Making a Retreat From the Philanthropy Beat

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Guest Post, Mitch Hurst

In a recent opinion piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Pablo Eisenberg lamented the decision by The New York Times to eliminate its philanthropy/nonprofit beat:

What is surprising about this turn of events is that it comes at a time when nonprofits have been heralded as an increasingly important force that can offset the negative impact of dwindling government funds, both federal and state. The number of nonprofit organizations has grown enormously in the past two decades, as has the number of foundations, which now tops 76,000. With its workers representing 11 percent of the work force and 5.4 percent of the economy, it seems like nonprofits warrant additional journalistic attention, not less.

Eisenberg’s exception is rooted in the idea that influential traditional media still have a prominent role in holding the nonprofit sector accountable — especially as watchdogs that sniff out abuse. And on that point he’s less than charitable to the sector, noting: “The number of financial abuses and other illegal activities at nonprofits appears to be growing more prevalent and more brazen. Inappropriate expenditures, self-dealing, fraud, conflicts of interest, excessive compensation, and other practices that violate the law have become all too common.”

I don’t want to debate Eisenberg about which should take prominence in how nonprofits are covered — the good most do or the misdeeds that ensnare others. It’s a simple fact that the sector has never gotten its due when it comes to recognition of its sheer size and contribution to society and the economy. And maybe it never will. To me, though, it’s not a matter of whether nonprofits are covered as a beat, but rather whether they are covered for the different ways they are working to improve people’s lives and build a better, more equitable world.

Having spent a small chunk of my career in a job that included media outreach duties on behalf of philanthropy, it seems to me there’s more value in pushing coverage of nonprofits through other beats, making even more reporters and editors aware of the significant role nonprofits play in the issues that affect their reading public. That said, the media is often skeptical of those who seem to be seeking coverage more for raising funds than seeking to advance a cause. We certainly saw that suggested as motive behind the Invisible Children’s campaign via the viral Kony video.

I also don’t want to debate the merits of the Kony campaign. However, I will say that nonprofits are connected by their charitable missions and the mutual challenge of raising funds to achieve those missions. But this matters less to the outside world than it does to those inside the circle.If only I had a buck for every time I’ve heard some version of the phrase, “we need to communicate about the collective impact of the nonprofit sector.” It is important to communicate the value that tax-exempt status provides, particularly as it relates to legislative affairs. But the best way to communicate “value” is for individual nonprofits to share their stories in a way that the news media and their audiences want to experience them.

Killing the nonprofit beat at The New York Times may be a sign that the sector is losing respect and influence. It’s more likely a recognition that distinctions between sectors matter a lot less than they used to.


Communications Network board member Mitch Hurst is founder of MH Group.

2 Comments

  1. Edith AsibeyEdith Asibey03-25-2012

    Thanks for the post, Mitch. I don’t disagree with the need for nonprofits to interact with reporters in a variety of beats, and through a variety of media. But I do consider it a loss for the sector to not have reporters with sector expertise. We need reporters who can write their own stories, and who can contribute with their expertise to stories written by their colleagues in other beats. I think this loss will result in less quality journalism about the contributions and challenges of the sector.

  2. Malcolm FarleyMalcolm Farley03-26-2012

    I work in the non-profit educational field where we’ve already encountered the loss of many education reporters. (The news media shed most of its education journalists in the downsizing of the last few years, even as the national and global importance of education steadily rises.)

    So, while necessity may force us to interact with beat reporters to cover non-profit educational stories, there are real drawbacks to this change.

    For instance, while reporters may be very good at covering specific topics or stories related to their own beats, without an in-depth knowledge of kids, families, and what it takes to teach and learn in and out of the classroom—let alone administer a school or university—they may not fully grasp the import of the education stories they do cover.

    Given the competition for reportorial attention, it can also be much harder to get a beat reporter’s attention. Education will have to jockey with celebrity news, crime, politics, “lifestyle,” finance, etc. Even if you succeed in buttonholing a beat reporter, it can be much harder to persuade him/her of the significance of an education story whose context he/she may not get.

    So, it’s sad to hear the Times is cutting back its non-profit expertise. I fear it’s not a positive development.

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