“Unless we preserve absolute freedom of expression, democracy will perish.”
— Frank E. Gannett
The Freedom Forum has its roots in the Frank E. Gannett Newspaper Foundation, founded in 1935 in Rochester, N.Y. with 1,500 shares of Gannett Company stock from Frank E. Gannett, owner of the newspaper chain.
He envisioned that upon his death the foundation would own sufficient newspaper stock to control “the running of our organization.” Working together, the foundation and newspaper leadership would support First Amendment freedoms and assist communities served by Gannett newspapers.
“The directors of the foundation should do their utmost at all times to maintain the freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of religious worship,” Gannett wrote in his 1953 will. The foundation and newspapers should “vigorously support all movements to foster and support the welfare of our communities…. always be sympathetic with the poor” and “fight injustice.”
Over the years, foundation efforts included college scholarships for Gannett newspaper carriers, grants to nonprofit organizations in Gannett communities, initiatives such as promoting literacy and grants to support journalism education and professional groups.
After Gannett’s 1957 death, the foundation received more stock, which increased in value as the Gannett Company grew and went public in 1967. Al Neuharth became Gannett’s chief executive officer in 1973 and under his leadership, Gannett became the nation’s largest newspaper chain and owned other media outlets. As the corporation grew, so did the foundation’s grants.
In 1980, foundation trustees voted to allocate 20% of grants to journalism to continue the founder’s vision of advancing media by “supporting deserving schools, giving young men and women encouragement to enter this attractive field of endeavor, fostering research and developing improvement in methods of production and operation.” Between 1977 and 1989 the Gannett Foundation made nearly $27 million in journalism grants – more than $72 million in 2021 dollars. In 1984, it launched the Gannett Center for Media Studies as a program at Columbia University.
Jerry Sass, director of journalism education beginning in 1977, and executive vice president when he retired in 1997, directed funding for journalism programs covering a wide range of issues and approaches including journalism scholarships, a touring van with new media technology, diversity initiatives, grants to journalism schools and professional groups, a mid-career program for editors, grants for professors, publication of books and articles, and much more.
In addition to grants to well-established organizations, the foundation funded new journalism groups forming in the 1970s and ’80s to, as Gannett’s will specified, “fight injustice” in news employment and coverage by advocating for women and people of color. In both the Gannett company and foundation, bold diversity efforts were led by Al Neuharth, Vice President of News John C. Quinn and Nashville Tennessean Publisher and Editor John Seigenthaler, all of whom became Freedom Forum trustees.
Neuharth continued as foundation chairman following his retirement from the company in 1989. That year Pulitzer Prize-winning Gannett editor Charles Overby became president of the foundation, which moved to new headquarters in Arlington, Va., overlooking Washington, D.C.
In 1991, after divesting itself of Gannett stock, the foundation became The Freedom Forum to focus on advocating First Amendment freedoms. Sass chaired Project FF, which proposed possible future efforts, including a news museum. Some journalism programs continued, and new initiatives were launched in the U.S. and internationally. New efforts included the Newseum, which was created under the leadership of Peter Prichard.