Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Grant provides health reporting

Grace Rubenstein joined The Bee's newsroom last week to cover community health, our first significant step into something becoming increasingly common in our profession – journalism funded by nonprofit foundations.

Rubenstein, who brings print, online and health reporting experience to her new job, will work out of our newsroom for at least 18 months, paid through a grant from The California Endowment, a statewide health foundation created in 1996 as part of Blue Cross' conversion to a for-profit company.

You can find similar funding behind other journalism efforts, whether for public radio or nonprofit journalism ventures such as California Watch, an investigative reporting initiative.

The California Endowment has paid salaries for community health reporters at the Oakland Tribune, the Merced Sun-Star and McClatchy's Spanish language paper, Vida en el Valle, among others. All told, it supports health journalism at about 20 other media outlets in California.

The Endowment is the largest health foundation in the state. It's nonpartisan and is prohibited in its charter from lobbying or influencing legislation.

The Bee has some history with nonprofit funding of interns. For well over a decade we've worked with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which places young scientists in newsrooms to promote public understanding of science. We also received interns from the Kaiser Media Internships program (not connected to Kaiser Permanente), which funds health reporting interns.

We've published stories reported by journalists who work for nonprofits, including the California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting, based at USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and funded by the nonpartisan California HealthCare Foundation.

The reporting has been strong and, importantly, independent.

I first contacted Mary Lou Fulton, program officer for The California Endowment, last spring to ask about its funding for health reporters. I asked why the foundation was giving grants to newspapers and whether reporters paid through the Endowment were given complete journalistic independence.

Fulton reiterated her answers in an email for me this week.

"We support health journalism because we believe it still plays an important role in keeping health issues in the public spotlight," Fulton wrote. "The media outlets we support cover a wide range of health issues, including topics such as how school meals affect the health of children and why low-income neighborhoods tend to have fewer parks and other places to exercise. We believe that neighborhood environments play a vital role in keeping people healthy, and that Californians are better off for having more information about what makes for a healthy community."

Fulton assured me that editors at The Bee would direct the reporting, with no oversight from the Endowment.

"We provide funding to support the work of reporters and editors covering community health, and they make their own independent decisions about what to cover and how."