Lumina Foundation: We Fund Journalists Who Shape the Narrative

August 15, 2019

Lumina Foundation sees great public value in journalism. Kevin Corcoran, the foundation’s strategy director spoke to CMDS about Lumina’s grant-making strategy at a time of major shifts in the media sector.

By Hajira Fuad

The mission of the Lumina Foundation is to expand access to education and training beyond high school in the United States, so that by 2025, 60% of adults between the ages of 25 and 64 will have either an industry certification, associate degree or bachelor’s degree. The foundation supports efforts in the field that rethink how education and training are delivered to an increasingly diverse group of students. In order to increase the overall education attainment rate in the United States, the foundation partakes in grant-making that supports journalism and journalism training in the field of education reporting.

The American higher education field is in desperate need of reform. The skyrocketing cost of attending college has made attaining a postsecondary education increasingly difficult for students across the nation. The increasing cost of higher education not only exacerbates income inequality, but it makes it less likely that the U.S. will have the educated workforce it needs to solve the nation’s most pressing problems. Journalists who work on the education beat play an important role in unearthing the problems in higher education today such as increasing tuition and college admissions scandals.

As the largest funder of journalism that focuses on education and training after high school, the Lumina Foundation believes there is great public value in education journalism. That’s why the foundation funds journalistic outlets such as the Hechinger Report, a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on innovation and inequality in education. Education reporting helps to create awareness about the larger public role that colleges and universities play in strengthening society and the economy. That way, the people who have the power to make changes in the post-secondary education field, such as policymakers, higher education leaders and business leaders, can have the information they need to make higher education more attainable and equitable.

Lumina Foundation does not impose stringent restrictions on what its grantees can report, Kevin Corcoran, the foundation’s strategy director, told the Center for Media, Data & Society (CMDS) in an interview.

Instead of dictating the stories that will be told through their grant-making, the foundation’s goal is to strengthen the media organizations it works with and help them create a path that is sustainable in the precarious funding climate for journalism today. Lumina Foundation cultivates collaborative relationships with its grantees as a way to demonstrate how the detrimental effects of a failing business model on independent journalism today can be mitigated by philanthropic support without compromising the independence of those journalistic outlets and the quality of reporting.

We See a Lot of Public Value in Journalism

CMDS: What would you say are the Lumina Foundation’s incentives for funding journalism projects?

Kevin Corcoran: We see a lot of public value in journalism. We have a long history of supporting good journalism around topics that we care about. When I first got to the foundation, we were supporting efforts by journalists who were interested in writing about community colleges, because community colleges weren’t getting a lot of attention, but almost half of all the graduates in the country go to community colleges. So those open-access institutions weren’t getting the same degree of coverage.

We also learn from the journalism we fund; sometimes we’ve been interested in the answer to a question, and we didn’t really know what the answer was, and so we’ve supported journalists to dig into it and write stories so that we could learn more about it. It some cases it started out with some of our own initial interest in the topic. We don’t have what I would call a “retail strategy”—we just don’t have enough funding to fund every local newspaper. So we what we try to do is fund journalists who are essentially shaping the narrative, people who are savvy reporters, writers and editors. That has worked pretty well.

For example, we fund Washington Monthly. Washington Monthly has got an influential audience—sometimes their stories even get ripped off. I can recall one circumstance where the New York Times called every single source that the Washington Monthly had in their story, and then they also interviewed the person who was the editor of that particular magazine issue about the same topic. But it’s good that it got picked up and amplified by the New York Times. Some of the grantee organizations that we work with provide content to other news organizations, and so that’s the kind of thing that we try to do—it extends the effectiveness of the work further.

We bring news organizations together to collaborate with each other more. We don’t tell anybody what to work together on, but we do like the fact that when they get together, they come up with really good ideas for working together and share their content across platforms, which in the end makes the portfolio of organizations that we support even stronger; and it makes it harder to discontinue funding if the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We’re definitely happy about that.

CMDS: What do you think are the biggest changes and challenges in independent journalism today, specifically in the U.S.?

