A Conversation With Second Rough Draft’s Richard J. Tofel (Part 1 of 2)

The former Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones executive, onetime top Rockefeller Foundation official, former ProPublica president, and current Substack writer and consultant talks to Michael E. Hartmann about the changing natures of philanthropy and journalism since he began his career—including the necessary lines in journalism between those funding it and those producing it, in both the for-profit and nonprofit contexts.

After getting bachelor’s, law, and master’s degrees from Harvard, Richard J. Tofel began an interestingly varied career by first practicing law in 1983. He has since also been assistant publisher and assistant managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and a vice president and assistant general counsel of Dow Jones. He’s been a vice president, general counsel, and secretary of the Rockefeller Foundation, too, and president and chief executive officer of the International Freedom Center.

And in 2007, Tofel was founding general manager of ProPublica, one of America’s largest nonprofit-journalism outlets. He was its president from 2013 to 2021.

He is the author of several books—including Restless Genius: Barney Kilgore, The Wall Street Journal, and the Making of Modern JournalismWhy American Newspapers Gave Away the Future; and, most recently, Elements of Nonprofit News Management.

Tofel now writes a Substack newsletter, Second Rough Draft, about news organizations and business models, and he’s the principal of Gallatin Advisory, a journalism consultancy. He’s an instructor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, as well.

He was kind enough to join me for a conversation last week and affably share some of the knowledge and wisdom gained from his career. The just less than 16-minute video below is the first part of our discussion; the second will appear is here.

In the first part, we talk about the changing natures of philanthropy and journalism since he began his career—including the necessary lines in journalism between those funding it and those producing it, in both the for-profit and nonprofit contexts.

“Once upon a time, in the last century, American philanthropy was really dominated by the major institutional foundations, Rockefeller, Carnegie, MacArthur, etc.,” Tofel tells me. “That is no longer. I think the locus of American philanthropy, the enormous fortunes that have been made in the last 30 years, a little bit more than 30 years—especially in technology and finance—have really transformed American philanthropy. The locus of it now, I think,” he continues, “is high-net-worth individuals and the … family foundations through which they operate.” This kind of giving “dwarfs any of the institutional foundations. There are lots of other players.”

In journalism, “the big pivot point there is the coming of the internet and digital journalism, which started around 1995,” according to Tofel.

The Journal, as you may know, was an outlier in that. It charged for its content almost immediately after it started its digital presence—something that people widely disparaged at the time. There were very, very few of us at Dow Jones, even inside Dow Jones, who thought that was a good idea. … Ironically, the whole publishing industry has come around to that over time.

Asked if there were pressures on the journalistic independence of the increasing number of enterprises that, unlike the Journal, have to instead rely on donors to survive, Tofel says, “There’s always been a line between advertising and news, and now you have the same line between donors and news.”

Tofel refers to Restless Genius, the biography he wrote about Wall Street Journal managing editor Barney Kilgore—“the founder of the modern Journal, the person who really put it on the path between the 1930s and the 1960s.” In 1954, according to Tofel, Kilgore “had a huge confrontation with General Motors, which was then the largest corporation in the country and in the world.” GM “was also by far the largest advertiser in The Wall Street Journal.” The automaker became “extraordinarily unhappy with the fact that the Journal had gotten a hold of and had published plans for the 55 models” of cars that were going to be made and sold by GM, which thus “started an advertising boycott of the Journal, attacked the Journal publicly.”

Tofel says Kilgore

held his ground, counter-attacked, and said, “You know, we’re going to do our work honestly and independently, and if you don’t want to advertise here, that’s your problem. We think it’s an important way to reach our readers who you want to have be your customers, but if you don’t see it that way, fine.” Literally within a couple of weeks, GM capitulated. It was really a very important moment in the development of the modern Journal. It was also an important moment in staking out the important independence of quality publishing from the people who pay the bills ….

Is there an example of a contemporary equivalent to GM in the nonprofit-journalism context—a donor that similarly backed down in the face of a publication’s assertion of independence?

“I don’t think these confrontations happen very much anymore,” Tofel answers, “because at the good places, if people say ‘The money comes with strings,’ you just say ‘No thanks.’ The people who would want to have it come with strings end up not offering it.” At ProPublica, “we a few times had donors who misunderstood the kind of influence they should have, and they ended up walking away, and that was fine. I mean, we’ve always understood that might become necessary and if it was, so be it.”

In the conversation’s second part, Tofel talks more about the relationship between funding and content in nonprofit and for-profit journalism, groupthink and diversity in the news business overall, and some specific challenges facing both foundation funders and management teams of nonprofit news groups.

This article first appeared in the Giving Review on April 15, 2024.

Michael E. Hartmann

Michael E. Hartmann is CRC’s senior fellow and director of the Center for Strategic Giving, providing analysis of and commentary about philanthropy and giving. He…
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