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. Continue reading “Nonprofit journalism faces tough struggle to keep its promise”

The sticky business of foundations funding the news

For years I’ve attended the annual conferences of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, an international group that tries to keep the media honest, but the gathering just held in Montreal was unique. For the first time, ONO’s sessions offered simultaneous translation in three languages.

How that little upgrade happened offers an illuminating sidelight to a big problem confronting today’s revenue-starved media industry: Finding money.

Now, having interpreters transformed the character of the ONO meeting, which gathers public accountability officials from news outfits in the Americas, Europe, and Australia. French- and Spanish-speaking attendees were no longer marginalized, and the debates were more fully engaged than ever.

ONO long recognized its future couldn’t be English-only, but it’s perpetually cash-strapped and couldn’t pull thousands of dollars for translation services from a sock drawer. So it went shopping for grants and got two years’ worth, $126,500, which among other things enables its website and conferences to be trilingual.

The money came from the Open Society Foundations, funded by George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire financier. Soros is one of this country’s most prolific philanthropists, an enthusiastic donor to educational and cultural initiatives and, notably, to leftist political causes. That has made him one of the most vilified figures in the right wing’s pantheon of evil-doers.

Thus did ONO become a lesser target in the wider shooting war against Soros. Dan Gainor, a writer with the rightist Media Research Center, included ONO in a recent four-part denunciation of Soros’ media giving. (Gainor even listed some of ONO’s individual members, as if the grants put them personally in Soros’ debt.) He didn’t mention how much money was involved or what it was for.

But then, Gainor had bigger quarry, including the $1.8 million Open Society gave to National Public Radio in October, Continue reading “The sticky business of foundations funding the news”