‘What’s being done at Howard is a big deal’; Philanthropies eagerly back Nikole Hannah-Jones

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FILE – In this May 21, 2016, file photo, Nikole Hannah-Jones attends the 75th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street in New York. Weeks of tension over the hiring of investigative journalist Hannah-Jones at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will now come down to a decision from the school’s board of trustees on whether to offer her tenure. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones used major philanthropic donors to build her future as a tenured professor at Howard University, just as other major donors sought to stymie the Pulitzer Prize-winning Black investigative reporter at the University of North Carolina.

Backed by $20 million in donations, Hannah-Jones announced Tuesday that she will establish the Center for Journalism and Democracy at Howard to increase diversity in journalism. She also said that political interference from Arkansas newspaper publisher Walter Hussman, who pledged $25 million to UNC’s journalism school and whose name adorns its building, resulted in questions about her receiving tenure, which she was belatedly offered last week following an outcry from students and faculty members.

Demonstrators gather Friday, June 25, 2021, on University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill, N.C., to demand that the university offer tenure to award-winning investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. (AP Photo/Jonathan Drew)
Demonstrators gather Friday, June 25, 2021, on University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill, N.C., to demand that the university offer tenure to award-winning investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. (AP Photo/Jonathan Drew)

“How could I believe I’d be able to exert academic freedom with the school’s largest donor so willing to disparage me publicly and attempt to pull the strings behind the scenes?” Hannah-Jones wrote in a statement. “Why would I want to teach at a university whose top leadership chose to remain silent, to refuse transparency, to fail to publicly advocate that I be treated like every other Knight Chair before me?”

The donations announced Tuesday — $5 million each from the MacArthur, Knight and Ford foundations and an anonymous donor — will also bring award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates to Howard, a historically Black school in the nation’s capital and his alma mater, as the Sterling Brown Chair in the Department of English.

It’s a large gift for journalism, and one that points to a growing philanthropic effort to diversify news organizations and strengthen journalistic standards.

“It is important in a democracy like America, that journalism reflects America,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. “The community of people who are producing news and information needs to look like America, if journalism is to be credible. … And it’s not just Black journalists. It’s the diverse array of journalists. It’s journalists who have a disability, and journalists who live in small towns and rural America.”

Sarah Miles, from left, a current graduate student, Carol Shirley, an alumni, and Deborah Dwyer, a doctoral candidate, gather on the steps of Carroll Hall. (Casey Toth/The News & Observer via AP)

In the past five years, the Ford Foundation has given more than $77 million to various media diversification initiatives in the U.S., including to minority journalism groups and research projects centered on newsroom diversity, Walker said.

“What happened at UNC is deeply regrettable,” he said.

At Howard, Hannah-Jones has “accepted something that is more meaningful and more valuable to her. That allows her to have both her dignity and values affirmed,” Walker said.

The new center will attempt to tackle the lack of racial diversity in many newsrooms and senior management. A 2018 report from the Pew Research Center found that 77% of newsroom employees were white, compared to 65% for U.S. workers overall. And according to a 2019 survey of 428 news organizations from the News Leaders Association, only 18.8% of newsroom managers were from racial minorities.

“It is clear that within journalism, as in other fields, there are too few people of color in positions of leadership,” said John Palfrey, the president of the MacArthur Foundation. “And one of the things philanthropy can do is, support institutions, like Howard University, that are correcting that imbalance.”

So when Hannah-Jones approached the foundations with a vision of what the funding could do at Howard, they were happy to pitch in.

Before pledging its $5 million donation to support Howard’s center, the MacArthur Foundation already intended to support the next phase of Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project — a New York Times Magazine endeavor focusing on America’s history of slavery. In addition to winning a Pulitzer Prize for her work on the project, Hannah-Jones was a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “genius grant.”

The best way to fund Hannah-Jones’ ongoing work was to “join with the Ford Foundation and Knight Foundation, and to make a larger grant than we anticipated to the new Howard center,” Palfrey said. “This was certainly an unplanned grant. But it struck us as an unusually wonderful opportunity to support Black journalism.”

The $5 million grant from the Knight Foundation, the third funder, will include a $500,000 investment to launch a symposium that aims to strengthen the teaching of journalism across various historically Black colleges and universities, according to a statement from the foundation, which has an endowed chair of journalism at Florida A&M University, which is also a historically Black college.

The newly announced gifts add to the estimated $1 billion in philanthropic funding that has been given to journalism-related initiatives in the U.S. during the past five years, according to preliminary data from the philanthropy research organization Candid. One large gift of $20 million is rare for the industry, but it’s not unheard of.

The Knight First Amendment Institute, which defends the freedoms of speech and the press, was established in 2016 at Columbia University with a $30 million gift from the Knight Foundation.

With Hannah-Jones’ departure, there are two vacant Knight Chairs at UNC-Chapel Hill. The Knight Foundation does not plan to cut ties with the school, despite the controversy surrounding her extended tenure fight, which was marked by allegations of racism and a conservative backlash to her work.

“The Knight Chair at UNC-Chapel Hill is endowed in perpetuity,” the director of the foundation’s journalism program, Karen Rundlet, said in an emailed statement. “Our goal is to fund endowed chairs to enable universities to hire people, who in their judgment, are distinguished in the field of journalism and bring newsroom experience to the classroom. UNC Chapel Hill has been a leader in journalism education. We will continue to support UNC’s efforts to independently hire Knight Chairs.”

The tenure dispute shows there is a growing confusion about philanthropy, said Tammy Greer, an assistant professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University.

Taliajah Vann, president of the campus Black Student Movement shakes hands with Gene Davis, vice chairman of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, as they agree to meet to discuss concerns after the board voted to approve tenure for distinguished journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones Wednesday, June 30, 2021 at Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, N.C. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP)

“Philanthropy is just like every other organization inside of these United States,” she said. “We often think of philanthropy as progressive in its social programs, in environmental programs. However, philanthropy can also be conservative, and you see a rise of 501c3s that are conservative leaning and that are now using the laws associated with charitable organizations in order for them to advance their conservative causes.”

Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist and Craig Newmark Philanthropies, which donated $20 million to the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism in 2018, called on major donors of all sorts to support the program at Howard and similar programs across the country to strengthen journalism.

He said it is a national security issue that so much disinformation is being spread in the country and that clear journalism from diverse sources is a way to defend the country.

“What’s being done at Howard is a big deal,” Newmark said. “We need to work together more. This is protecting the country, protecting the democracy. It should be all hands on deck.”

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