• November 23, 2014

Ford Needs a Smarter Approach to Newspaper Grants

The Ford Foundation’s announcement last month that it is providing $500,000 to help The Washington Post strengthen its coverage of government-accountability issues is inappropriate and a waste of money.

As one of the country’s premier national newspapers, especially one located in Washington, the Post always has had a primary responsibility for overseeing the workings of the federal government. Its reporters have established an enviable record of covering the news and exposing faulty government practices, winning Pulitzers and other prizes along the way. It shouldn’t have to ask the Ford Foundation for money.

To be sure, the Post has weathered financial stresses and steadily reduced its newsroom and editorial staff. Part of its strategy, it seems, has been to replace experienced, often eminent journalists with younger, less experienced reporters whose salaries and benefits are much lower. This strategy, unfortunately, appears to have resulted in a loss of quality, not only in coverage but also in writing and editing.

Many of the Post’s outstanding investigative reporters have been pushed out the door. The losses have been significant for those who care about investigative coverage of nonprofits. Among the most recent reporters to leave is James Grimaldi, who in April took one of the buyouts the Post offered to reduce the staff and was immediately snapped up by The Wall Street Journal. That was a big loss given his high-profile investigations, including one that exposed excessive executive compensation and other abuses at the Smithsonian Institution.

Despite all the cost-cutting at the Post in recent years, the newspaper’s publisher, Katharine Weymouth, a lawyer and granddaughter of Katharine Graham, made more than $2-million in 2010 and last year earned a salary of $537,000 as well as a bonus of almost $485,000. Why, then, does the company need the Ford Foundation’s money?

If the newsroom needed extra help, this responsibility should have fallen on the owners of the paper. Why did a foundation reward a publication that has shown an inexcusable disregard for its reporters and editors, not to mention readers?

The Ford Foundation should be commended for demonstrating its concern about the plight of daily newspapers. It made its worries clear a few months ago with a $1-million grant to the Los Angeles Times, and now it plans on going beyond the Post grant with other awards to local newspapers. 

 But Ford should focus more on long-term remedies than on plugging short-term gaps in reporting at established newspapers whose publishers should foot the bill for good journalism.

Investing in part ownership with some of these papers could stabilize their finances and put a stop to the mindless layoffs of outstanding reporters. So could the creation of sizable endowments to back up dailies that are at risk, arrangements that could resemble the relationship between the profit-making Tampa Bay Times and the Poynter Institute. And, in some cases, the foundation could buy an important daily newspaper or two and convert them into nonprofits with endowments to support their operations.

Such efforts, however, would require large amounts of money and possibly collaborations with other foundations and wealthy donors. Saving America’s daily newspapers can’t be done on the cheap. Ford and many other large foundations have the resources to do just that. But they have to decide whether they are serious about this as a major priority or whether they are content with just dribbling out a few dollars that will not accomplish much of anything.

Pablo Eisenberg, a regular Chronicle contributor, is a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. His e-mail address is pseisenberg@verizon.net.

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