Major North Carolina newspapers running ‘news’ written by donor-sponsored reporters

By David Larson

Raleigh, NC – If you’ve read a news story about climate change or renewable energy lately in a North Carolina newspaper, there’s a good chance the author’s salary was not paid by that newspaper but rather by funding from an environmentalist organization or other outside money.

The Charlotte Observer is running these “philanthropy journalism” stories. The Raleigh News & Observer is running them. So are the Durham Herald-Sun, Greensboro News & Record, Winston-Salem Journal, and other major papers.

Mission-driven journalism is not new. The Carolina Journal is a product of the John Locke Foundation, with the mission to cover stories from a free-market, liberty-first perspective. Other publications openly cover news from the left, like NC Policy Watch, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center, which describes itself as “a leading progressive research and advocacy organization.”

However, this approach — funding actual reporter positions in a mainstream, for-profit newsroom with activist money — seems to be a new trend, likely triggered by the failing business model of advertising-based newspapers and the rise of free news on social media. It means that readers have to be informed consumers.

“Publications like Carolina Journal are explicit in their viewpoint and are part of a larger organization that boldly declares its philosophical views,” said Brian Balfour, senior vice president of research at the John Locke Foundation. “Newspapers like the N&O, however, sell themselves as objective news sources publicly while selling column inches to activist groups they are aligned with politically.

“This recent trend further confirms that legacy media doesn’t have a bias; it has an agenda,” Balfour added. “Newspapers are now unapologetically in bed with like-minded advocacy groups and taking money to run pieces sympathetic to their donors’ interests but disguised as straight news.”

The newspapers do offer readers a disclaimer about sponsors at the end of each story, but the stories are not otherwise set apart from articles written and funded by the newspaper.

The disclaimer for many recent environmentalist-backed stories in McClatchy papers reads: “This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.”

The articles with this disclaimer all appear to be written by N&O reporter Adam Wagner. The stories are republished across other papers in the McClatchy-owned network, like the Durham Herald-Sun and Charlotte Observer. Wagner’s bio also makes this connection clear, saying that he “covers climate change and other environmental issues in North Carolina. His work is produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program.”

Wagner’s stories often read like subtle advocacy to combat climate change by advancing more renewable-energy projects. One Feb. 9 story is titled “Sea change: NC is starting to make progress on wind energy, but lags other states.”

The piece starts off by pointing to big projects in other states, then adds, “In North Carolina, offshore wind advocates are watching those developments carefully and pushing for officials to capture this moment and use it to shape an energy future that significantly reduces — and eventually eliminates — carbon emissions. Those emissions contribute to climate change, leading to the higher temperatures and heavier rainfalls that are already being observed in North Carolina.”

The Winston-Salem Journal has a journalist, John Deem, with a similar bio: “John Deem covers climate change and the environment in the Triad and Northwest North Carolina. His work is funded by a grant from the 1Earth Fund and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.”

1Earth Fund agenda

1Earth Fund, which is funding Wagner’s and Deem’s positions, was founded by Roy Richards Jr. of Charlotte. Richards is the retired CEO and current chairman of his family’s Southwire Company, one of the largest electricity cable and wiring corporations in the nation. Southwire has recently become very interested in environmentalism, with a “carbon zero” pledge in 2020 and an expansion into the renewable energy market.

Richards has more recently been teaching business classes, including at IE Business School in Madrid, UNC Chapel Hill, Wake Forest University, and Yale University. He is also deeply involved in environmental philanthropy. His bio on the IE site says he “leads three social enterprises in environmental advocacy, land conservation, and climate change.”

Diogo Freire of Durham is 1Earth Fund’s managing director. Carolina Journal could not find evidence that the organization is registered with the IRS as a nonprofit. Across the top of the 1Earth website, it says, “Raising awareness about global warming and its solutions,” making clear their mission and perspective. 1Earth also funds Climate Reporting Masterclass, whose website defines its purpose: “Climate change is the biggest story of our time. Get the tools you need to tell your climate stories and become a master climate journalist.”

1Earth worked with California-based Journalism Funding Partners to support environmental reporting at multiple N.C. news outlets. One of those outlets taking support from JFP is a new website called The Assembly, led in part by former News & Observer executive editor John Drescher. Drescher was recently inducted into the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media Hall of Fame.

