funders acknowledge they can best move the needle by supporting trusted local outlets. “Disinformation is the weed growing in the empty lot left by the decline of local news, and building back local news across our country is essential to replace disinformation with fact-based journalism,” said American Journalism Project CEO Sarabeth Berman.

Similarly, “‘think globally, act locally’ is foundational to the climate response,” Mungeam said. “Local news sources are the most used, and most trusted. People’s direct, personal experience of the impacts of climate change happens locally.”

As for Spruill’s NeimanLab prediction, IP’s survey results suggest that funders have yet to prioritize climate coverage in a game-changing way. Then again, she wasn’t holding her breath. “Will the story get all the resources it deserves from already-strapped news organizations?” she asked. “Probably not.”

How the initiative came together

None of this is to say that climate funders have been asleep at the wheel. It was a Knight Foundation grant that indirectly set the Covering Climate Collaborative in motion. Two years ago, Mungeam was working on news innovation at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism, thanks to support from Knight. “Some of those innovation projects focused on climate, and I got to know many of the key specialists leading the way on climate coverage, especially at the intersection between the journalism and the science,” he said.

Those conversations made it clear to Mungeam that the “next big opportunity” was to take the efforts of individual organizations and climate reporters and find ways to scale and multiply those efforts through collaboration. It was one of the reasons Mungeam was excited to join LMA, which supports 3,000 member newsrooms and “has a track record of creating and managing news collaboratives and at forming partnerships that amplify impact.”

Though CCC is still in the process of seeking funding, at least one major foundation is on board. “On the foundation side,” Mungeam said, “the Walton Family Foundation has been an early supporter, and in partnership with the Society of Environmental Journalists, has enabled stipends to fund climate reporting.”

“A force multiplier”

A July 2020 report from the Center for Cooperative Media underscores the efficacy of the new initiative’s collaborative approach. The study’s author, Caroline Porter, discussed how journalistic collaborations can “reduce the noise around issues of bias and mistrust that climate reporting can encounter” by focusing on “people and how they are affected by climate change, making climate-change denial harder to uphold.”

Porter found that collaborations also help outlets tap an expansive pool of content, expedite the reporting process and scale across audiences. Mungeam picked up on these benefits, telling me that the LMA “seeks to be a force multiplier: Involve more newsrooms, elevate the climate storytelling expertise of more reporters, and reach wider audiences with this critical information, ultimately empowering people to take meaningful action in their local community.”

The CCC’s partners include the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), which supports bringing what Mungeam calls “the solutions approach” to climate journalism, as well as Climate Matters, which has received three grants from the National Science Foundation, the most recent of which enables an expansion of support for newsrooms. “Those grants have enabled crucial training of newsrooms and funding of climate opinion research,” Mungeam said.

Organizations participating in the CCC will gain access to tools, training and data reports on climate challenges, including localized data visualizations from Climate Matters, opinion research from George Mason University and the Yale Climate Opinion Survey, and solutions training from the SJN. These resources will help newsrooms communicate actions their audiences can take in response to local climate issues. They’ll also help newsrooms find ways to make this coverage more sustainable.

Opportunities and challenges

The philanthropic and political landscape has changed considerably in the two years since Spruill predicted a renaissance in climate coverage. The former president is in Florida nursing his numerous grievances and Biden is rolling out an ambitious climate agenda. “With climate change now prioritized at the highest level of national leadership, this is a moment of opportunity,” Mungeam said.

There’s also demand for climate-related coverage at the local level. Last September, the Yale Program on Climate Change found that 78% of respondents expressed interest in news stories about the impacts of global warming on their local community.

“I think part of the reason we’ve reached a tipping point in demand for more and broader-based climate reporting—and the funding to support that reporting—is the emerging recognition that climate effects are present and intertwined with the other critical issues we face,” Mungeam said. He cited, for instance, spikes in child asthma rates due to wildfires and the disproportionate impact of climate change on communities of color. To meet the moment, funders might be wise to de-silo climate issues and adopt a more intersectional grantmaking approach.

Other challenges remain. Global media coverage of climate change or global warming rose by an impressive 73% from 2018 to 2019, only to plummet 59% from January to May 2020 due to the proliferation of pandemic-related coverage, according to the Media and Climate Change Observatory. “We need to build more resilient systems so they are not as vulnerable to shocks,” said Max Boykoff, a fellow at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Studies.

But resilient systems don’t fund themselves. While most experts agree that the post-2016 “Trump Bump” in journalism funding is here to stay, many funders, to Mungeam’s earlier point, remain fixated on more immediate issues like combating misinformation, boosting diversity and holding tech giants accountable.

“Meaningful actions and potential solutions”

Last September, the LMA named 16 news organizations to participate in another one of its programs: a six-month lab from its new Center for Journalism Funding. Launched with support from the Google News Initiative, the lab has two goals: “Drive at least $2.25 million in funding for journalism projects for the 16 publishers combined, and publish an extensive industry playbook on funding journalism through philanthropy.”

Mungeam noted that the Center for Journalism Funding’s operational model differs from the CCC in that the center received funding from Google out of the gate, which enabled it to make the lab free for publishers. In contrast, the CCC is fast-tracking in-kind support for participating newsrooms. “The need is now, so we did not want to wait for funding to begin on the journalism,” Mungeam said.

LMA isn’t waiting long, however. It “soft-launched” individual direct giving to fund CCC newsroom stipends on February 15 and will begin actively marketing its fundraising efforts in March.

LMA’s Center for Journalism Funding makes for an illuminating case study on how newsrooms can engage funders juggling a set of urgent priorities. “It starts with finding the common ground where the interests of funders align with the goals and mission of journalism,” Mungeam said. “In our LMA lab, we coach newsrooms to start with a community listening tour. For climate, this means identifying the specific localized effects—e.g., air quality, water issues, economic impacts of extreme weather events—and also the specific populations impacted.”

Equipped with these localized effects, journalists “can do what they do best—develop an editorial plan for how to not only report on and inform their community about the problem, but to also connect their reporting to meaningful action and potential solutions,” Mungeam said.

Newsrooms focused on local climate issues “need to consistently incorporate the principles and practices of solutions journalism in their reporting,” Mungeam said. “That’s what leads to impact, and that’s ultimately where the goals of funders and journalists align for the greater civic good.”