A Conversation With Second Rough Draft’s Richard J. Tofel (Part 2 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 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 organizations.

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. In the first part, which is here, we discuss 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.

The just more than 16-and-a-half-minute video below is the second part, during which we talk 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 organizations.

“At ProPublica, we had an absolute rule, which I know they maintain to this day, that no one outside the newsroom, including the board of directors, ever sees a story before it is published or knows what we are going to publish before we do,” Tofel tells me. “No matter how many people think that’s the way it works, it just isn’t the way it works.

“[F]unders actually have far less influence than the owners of for-profit publications,” he notes. Grantmakers to nonprofit news are

more in the position of advertisers. … [F]or instance, at the Journal these days, I strongly suspect that Rupert Murdoch does occasionally know what’s going to be published before it’s published. I don’t think, though, that the advertisers at the Journal ever do. The donors at a place like ProPublica have been put in the category, in terms of their ability to influence things, in the category of advertisers rather than owners.

In fact, “A lot of the money for nonprofit journalism comes from readers,” Tofel further notes. “You are, I think, effectively dependent on your readers in ways … that people have not yet fully come to grips with.” Realistically, he says, the more-concerning question is “how much editors may be willing to discomfort their readers than how much they are willing to discomfort their donors or their advertisers.”

Discussing Uri Berliner’s recent attention-getting article in The Free Press about how NPR has lost its listeners’ trust, Tofel says “I honestly thought a fair amount of it, in the details, felt to me off base”—including its assertion that there was no Russian collusion with the Trump campaign in 2016.

As for Berliner’s belief that groupthink at the nonprofit NPR harmed its standing among listeners and whether there might similarly be groupthink in establishment philanthropy, Tofel says,

I think groupthink is a big problem in almost any industry and in almost any large organization. I think it’s a real problem. I think it’s a problem on the right and a problem on the left. I think it’s frequently a problem, yes, in philanthropy, especially when different philanthropies get together.

He later adds,

There’s been a lot of talk—appropriately, in my view—in recent years about the need for diversity in the news business. The news business was way behind the curve in reflecting the racial diversity of the country. A lot of progress has been made on that. I think that’s a very good thing. I think it has been less good, and we need more progress, in reflecting the political diversity of the country, the class diversity of the country, the diversity of the country in educational background.

Asked about recent Second Rough Draft articles of his own, Tofel talks more about grantmakers and grant recipients. Recalling part of one of them, “Why Philanthropy IS a Business Model,” he says, “Institutional foundations have this unfortunate habit of changing their strategies every time they get a new president. Strategies should change when the world changes, not when somebody retires or gets fired. That’s an unfortunate, but widespread practice.”

In another article, “What Went Wrong at the Center for Public Integrity?,” he analyzes that which might have caused problems for a nonprofit-journalism group that recently went out of business by interviewing several people who worked there. A “recurrent theme of my conversations was how much and how often CPI had permitted limited-purpose program funding to dictate its editorial priorities, resulting in loss of focus, distinctiveness and sense of mission,” Tofel writes in the piece.

“You do not have to take a program grant, and if funders are trying to restrict your activities or to unbalance the activities you’re engaged in or are unwilling to support the central apparatus that makes the whole thing go, you can say no and you can be smaller,” Tofel tells me in our conversation, “and sometimes you need to be” smaller. “I understand why many funders don’t want to do that, but then the responsibility rests on management to say that’s either not of interest to us or it is of interest to us, but we can’t let it become that much of our place.”

This article first appeared in the Giving Review on April 16, 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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