The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, established in 1966 by Hewlett-Packard co-founder William Redington Hewlett and his wife Flora Lamson, has a rich history of media funding, one that’s about as old as the foundation itself. Starting with one of its first media grants to the organization now known as KQED, Hewlett has been supporting media, culture and communications in service to its commitment to high-quality, nonpartisan information for more than 50 years. A member and supporter of MIF since 2015, Hewlett is keen to deepen its understanding of effective media grantmaking outside of a dedicated portfolio. Here, the Hewlett communications team shares its thinking around support for media and information ecosystems, the importance of flexible funding, and the foundation’s role in Press Forward, the new $500 million initiative to support local news.
Nina Sachdev, Director of Communications, Media Impact Funders: Let’s talk about the evolution in Hewlett’s media grantmaking strategy. What are some of the major takeaways and insights from decades of supporting this kind of work?
Hewlett Foundation: Every year, we make millions of dollars in grants to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Making progress on any of these requires people to be both informed and engaged, yet news ecosystems in every issue area are crumbling at the very same time. That’s why each of our grantmaking programs has included some support for media in the past, so people have access to reliable, high-quality information. Two key takeaways are, first, that the foundation’s norm of giving flexible funding is important for media and journalism grantees. It shows trust in our grantees and helps maintain editorial independence. Second, we’ve seen the issues of disinformation, dying trust in experts and deepening polarization become more urgent, which means that all the nonprofits we support—from those working in performing arts to those working in education—are facing communications challenges because of the changing information ecosystem.
Nina: What does the foundation’s support for media and journalism look like today?
HF: In 2023, the foundation began a three-year exploration to see how we can best support efforts to promote healthier information ecosystems. Our goal is to make targeted investments that both complement program-specific grants and serve Hewlett’s overall charitable purpose in supporting inclusive, durable democracies. These new funds are in addition to grants that the foundation’s individual programs have been making. The exploration is being led by our Communications team, leveraging staff with prior experience working in and funding journalism and civic information. The funding is a pilot effort, which means most grants can only be made for one-time support at this stage. In 2023, most of our grants were multiyear investments that guarantee flexible funding and editorial independence for our partners. Our grants are focused on civic information outlets serving communities key to Hewlett’s core programs, media and information infrastructure and research, and organizations that offer networking, convening, and learning opportunities related to media and communications.
Nina: Most funders support media through their issue area(s), and we know that one area of particular interest to you is getting a better understanding of how media grantmaking is executed outside of a dedicated portfolio. What are you looking to learn? As one of the largest philanthropic institutions in the United States, how are you approaching evaluating the efficacy of your media grantmaking across all of Hewlett’s program areas?
HF: Every grant in this experimental fund is pitched with a learning goal to help us see where we can be impactful in creating a healthier public dialogue about the issues and communities we care about. Most are either made to new grantees or new projects that haven’t previously been funded by Hewlett. Some grants, as those with research goals, are helping us answer bigger questions about how people look for civic information or what methods are most effective in reaching communities that haven’t been served well by legacy media. Others are more focused on learning what value Hewlett’s support can have in sustaining networks of journalism professionals or outlets reaching underserved audiences. We hope we can learn some lessons about the role of philanthropy in revitalizing information ecosystems that help us become better partners to communicators and media practitioners across our issue areas.
Nina: I would be interested to hear more about how media and journalism grants have advanced your work in various portfolios. Have there been exemplary grants in education, global health and development, reproductive rights and freedom, climate and the environment? Can we hear about a few of them?
HF: We’ve funded a range of grants in different issue areas. With newsroom staff shrinking and some outlets shutting down entirely, several of our programs fund trade press or vital beats in mainstream media to ensure that critical issues get the coverage that the public needs. This could be, for example, a grant to enable the Associated Press to expand its climate coverage and bring local reporters to cover climate in low- and middle-income countries. We’ve supported work that bridges entertainment and social issues, as in our gender equity team’s funding of the TV show “16 and Pregnant,” or our education team’s work with Univision on a telenovela that showcased engaging teaching approaches in the classroom for Spanish-speaking audiences. We’ve also funded media learning sessions that help journalists—and therefore, their audiences—go deep in understanding complex and timely issues such as cybersecurity.
