Lumina Foundation, a member of MIF since 2011, is a private foundation in Indianapolis committed to learning after high school that prepares people for informed citizenship and success in a global economy. For 14 years, Lumina has focused on ensuring that, by 2025, 60 percent of adults in the United States have college degrees or other credentials of value. Lumina believes no matter where you come from, what you look like, or how much money your family has, you should have what you need to learn, grow, and thrive. The foundation works with education and business leaders, civil rights organizations, state and federal policymakers, and other leaders who want to reimagine higher learning for today’s students. These learners are more likely to be Black, Hispanic or Latino, Native American, from low-income households, the first in their families to go to college, and family caregivers. They attend community colleges, regional universities, open-access private colleges, and minority-serving institutions such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities. And they often experience unstable housing situations, a lack of healthcare, and uncertainty over where their next meals are coming from.
In addition to offering stable grant funding, Lumina supports public and nonprofit newsrooms and journalism training organizations with strategic and business planning, executive coaching, funder meetings, collaborative workshops, and discussions with higher education, military, and nonprofit leaders at an annual invitation-only event in Aspen, Colo. The foundation deepened its commitment to funding journalism three months ago by hiring Stephanie Wang as a communications strategy officer to elevate and ensure this work is sustained.
In January, Strategy Director Kevin Corcoran, the architect of Lumina’s journalism portfolio, discussed the foundation’s approach with MIF’s Journalism Funders Network, sparking several one-on-one follow-up calls with other journalism funders. Here, Kevin describes Lumina’s evolving strategy.
Nina Sachdev, Communications Director, Media Impact Funders: Why does Lumina Foundation support journalism? How do you measure effectiveness?
Kevin Corcoran, Strategy Director, Lumina Foundation: The communications team I began leading in late 2016 after directing multi-state networked projects amplifies Lumina’s efforts to shape a better-educated American society. We support beat coverage and notable documentary films, photojournalism, podcasts, and other reporting aligned with Lumina’s mission to influence public opinion. Independent journalism helps change by making people aware of today’s students’ significant barriers and offering ideas about how the country can overcome these systemic challenges. The foundation periodically tracks the narrative influence of this news coverage using A.I. to monitor Americans’ firm beliefs and assumptions about college and short-term credentialing programs. We were the first nationally to fund expanded higher education coverage and remain the largest such funder. The available evidence—and our experience—suggest that, without Lumina’s support, most news coverage would center on elite institutions serving wealthy students, badly flawed college rankings, standardized testing, and on local campuses—with zero systemic focus. Before Lumina funded a journalism fellowship program nearly 15 years ago, community colleges barely registered in mainstream news coverage. After The Hechinger Institute trained 45 reporters and editors over three years, all of whom generated significant reporting projects, we found that more journalists had started to view these campuses as story-rich environments. Today, community colleges, HBCUs, and less selective institutions concentrating on teaching vs. research are in the news more often. Not only can those of us on Lumina’s communications team see a difference, but our leaders and policy grantees have also noticed these coverage shifts, often citing the effectiveness of journalism we support. Internal storytelling is critical for building support for this work, and we collect the same metrics from media grantees that we use to hold accountable our own digital and social efforts.
Nina: What kinds of journalism organizations do you fund, and why?
Kevin: We spend half our communications budget funding the “upstream” journalism organizations influencing downstream media. Many journalists take higher education and workforce coverage cues from the newsrooms that Lumina funds. We can’t fund everyone, so we target the narrative shapers, as measured by our big-data research firm. Picking partners involves both art and science. Our support for 20-plus public and nonprofit media organizations, including PBS NewsHour, PRX, Roadtrip Nation, Washington Monthly, and GBH in Boston, brings thoughtful higher ed coverage to nearly every U.S. household. We support fellowships through the Education Writers Association to work with more organizations than Lumina can fund directly. This has led to stories with newsrooms as diverse as The Detroit Free Press, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the science show NOVA, the Orlando Sentinel, Texas Public Radio, and USA TODAY. This news coverage supports large-scale social change, primarily through policy reform. Lumina has partnerships with three nonprofits that train journalists: EWA, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and The Poynter Institute. We invite staff-generated ideas regarding conference speakers and panel topics, which our media grantees are free to accept or reject. We include a clause in our grant contracts that explicitly guarantees editorial independence. We have a reservoir of trust among journalists that enables us to refer potential media grantees to existing grantees to vouch for us. We are a high-engagement partner. Whenever possible, we involve Lumina colleagues in news partnerships. For example, Jasmine Haywood of Lumina has advised The Conversation U.S. on raising the profiles of scholars of color by training them as regular contributors. Lumina’s Chris Mullin has given pointers to The Markup’s data journalists. And Shauna Davis and Chauncy Lennon of Lumina helped Nine PBS in St. Louis frame questions for focus groups and surveys on how adults decide to resume their educations in today’s economy—all of which inform the station’s local journalism.
Nina: What themes stand out when you think about the importance of media and journalism in your work to increase educational opportunities in the United States?
Kevin: Our research into public narratives, which involves mining digital content, indicates the top issues are college affordability, how to make sense of education and training options that don’t include pursuing a bachelor’s degree, and loan forgiveness. Since 2016, the public has gone from thinking of higher ed as part of the solution to viewing it as part of the problem, disturbing people in our line of work. The current toxic environment for public policy discourse—consider critical race theory—is difficult. Our research shows that 10 “news” organizations operate as propagandists, reinforcing each other, and dominating 10 percent to 20 percent of the higher ed discussion. Our work with public and nonprofit media can keep their share of the conversation from growing too large. Exploring racial disparities is essential if we are to achieve a healthier society. We talk with journalism organizations about how they serve—not just cover—communities of color. We encourage them to explore the corrosive effects of systemic racism, as Meredith Kolodner did for The Hechinger Report in coverage of why public flagship universities aren’t enrolling more Black students. Also, we’re interested in how the nonprofits we work with hire, train, and promote reporters and editors, especially journalists who are Black and brown. Diversity in newsrooms matters regarding story selection, who’s interviewed, and how issues are viewed through the prism of race. We fund IRE to train professors and journalists of color on campuses of HBCUs, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and Tribal Colleges and Universities, to improve diversity in the field.
