Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Opportunity Lost in Baltimore

Riding the Metro this afternoon, I bumped into an old newspaper colleague, Paul West, the chief (and last remaining employee) of The Baltimore Sun's D.C. bureau, who told me that the Sun had just laid off 60+ newsroom employees.

Bad as that news is, I learned later that the big layoff apparently also signals the end of a plan to return the Sun to local ownership and operate as a nonprofit. According to a report this evening on Poynter Online, Baltimore County businessman Ted Venetoulis thinks his plan to operate the Sun as a nonprofit is DOA. From Rick Edmonds' report:

Venetoulis and other local backers have been working on a deal to acquire the paper for years and thought they were close as recently as a few weeks ago. But complications involving Tribune Co.'s bankruptcy proceedings had pushed the schedule back several months, Venetoulis said in a phone interview.

And by ditching so many experienced print editors, Tribune Co. could be signalling that it plans to continue running the operation itself rather than selling it.

"One assumes that the publishers have balanced the need to respond to economic conditions," Venetoulis said, "with a need to provide a quality editorial product." But he sounded doubtful.

Not surprisingly, Venetoulis supports a bill written by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., to allow newspapers run as tax-exempt nonprofits. Venetoulis, a former county executive, gave $1,000 to Cardin's Senate campaign in 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Nonprofit Model for The New York Times?

Heads up, nonprofit number crunchers. Here's a great look at what the nonprofit model is up against - at least in terms of savings newspapers.

Prof. Penelope Muse Abernathy of the J-School at UNC-Chapel Hill has done a thorough analysis of how the model could be applied to The New York Times.

Abernathy examines four possible solutions for saving the Times and its parent company from annihilation when the next big payment is due in two years. Three are nonprofit (an endowment, foundational support, ownership by an educational institution) and the last would preserve a for-profit model (purchase by an "angel" investor).

I won't spoil the plot by telling you which model she prefers. But her analysis does speak to the difficulty of preserving the print product for the long haul and - I think - argues for using the nonprofit model as a Star Trek-style escape pod for enterprise and investigative journalism until the day a successful for-profit model is developed.

Interestingly, Abernathy's foundational support model envisions funding for some high-social-value news desks (e.g., foreign) - and an ensuing food fight over resources within the newsroom:

Who determines, for example, what is a foreign desk expense vs. a national desk expense? Are the salary and expenses of the reporter who covers the State Department assigned to the foreign desk or the Washington bureau?

I'm more inclined to take a half-full view of this problem. In a recent post on the NYT's blog page, Geneva Overholser talks about newspapers' evolving role as aggregators of news from various sources. The aggregation of reporting and information from many sources will be a central function of newspaper companies. So these kinds of turf issues could be solved quickly - especially when the alternative is near-certain extinction. She writes:

Of course, newspapers have to make clear their own reporting from that of community sources, and set standards for selecting its partners. These changes will be difficult for newspapers which have considered themselves the primary newsgathers, but they may lead to the next chapter of American journalism.

And there is some early evidence that a highly collaborative model - even beyond what Overholser suggests - can work. Earlier this month, a reporter from The Washington Post teamed up with a colleague from to produce an investigation of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's oversight of the New York Fed.

But we digress. Abernathy's paper is worth a read. And it will be a topic of discussion at a conference on nonprofit media ownership May 4-5 at Duke University.

Writing the Rules of the Road

So exactly how do foundations and other donors decide which journalism nonprofits to support? This is not a question many journalists spend a lot of time thinking about. But they should.

As Steve Katz, a top fundraiser for Mother Jones, reminds us, funders are a fickle lot. And so far, there are no rules of the road for supporting journalism. The risk: Even the most accurate, best-intended journalist is certain to be accused of bias simply by virtue of having taking money from somebody and/or their foundation.

If nonprofit journalism is to have any value as a public good, Steve argues, funders they need to develop some standards for handing out the cash. In his blog, he recommends that "philanthropic decision making regarding support for investigative journalism as a public good needs to be organized itself as a transparent, public-facing, collaborative process."

