The Ford Foundation recently pledged $1.04 million to Los Angeles' struggling daily. We might be looking at the future of newspapers.
It was startling to read last week that the Ford Foundation was awarding a two-year grant of $1.04 million to the Los Angeles Times for the hiring of reporters. The money will be used for coverage of immigration issues, including the Korean and Vietnamese communities, the California prison system, and the border region with Mexico, and to staff a bureau in Brazil. Ford has long been a supporter of journalism, with an emphasis on public broadcasting and nonprofit enterprises. But this grant represents a different approach: support for a newspaper currently in bankruptcy that has endured years of cutbacks in its resources and revenues. While still the most formidable news organization in California, the Los Angeles Times carries the stigma of its acquisition by Sam Zell, the real estate magnate whose purchase of the Tribune Co. in 2007 was a disaster that remains unresolved and in litigation. Foundation grants are not generally thought to provide support for institutions in trouble, but rather to give backing to innovation and enterprises solely operating in the public interest. While journalism in all ways aims to perform the traditional accountability function that is the ne plus ultra of news gathering, the Los Angeles Times is a business. And, despite all of its reverses in recent years, it is still measured in the marketplace by an ability to pay its way using revenues from circulation and advertising.
So what explains Ford's grant, an unprecedented gesture of largesse to a once-mighty profit maker fallen on hard times?
Alfred Ironside, director of communications for the foundation, said in an interview that devoting substantial means to strengthen coverage of social issues such as those envisioned in the Los Angeles Times grant is very much in keeping with Ford's mission and objectives. He said that Ford wants to focus on content -- which has been diminished in the decade of serious financial problems for newspapers -- as part of its annual $10 million program in journalism, while continuing to also support its public broadcasting grantees on radio and television. "Conversations" are under way with other news organizations -- the implication being newspapers that share the problems of the Los Angeles Times.