ABC News receives Gates Foundation support

$1.5 million grant to fund international health series

ABC News’ highly unusual arrangement with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help fund its coverage of health crises in the Third World has raised red flags among journo watchdogs. But others suggest the pact may be a portent of things to come for news orgs even at for-profit congloms like Disney.

ABC News said Wednesday it had reached an agreement for the Gates Foundation to pay the net a $1.5 million subsidy for a yearlong series of reports on international health, with particular emphasis on conditions that disproportionately affect the poorest countries.The request for the funding came from ABC News, which will provide the remaining $4.5 million cost of producing and airing its “Be the Change: Save a Life” series, which will run on all of the Alphabet’s news platforms starting Dec. 17 and continuing throughout 2011.

The $1.5 million infusion reps what’s believed to be the first large cash grant given by a major charity to a for-profit TV news org, though outgoing ABC News head David Westin said the division had in the past accepted in-kind contributions to its newsgathering efforts from ProPublica and the Carnegie Foundation.

Westin stressed that ABC News maintains complete editorial control over the content of the series and that the net was “as always, committed to in-depth reporting on the global issues that matter to our audience.”

Westin likened the Gates Foundation to an advertiser: “It’s essentially like a sole sponsorship,” Westin told Daily Variety. “We will disclose on the air when any of the money is used.” There will, however, be multiple sponsors for the series.

Gates Foundation spokeswoman Kate James said that the charity’s interests dovetailed with ABC’s interest in the subject. “We recognize that quality journalism based on data and evidence can increase engagement and bring these issues much needed attention,” James wrote in a blog announcement of the program. “The media landscape continues to change at a rapid rate. International coverage not linked to war and natural disaster continues to be squeezed.”

News of the Gates funding comes on the heels of budget-cutting at ABC News, which shed about 300 jobs this year through buyouts, attrition and layoffs.

Marc Cooper, professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School, said the unorthodox arrangement raises troubling questions about credibility. “It raises the 800-pound gorilla question: Is that what we’ve come to?” he said. “The more noble this coverage is going to be, the more shameful it is for Disney/ABC. If they need to report on crucial aspects of health in the Third World, they should do it without banging a tin cup. I’d rather see Diane Sawyer or George Stephanopoulos make $2 million a year less.”

But Westin said the news division has been forced to change how it works. “Part of the reason we’ve gone through the changes we have is to make sure we have the resources to do this kind of reporting,” he said.

Westin said the grant will subsidize foreign travel for the series. “It helps with production costs,” he said, “so that we can do the coverage around the world.”

ABC News anchor Sawyer noted that the news division had “a bulging folder of ideas and reports” in the area of world health concerns long before the Gates partnership was set.

Reporting will be led by Sawyer and chief health and medical editor Richard Besser, with ABC newsers flying across the globe to report on health crises and their possible solutions. The net is still identifying locations for the project, Westin said, but viewers can bank on “one or two in Asia, one or two in Africa — we’ll be on pretty much all of the continents except Antarctica.”

Given the expenses of in-depth international reporting, there have been off-the-record rumblings about large-scale journalistic partnerships with philanthropic orgs for a while. Traditional TV journalism viewership has shrunk in favor of louder voices on cable. Unlike ABC and CBS, NBC and Fox have the advantage of being able to amortize the costs of their newsgathering operations across broadcast and cable nets.

Westin will step down from his position at the head of the net at the end of the year but said he wants to create programs that would survive his departure rather than leave a successor with “an empty larder.”

Pact is the brainchild of Kerry Smith, ABC senior VP for editorial quality, who handles similar projects for ABC News and will oversee it once Westin is gone.