The Assembly says it is building on a “philanthropic startup” model, and it plans to give 5% of the money it earns back “to the larger journalism and philanthropic community.” The Assembly aims to hire up to two dozen reporters to cover North Carolina, including stories on state government, politics, the environment, criminal justice, and police reform.

Journalism Funding Partners’ mission

Journalism Funding Partners says it acts as a go-between so donor organizations can give money to for-profit news companies, which many foundations are unable to do.

The ideological perspective is also made clear in its mission statement, which says that JFP “prioritizes coverage-topics that have been particularly reduced by the wholesale declines in local news, including equity, economic mobility, education, health, housing, gun violence, and the environment.”

On JFP’s “impact” page, the top highlight was “Climate and Environmental Reporting” in the Southeast, listing N.C. outlets the News & Observer, WRAL, Winston-Salem Journal, and Wilmington Star-News as four of its seven successful placements in the region. Six of the seven were funded in part by 1Earth Fund.

McClatchy donors

Carolina Journal reached out to Adam Waxman, McClatchy’s regional journalism development director who manages these philanthropist relationships, to explain the company’s use of the funding model.

“Our company policy is to not respond to these kinds of inquirers,” Waxman replied in an email on March 24.

Waxman did provide a few links on the topic, though, including an entire page of the N&O’s website that is dedicated to explaining “philanthropy supported journalism.”

The webpage says that “The News & Observer increasingly relies on philanthropy to add reporting capacity on key issues. Philanthropy allows the N&O to deepen its coverage and support public interest journalism. Roughly 10% of The N&O’s newsroom is supported by philanthropic partnerships. In all of these partnerships, The N&O evaluates and hires the journalists and retains control over all editorial content.”

Waxman also provided Carolina Journal with links from company executives explaining the policy. In one article, Bill Church, executive editor for the N&O and Herald-Sun, described the importance of the philanthropy-based model, saying, “Philanthropic and community contributions have allowed The N&O and The Herald-Sun to publish more than 1,000 stories from community-supported staff writers in the past year. The topics included important stories on COVID’s impact, diversity and equity issues, local/state environmental challenges, and the Triangle’s innovation and startup culture.”

Another article provided was by Robyn Tomlin, the president and executive editor of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun and the regional editor for McClatchy’s Southeast news operations. The piece gave a bit more insight into the need for the practice in an industry “under stress.”

“As I’ve shared before, the business model for supporting local news has and will continue to be under stress,” Tomlin wrote. “We’ve been blessed to have so many local individuals and organizations that understand this and have worked with us to help find creative ways to help us expand our journalism.”

McClatchy, which operates 30 papers in 14 states, exited bankruptcy in September 2020 under new management, after being purchased by Chatham Asset Management for $312 million. This buyout was followed by a leadership shakeup at the N.C. papers, as Tomlin was named to her role a few months after CAM took over. Church was then hired a few months after that in September 2021.

“With readership dwindling, such publications may be desperate to diversify their revenue stream,” said Locke’s Balfour, also noting that relying on philanthropists and organizations who have clear ideological agendas to stay in business can make the line between advocacy and news fuzzy.

The N&O lists 27 separate donor organizations that have funded journalism in various areas. It also says it receives funding from individuals through Journalism Funding Partners and Report for America. RFA provides pre-screened journalists to local newspapers and pays half their salary up to $25,000.

Expect the donor-funded coverage to continue. On March 16, Jessica Banov, an editor with the N&O, announced the paper was searching for a life sciences reporter after receiving another grant from philanthropists, in this case the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and Duke Health. A look at BWF’s website reveals prominently placed references to DEI, social justice, climate change, equity, and other left-wing priorities.

“Philanthropy is an important part of a flourishing and free society; however, so is a free press,” said John Locke Foundation President Donald Bryson. “Legacy media outlets, like McClatchy, have always presented themselves as unbiased authorities of the importance of current events. Unfortunately, the neutral reputation of legacy media has eroded to create a crisis of confidence in the public. While donors are entitled to exercise free-speech rights and privately support the causes of their choice, media outlets should also be upfront about what they are — independent and unbiased isn’t always the case.”

Requests for comment from 1Earth Fund have not been answered as of press time. In the inquiry to McClatchy, Carolina Journal also asked whether reporters are free to publish pieces that reveal facts counter to the mission of the funding organization, or if stories are open to funders with a variety of political perspectives. Waxman did not address any of those questions.

The Chatham Journal does run select stories from the Carolina Journal, which is a product of the John Locke Foundation. These stories appear in the Chatham Journal’s Columns section.