Kevin Corcoran: Over time, some news organizations have shrunk and some have disappeared, and in their place other things have emerged, such as non-profit journalism models. We helped one of our journalist training organizations become a non-profit news organization. And so, increasingly, because news organizations are having trouble figuring out a sustainable financial model, over time our investment in non-profit news organizations and public broadcasting outlets has increased.There are fewer people, just in our own space—and you can take this into other places that philanthropy does work, such as healthcare—there are fewer journalists covering issues that we think are important for people to understand, in order for us as a country to make the changes we need to better serve students who want to pursue education and training after high school. If people don’t know that there’s a problem, [then] that makes the problem worse in some ways. They don’t understand what some of the solutions might be, and that also makes it worse and harder to make changes that would benefit everyone.

One of the challenges is that news organizations want to be independent and credible, and so it’s a little awkward for them to be in discussions with funders about news coverage. I think at our foundation, it’s a little easier because I came out of journalism, so we understand the role that [journalists] play. All of our grants include a provision that gives everyone we work with editorial independence. So there’s not a question of us interfering in stories that they’re telling. That’s just part of funding journalism. We want to be a resource and give people ideas and be constructive. We understand that the journalists who we’re funding pursue the stories wherever it takes them, and so it’s been beneficial, I think, for both sides. We try to create safe spaces with the people we work with to have frank discussions.

Funders Don’t Like Organizations That Are Only Chasing Dollars

CMDS: Would you say that the most recent shifts in media and journalism, triggered by both technological advancements and the economic crisis in journalism, have affected the strategy of the Lumina Foundation in terms of deciding what journalism projects to fund?

Kevin Corcoran: I would say we still have the same core organizations that we’ve supported, but some of the organizations [that we support] didn’t exist before. We support City Lab, which is an online publication of the Atlantic. They distribute a free newsletter to people who care about what’s going on in urban areas, and they didn’t exist before things started going south for newspapers. So, in a way, to the extent organizations like that exist and people are following them closely, and looking for news that interests them in those places, it actually makes it easier to talk about some issues and finding an audience.

It was clear after the last recession that we couldn’t support two organizations that were [doing] journalism training for education writers; the Hechinger Institute at Columbia University and the Education Writers Association were both doing that. So, we gave them money for some strategic planning, which strengthened both organizations. Coming out of that, Hechinger told us they’d keep their mission, but they wanted to focus on being a non-profit news organization, kind of like a ProPublica. And the Education Writers Association said they wanted to keep training education writers, but wanted a different membership model. So they both are stronger organizations today because they took a look at the environment, and I don’t know if they would have done that if we hadn’t kind of nudged them into a little bit, to say “What’s your plan for the future?” and “How are you thinking about the changes that are going on?”

That’s a beneficial role that funders can play. It gives people who are running the organizations some cover to go back to their boards to say, “Hey, we really need to think about this and have an answer.”

CMDS: It sounds like Lumina funds a variety of different projects. How do you decide which journalist or media projects to fund?

Kevin Corcoran: We look at whether the work of the organization is aligned with our strategic objective, which is to help create a system of education and training after high school that’s better suited to today’s economy and today’s students. People come to us with ideas. We like to see organizations that have a clear strategy. Funders don’t find it attractive when organizations appear to be chasing dollars, so they’re trying to figure out what the funder wants, and then they become that.

That’s not what we’re looking for.

We’re looking for people who know what they’re about. For example, Public Radio International has Global Nation, and they wanted to focus on issues around immigration and education as part of their Global Nation coverage. That was of interest to us, and they’ve produced some thoughtful coverage, and so we talked to them for a while to make sure that we were all in agreement about what they were proposing to do.

When the Hechinger Report switched from doing journalism training to doing news stories, we worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and also with the Joyce Foundation in Chicago to bring in other funders and talk to them about the new model and why we thought other funders should look at funding it. One measure of success is that we were Hechinger's largest funder at the time, and I think we are still their largest funder, but at the time, we were giving them half their annual budget, and now that’s down to 20%. So that's a sign to us that they're becoming financially healthy and they're becoming less reliant on us, which is what we want, right?