Nina: The Hewlett Foundation has committed $10 million to Press Forward, the $500 million initiative led by the MacArthur Foundation to support local news. What are some of your expectations for Press Forward?
HF: We think philanthropic collaboration is critical for making progress on a number of vital issues, and Press Forward is one way we can invest with and learn alongside other funders, especially those with program teams dedicated to funding and supporting journalism. Our hope is that the investment national funders like us are making in Press Forward over the next five years will provide a runway for new ideas in local news and civic information – both in terms of format and in developing local funding options for local news. The business models for news and information are changing fast and new opportunities are presenting themselves all the time, and we hope this effort will catalyze good ideas that provide the high-quality information that a democracy needs.
Nina: Relatedly, there are concerns about the initiative’s commitment to ensuring equitable distribution of resources so underrepresented voices are heard and supported. How would you respond to these concerns?
HF: Hewlett is serious about our commitment to equity and the idea that everyone should have a meaningful opportunity to thrive, no matter who they are or where they come from. Building informational resources that represent those who have been historically left out of the conversation is part of the journey of building mutual respect and well-being in any community. Closing longstanding inequities is a core value of Press Forward’s work in local news, and one of the reasons we are keen to support and learn from its work.
Nina: I read a sobering statistic recently that AI has generated as many images in 2023—over 15 billion—as were created in the 150-year history of photography. We know that disinformation is one of the defining challenges of our time, and Hewlett has been at the forefront for several years. In 2017, MIF partnered with Hewlett on a series of webinars that explored how funders are combating and mitigating the effects of disinformation. The following year, the foundation made a $10 million investment in research to help better understand disinformation and examine potential solutions. What did you learn from that two-year investment? What more can philanthropy do to address disinformation?
HF: There are so many studies and statistics like the one you cite, and it all has the disturbing effect of eroding trust in information sources, generally. The research we funded certainly underscored the significance of the problem—but also how challenging it is to find solutions. It also helped us see that disinformation is not a single problem; it’s a fast-changing phenomenon that shows up differently through different purveyors, channels and forms. As a result, mitigating disinformation about, say, elections might look different from mitigating disinformation about public health. Perhaps most disturbing was the insidious nature of misinformation in preventing communities from coming together to find solutions. Again and again, research indicates that online content is polarizing and that algorithms incentivize sharing content that is more emotionally engaging – and don’t incentivize the reasoned or factual information that a democracy needs. We saw how challenging it was to conduct this research: The data that is essential to do thoughtful analysis is controlled by technology companies, and both corporate self-interest and concerns about privacy can slow down or inhibit meaningful research. And we saw how challenging it is to advance solutions. It’s hard to shame companies into changing their behaviors, our legal frameworks are inadequate to addressing the challenge, and the political context and lack of technology know-how among lawmakers makes it hard to effect thoughtful policy change. For philanthropy broadly, it may be important to widen the lens from preventing disinformation to trying to understand what it takes to have a healthy information ecosystem.
Nina: What are some challenges that you’ve encountered with supporting this work over the years?
HF: An ongoing challenge—and one we’re thinking about now—is what role philanthropy should play in any media outlet’s overall business model. While it may be helpful for philanthropy to be part of the mix, how should that balance with other sources? What’s the role for government funding, for subscribers, advertising, and other earned income, and for other budget streams? There may not be just one right answer, but we are all—grantees and funders—muddling through it together to figure that out.
Nina: What bright spots do you see when you think about the future of our information ecosystem?
HF: This field is truly undergoing a transformation. It’s exciting to see media outlets experimenting with new formats for delivering and reporting news and civic information, with everything from SMS and WhatsApp to YouTube addressing communities’ information needs. The time is also ripe for a much more diverse group of voices and stories to be heard, which only increases the quality and relevance of information in the mix.
Nina: What advice would you give a funder who’s interested in making media or journalism grants?
HF: Ask us again in a few years! We’re approaching our work with humility and looking to learn with and from other funders and our grantees. One thing we know from nearly six decades of philanthropy across issue areas is that it’s important to think as much about how we make grants as which grants we make—offering multiyear flexible funding, building trust, and creating space to learn from our partners. And that’s just as true for media and information organizations as it is for any other type of grantee.
Media Impact Funders is a current grantee of the Hewlett Foundation.