The Gates Foundation has been spending about $7 million a year on education journalism groups for the last five years, according to its deputy director for global media partnerships.
In a phone chat with The Grade, a new education blog at The Washington Monthly, Gates official Manami Kano disclosed the figure and noted what are fairly well-known partnerships (at least among education journalists) with National Public Radio, the Education Writers Association, Hechinger, Chalkbeat and EdWeek that are “designed to be a supplement to the foundation’s programmatic and policy work.”
But there are also some not quite as well known partnerships with the likes of Univision and the PBS NewsHour.
The funding by Gates and other foundations with an interest in education, including Carnegie, Ford, Spencer and MacArthur, comes amid the obvious downsizing of local media. “The gap in information continues to be a major issue,” said Kano.
But Gates is “not just going to subsidize your reporters to do news of the day that would already be covered,” said Kano. In the case of NPR, it sought to “make education interesting and compelling with in-depth coverage of what’s happening in the classroom to both existing listeners and those that you might not have gotten yet through digital and social.”
“I don’t think that the Gates Foundation would be spending this kind of money if they didn’t think it helped their cause, however indirectly, and I’m under no illusions that newsrooms are able to completely ignore the sources of their funding, whether in the form of advertising or nonprofit funding,” Alexander Russo, a longtime New York-based education blogger who is author of The Grade, told Poynter in an email exchange Thursday.
“But the Gates Foundation agenda is focused on relatively moderate ideas like teacher quality and high standards, and it’s been pretty open about its journalism grants,” said Russo, who interviewed Kano. “So its media partnerships are less problematic to me than they would be if their agenda was ending tenure, charter school growth, or a Teach For America takeover — or if they were hiding the grants or seeming to pressure editors.”
The aim at NPR, Kano told Russo, was to “go deep on a few key areas, develop a voice, and test some new things,” including the integration of various media platforms. It considers its support of NPR a success. That’s true, too, with Univision, recipient of a $2 million grant that has produced quarterly specials and longer education features.
Kano conceded that a project with Marketplace and American Public Media didn’t turn out as well. Marketplace “produced a lot of good digital content but it never quite built an audience,” said Kano. That might have been explained partly by its not being as aggressive as NPR with social media. The collaboration has ended.
There have been other misfires, including with the Center on Education Reform, though one “unexpected gem” proved to be a for-profit partnership with the Seattle Times that involved “solutions journalism” by exploring potential answers to education problems.
That same notion of “solutions journalism” helped The Hechinger Report produce an education reporter’s “toolkit” on the topic for education writers.