Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Another Nonprofit in San Diego

Interesting development in San Diego. The daily dead-tree Union-Tribune is spinning off an investigative unit as a nonprofit that will be headed by Lorie Hearn, the current editor of the U-T's investigative team, and will be called "The Watchdog Institute."

The U-T is giving the new organization a "substantial financial commitment" to start the operation, according to a report on voiceofsandiego.org, and as an "official partner," will get first dibs on its output. The organization might be housed at San Diego State University.

Hearn insists that "This is not the Union-Tribune's non-profit," according to VOSD. But this clearly is new territory for newspapers, which are struggling to pay for content that continues to make them at least a marginally compelling read. As VOSD reported: "(I)t doesn’t appear that any newspaper has developed as tight of a relationship with a non-profit organization as The Watchdog Institute expects to have with the U-T."

There was some predictably cynical reaction posted last night to a similar report on the San Diego Reader. Some accused the U-T of using the new structure as a backdoor means to layoffs, and another called it "a journalistic pitbull-puppy mill."

The downside - especially for VOSD - is that the new organization will be poised to compete for donor dollars within the San Diego philanthropic community.

But on the upside, here is a newspaper that at least appears to be trying something creative to preserve its role as a community watchdog rather than simply laying off staff or closing down altogether. While some newspapers have partnered with nonprofits - witness the Washington Post and ProPublica - this pushes much deeper into hybrid territory.

Several years ago, I pushed a very similar idea for a Washington, D.C., bureau. If this works, maybe it will inspire somebody to try covering the federal government again.

The new organization is expected to begin operations in the fall.

Monday, June 29, 2009

New Nonprofit Newspaper in Puerto Rico

We've seen a lot of journalism nonprofits spring to life the past couple of years - all online-only, as far as I know - so this one may be the first of its era.

After the closing of the Puerto Rico Daily Star, the commonwealth's only English-language daily, a group of 85 employees chipped in $800 apiece to start their own nonprofit newspaper, the Puerto Rico Daily Sun. They don't even have a web site yet - unless you count the "coming soon" page at prdailysun.com. But they do have a Facebook page.

I am not making this up. I read it in Saturday's Miami Herald.

The best material is at the end of the story. Editor Rafael Matos admits the seven-reporter tabloid is heavy on wire copy. But the strategy of going print-only first was deliberate decision to build audience, he told the Herald. Otherwise, he said, "nobody would buy the thing."

Legally, Matos said, ownership is organized as a cooperative. He concludes:

It's the cheapest way to set up a media enterprise. I know in the U.S. it sounds like socialism, but in this part of the Caribbean, cooperatives are a lifesaver. If we can keep this paper alive, we are a success. ... All we need is to break even.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Fun and More in San Diego

I checked in with Andrew Donohue of voiceofsandiego.org to see how last night's event went. One of the goals was to build relationships with readers - a key to the success of the nonprofit model.

Rather than ramble on, I'll relay Andrew's email, which I think captures the essence of the nonprofit model and its potential as a platform for socially responsible journalism:

The event was great. We've done a number recently -- a forum on local economics, a post-election analysis panel, an open-house and a little gathering at a wine bar.

I'm not sure on final attendance numbers, but we had more than 100 people RSVP.

These events are crucial to what we're attempting to become. We're not just a website and no where in our mission does it say we're a website. So far, that's just been the primary portal for our information.

We see ourselves as membership-driven organization that not only provides news and investigations, but convenes the community together, gets them thinking and talking about ways to make San Diego better, and leads them to collective action.

Oftentimes when our donors talk about VOSD, they use "we." It's that sense of ownership that embodies the loyalty we seek and need. Events like last night's are key to both building that ownership and fulfilling our desire to get our members together, talking, in the same room.

A Sign of Things To Come

About an hour ago, washingtonpost.com posted a breaking story - "White House Drafts Order to Hold Some Detainees Indefinitely" - under two familiar bylines, Dafna Linzer and Peter Finn. But here's the hitch - Linzer, a former Post reporter, now works for nonprofit ProPublica, and is credited as such as the lead byline.

Under its partnership with the Post, ProPublica now shares some of its best, breaking stories - and in return, gets eyeballs routed to its site through a link to its own story that contains the deep reporting behind the breaking news (which, for the scoop-minded was posted about an hour earlier).

It's the kind of cooperation that was unthinkable - at least among newspaper types - just a few years ago. But make no mistake, it's a sign of things to come as newspapers look for ways to underwrite the cost of investigative reporting, and nonprofit startups work to build credibility, audience and, ultimately, institutional gravitas.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

voiceofsandiego.org Event Tonight

For all the comparisons made between for-profit legacy media and those in the nonprofit sector, I think one of the most favorable is the nonprofit's outreach to its community or communities.

In their quest for a sustainable business model, several nonprofits I've learned about - all online-only startups, by the way - have incorporated social events as part of their ongoing fundraising and marketing campaigns.

