News Story

Deep-Pocketed Michigan Foundations Fund News Outlets

Big-money foundations are bankrolling media to cover their activism

Tonya Allen has been engaged in numerous efforts to mold Detroit’s public school system over the last several years.

Allen, who was paid $413,080 in 2016 as president of the Skillman Foundation, has been a key member of numerous coalitions seeking to reshape the troubled Detroit Public Schools Community District.

And the Skillman Foundation has been funding reporting jobs at mainstream media and nontraditional news sources that report on its activities involving Detroit schools.

As traditional print newspapers have laid off reporters, well-funded, ideologically motivated Michigan nonprofits have been funding media sites that report on their efforts.

The Skillman Foundation is one of the largest. The organization reported having nearly a half billion dollars in assets ($438 million) as of 2016. It gives money to the city of Detroit, as well as consultants and businesses in the city that help provide services to Detroit’s public schools.

The Skillman Foundation's trustees include influential power brokers such as Denise Ilitch, president of Ilitch Enterprises and a regent of the University of Michigan.

Besides Skillman, Tonya Allen also has been involved with entities like the School Finance Research Collaborative, the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, Excellent Schools Detroit and Michigan Future Schools. All these organizations were created to influence Detroit’s public education landscape.

The Skillman Foundation also funds Chalkbeat, a national nonprofit education news organization that has a Detroit bureau, while also being deeply involved in influencing public policy decisions for Detroit schools.

“The Skillman Foundation works to ensure that Detroit youth have access to high-quality educational and economic opportunities and a strong, broad network of champions that work on behalf of young people’s interests,” according to the foundation’s website.

The foundation also says it “embraces diversity and authentic inclusion in all areas of our work; we consider this a prerequisite for positive social change. As a guiding principle, it impacts our decisions at every level from staffing to partnerships and how our resources are deployed.”

In the past, the Detroit-based foundation has aligned itself with anti-charter school interests. The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which is an initiative of the foundation, was at the forefront of the effort to limit public charter schools in Detroit.

“We don't cover Skillman any differently than any other organization we write about in Detroit,” said Erin Einhorn, Chalkbeat’s Detroit bureau chief. “The only difference is that when we do mention Skillman, we include a disclosure since we believe that transparency is important.”

Natalie Fotias, a communications manager with the Skillman Foundation, said that it has never swayed Chalkbeat’s story coverage, but it does sometimes recommend stories.

“The Skillman Foundation funds Chalkbeat Detroit because we believe its balanced, unbiased, in-depth education reporting is a valuable resource for families, helping bring insight as to what’s happening in Detroit schools (DPSCD and charter) and the larger education space,” Fotias said in an email.

“We have not funded sponsored content with Chalkbeat Detroit and our position as a funder has never been used to sway Chalkbeat’s journalistic integrity,” she added. “While the Skillman Foundation occasionally recommends story ideas to Chalkbeat, as we do with other media outlets, the decision of if and how to cover the story is always fully at the discretion of the media outlet.”

The foundation also funded a public radio station at the University of Michigan with a $50,000 grant in 2014 to cover education stories in Detroit.

In addition to Skillman's subsidies for journalism focusing on its issues, other large nonprofits are paying for reporting in Michigan to cover subjects like diversity, inclusion, and equity. Some of the groups have a long history of funding journalism programs, but the focus on social justice-related reporting positions is a more recent trend.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek funded an “inclusion reporter” at WGVU Public Media, Grand Valley State University’s public radio station.

Earlier this year, WGVU posted a job listing for the inclusion reporter, a position in part funded by a grant from the foundation for $538,000, Michigan Capitol Confidential previously reported.

The job posting said the prospective reporter “must be able to demonstrate a deep understanding of intersectionality and systemic racism both personally and in their body of work.”

The reporter hired was Michelle Jokisch Polo, according to her LinkedIn profile and WGVU’s website. WGVU’s former inclusion reporter, Mariano Avila, now focuses on producing programs.

“The Kellogg Foundation does not stipulate or dictate what stories our inclusion reporter covers,” WGVU Grants Manager Steve Chappell said in an email. “WGVU is proud to be a recipient of a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation helping us to more fully address our mission of serving diverse communities in our coverage area.”

Javon Dobbs, a spokesman for the foundation, said, “Journalism organizations like WGVU that receive grants from the Kellogg Foundation have complete editorial control over what they cover.”

WGVU’s reporter, Jokisch Polo, also hosts a series called “Mutually Inclusive,” which is an “initiative in partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation using on-air programs and community events to explore issues of inclusion and equity.”

One recent episode of the series featured an interview with Rashida Tlaib, the Muslim state representative-turned-congresswoman, titled, “How Rashida Tlaib is changing the role of public servants.” Another recent piece, titled “Local transcommunity reacts to President Trumps’ memo on gender,” discussed the “increase in crisis within the trans community.”

Tim Groseclose, an economist at George Mason University who has done research on media bias, said WGVU’s “Mutually Inclusive” program “sounds like a make-work program for ethnic studies majors.”

The Kellogg Foundation also funded Michigan (public) Radio’s “State of Opportunity” with a nearly $1 million grant from 2012 to 2017 to “explore issues surrounding Michigan’s vulnerable children by supporting the pilot phase of an innovative public media project.”

In 2013, the foundation gave a $375,000 grant to The American Prospect, a Washington, D.C.-based magazine that aims “to advance liberal and progressive goals through reporting, analysis, and debate about today’s realities and tomorrow’s possibilities,” according to its website.

The Kellogg Foundation’s website said the grant was meant to “enable the organization to achieve its mission of producing multimedia journalism to move the national conversation toward a more inclusive and fair economy and society by providing general operating support.”

The New York-based Ford Foundation, which was founded by Edsel Ford, also regularly donates to left-leaning social justice causes. The foundation gave Progress Michigan/Education, a 501(c)3 group, a $400,000 grant in 2017. The grant money is not paying for journalists, but is meant to fund “general support to provide a voice to hold public officials and government accountable, promote progressive ideas, and build grassroots support for progressive ideas through new media," according to the foundation’s website.

“We don't disclose the details of our programs beyond what is reported in our public 990. The text of which reads, ‘with the support of partners like the Ford Foundation, Progress Michigan Education collaborates with social justice nonprofits in Michigan to educate the media and the public about the important social justice issues including water issues, immigration reform, criminal justice reform and transportation justice,’” Progress Michigan’s deputy communications director Sam Inglot said in an email.

At this time, big foundations subsidizing mainstream media reporting on their issues in Michigan appears to be a left-of-center phenomenon. The ACLU has also started its own news division and its reporter Curt Guyette was recognized as the reporter of the year by the Michigan Press Association in 2016.

The closest analogue on the right is this free-market publication, Michigan Capitol Confidential, which was created and is produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. But the Mackinac Center has not given money to any commercial or public sector media outlets to report on its issues or free-market point of view.