Because that’s part of being independent—having multiple sources of funding, so that when somebody leaves because they didn't like something, you're still in a position to keep running.

We’re Not Interfering in Coverage

CMDS: Once you have a funding relationship established with journalism organizations, do you give them free reign in terms of what to cover? If they changed what they are doing with the grant then they initially said, how would you deal with that? How much do you try to control what the organizations do with their grant money?

Kevin Corcoran: A grant is by its nature a gift. To get the grant, they make a proposal. On the front end, there is a discussion about what the lines are, what interests them. We recently talked to City Lab, for example, because we have investments in communities that we call “talent hubs,” and you can go on our website and learn more about that, but they’re basically communities that are trying to increase the percentage of residents who have some kind of education and training beyond high school. If communities meet a certain requirement, then we designate them as a “talent hub,” and we provide them with lots of technical assistance on our program side.

I’m a long time subscriber to the free newsletter that City Lab puts out, and I had noticed that they don’t write about education and training after high school in cities. I approached them and said, “I noticed you guys have a great newsletter, and I know you’ve got a really wide readership, but you don’t ever cover this topic. Is there a way that we can support you more around this?” They said they were interested in the issue of talent development in midsize cities that don’t get a lot of attention, and if they had grant support it would allow them to do some stuff on the ground. They said they’d look at which communities are talent hubs and they might visit some of those communities. When they’re in those communities, they may not say, “These are talent hubs designated by Lumina,” but I think they’re doing stories based on at least four of the talent hubs we’ve supported. What we did was to find something that worked for them and for us, and so we gave them the money. They are interested in hearing our ideas and we’ll have some discussion about that, but they’re also going to have their own perspective and point of view, and that’s fine, because we’ll learn something from that.

In some cases, organizations really rely on us for content ideas, or they’ll have their own ideas but they use us as a sounding board. For example, education writers during training might ask us “we want to do a panel on this, what do you think?” and we might say “that’s a really broad topic that you could considering narrowing this way or that way, here’s some people you might talk to.” We had one of those conversations recently. But they know the area too, so they’re going to find ideas that we wouldn’t think of—so that’s kind of how that relationship works. 

We've been funding Washington Monthly for ten years. They come to us and they talk to us about ideas that they have. Their coverage generally lines up with things that we're interested in. Not every story they do is a story that we're interested in, but we also understand that they have a readership that’s expecting certain things—that’s part of what makes magazines valuable, so you know, we’re fine with the fact that occasionally they do stories that are not really on topic for us. But most of what they do is pretty well-aligned.

Sometimes Washington Monthly will give us ideas, because they’re projecting two years out, and all of our grants are pretty much two years. It’s hard to know what will be going on two years from now, so they give us ideas about what they might do. It’s really in the discussion with them that they get a better sense of where we’re coming from on stuff. For example, mental health on campus is a big issue. We don’t have a specific focus on mental health, but we understand that the organizations we support need to write about that and do stories about it. It’s not like we argue with that coverage and say “You shouldn’t be doing that, you should be doing this,” and so we don’t have those kinds of discussions with them. Typically it’s their ideas, and we like them. We have a community that we’ve worked with a long time and have been in conversation with them and they know us pretty well and we know them, and they know we’re not going to interfere in their coverage, and we might be a good resource in certain sources… So that’s the sort of relationship we have.

Colleges and Universities Have a Larger Public Role

CMDS: Why does the Lumina Foundation think it is important to fund education journalism: is it for political and social change?

Kevin Corcoran: Some foundations like the Knight Foundation are about funding journalism and trying to strengthen journalism, and address some of the issues that are out there around the failing business model. We aren’t funding journalism primarily as a civic engagement tool. We are trying to create awareness to support social change, but we do work with our grantee organizations to strengthen them as organizations and help them figure out a path forward that’s sustainable.