Some suggestions: Create a common application form or create an "RFP/open invitation approach." He adds:

(I)t may be time to begin discussions within philanthropy about forming a new affinity group specifically focused on investigative journalism (or journalism generally). Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media (GFEM), an existing foundation affinity group, has a mission that could conceivably be tweaked to make this happen, but I don’t know enough about how they work to say for sure.

It would be a start.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Nonprofit Journalism Unconference

By Edwin Bender

At a recent "unconference" sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation, I watched as sparks flew between advocates of greater transparency and high-tech practitioners. I can't help but think now would be an excellent time to bring together newly sprung journalists eagerly adopting new models for reporting and dissemination and those from the "old school" referenced on this site to share ideas and excitement, but also to develop some "best practices" and guides for building out the new news infrastructure.

For those who have never experienced an "unconference," it works like this: A group with similar interests but widely varied backgrounds gather in one place, submit ideas or topics for discussion to a moderator, who places the ideas and those who will present the topics on a time-line grid, grouped for maximum impact. It's an incredibly efficient way to start experienced-laced conversations around high-value ideas and concerns.

The energy and momentum of the unconference is being harnessed regularly by the open-source community, as well as Web programmers and practitioners around the world.

Enlisting non-profit-development experts for nuts-n-bolts assistance setting up non-profits would help many mulling the idea make the leap.

Most importantly, we don't want to have folks trying to re-invent the wheel as they struggle to be journalists. Let's get reporters on the same Web page now.

A former journalist, Ed Bender is executive director of the National Institute for Money in State Politics in Helena, Mt.

Friday, April 24, 2009


The blog is new, but as those who know me can attest, this is a topic I’ve been following for several years.

The goal is to create a resource for people interested in journalism nonprofits – practitioners, funders, grant writers, etc. I’ve tried to seed the blog with news clips and posts on issues I’ve seen so far. But I am more interested in what others are thinking and reading. So please post! Or email me at journalismnonprofit (at) And please share this link.

Special thanks to Phil Meyer, who at the outset of my career gave me the tools to do journalism the way I wanted to do it, and to Chuck Lewis, who gave me words of encouragement (and bought me a beer) when I needed them most.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Keeping Genuine Journalism Alive

One of the great criticisms of the nonprofit model is that it doesn’t provide a long-term answer to the demise of newspapers as sources of credible information. But here’s the thing – it doesn’t have to.

While the idea of nonprofit journalism may be new even to many journalists, some smart people who have been studying it for some time believe the goal really is to preserve journalism until a viable for-profit model emerges - whenever that might be.

Phil Meyer of UNC-Chapel Hill, articulated this idea five years ago in a forward-looking essay for Columbia Journalism Review entitled “Saving Journalism” in which he suggests the nonprofit model as a means to “keep genuine journalism alive.”

If we are to preserve journalism and its social-service functions, maybe we would be wise not to focus too much on traditional media. The death spiral might be irreversible. We should look for ways to keep the spirit and tradition of socially responsible journalism alive until it finds a home in some new media form whose nature we can only guess at today.

Notably, Meyer’s piece also talks about other avenues, including certification of journalists to help readers sort though the heaps of misinformation available in the online age.

Certification is a form of communication. It tells employers and consumers alike that a practitioner has attained a minimum level of competence in some specialized field. In television, it has already become common for weather reporters to be certified by the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association…. Certification would never, of course, be a prerequisite for practicing in a field, just as an accountant need not be a CPA to advise you on your income tax. But it is information worth having when you decide whom to listen to.

Fast-forward to 2009, and we see the essence of both ideas being put into practice among some of the startups. In creating Kaiser Health News, the Kaiser Family Foundation saw a “window of opportunity” to preserve quality journalism by hiring reporters with years of experience in covering health care, said Matt James, senior vice president. As newspapers and other mainstream media shed jobs, many reporters are moving to other professions so that society no longer benefits from their experience. Kaiser isn’t wading into the certification debate, but its goal is the same – maintaining a high standard for an important journalism specialty.

