In case you missed it, the following reviews have been updated with lots more detail:
Team: Nonprofit MediaWe look for quality sources of news and analysis in the public interest
We believe the profit motive harms the integrity of information in news media. It incentivizes sensationalism and introduces coverage biases toward owners and advertisers.
We’re on the look-out for media sources that follow a different funding model or are entirely volunteer-driven.
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Any source tagged with this team must not be primarily advertising funded. We don’t currently aim to review primarily state-funded media.
See our detailed checklist for tips on what to look for and how to rate.
Quanta Magazine is one of two websites published by the Simons Foundation, the vehicle for hedge fund founder James Simons’ philanthropic giving. Quanta focuses on mathematics, physics, computer science and biology. The other publication is Spectrum News, which covers autism research.
The Simons Foundation had more than $2B in net assets as of its 2015 tax return; Quanta is essentially one of its gifts to the public and does not rely on additional support. This makes it similar to Mosaic (reviews), published by the even more massively endowed Wellcome Trust. However, it publishes a lot more frequently: Mosaic tends to publish 2-4 long-form articles per month; Quanta publishes more than a dozen medium-sized articles in the same timeframe.
The name Quanta evokes the source of James Simons’ $18.5B fortune: quant investing. Simons, who worked as an NSA codebreaker at age 26, has been described as “the mathematician who cracked Wall Street” for his use of highly sophisticated mathematical models to predict profitable trades. His personal wealth derives from his hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies, which the MIT’s Andrew Lo called the “pinnacle of quant investing” and “the commercial version of the Manhattan Project”.
In 2014, Renaissance was interrogated by the US Senate for the use of an obscure loophole to avoid an estimated $6.8B in capital gains tax, an amount which far exceeds the endowment of the Simons Foundation. Its name has made the news for another reason: Renaissance co-CEO Robert Mercer is one of the biggest backers of Donald Trump’s anti-science Presidency and of the far right, anti-intellectual propaganda outlet Breitbart News, while Simons himself backed Hillary Clinton.
While the philanthropic impulses of the company’s principals are clearly contradictory, Quanta’s editorial beat is unlikely to conflict with Renaissance’s financial origins. Quanta itself has this to say about its editorial independence:
All editorial decisions, including which research or researchers to cover, are made by Quanta’s staff reporting to the editor in chief; editorial content is not reviewed by anyone outside of the news team prior to publication; Quanta has no involvement in any of the Simons Foundation’s grant-giving or research efforts; and researchers who receive funding from the foundation do not receive preferential treatment. The decision to cover a particular researcher or research result is made solely on editorial grounds in service of our readers.
Scope, design, navigation
Quanta’s stated goal is to “illuminate science”. In practice, this translates to articles that seek to arouse curiosity rather than controversy.
Where a magazine like Mosaic doesn’t shy away from in-depth articles about abortion rights in India and the US or sex workers in Mozambique, Quanta tends to write about questions in science that are both interesting and not highly politicized. Over a five-year period, I only found two feature articles with a strong political dimension: “A Physicist Who Models ISIS and the Alt-Right” and “How to Quantify (and Fight) Gerrymandering”. Zero articles about abortion, zero about transgender or homosexuality, one whose primary topic is climate change.
This is not a criticism; there surely is a place for a publication like this, which may succeed in reaching people across the political spectrum and promote a greater interest in science itself. Indeed, for the topics it does tackle, Quanta often succeeds spectacularly at making complex topics accessible and interesting.
This starts with the website design: Quanta is easily one of the most beautiful sites we’ve reviewed. The design leaves a lot of room for large-format images, while scaling well onto mobile devices, as well. Careful use of typography, color and whitespace gives the articles an aesthetic that brings together elements of print and the web in a very appealing manner.
Quanta sometimes publishes interactive micro-sites, such as this explorable (and information-rich) map of current contenders for a “Theory of Everything” (Credit: Quanta Magazine. Fair use.)
