Nonprofit journalism faces tough struggle to keep its promise

As the head of a journalism school I have a strong, and obvious, interest in promoting the idea that people who decide to pursue careers as journalists are making a good choice—that it’ll enable them both to serve a valuable social purpose and, no less important, to make a living.

Without a doubt, the news business is in upheaval—or, to be kind, transition—and many of the institutions that have made up its core are struggling.

But while some of the country’s top news organizations are being sold off (most recently, The Washington Post and Boston Globe) and the legacy industry is perpetually scaling back, other media are emerging to meet the public’s insatiable appetite for news, information and interaction.

The burning question is whether they stand any greater likelihood of success than their tottering predecessors.

One sector of great interest consists of nonprofit news media, which have sprung up over the past decade, especially since the 2008 financial crash sent advertising revenues plunging.

The glittering constellation of startup, nonprofit news sites range from local operations that use thinly qualified volunteers to cover neighborhood happenings, to top-shelf news outfits—such as Manhattan-based Pro Publica and the Bay Area’s Center for Investigative Reporting—which routinely win major accolades for high-impact stories of national scope.

Now, nonprofit journalism has long been a durable part of the media landscape, and media underwritten by religious groups (such as The Christian Science Monitor), political movements (The Nation), public giving (NPR), or community organizations have been around for generations.

Nonprofits generally made their money from some combination of advertising, subscription sales, and generosity from their patrons, and they survived in the quiet waters on the edge of the overwhelmingly profit-seeking, ad-supported mainstream. The model’s appeal deepened as consumer advertising began to falter over the past decade, and the production of what had been considered basic news was imperiled.

Foundations and rich donors took interest, and entrepreneurial journalists, denied the jobs they otherwise would’ve commanded, lined up capitalization and got to work. Suddenly, nonprofits seemed not just plausible as a successor paradigm, but unavoidable.

Yet a study released in June by the Pew Research Center that examined 172 nonprofit news organizations offered a picture of energetic striving that has yet to achieve durability and size. Most of the nonprofits were “small, with minimal staffs and modest budgets.” More than three-quarters had five or fewer full-time employees, and just under half had gross revenues of under $500,000.

By comparison, even in their dotage, the country still had 1,386 daily newspapers as of 2011, and they had full-time editorial staffs averaging 28. Even though that average was down from 39 a decade earlier, it was still an order of magnitude greater than the staffing of the nonprofits.

Moreover, an impressive proportion of nonprofits had been unable to leave the funding nest. Three-quarters still were dependent on foundation money, which made up more than half the total revenue of most of those.

That suggests life in the nonprofit sector remains brutish and short, dominated by startups damp with startup money and thrown against the wall in hopes that if enough try, some will stick.

None seem to have figured out how to make money from the content they produce. Even Pro Publica, which to its credit is reducing its dependency on its founding patron, Herb Sandler, from 95 percent to what it hopes will be 30 percent of its total revenue, still depends largely on private largesse.

The challenge they face is finding enduring sources of income, if they can’t rely on selling ads or selling content, and an attractive place to look would be in activities that mingle the civic and the commercial–which have both social purpose and market value.

The four-year-old Texas Tribune has recently drawn admiring attention for the apparent success of its aggressive conference business, in which sponsorships and admission are sold around high-quality public events the online publication organizes. With an expected $1.2 million from 60 to 70 events this year, the Austin-based Tribune might be reproached for turning itself into a conference company whose publishing serves mainly to brand its events.

But the Tribune has correctly, I think, identified a civic service—fostering the indispensable public conversation about common concerns—that was really the essence of the community-building value that the traditional newspaper delivered.

Making civic outreach pay isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible either.  It needs to be part of a mosaic of income-producing initiatives—comprising customized spinoffs, specialized subscription streams, social media mini-networks, and more—that will tax the ingenuity of the next generation of publishers but which will, if we’re lucky, provide the news media with the clean and renewable money they’ll need to serve the rest of us.


One thought on “Nonprofit journalism faces tough struggle to keep its promise

  1. As someone who has worked almost my whole career in non-profit journalism (including education) I know the soul-draining effort, for overworked executives and employees, of constant fund-raising, planning gala dinners, conferences and special events, and catering to individual wealthy donors’ opinions when they are pushed forward. Philanthropy has a major role to play, and should increase it’s attention to journalism, but it cannot provide the solution.

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