Philanthropy and Journalism:
A Relationship in Transition

“Don’t kill yourself for an $11-an-hour job.”

That’s how one of Sara Mojtehedzadeh’s new co-workers warned her about Fiera Foods’ cluttered and slippery factory floor, during her undercover investigation of the industrial bakery in 2017.

Following a trail of safety violations and employee deaths, the Toronto Star reporter signed up as one of the temps who made up 70% of their workforce. Increasingly, companies like Fiera had turned to staffing such facilities through temp agencies to reduce their costs, obligations to workers and liability.

Mojtehedzadeh worked the facility’s pastry production lines for a month, struggling to meet the “crushing” pace set by shouting supervisors. Her investigation uncovered labour violations large and small, from illegally withheld pay slips to missing safety training. She documented the toll such conditions took on some of Toronto’s most vulnerable workers — mostly people of colour, many of them refugees.

The resulting Star exposé did everything a great piece of investigative journalism should. It drew readers, sparked conversation and spurred legislative change.

It’s also exactly the sort of deep, public interest reporting most at risk during the transition from traditional to digital media.

Mojtehedzadeh’s work has been supported through a unique partnership with the Atkinson Foundation, as part of a multi-year experiment to mitigate the negative consequences of Ontario’s labour coverage deficit. A first in Canada, this arrangement has already yielded inspiring results — and raised pressing new questions about the power and potential of such “philanthro-journalism.”

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The cover of the Toronto Start with Mojtehedzadeh byline on Fiera Foods.

The Atkinson Foundation continues to be interested in “news for the people”

The Atkinson Foundation was established in 1942 by Elmina Elliott and Joseph E. Atkinson, original publisher of The Toronto Star, to continue the couple’s pursuit of social and economic justice. Fully independent from the newspaper, its main focus today is on securing decent working conditions for everyone. To that end, it makes grants and advocates on a range of issues from public infrastructure to pensions. It also shows up as an activist shareholder to press for workforce disclosure practices in the private sector, and as an investor aiming to create social change through capital markets.

But journalism is more than part of the Atkinson Foundation’s origins. It’s part of its 75-year old philanthropic legacy. It’s long supported experienced journalists to pursue stories with the potential to drive social change, for instance, through the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. It was also one of the first funders of journalism education, including an innovative program for Indigenous reporters at Western in the early 80s. And more recently, Atkinson has begun directly experimenting with podcasting to engage a new generation in its mission.

While watching the media industry go through a painful transition from print to digital, the foundation’s Director of Social Impact Patricia Thompson explains they concluded that “people’s rights are at stake if they can’t get access to news: our governments aren’t held accountable on particular issues if they can’t be covered, and the whole relationship between a free press and a democracy starts to erode.”

Particularly for low-wage earners or unemployed people, the stakes are high. Accountability journalism like “Temp Nation” remains vital in highlighting the concerns of people who are too often ignored or dismissed by public policy makers.

And journalism can have other powerful, indirect effects. Research increasingly suggests that people exposed to media covering public issues important to them are more likely to vote. And lawmakers look out for citizens who vote.

By 2014, Atkinson’s Thompson explains, board and staff members realized that protecting such benefits required emergency measures. They knew that south of the border, the Ford Foundation had recently begun supporting L.A. Times beats covering immigration and emerging markets.

Inspired, they looked to the Toronto Star as a natural partner for something similar. They struck a contract with the Star to create a beat focused on income and wealth inequality which led to the paper hiring Mojtehedzadeh.

“People’s rights are at stake if they can’t get access to news: our governments aren’t held accountable on particular issues if they can’t be covered, and the whole relationship between a free press and a democracy starts to erode.”

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Atkinson Foundation CEO, Colette Murphy, awards Toronto Star reporter Sara Mojtehedzadeh a special prize for being a "double digger for decent work" at the foundation's 75th anniversary celebration.

Mojtehedzadeh closely covered the Wynne government’s Bill 148 labour law overhaul. And through a series of high-profile stories, she powerfully illustrated the need for a modern set of employment standards to protect Ontario workers and repair the social safety net to catch the growing number who are precariously employed.

As the country’s only full-time labour reporter, she reported on stories that wouldn’t otherwise have been covered. And their reach was considerable: during the project’s first year, the Star averaged just over 1,060,000 readers a week in print alone.

Perhaps most strikingly, “Temp Nation” prompted new WSIB and CRA scrutiny for Fiera’s owners, including financial penalties. It also led the provincial government to include more protections for temp workers in Bill 148. The Star investigation “was a clear indication that there’s a problem out there that needs to be solved [and] injected a bit of reality in the situation,” said then-Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn, and “reading it on the front page of a large newspaper I think really did help.”

What Next ?

The Atkinson Foundation has continued to treat this beat reporting project as an experiment, gathering data whose broader implications they’re still assessing.

Atkinson’s work illustrates how complex such projects can be. As Thompson emphasizes, “this was not sponsored content, not a communications project.” But such work can also carry risks, with other philanthropic projects raising thorny questions about conflicts of interest.

Since the Star is a for-profit business, the collaboration was carefully structured as a service contract rather than a traditional grant or funding arrangement. And because the Star is unionized, Unifor Local 87-M was consulted on this position.

Even more fundamentally, Thompson underscores that Atkinson sees this investment as a means, not an end: “we’re not fighting for journalism, we’re fighting for the interests and rights of low-income workers.”

The foundation invests in public interest news to offset inequality in citizens’ voices. And this means continuing to weigh “the value of support for the people who are gathering the news against support for the people who are making the news.”

The foundation still sees this beat as a “short-term systems fix”: a stop-gap on the way to new media business models, which won’t simply substitute philanthropic for advertising dollars.

But that’s an assumption Atkinson plans to keep testing.

Atkinson supported the Public Policy Forum’s “Shattered Mirror” series, on the long-term implications of shifts in digital technology, news and politics. Such studies suggest that gaps in public interest coverage are only getting worse: the PPF’s latest traces a 38% decline of local civic coverage in small and medium communities over the last decade. Driven by outlet cuts, mergers and closures, This seems broadly consistent with recent U.S. work on emerging “news deserts,” which are growing fastest in low-income areas.

In such under-covered communities, stories get missed — stories like the recent death of another temp employed by the owners of Fiera FoodsAt a vigil in his memory, the Workers’ Action Centre’s Deena Ladd cited Mojtehedzadeh’s Star reporting to connect this private tragedy with serious public issues. And whether philanthropic support for media represents a temporary fix or structural transition, these issues clearly deserve our attention.

“We’re not fighting for journalism, we’re fighting for the interests and rights of low-income workers.”

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