New Frame’s demise illustrates a pitfall of philanthropic funding
The online news publication New Frame suspended operations last week when its funder –Jamaican-American tech magnate Roy Singham – unexpectedly pulled the plug.
New Frame described itself as a social justice publication, rooted in the “values of the best of the Left and to give due weight and dignity to the lives and struggles of ordinary people”. They said they were broadly pro-worker and pan-African in outlook. It also prided itself on high journalism standards – “We chase quality, not clicks” was their slogan.
Its sudden closure put about 20 journalists out of work, adding to the long list of recent retrenchments in our ever-diminishing news media industry. And even though the site never garnered a large audience, the loss of one of the very few clearly leftwing voices in our media leaves a gap, a diminution of choice within a market already suffering from lack of diversity. In a country with a wide range of views, from far-left to far-right, our media is uniformly centrist. This false consensus impoverishes our national debate.
The closure highlights a structural weakness in much of our media: a dependance on the shifting fortunes and whims of funders. A big chunk of our media – and some of the most important outlets – are dependent now on the generosity of foundations, wealthy individuals and corporate social responsibility programmes.
I don’t wish to detract from the value of these contributions. These donors stepped in to sustain our media at a crucial time when its health and independence was crucial to our democracy. Without them, our news diet would be a lot scrappier. Without such funders, the Mail & Guardian, Daily Maverick, New Ground, Bhekisise Centre for Health Journalism, Health e-News and others would not exist, leaving even greater holes in our media ecology.
Ironically, media with this kind of support seems at the moment to be more sustainable than many of the purely commercial outlets.
There are those who criticize this reliance on philanthropy because they argue that funded media follows the agenda of the funders, and suggest that support from the likes of George Soros, Bill Gates or the Oppenheimer family give them improper influence over the media. All media ownership and revenue models come with complications that threaten journalistic independence, but it is my experience that most (not all) philanthropic support is more benign than advertising and commercial support, and at least purports to serve the public interest, rather than a narrow commercial interest.
But the New Frame experience highlights the vulnerability of this arrangement. When times get tough, or a funder loses interest, or finds what they consider a more deserving cause, then the publication can disappear overnight.
New Frame had a particularly generous and apparently hands-off benefactor, who spent an astounding R120-m on the publication in four years. He was consistent and supportive – until he wasn’t. This gave them a short life of indulgent luxury: they could spend on travel and illustration, pay above market rates, do extensive fact-checking and debate decisions and stories at length. It also meant they could work at their own pace, not feel much pressure to break news timeously, to define and serve their audience or to find other sources of revenue.
In other words, they were very lucky, though they appear to have had little pressure to plan for self-sustainability or financial independence. The funder appears to have been loose with his money, and I wonder where New Frame’s board was hidden.
The result was that they never had the impact you would expect for such lavish expenditure.
It is noticeable, by the way, that their site was silent on their funding and board membership, and that is never a good sign. When they announced – with breathtaking euphemism – that they were “stepping back”, they gave no explanation of what had happened so suddenly, leading to a wave of online questioning and speculation.
The announcement of their demise was an eloquent celebration of how they had used their four years of luxury: “We resolved to stand apart from the cacophony … We also aimed to give due weight to the value of the word, to work to sculpt prose – word by word and sentence by sentence – into clarity and precision. Understanding that emancipation means the generalisation of access to beauty we tried to take the aesthetic – in word and image – seriously. When we began to work in soundscapes, we brought the same considerations to the work.” They certainly took care in crafting their words and imagery.
And then their luck ran out.
*Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism and Director of the Campaign for Free Expression.