At the risk of making a long post longer, it’s worth noting Meyer’s answer to the nagging question: Why do newspapers continue to cut newsroom jobs when journalistic quality is their main value proposition? Meyer draws from Harvard Business professor Michael Porter in labeling the strategy a “last-resort business model for companies undermined by substitute technology.”

He (Porter) calls it "harvesting market position." Managers do it by raising prices and reducing quality so they can shell out the money and run. I know of no newspaper companies that are doing this consciously, but the behavior of most points in this direction: smaller newshole, lighter staffing, and reduced community service, leading, of course, to fading readership, declining circulation, and lost advertising. Plot it on a graph, and it looks like a death spiral.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Pulitzer Day

Columbia University handed out the Pulitzers today, and even before the award winners were announced, this year's competition was notable because it was the first time that Web-only news sites, including start-up nonprofits Web-only news sites were eligible for the prizes.

The results? Another big haul (five) for The New York Times and two prizes for an old-guard nonprofit, the St. Petersburg Times, including one for national reporting to the staff of its site. Not a single .org made the list of finalists and winners. But change comes slowly to the Pulitzer competition, and the new eligibility rules mean the door has been opened.

The Trouble with Nonprofit Journalism

A thoughtful and well-argued critique of the nonprofit model as salvation for the newspaper industry comes from Jonathan Weber at NewWest.Net. The essence of his argument against taking the nonprofit road is that it does not require journalists to make news decisions that are grounded in the market of reader demand. As he puts it:
For the core problem that non-profit journalism will never be able to solve properly is deciding what is worthy. In a business, the customers ultimately decide what is worthy, for better and for worse.

Weber goes on to give examples of the many ways in which the nonprofit model can break down when applied to newspapers.
Does the non-profit newspaper cover sports? Why? How about movies? Surely the market is filling the need for sports and movie coverage. But if not movies, why theatre, or dance, or opera? How about personal finance? Do we need endowed newspapers to give us trendy advice about our personal spending and saving habits, when huge racks of books and countless magazines and Web sites all offer the same trendy advice? As Michael Hirschhorn ably noted in his Atlantic story about the future of the New York Times, the whole lifestyle end of the mainstream newspaper package throws an odd cog into the question of the public good.

While Weber's post makes a good point here about the need to address the market of reader demand, it ignores the fact that journalists working in newsrooms of for-profit newspapers rarely are confronted with these kinds of decisions - and when they are, they tend to freak out about publisher influence on newsroom decisions.

This argument also sets up a straw man with regard to extending the newspaper model to the Web. Not a lot people see nonprofits - especially those operating solely on the Web - replacing every aspect of a newspaper. Rather, nonprofits may be best suited to replace the explanatory, enterprise and investigative journalism that can't be fully underwritten by online advertising.

For that kind of work, "the for-profit model may be broken forever," says Matt James, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation and a founder of Kaiser Health News.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Ben Cardin and the 501(c)3 newspaper

You've got to give credit to Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., author of the Newspaper Revitalization Act. He gets what newspapers do and why they're important to society. Here's an excerpt from his op-ed in the Washington Post explaining why he introduced the act:

When it comes to original, in-depth reporting that records and exposes actions, issues and opportunities in our communities, nothing has replaced newspapers. Most, if not all, sources of journalistic information, from Google to broadcast news or punditry, gain their original material from the laborious and expensive work of experienced newspaper reporters diligently working their beats over the course of years. Not hours, years.

Eric Schmidt couldn't have said it any better. But I'm not sure if I understand exactly why we need a new tax-code definition - the "Qualified Newspaper Corporation" - to allow newspapers tax-exempt status.

Under current law, any company may organize and operate as a tax-exempt charity as long as it meets the exemption requirements listed under Section 501(c)3 of the IRS code. A legitimate purpose of a 501(c)3 nonprofit is education, and newspapers surely qualify under the existing definition.

The big flap has been over Cardin's statement that nonprofit newspapers "would not be allowed to make political endorsements." But the bigger concern, especially for smaller papers, could be Cardin's explicit limits on the amount of advertising that may be published under the tax exemption: Cardin would require that nonprofit newspapers contain at least as much editorial content as advertising.

