Should a newspaper make charitable donations?

The last time I ran a local business, making philanthropic gifts to community organizations became a pretty standard operating procedure year after year, once we were financially stable. It allowed us to share our business success with the organizations and causes we cared about, it was a way to help our employees develop their own volunteering and charitable giving interests, it reduced our income tax burden, and it felt good.

Almost from day one of owning the newspaper, we’ve again been receiving requests for donations from area businesses, everything from chipping in a few bucks to help an area club or organization to larger multi-thousand dollar sponsorship packages for bigger events and causes.

This time around it was initially less clear how to handle those.

I of course wanted this new business to also be a good community partner, but there were a lot of other factors to consider.

A big one was and is that we can’t yet afford to pay our people competitive wages or offer basic benefits like health insurance.

Another is that the paper’s long-term financial stability has yet to be established given the ups and downs of subscriber and advertiser income.

Since we effectively operate as a not-for-profit community service similar to the ones asking us for donations, it felt a little weird to think of making outgoing donations on top of that.

Central in my mind was also that any donation we make to an organization or event that we are also ostensibly providing journalistic coverage of could compromise the perceived integrity of our reporting, even if everything is done with good intentions and clear boundaries.

All of these and other factors together made it feel like every single donation request was going to be a struggle of asking hard questions. “Is this cause important enough to justify giving away money that maybe should be going to my staff or saved up?” “Is this a case where the potential ethical concerns are outweighed by the good we’ll do?” It didn’t feel like we had the capacity to weigh those considerations in any kind of organized, consistent way.

So my staff and I talked these things through and after a lot of reflection and consideration, we agreed that at least for now, it would be better to err on the side of stepping back from almost all philanthropic giving as a matter of policy. I drafted a statement about the rationale for this that we discussed, refined and then published online, and I’ll quote it here:

The Western Wayne News periodically receives requests to make financial contributions to support area not-for-profit organizations and projects.

As of July 2023, we are not making philanthropic gifts of this nature. There are two main reasons for this:

First, the newspaper is itself in a period of trying to strengthen our financial situation so that we can sustain operations into the future. While we are not in immediate danger of closing our doors and do have financial reserves, at our current revenue levels we are not able to pay our existing employees competitive wages or provide benefits that help us attract and retain talented people over time. We are subject to unexpected, short-term changes in market conditions that affect our advertising and subscription income, which are already based on relatively low pricing to make our services and publication as accessible as possible. In short, we are essentially operating as a public benefit organization that exists as a service to the community, and this does not put us in a good financial position to also make substantial donations to support other not-for-profit organizations.

Second, as a news organization attempting to meet high standards of journalistic practice and ethics, it’s important that we not participate in activities that might call into question our ability to cover a given story, person, organization or event in a way that is focused on meeting the community’s information needs with integrity and without undue influence. At a time where there are increasing attempts to undermine the credibility of news organizations, we want to avoid even the perception of a conflict of interest in our news gathering and reporting activities. If we make a financial contribution to an organization in our area, it can introduce a question about whether and how our future coverage of that organization and its activities may be affected by our status as a donor, sponsor or partner. There may be better ways to navigate this dilemma, especially for a local news organization where we recognize that our health and success as a business is intertwined with the health and success of the surrounding community. For now, we don’t have the capacity to handle the decision-making, communications, disclosures and other effort that would be required to do this well, so we’re choosing to defer those decisions altogether.

It may be that we occasionally encounter giving opportunities where the benefits of being a supporting community partner outweigh these concerns. An example might be a partnership with an organization that helps increase media literacy among area young people, or that improves community engagement with news and information more generally. We will continue to revisit and refine our approach here over time.

If you believe your organization has an exceptional opportunity for the Western Wayne News to participate as a supporter in a way that furthers our goals of informing, inspiring and improving the community without introducing a conflict of interest, we invite you to contact us with details.

While it feels a bit strange to take this approach given how much philanthropic giving to the local community is something I value and continue to do in my personal life, I also continue to feel like it’s the right thing to do for now.

Chris Hardie is a journalist, newspaper publisher, software developer and entrepreneur based in Indiana, USA. Read more from Chris on this site, learn more on his personal website, subscribe for updates or follow Chris on Mastodon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *