FeudMoth/shutterstock

FeudMoth/shutterstock

A 2018 study by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy found that journalism and communication programs at universities, along with the Newseum, received $369 million or 21 percent of the $1.8 billion distributed by foundations for news media between 2010 and 2015. Despite a noticeable uptick in funding after the 2016 election, anecdotal evidence suggests this figure probably hasn’t changed all that much across the last three years.

A recent gift out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina underscores the enduring appeal of campus journalism programs to donors. Not only is the recipient in question a public university, but the gift itself is abnormally large—$25 million in endowed funds from third-generation publisher Walter Hussman Jr. for the newly named University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

The gift, according to the school, will enable the university to better prepare thousands of students for careers in journalism, public relations, advertising, and a rapidly evolving field of content communications. But this donation also carries larger ambitions. Like fellow civic-minded journalism funders Craig Newmark, Pierre Omidyar, and the Knight Foundation, Hussman Jr. hopes his philanthropy will help restore trust in the beleaguered Fourth Estate.

By advancing such “core values” as objectivity, impartiality, integrity and truth-seeking, UNC’s journalism school “can be the leader and serve as an example for other journalism schools in America to follow,” said Hussman Jr., the chairman of Little Rock-based WEHCO Media Inc., which owns newspapers, magazines, and cable television systems in six states. “This is a key reason why we enthusiastically support the school and the university. This is a first, but important step, in renewing the public’s trust in our profession and the news media.”

Familiar Priorities, Different Recipients

In recent years, the wave of new funding to combat fake news, support local news ecosystems, and restore trust in journalism has included some large chunks of cash going to higher ed institutions.

Last summer, the Scripps-Howard Foundation provided $3 million in grants to launch investigative reporting centers at Arizona State University and the University of Maryland with the goal of curbing the spread of misinformation. Around the same time, the Media School at Indiana University received a $6 million gift, earmarked for training in a heartland news desert, from alumnus and journalist Michael I. Arnolt. And earlier this year, Craig Newmark gave $10 million to the Columbia Journalism School to bolster journalism ethics. Newmark also gave $20 million last year to what is now the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. That same institution hosts the News Integrity Initiative, which was created in 2017 with $14 million in support from Newmark, Facebook, and the Ford and Knight foundations, among other funders.

These have been encouraging developments for those concerned about the health of the body politic. Yet recent news out of Silicon Valley suggests that for all their millions flowing to universities and nonprofit organizations, funders’ efforts to tackle what is arguably the sector’s biggest challenge—the spread of fake news which, in turn, erodes the trust in the media—may be for naught.

A couple of years ago, when Facebook first waded into the debate on how to strengthen local news and combat fake news, commentators like the New Republic’s Alex Shephard argued that the social media giant lacked the financial incentives to be an honest arbiter since outrageous—and frequently deceptive—ads generate more clicks and higher revenues.

These fears came to pass in the early fall when Facebook, while rejecting a request by the Biden campaign to remove an irrefutably false ad about the candidate’s business relationship with Ukraine, announced it would not fact-check political advertisements. Katie Harbath, Facebook’s head of global elections policy, claimed that even false statements and misleading content are an important part of “the democratic process.”

Responding to the announcement, the Los Angeles Times Brian Boyle wrote, “Facebook just gave up the fight against fake news.”

A Steep Learning Curve

Amid the stubborn persistence of disinformation, not to mention an ever more polarized media landscape, it’s all the more important to train new cohorts of young reporters who can carry forward traditional journalistic values.

Yet according to the 2018 Shorenstein Center study, the field of “professional development” received a meager 7 percent of the total journalism funding from 2010 to 2015. While Perhaps funders expect young reporters will benefit from robust on-the-job-training to help them navigate what Craig Newmark calls an “online information war” that’s likely to only intensify in coming years.

Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Struggling newsrooms lack the resources to provide the necessary training to help new investigative reporters separate the signal from the noise. Aspiring journalists require meaningful “professional development” long before they land that first job.

“In today’s world, there is a lot more information, there is a lot more data for the public to sift through, and there is a lot more opportunity for misinformation,” said Scripps-Howard Foundation president and CEO Liz Carte. “But there are also more resources for journalists to use and investigate. Journalists today take a leadership role much earlier in their careers.”