Cardin is trying to protect nonprofit newspapers from paying taxes on advertising as unrelated income. But what if advertisers also are donors? Who's to say which advertising has educational value and which does not? And who's going to measure the column inches? It seems he'd be better off not going there at all. If this bill became law - however unlikely that may be - this part almost certainly would get hashed out in court. So why create a standard that could limit nonprofit newspapers' success?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Thinking the Unthinkable

Clay Shirky recently put up a wonderful post that provides some context for the times. From the journalism nonprofit perspective, I think the takeaway is that the nonprofit model is not so much a solution as it is a means to a solution.

Here's an excerpt:

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.

Thanks to Mike Broder for flagging this one.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Toward Critical Mass

We're seeing some early signs of critical mass. A couple of data points:

1. The folks who run are talking about banding together with other nonprofit startups to combine some of their business operations. This from a story that ran in the New York Times last November:
The fledgling movement has reached a sufficient critical mass, its founders think, so they plan to form an association, angling for national advertising and foundation grants that they could not compete for singly.

2. And how about this for a big idea: Matt James, senior vice president for media and public education at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told me recently that he'd like to band together several major foundations to create a $3 billion news endowment.

This kind of thinking is crucial to the long-term health of nonprofits, according to Robert Egger, a leading, if controversial, voice on issues of nonprofit governance. In an essay published at the outset of last year's presidential campaign, Egger called on nonprofits to work collectively rather than merely tolerating each other's existence. He writes:
(N)onprofit groups must free themselves from the morass of meaningless metrics and strive for intellectual independence. For too long we have measured our value by how many children we have fed, how many houses we have built, or how many whales we have saved, instead of calculating and then championing the economic impact of productive citizens, strong communities, and a healthy environment that result directly from the work of nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit groups must embrace their role in the American economy, and actively challenge this nation to fully explore the power and potential in this vastly underutilized resource. And to make that point, nonprofit groups need to rededicate their missions to economic independence, both for the people they serve and for their own operations.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Getting Started

I remember when I saw the handwriting on the newsroom wall. It was July 2005. I realized that not only was my job as a Washington correspondent doomed, so was the entire newspaper industry. Maybe not that month or that year, but the end was clearly visible on the near horizon.

What to do? I went back to an article written by Phil Meyer, my graduate advisor in J-School at Chapel Hill. In it, Meyer talked about the nonprofit model and its potential to save enterprise and investigative journalism - the world-beating stuff that citizen journalists, bloggers and other volunteers simply could not match.

I decided to launch my own nonprofit. I began by looking for sponsors for a newsroom that would report data-driven investigations from Washington, D.C., and give away its work. I shopped the idea to many of the leading lights in the business. To his eternal credit, Chuck Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity bought me a beer and offered me encouragement. But others sent back at most a few words of encouragement. And money? Forget it!

Fast forward to April 2009. Things have changed so much. New nonprofit news outlets are cropping up every day. Even as I write this post, I see an AP alert about Seattle P-I refugees starting their own online paper. Things have changed for me, too. I've left daily reporting to learn about the nonprofit sector, and I'm working on a second master's - this one in Nonprofit Management in the M.P.A. program at George Washington University. As part of my studies at GW, I'm working on a report on the state of the nonprofit model in journalism. The project involves several phases.

First, I'm trying to make this blog a resource, beginning with a simple archive of news stories I've seen on the topic. (Links are listed on the right side of this page.) Next, I plan to take an informal census of the nonprofits that in some significant are attempting to take up the enterprise and investigative reporting slack left by newspapers. I hope to identify several major archetypes and, perhaps, do some handicapping of their chances for success. I also plan to look at established journalism nonprofits and assess what this sea-change might mean for them. Along the way, I plan to share my findings here.

I'd appreciate constructive input or feedback from those who stumble across this site. What are some sites worth checking out? How good is the journalism? Are they trying to generate revenue? How? And bigger questions like, how will this all shake out? What other issues are in play here?

Thanks for stopping by.