Donating to Journalism School Is Not the Best Way to Help the Cause of Journalism

Against Craig Newmark’s $20 million J-school gift.

Craig Newmark.
Craig Newmark. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation.

“In our country right now,” says online-classifieds entrepreneur Craig Newmark, “we are facing a crisis in getting trustworthy news out there.” Newmark wants to do something about that, and so his charitable foundation has written a $20 million check to what henceforth will be known as the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.

This news makes Newmark’s friend, the CUNY professor and media gadfly Jeff Jarvis, very happy. It also means that Newmark’s name will grace not only Craigslist, the online-classifieds website he founded in 1995, but also a public journalism school located right next to the New York Times in midtown Manhattan. The cost to Newmark for this gift is zero (he’d already donated the money to his foundation); the benefit, in terms of naming rights and the gratitude of his friends, is substantial. So it’s not hard to see why Newmark did this.

Still, it’s worth asking: If Newmark really wanted to help journalism, is this the best way to do it?

One way to answer that question is to look at CUNY itself, with its $1.1 billion budget and history of endowment-related scandals, and to wonder whether any gift to CUNY is likely to be particularly effective. There’s a lot of murkiness surrounding the CUNY J-school, which doesn’t publish any kind of budget or annual report and whose governance is equally unclear.

Newmark’s gift, we’re told, will fund an endowment for the J-school, and although the official press release says that “Newmark will have no role in determining how the school spends the money,” the carefully placed New York Times announcement makes it clear that he wants the money to go toward scholarships, to make a graduate journalism degree more affordable for nonrich students.

The journalism school admits about 100 students per year, 55 percent of whom pay the full fees of $18,550 for in-state students, $30,650 for out-of-state students, and $37,500 for international students. If Newmark’s endowment generates $1 million a year for those students, that should make a serious dent in the amount they have to pay. Given the J-school’s diversity (17 percent of its students are black while 24 percent are Hispanic), that will in turn play some small part in making journalism a bit less white and middle-class.

On the other hand, those tuition rates aren’t set in stone. If Newmark’s endowment is spending $1 million a year to subsidize the J-school’s tuition costs, that’s going to make it a lot easier for CUNY to raise the rack rate on the J-school’s courses or otherwise capture some of Newmark’s gift for itself.

Newmark’s donation, then, is at best a rather indirect way to improve journalism, and its effects won’t be seen within the journalism profession for at least a couple of years. At the margin, he will have helped a handful of individuals per year go to J-school who might not have been able to otherwise, and he will have reduced the fees charged to maybe a few dozen more. Those students will then graduate into tomorrow’s inhospitable journalism-jobs market, and if they manage to get jobs in journalism, they will surely do the best job they can.

Meanwhile, just like all endowments, some 95 percent of Newmark’s $20 million will be invested in stocks and hedge funds and the like. That money will help journalism eventually, perhaps in many decades’ time, but for the time being it’s more likely to help high-paid money managers. That’s the way endowments work: Because they’re designed to exist in perpetuity, they can only disburse a fraction of their funds every year.

So given Newmark’s evident desire to give $20 million to help to shore up American journalism, what else could he have done with it? Or to put it another way: What should he do with his next $20 million?

Newmark has supported other journalistic causes in the past, including ProPublica, Columbia Journalism Review, the Data & Society Research Institute, and the International Center for Journalists. And indeed he could simply continue to support journalism nonprofits, including places like the Marshall Project, FERN, the Investigative Fund, or any of dozens of others. All of these outfits are devoted to publishing important journalism that uncovers information the public ought to know. Newmark’s money could be truly transformative for these shops: FERN, for instance, which reports on food and the environment, had $800,000 in contributions in 2016, and ended the year with net assets of just $440,000.

Another option, given the effect that Craigslist had on classified advertising, which was once the bread and butter of local news, would be for Newmark to put his money to work in cash-strapped local-news organizations. Newmark splits his time between the Bay Area and New York City; obvious venues for his support in those geographies would be Berkeleyside, Gothamist, and Bklyner, all of which are stretching their dollars far, trying to build sustainable models, and putting any money they’re given to immediate good use in journalism, rather than simply squirreling it away for future decades. There are also still a few alt-weeklies around, and they need all the resources they can get.

Alternatively, Newmark could follow Warren Buffett’s lead and simply buy a local news site or paper himself! There are many communities that are woefully underserved by local journalism, and worse off for it; Newmark could single-handedly change that in one or more of those cities and towns. Buffett’s $344 million buying spree netted him 28 daily newspapers between 2012 and 2013, for an average of about $12 million per paper; today, such assets could probably be snapped up for even less. Newmark’s $20 million could go very far.

All of these alternatives have the distinct advantage of funneling money directly to working journalists now, rather than indirectly to people who may or may not become working journalists in the future. Now that Newmark has his name on a J-school, let’s hope this is only one step in a much bigger engagement with the journalistic world that he helped to erode. J-school is fine, but there are many places that need his money much more urgently.