One way for funders to nurture that leadership is to support robust training and professional development across the sector’s most durable pipeline of next-generation talent—journalism schools.

This lesson wasn’t lost on industry veteran Walter Hussman Jr., whose whopping $25 million endowment gift will “build for the future and invest in the people who have made this school a national leader—our professors, our staff, our students and all of the promise they represent,” said Susan King, dean of the Hussman School. “It would be difficult to overstate the impact of this gift during this pivotal time of economic dislocation and mounting distrust amid campaigns to discredit reporting, journalism and media institutions.”

A Seasoned Industry Veteran

Hussman’s father, Walter Hussman Sr. published the family’s newspapers for 50 years, until 1981, and expanded into radio and television broadcasting stations and cable television systems. Hussman Jr. began working at Arkansas’ Camden News when he was 10 years old in 1957. He majored in journalism and graduated from UNC in 1968, then earned an MBA at Columbia University in 1970. His family acquired the Arkansas Democrat in 1974, and at age 27, he became its publisher. He became president of WEHCO Media in 1981.

Hussman Jr. has served as president of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association and on the boards of the Associated Press and C-SPAN. He was Editor & Publisher magazine’s Publisher the Year in 2008, named a distinguished alumnus of UNC-Chapel Hill in 2009, and was named Arkansan of the Year in 2019 by Easterseals Arkansas. He has also been active in K-12 education and prison ministry in Arkansas. The Hussman family previously established two endowed professorships at Carolina in the journalism school and the School of Education.

Given his extensive career in the journalism industry, the 72-year-old Hussman Jr., like the recently departed Gerry Lenfest, serves as a nice counterpoint to younger civic-minded donors like Newmark, whose Craigslist, according to some studies, cost newspapers about $5 billion in classified advertising revenue from 2000 to 2007, and Omidyar, who while a committed journalism funder, nonetheless earned his fortune through eBay.

For starters, Hussman Jr., whose WEHCO Media operates daily outlets in Arkansas and Tennessee, understands the challenges facing small-town newspapers. Last year, declining advertising revenue forced WEHCO Media to discontinue distribution of the print edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette outside Central Arkansas. Hussman also knows that many traditional print journalism jobs aren’t coming back. This can explain why his gift to UNC seeks to direct journalism-inclined students towards careers in public relations, advertising, and content communications.

“Verging on Total Collapse”

In April, Hussman Jr. spoke with Arkansas Money & Politics about the future of journalism. The must-read interview isn’t for the faint of heart.

“People don’t realize how bad things are,” he said. “The newspaper industry in America is verging on total collapse” thanks, primarily, to Facebook and Google’s digital advertising duopoly. “You’re going to start seeing more daily newspapers close.”

Around the same time, Hussman Jr. bought thousands of iPads to give to subscribers who no longer receive print editions of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The hope here is that the paper can recoup costs and turn a profit if about 70 percent of print subscribers convert to become digital subscribers. To Hussman Jr., the alternative—a world in which the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette no longer exists—is unthinkable.

“If [local reporting] goes away, if things aren’t covered, I worry about how the government will react when no one is asking them questions and holding them accountable,” he said. “That’s our only reason for existence…Hopefully, we’ll have enough of a value proposition that people will realize and will be willing to subscribe and pay us for the content. Advertising can’t carry the load anymore.”

Left unasked during the interview was the extent to which philanthropy can potentially carry the load. I suspect the thought has crossed Hussman Jr.’s mind more than once.

Which brings me back to his huge endowment gift to UNC. While the commitment focuses on journalism’s future, there’s a nostalgic element to it as well. Hussman Jr. remembers a time in which Americans implicitly trusted reporters. When he graduated from UNC’s School of Journalism over 50 years ago, “You could trust a journalist to tell you the facts and let you make up your own mind.” Now, however, “we’re seeing people questioning who they can trust. Americans are beginning to realize they can’t trust a lot of what they see on the Internet.

“They need to rely on a trusted source of professional journalism. We need to renew the values, standards and practices that have stood the test of time.”

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