Quanta’s reporting on bacteria and biofilms is illustrative of how it approaches complex topics. The feature story, “Bacteria Use Brainlike Bursts of Electricity to Communicate”, recaps well-understood principles of chemical communication in bacterial colonies, and adds recent findings regarding ion channel communication.
The story is supported by quotes from multiple scientists (five from the United States, one from Spain and one from Italy). It includes a GIF animation that was carefully adapted from YouTube videos published by one of the scientist teams. The writing and approach is similar to Scientific American. In fact, the article was also syndicated to its website, and the author has bylines there and in other science magazines.
Quanta published a related feature titled “Seeing the Beautiful Intelligence of Microbes”, which shows many more examples of biofilm and slime mold behavior, again often employing large format GIF animations. This underscores the magazine’s willingness to go beyond the limitations of a print magazine. It’s a visually stunning feature that even readers with limited scientific interest may enjoy.
Expansion of Pseudomonas biofilm, an example of the kind of carefully produced GIF animation that makes many Quanta articles visually outstanding (Credit: Quanta Magazine. Fair use.)
A more elaborate example is Quanta’s 2015 map of “theories of everything”. It’s an interactive full screen overview of physics concepts like loop quantum gravity and the holographic principle, organized into the larger and overlapping areas of knowledge they relate to. This is the kind of resource you may end up returning to as you read about these topics in the news.
Some Quanta articles are accompanied by podcast episodes. Episodes are featured as a prominent “play” button at the top of a regular article for the relevant episode, which looks like an effective way to draw in listeners who don’t typically subscribe to podcasts.
There is also a YouTube channel. As with many other nonprofit publications, it reaches a relatively small audience of less than 10,000 subscribers, though some of the educational videos (e.g., “What is a species?”) are quite good. There are many education/science YouTube channels with orders of magnitude more subscribers, so perhaps a partnership would be more successful at reaching a large audience.
Quanta articles are frequently syndicated to other publications. They are under conventional copyright; in response to an inquiry, a staff member stated that there are no plans to consider a Creative Commons license. This is regrettable: much of the text, image and video content would be useful for open educational resources.
Like Mosaic, Quanta’s funding is secure thanks to a large endowment; it’s not clear why an open access license is off the table. As it is, we can enjoy Quanta for free, but we cannot re-use it and build on it without permission. It is a gift, but one with strings attached.
Quanta succeeds in its mission of making scientific topics accessible, often in a way that inspires further exploration and learning. It’s a beautiful website that makes good use of the web as a medium–through animations, large format photographs, videos, interactives, well-integrated podcasts, and so on.
I recommend following Quanta’s work to any curious person. While I would love to see it under a Creative Commons license, this does not impact the rating per our standard criteria. 5 out of 5 stars.
A checklist for reviewing nonprofit media
We have now published a few reviews of non-profit media. Let’s take a closer look at the criteria we can use to assess a non-profit publication (many of which also apply to for-profit media) and how they should influence a source’s rating.
How a source is funded may influence what it reports on. We currently do not review publications that are primarily funded through advertising or by taxpayers. The types of media we are interested in receive funding primarily (>50%) in one or more of the following ways:
- from individual major donors
- from individual small donations
- from foundations that award grants, fellowships, etc. (more on this below)
- from subscriptions
Each of these revenue sources has its own challenges, with subscriptions or small donations providing the broadest base of support and therefore the least leverage for any individual supporter; the effect of such a model does then depend largely on what most the supporters expect from the thing they’re supporting (even neo-nazi websites like Stormfront use funding from individual donors to survive).
The Intercept is an interesting example for how support from a single large donor can grant a significant measure of editorial freedom. The non-profit behind it, First Look Media, was funded by billionaire Pierre Omidyar, receiving $30M funding in its first year. But of course this presents major vulnerabilities as well. There is the possibility of behind-the-scenes meddling, or the organization might simply run out of money.
When major donors become philanthropists, they often set up foundations. These organizations give in accordance with their funders’ wishes. Many of them operate large endowment funds, which generate investment income indefintely (see Wikipedia’s list of the wealthiest foundations).
