With mainstream media in massive freefall, it’s as easy to obscure sources that fund media outlets as it is to fund political campaigns – maybe easier.
Knowing the companies funding the news used to be simple. You could open your morning newspaper or wait a few minutes at the end of a TV broadcast, and there would be the advertisements – private companies buying time and space around content you consumed, which paid for what you saw.
Today, it is different. Now, the media producers themselves are increasingly becoming more and more of the story driving advocacy and causes they and their donors/sponsors are pushing you to support.
With mainstream media in massive freefall due to earned distrust from readers and a disintegrating business model, it is now as easy for obscured sources of money to fund a media outlet to advocate for a particular outcome as it is to fund a political issue campaign – maybe even easier.
Seven years ago, Mississippi Today was launched to much fanfare. With money and backing from Mississippi’s elite and the expertise of then-NBC news head Andy Lack, Mississippi Today was launched as something that would be different – a “nonpartisan” nonprofit digital daily. Though Lack has since left NBC News, millions still pour in. But with a nonprofit, figuring out the degree of actual community support can be a bit trickier. It could be widely funded or it could be just a handful of donors responsible for the vast majority of the funds – and finding out who that is is not easy.
Over the last seven years, Mississippi Today has become the largest newsroom in terms of headcount in the state. With over 20 staff, millions of dollars from individual donors and foundations have poured through its coffers allowing highly paid staff to have been consolidated away from the Clarion Ledger, the Daily Journal and other struggling outlets. As a nonprofit, the content the organization produces is syndicated by those struggling outlets and any other entities that choose to run it for little, if any, cost through a creative content agreement. Thus, with the downfall of media, a relatively small group of financial donors has been able to consolidate talent from for profit entities, shape content, advocate, and then pour it all back into the vacuum of struggling small daily/weekly newspapers, TV outlets and even large daily newsrooms desperate for free/low-cost content.
Nonprofits file form 990s reports with the IRS that serve two functions. The reports disclose to the IRS and the public where money comes from and where it goes. Obviously, for-profit companies do not have the same requirements as their revenue comes in after tax. Theoretically, those nonprofits have a duty not to be partisan in their coverage as they maintain a massive financial advantage against those for-profit entities with which they compete.
In its 990 filings that are made public (per IRS requirements), Mississippi Today has chosen to obscure the amounts associated with specific donors. They have a page that lists all donors that give over $1,000/year. But a handful of donors on an annual basis provide the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars. The net effect is that small donors provide cover for the large donors who account for over 85% of all money donated to the organization because without disclosure, it is nearly impossible for the average consumer to know who gave how much.
Through an investigation of Mississippi Today’s 990s and through the Foundation Center Online, a paid service targeted to fundraising and development professionals, Y’all Politics has verified the source of the vast majority of Mississippi Today’s major gifts since its inception.
When asked to verify, clarify and comment on the information presented above, Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White responded to our request, saying, “Mississippi Today adheres to all nonprofit reporting requirements at both the state and federal levels. We redact the 990 in order to protect contributors from identity theft and harm. The 'Who Funds Us' page on our website is accurate and inclusive of all donations of $1,000+ to Mississippi Today, including those made through donor advised funds.”
GRANT INCOME FOR MISSISSIPPI NEWS & INFORMATION CORPORATION/DEEP SOUTH TODAY BY YEAR PER 990s
- 2015 - $2,858,549
- 2016 - $1,202,081
- 2017 – $528,162
- 2018 – $2,104,678
- 2019 – $1,549,230
- 2020 – $2,528,142
Total grants per 990s from 2015-2020 - $10,770,842
Our investigation was able to identify that $7,878,295 came from 20 different donors. Of that, $2.855 million came from the Ford Foundation, $1,600,000 from the Mississippi Common Fund Trust, $1.12 million came from Morgan Stanley Impact Funding Trust, $450,000 came from the Molpus Foundation, $400,000 from the Pittman Family Foundation and $526,850 came from the Walton Foundation. That totals $6,951,850 from 6 donors, or 65% of funds raised as compared to 990 totals.
Jackson Jambalaya and Y’all Politics previously reported on the Mississippi Common Trust. This entity is run and governed by the University of Mississippi Foundation personnel and the primary benefactor of the trust is James Barksdale, who is also on the Board of Mississippi Today. It has come under some scrutiny in that it has concurrently funded University of Mississippi Medical Center programs. UMMC has recently started sponsoring Mississippi Today broadcast content. Mississippi Today has, starting in 2022, been providing very pointed coverage in favor of UMMC and against Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi, which has in turn sued UMMC executives for defamation. Blue Cross has now specifically requested communications between UMMC and Mississippi Today reporters.
The Morgan Stanley Impact Funding Trust is a directed giving fund. This fund advertises to those who give through it the ability to give to causes anonymously. If Mississippi Today’s “Who Funds Us” page is accurate, according to the 990s, there are only three possible donors that could fit that donor profile. One of those is one of the co-founding Board members, Andy Lack. Lack is not individually listed as a donor in any information available via 990s, but in 2019, he was reported in an ABC News article to have “sunk a million dollars” in Mississippi Today. Again, Mississippi Today would not confirm the identities or amounts of any donor beyond its website.
There is nothing illegal or unethical about how Mississippi Today has raised or disclosed funds. However, an organization ostensibly operating for public benefit that has prided itself on transparency and is regularly demanding that of public officials and others arguably has an obligation to go the extra mile to prove to consumers that there is no explicit or implied financial connection between the money they receive and the news that they choose to report or not report. That very notion has increasingly come into question in recent months, hence this simple disclosure to provide sunlight and context to what appears to be now the largest media organization in Mississippi.