We’re trying to change the learning system after high school, and to do that, part of the work that we feel we need to do is to create conditions that allow change to occur. Part of that is just increasing people’s understanding and awareness, particularly people who are in a position to help make changes, such as state and federal policymakers, higher education leaders, people who are not in the education space but have influence, business leaders and other folks who care about how the nation is developing talent to prepare people for future challenges.

We’re probably the largest funder of media around education and training after high school, but there are others in the space as well, and they support some of the same organizations as well as some different ones. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation does some funding in this space of postsecondary education, so does the Kresge Foundation, and the Joyce Foundation.

We fund education journalism because without that awareness and understanding, there is a problem. We won’t know what needs to change, how and why it needs to change, the outcomes, what’s better for the country as a result of us thinking about how we do things and creating a system that’s more supportive of the needs of today’s students—those kinds of things.

People would just be doing stories about the university in their backyard or focus on research, and it wouldn’t be seen that colleges and universities have this larger public role that they play, in terms of strengthening society and the economy. And so we’re really calling attention to that and putting ideas on the table that might not be there otherwise. They’re not all our ideas, in some cases they’re ideas that have been around for a while, but they say that innovation isn’t necessarily about invention, it’s not necessarily about creating something totally new.

The journalists we work with are excited, because they can see that we’re working on stuff that’s ahead of the curve that people aren’t talking about yet. That gives them ideas for stories that other journalists don’t have, so they find value in being regular conversation with us and each other.

Needed: Strategic Planning

CMDS: Would you change your strategy if you saw a big crisis that your foundation has the capacity to help?

Kevin Corcoran: We started funding Washington Monthly at a time when they were in a financial crisis and they were able to draw down some matching dollars as a result of our original grant. Normally we do a two-year grant, but in that case we did a three-year grant to help them draw down more of the match that was promised to them, and so they had a donor who was willing to give them a million dollars. We thus made a grant for US$ 900,000 over three years.

We’re pretty clear with the organizations that we support about continuing to support them, and we try to help them plan for their future. I know some of our grantee organizations in the media field that we support have told us that some foundations decide, “Well, we’re not going to support media that way anymore,” and they may have known that for a while, but they didn’t tell them what was coming. That’s not very helpful to those organizations. And so we’ve tried to do things that help to build capacity. For example, we put a lot of money initially into the Hechinger Institute when they changed their model, to help them hire people and things like that.

We do have a new strategic plan every four years, and part of what we do is to look at what are the changes in the plan [to see whether there are] any gaps in our support for journalism organizations that could be filled consistent with the plan.

Last year, we started funding Working Nation. Our latest strategic plan moved us more into the area of workforce and future of work issues, and Working Nation was out there telling those kinds of stories. They do a really good job of storytelling through videos and vlogging, they do some animations, they’re working on a mini documentary series. They’re the only ones telling these kind of stories in a sustained way. So, it became obvious that we should fund them. They don’t yet have a plan for their business model, they’re not an independent non-profit yet, so we are pushing them into doing some strategic planning and putting them on the path of becoming an independent non-profit by the time our current grant runs out in two years. Because that will make it easier for them to get money from other funders.

Lumina Foundation

Year of foundation: 2000
Legal status: US Private
Countries covered by grants in journalism: United States

Source of funding: The Foundation was formed when its nonprofit predecessor organization, USA Group, sold its operating assets to Sallie Mae, a publicly traded student loan company. Today there are no connections to the student loan industry or any other interest group or sector.

Average spend in media and journalism program: $2.5 to 3 million per annum
Grantees: Washington Monthly, Working Nation, City Lab, Education Writers Association, Hechinger Institute

Kevin Corcoran is the strategy director at the Lumina Foundation where he leads the foundation’s strategic communications team. Before assuming this role in late 2016, he spent eight years overseeing design and policy work that promoted development of new higher education business and finance models. He holds a Master of Business Administration in corporate finance and a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Indiana University.

This interview is part of the Media Philanthropy: People and Impact project. Read more about it here.