The interconnectedness of registered charities and journalism is growing. In this era of digital content explosion and “fake news”, traditional media outlets — especially newspapers — are seeking new ways to serve their communities and survive. Increasingly, public benefit non-profit journalism is becoming a charitable activity. There are estate donors who are interested in supporting this space.
In the U.S. non-profit, investigative journalism is well established. In-depth articles funded by foundations such as ProPublica are featured in newspapers the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post. News magazines and journals are becoming 501(c)3 registered charities.
Canadian Status Quo
Charity law, as interpreted by Charities Directorate of the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), is considered to be too restrictive to allow organizations to engage in full-fledge charitable media model. The debacle over Harper-era “political activities” audits of charities didn’t help matters. Canada has media organizations and publications that are registered charities, but it’s a timid, patchwork approach. Public television and radio stations, for example, have been registered charities since the 1970s. They get registered under the “advancement of education” head of charity.
CRA seems to be more erratic about deciding if a magazine is charitable. There is a well-known national “general interest magazine” that is run by a registered charity, but it reportedly operates under a byzantine page-count formula that prescribes what is, and what isn’t, “charitable at law”. Canada also has at least one literary magazine and one visual arts quarterly that are registered charities, not to mention countless publications run by registered charities with broader mandates.
An aspiration of Canadians interested in the health of journalism and the importance of democracy is to enable foundations to directly support journalism. The Public Policy Forum released a report in 2017 entitled The Shattered Mirror, which looks at the journalism crisis and considers philanthropy as a funding source. Policy Options, an online magazine supported by a Montreal think-tank with charitable status, has also argued the point.
I believe it is only a matter of time before Canada loosens the rules on foundations and individuals to support journalism and gets its own journalism foundations in ProPublica model. The public need is pressing and there is plenty of existing activity just under the surface. It’s time for the Charities Directorate to tackle the issue of charitable registration head-on.
An ironic addendum
Without shred of substantive data to back me up, I would like to suggest that a meaningful portion of The Globe and Mail’s ad revenue now comes from universities, hospitals, arts organizations and other national charities. The irony: without fundraising and the charitable economy even our largest national newspaper may not be less economically viable. We are, indeed, interconnected.