Non-profit media can apply for grants from foundations, and some rely primarily in such support – see the ProPublica list of supporters, for example. Heavy reliance on foundations may introduce a status quo bias: typically the creation of millionaires or billionaires, they are usually founded with the intent to advocate for an incremental change agenda within the existing political and economic order. They are also reputation-sensitive, and do not themselves want to be targeted by political groups. Their internal decision-making processes may reflect these biases, and penalize grant applicants who propose overly radical projects.
Such concerns are not unwarranted, as the intense targeting of one of the most progressive funders, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, by right-wing groups demonstrates. Progressives – who are notoriously skeptical of billionaires’ intentions – don’t necessarily jump to their defense, either. As a result, many other philanthropists avoid politics entirely, and focus on diseases, poverty, or other social ills.
There are, of course, also countless reactionary foundations. Organizations like the “Center for Organizational Research and Education” are funded by corporations to advance their agenda, by discrediting scientific research or activist efforts. And progressive organizations like the Center for American Progress have received funding from corporate donors and foreign countries.
To uncover funding networks, the following resources are helpful:
- The ProPublica Nonprofit Explorer, GuideStar and Charity Navigator mine the tax returns (form 990) of US-based non-profit organizations, which include high-level revenue data and top executive compensation.
- Many established charities publish Annual Reports, though they can be difficult to find. Use a Google search with
site:<domain name>. These reports usually include a funding breakdown by source (foundations, individual donations, etc.).
- Separately, charities may have pages with names like “Benefactors” or “Our supporters” that list key major donors by name.
- A news search for the charity’s name, the Wikipedia article, and other external sources may provide additional information.
Relation to rating: The funding model should not influence a source’s rating.
As noted above, US non-profit tax returns do include top salaries. Needless to say, appropriate compensation is highly dependent on geography, and also correlates with organizational size (running a large, complex organization requires a different skillset that warrants higher compensation). With that said, it’s useful to compare executive compensation with non-profits of similar size in the same region. Is it extraordinarily high?
If the organization is currently dependent on a few large revenue sources like major donors and foundations, excessive compensation may make it more difficult to achieve a broader base of support as soon as these numbers receive greater scrutiny. And of course there’s the practical question of how much the charity can achieve for a given dollar if it pays more for certain roles than it needs to.
Relation to rating: This should only influence a source’s rating to the extent that it appeals for public support.
Overhead vs. Waste
You may have heard of “overhead ratios” and similar efficiency assessments: how much of a charity’s work goes towards programmatic work (such as journalism) and how much goes towards administrative support (such as fundraising, office equipment, etc.).
These ratios are now widely regarded as counterproductive by nonprofit experts, because they can be easily gamed (the functional allocation of expenses is done by the nonprofit itself and contains a lot of loopholes), because honest organizations may get penalized, and because they may disincentivize necessary investments that increase the organization’s effectiveness.
As such, I never look at an overhead ratio by itself, but I do scrutinize Annual Reports, financial statements and other records to look for evidence of wasteful spending. An example would be excessive spending on executive offsite meetings, consultants engaging in runaway planning projects, and so on.
Relation to rating: Wastefulness should influence a source’s rating to the extent that it appeals for public support.
This brings us to the broader question of what we can learn about an organization and its inner workings. The information I expect to find on a well-run non-profit’s website includes:
- information about the tax deductibility of donations
- the latest Annual Report or at least a list of benefactors
- the latest tax returns and financials
- information about the Board and Staff (at least leadership)
- contact information
If such information is nowhere to be found, that doesn’t mean anyone is trying to hide something. Organizations go through stages of development, and developing an understanding of good governance is part of that process. What’s disappointing is when a well-funded organization does a poorer job with this than a scrappy one.
Relation to rating: A well-established, well-funded organization can be penalized for lack of transparency.