Nina: How has your approach to media changed over time, and what does it look like now as the foundation gets closer to its 2025 educational attainment goal?
Kevin: Great question. Initially, Lumina had two core journalism training grants and no news organizations in the portfolio. Over time, I built the portfolio to include core financial support for a handful of news and training organizations while leading programmatic work to create new business and finance models for higher ed. Lumina adopts a strategic plan every four years. We add new grantees to match emerging strategic priorities. For example, we awarded a grant to WorkingNation after Lumina emphasized short-term credentials such as certificate programs and industry-recognized certifications. As our focus on racial barriers grew, we added The Markup, which holds Big Data firms accountable. Journalist Todd Feathers’ exploration into software directing Black students away from specific STEM majors by using race as a “high-impact predictor” of success. Working with my former Student Press Law Center board colleague Nabiha Syed, Markup’s CEO, made this grant a no-brainer. I’m particularly a fan of how The Markup “shows its work,” allowing people to critique its conclusions.
Nina: Let’s talk about the “fairness” debate that’s going on right now over whether the government should forgive student loan debt. How are the media and journalism outlets you’re supporting helping to bring nuance and understanding to the national conversation around higher education?
Kevin: Many policymakers fomenting anger and jealousy over loan cancellation also curbed support for public colleges and universities, forcing tuition and borrowing higher. The better coverage has underscored that President Biden’s decision doesn’t address the fundamental issue of affordability; on the plus side, the plan will direct 90 percent of relief to households earning less than $75,000, according to the Education Department. PRX’s The World, which we support to cover immigrants and higher education, spoke with Beth Akers of the conservative American Enterprise Institute after Biden’s announcement. This political evenhandedness characterizes the newsrooms we work with. Beth, who’s well respected, offers a straightforward assessment.
Nina: I was interested to read in Washington Monthly, which Lumina supports, about how the Ball State Daily News—the student-run newspaper of Ball State University—is becoming the paper of record for Muncie, Ind., filling a critical information gap left by the loss of newspapers. What does this model tell us about how funders can approach (re)building information ecosystems? It does seem to bring much more positive meaning to “town and gown,” which people have historically viewed as oppositional.
Kevin: College media are increasingly go-to local news sources. The Washington Post took note during the pandemic and think tanks such as New America have cited the importance of college journalism in the local news ecosystem. Deborah Fallows’ story in Washington Monthly highlights how desperate communities are for news. The University of Maryland’s Capital News Service covers the state. The Statehouse File from Franklin College reports on Indiana’s Statehouse. There are limits to how much you can expect from student journalists who turn over regularly. That’s where efforts such as the Indiana and Ohio local news initiatives come in. These efforts, supported by the American Journalism Project, draw foundation and private dollars to support nonprofit journalism akin to The Texas Tribune. It’s an exciting time. Lumina is supporting the Indiana project.
Nina: Can you share your favorite examples of impact stemming from your media grantmaking?
Kevin: This is my favorite question. Here’s an example of how it can work: We have regular check-in calls with media grantees, including GBH in Boston. During a call with Ken Cooper, the station’s Pulitzer-winning senior editor, I mentioned a report about colleges withholding student transcripts over their failure to pay relatively minor fees. A Lumina colleague had funded the research, and the news had received zero coverage. Ken followed up the next day, and several months later, Kirk Carapezza of GBH released a bombshell story with Jon Marcus of The Hechinger Report. Debt collectors were harassing students over library fines and traffic tickets. Other news outlets localized their coverage. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called for an end to transcript holds. Many colleges and universities spent pandemic relief funds to wipe out debts and release transcripts, which students need to pursue their educations. Also, I was impressed by Steve Burd’s investigative reporting in 2015 on for-profit colleges, which required Washington Monthly to defend against a flock of libel lawyers. It took seven years, but Steve’s work has been vindicated by the closures of for-profit colleges and the Biden administration’s cancellation of loan debt accrued by defrauded students. News organizations should follow stories wherever the reporting leads them. Emily Hanford’s stellar reporting for APM Reports on a flawed reading curriculum used by many school districts began as a higher ed story. Then, it morphed. That’s OK. It’s a privilege to be able to support the work of such outstanding journalists.
Nina: What insight or advice would you offer a funder who may be interested in making media and journalism grants?
Kevin: Funding journalism is smart philanthropy; it’s often the missing ingredient in change strategies. Carve out journalism funding and place it in the comms budget to avoid turf battles. Don’t expect journalists to do your bidding; it’s not P.R. You should invite journalists to challenge you if they believe you are overstepping ethical boundaries. Ensure you’re talking with editors and not only the development team when you scope grants. Work toward alignment of interests—yours and theirs. Accept that you won’t love every story. Use communications agencies to increase the reach of news organizations you support. Appreciate the stresses local and national journalists encounter. Ask what else you can do to support journalists’ work. There are lots of ways to support journalism, including Report for America. If you need help or want advice, give us a call.
Before joining Lumina, Kevin Corcoran spent 20 years in print and online journalism, finishing his career as an investigative reporter at The Indianapolis Star. Stephanie Wang was Indiana bureau chief for Chalkbeat, a Lumina grantee that champions addressing complex racial topics in education. Learn more about Lumina Foundation.
Lumina Foundation is a sponsor of the 2022 annual Journalism Funders Gathering.