The Joyce Foundation, a member of MIF since 2016, is a Chicago-based private foundation that focuses on evidence-based public policy solutions to some of the nation’s most pressing challenges. Since 1993, Joyce has been a leader among philanthropies in supporting efforts to prevent gun violence. (Research the foundation has supported informed key provisions of the recently passed Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which Joyce called a “significant step forward in reducing gun violence in America.”)
Joyce has been playing the long game in its support of journalism, too, recognizing the effective role media can play in surfacing public policy solutions. At a recent MIF meeting among journalism funders, Hugh Dellios, Joyce’s Senior Program Officer, Journalism, described the evolution of the foundation’s media grantmaking strategy, which started in the communications department as a way to support Joyce’s primary program areas. Eventually, the foundation established a separate media grantmaking portfolio to deepen the impact of its other investments—and to help rebuild the news ecosystem in the Great Lakes region. This shift was the result of Joyce’s recognition that quality reporting is essential to sound public policy. Here, Chief External Affairs Officer Kayce Ataiyero—who oversees the Journalism program at Joyce—shares more thinking around Joyce’s media funding, the importance of journalism for a healthy democracy, and advice for funders who may be interested in making media and journalism grants.
Nina Sachdev, Communications Director, Media Impact Funders: Most funders don’t have a separate media grantmaking portfolio, but Joyce took the step of formally creating one last year. Tell us the origin story—what was the spark that led to journalism becoming the foundation’s sixth program area?
Kayce Ataiyero, Chief External Affairs Officer, Joyce Foundation: It was really the convergence of several factors. Joyce has funded journalism for years. We had a small portfolio of grants managed alternately by our communications and Democracy teams but there was no overall strategy. And, like many other foundations, an equal amount of journalism funding was managed through the programs. A couple of years ago, we started rethinking the potential of our journalism investments in supporting our programmatic work. At that point, we had two former journalists at the helm—myself and Hugh Dellios, a veteran former Chicago Tribune colleague who had recently joined the Foundation—and we recognized the opportunity to leverage our collective journalism experience to reshape the portfolio. The most pressing problem we were trying to solve initially was the lack of quality reporting on our issue areas. The contraction of the news industry really drained newsrooms of the in-depth public policy coverage that we believe is critical to tackling the public policy challenges our grantmaking is focused on. We made some initial investments aimed at expanding public policy coverage. For example, Crain’s Forum and Report for America’s statehouse reporting project—and built from there. We worked in close collaboration with the program team to ensure that we were putting together a portfolio that aligned with their programmatic goals. And, at the encouragement of our president Ellen Alberding, we began a consolidation of our journalism investments across programs under our umbrella. It was strategic yet in many ways very organic, with each new grant and each collaborative conversation being a piece of the puzzle that led to the creation of the new program.
Nina: How did you make the case to Joyce’s leadership and Board of Directors?
Kayce: We are very fortunate to have leadership and a board that believes in the vital role of journalism as a key underpinning of our democracy. That belief is what guided Joyce’s journalism investments long before we had a formal program and strategy. So we had a tremendous amount of support in exploring ways to increase and structure our journalism investments.
Nina: When you think about the evolution in the foundation’s thinking on media, and about the importance of media for a healthy Great Lakes region, what key themes stand out for you?
Kayce: I’ll go back to the idea of journalism as an important underpinning of our democracy. We are living in an era in which access to credible, reliable information has never been more important to the functioning of our democracy. And yet that access is farther from reach than it’s ever been. The recent report by Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative on the State of Local News 2022, paints a bleak picture in which more than a fifth of Americans live in a “news desert” or a community at risk of becoming one. As a result, we are becoming more siloed and more susceptible to misinformation and disinformation. This division is tearing at our social fabric and destabilizing our democracy. There are so many pressing issues facing our region: the persistent threat of gun violence, the learning loss suffered by the COVID generation of school kids, the deafening tick of the climate clock. But the solutions to these issues can only be seeded in solid ground. Our democracy must be healthy in order for us to achieve the progress we seek in any other area. And a healthy media ecosystem is vital to a healthy democracy.
Nina: What insight or advice would you offer a funder who may be interested in making media and journalism grants?
Kayce: Support beat coverage. A lot of journalism funding is project-based and there are so many wonderful reporting projects out there that really yield results. But beat reporting is the backbone of journalism. Having reporters and editors dedicated to an issue so they have deep subject matter expertise and sourcing as well as the runway to cover an issue over time is what is lacking in most newsrooms and a reason why the coverage of so many important issues is so thin. Talk to editors and find out which beats they need to shore up and support them. The entire journalism ecosystem will be better for it.
Nina: We know that narratives around issues such as gun violence and abortion, for example, are deeply flawed, and much of the discourse around these topics are counterproductive. Some of Joyce’s grantees include deep news verticals such as The Trace, focused on gun violence, and Chalkbeat, focused on education. What are some takeaways from this kind of issue-specific support? How are they advancing the national conversation around some of country’s more politically charged topics?
Kayce: Issue-specific news outlets really just take the concept of beat reporting to scale. And the benefit of doing that is that you have not just one reporter but an entire operation that has deep knowledge on an issue and is able to report on it with nuance and texture that provides insight and context beyond the headlines. The journalism these outlets provide is increasing vital in a news cycle that is often more surface than substance, both as key news and information for readers but also for policymakers who rely on them for the information they need to make informed decisions on policy. From Joyce’s perspective, that latter point is why we are so keen on supporting issue-specific outlets as they are increasingly important voices in the debate on the direction of public policy.
Nina: Can you share your favorite examples of impact stemming from your media grantmaking?
Kayce: Providing training opportunities for journalists is a core part of our strategy and our recent grants to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies filled the urgent needs of journalists at critical moments. Ahead of Congress’ historic passage of a bipartisan gun safety law, more than 220 journalists from across the country registered for Poynter trainings we funded on red flag laws and other gun safety measures. Following that, in the days before the legislation passed, stories by participants appeared in a range of outlets, from the Los Angeles Times, HuffPost and New York Post to the Lansing State Journal, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Idaho Capital Sun. Likewise, journalists who attended Poynter trainings we funded on the spending of federal post-COVID stimulus funds produced in-depth reports in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Lansing State Journal, and Dayton Daily News, among others. As former reporters, Hugh and I are bullish on supporting reporter trainings because we remember what it was like being thrown into the deep end on a story and having to hustle to get up to speed. And we worked in newsrooms that were far better resourced and that offered far better supports than reporters have today. We are pleased with the strength of the resulting coverage, for sure, but it’s also great to feel like we helped reporters be better prepared to do that coverage.
My hope is that five years from now, journalism is finally out of survival mode and that journalism funding can pivot from plugging holes to planting the seeds of sustainability. —Kayce Ataiyero, Chief External Affairs Officer, Joyce Foundation
Nina: What does Joyce’s media support look like in 5 years? Beyond?
Kayce: I graduated from J-school in 2000 and that was really when the conversation began about the sustainability of the news industry against the then-emergent threat of the internet. Twenty-plus years later, we are having a variation of the same conversation: How does the news industry survive? My hope is that five years from now, journalism is finally out of survival mode and that journalism funding can pivot from plugging holes to planting the seeds of sustainability. And for Joyce, that looks like a healthy, vibrant constellation of media outlets across the Great Lakes region providing our residents with vital news coverage that informs and illuminates and inspires change.
Kayce has been a member of MIF’s Board of Directors since December 2020.