A source may position itself in different ways, e.g., as center-left, or religious right, or far left, and this may be expressed in the form of editorials, analysis, and most importantly, coverage. Which stories receive attention and why, and which ones don’t? Which views are dismissed as “unrealistic” or “extreme”? Does the source obsesesively target the same person over and over again, resulting in an unbalanced perception of reality?
I don’t believe that there is “neutral” positioning for a news source. Selection of topics, scope of coverage, placement of stories, etc. are all “opinionated” decisions, made by humans with a perspective on how the world works, or by human-created algorithms optimizing towards a specific outcome like ad revenue. Nobody would want to read an actually neutral news source: positioning and curation are crucial functions of all news media.
In order to identify positioning:
- We can look at the way a source describes itself, or the founder has described it.
- We can look at the aforementioned funding questions to give us some clues. Funders with specific leanings tend to fund consistently with those leanings.
- We can spot check topical coverage:
- How are climate movements like “Keep it in the Ground” treated?
- How are different political candidates treated?
- How are revelations by major whistleblowers like Edward Snowden presented?
- We can look at the editorial pages. Do they restrict themselves to a narrow band of opinions, and if so, which band is it?
- What “experts” are consulted by the source? (See SourceWatch’s list of industry-friendly experts, for example.)
- Does the publication engage in false balance?
Relation to rating: Positioning itself should not influence the rating, but answers to the above question may, especially insofar as they relate to manipulative intent (see below).
Manipulative intent, gross negligence, sensationalizing
Beyond their positioning (which shapes our views through what is included and excluded), media can manipulate our views is subtle and notoso-subtle ways:
Deliberate distortion. The typical example would be an out of context quote. This has been noted in the example of UK politican Jeremy Corbyn, for example: How to speak Corbyn: A Headline Writer’s Guide But there are many other ways to misrepresent a story, omit crucial context, or sensationalize. Clickbait sites on the left are not immune to this charge.
Gross negligence. Imagine building a whole story on the basis of an unverified tweet by a random person on the Internet. Pipelines of media can normalize gross negligence: from Twitter to Infowars or Zerohedge to Breitbart or Daily Caller to National Review or Fox News.
Sensationalizing. The classic example here is the tabloid screaming of a scandal in letters taking up much of the page. The more modern example would be a clickbait headline. A source may report something real, but may do it using hyperbolic language, moral condemnation, exaggerated interpretations, calls to action, and so on.
In all these cases, it’s worth looking not just for evidence that such things occur (which is fairly easy, and supported by fact-checking sites like Politifact, Snopes, and so on), but also whether they follow a pattern consistent with the source’s positioning.
Relation to rating: A source may be penalized consistent with the extent to which it engages in these practices.
Mechanism for corrections
Is there a way to report an error? If so, does it actually result in any acknowledgment or follow-up? I highly recommend testing this with any source whenever you spot an error. The results can be enlightening.
Relation to rating: This is a minor consideration.
What does the news source actually cover? Is it a global, national, locally focused source? Is it restricted to certain topics? Does it include editorials, news, original interviews, cartoons, etc.? The answers shouldn’t reflect well or poorly on the source, but do help readers decide what other sources they might want to add to their mix to even things out.
Relation to rating: Scope should not affect the rating.
Does the source have a discussion forum? If so, does it have any moderation mechanism, protection against forum spam, etc.? Are there other ways for readers to get involved, e.g., through citizen journalism projects?
Relation to rating: This is a minor consideration.
Most content is uner conventional copyright: you can’t use it without the author’s permission (fair use exemptions notwithstanding). For organizations dedicated to advancing the public interest in some way, this can be dissonant. There is an alternative: Creative Commons licensing. It lets an author say: “I want anyone to be able to use it, but only if they credit me by name”. Or “I want anyone to be able to use it, but not commercially.”
Wikipedia, for example, uses the Creative Commons Attribution Share/Alike-License. It requires attribution, and if you share a modified version, your changes have to be made under the same terms. This license is also used by some non-profit media, such as Common Dreams. Many, however, likely have never heard of this option.
Relation to rating: This is a minor consideration.