Tonight, voiceofsandiego.org is hosting an event called "The People Who Make San Diego Work" - a celebration of interesting people that the site has written about in their People at Work and Virtual Convening series. Admission is free for donors and $20 for first-time donors. It's a small amount, but this is part of the business of developing relationships for the long haul.

For details, see the invitation here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Opportunity in Ann Arbor

For those keeping track of such things, it appears that Ann Arbor, Mich., will become the first U.S. city without a daily newspaper when the Ann Arbor News closes its doors next month and sells its distinctive building.

The Newhouse family, which owns the News and newspapers in several major Michigan cities outside Detroit, is replacing the News with a new company and Web site called AnnArbor.com, which it is touting as "an innovative, community news and information service."

I'm sure the site will improve once it is formally launched. But for now, it serves as a timely, if painful, reminder that there are some things the nonprofit sector can do a lot better than a for-profit business.

Don't believe me? Toggle back and forth a couple of times between AnnArbor.com and MinnPost.com or voiceofsandiego.org.

The first thing you see on AnnArbor.com is a "poll" that asks readers, "What should we cover?"

I try hard to avoid snarkiness in this space. But are you kidding me? What should we cover? Where do you start with a gimme like that? "Lame" is the kindest word I can think to describe this lack of effort (though that's the Newhouse online tradition). They may be hiring veteran journalists from the News to staff this site - which is nice - but if this is their starting point, the end can't be too far in the distance. And that's made nauseatingly clear by reading Steve Newhouse's comments to Crain's Detroit Business. Again, "lame" is the best I can do.

Okay, here's the upside. I can't imagine a better place than Ann Arbor for somebody to launch a successful nonprofit newsroom. It's a big university town with a great journalism tradition, and despite the auto industry's woes, there's lots of wealth stashed away just looking for the right opportunity to make an impact. And thanks to the Newhouses, there's now a huge online banner that screams "underserved community."

(Full disclosure: I worked for The Oregonian, a Newhouse paper, and tried in 2005 to pitch the idea of spinning off the Newhouse D.C. bureau as a nonprofit. I didn't get far. The Newhouses closed the bureau this past November.)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Salvation, Sustenance and Sustainability

One of the truths I'm beginning to recognize from this perch is that the world of nonprofit journalism can be divided into many dichotomies - haves v. have-nots, national v. regional, specialty v. general interest, for examples.

Here's another that might sound like a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but I think speaks to the long-term prospects and viability of the nonprofit model: The divide between those who seek salvation and those who merely want sustenance.

Among the former are those who regard newspapers as institutions that should be saved for their value as institutions - their gravitas and unique ability to call out elected leaders, industries and other institutions that on occasion might behave badly. For them, there is the "conversion" model in which a switch to nonprofit status is regarded as an end in itself - a new status in which losses can be tolerated because owners will not expect profits.

In my mind, this is a short-term approach that ignores the enormous pressures weighing on newspapers and other "legacy" media. It might get a troubled company through a few more years, but it doesn't solve the core problem - which, as Phil Meyer noted in 2004, is not how to save newspapers, but how to save the socially responsible journalism that they produce. This is not to say that the conversion model - as touted by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and others - won't work, but it needs to be a means, not an end.

The latter group - those seeking sustenance - sees nonprofit status as a means. Their plan is to get established, build a brand and an audience, and then do some focused experimentation with tools that can lead them to long-term sustainability, either as nonprofits or as nonprofits with for-profit subsidiaries. Generally, these are people who embrace new technology and its power to build communities. For them, nonprofit status is a means to expand the definition of socially responsible journalism.

As John Thornton, creator of the soon-to-be Texas Tribune, put it in his blog (and forgive me for quoting a post that quotes me):

Furthermore, I’ve learned this lesson more than once in my day job: it’s generally easier to start from scratch than it is to convince an existing organization to adopt a new strategy (and some new management). ... Glomming such an effort onto something else just wouldn’t work.

As for newspapers, it may be that the best path is toward a hybrid model - where for-profit newspaper channel resources provided by foundations and other nonprofits. For a clear picture of how this model might play out in a newsroom, I recommend a column written last month by John Drescher, executive editor of my alma mater, The News & Observer.

John strikes the right note for newspapers when he conclude: "The more reporters on the street (or in the lab, the courts or the classroom), the better."

Friday, June 19, 2009

Scaling Up: Chuck Lewis and WIRE

For those looking to the future of philanthropy and journalism, Chuck Lewis offers an intriguing guidepost - and a full-blown hybrid business model - in a recent Columbia Journalism Review article entitled "A Social Network Solution."

Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity and the Investigative Reporting Workshop, writes the article from the point of view CJR calls "voices from an imagined future," looking back on current events from 2014. It's an artifice for sure, but it does help set the imagination free from the bleak reality of the news business today.

In the article, Lewis notes the emergence in 2008 of "dozens of new nonprofit muckraking organizations at the local, state, and national level." But the missing elements, he says, were "a global, online, social-utility platform" and "a new financial support system to make that possible."

Lewis, a prolific fundraiser, then reveals that he has big plans for later this year. He writes:

With all of this in mind, in late 2009, I began World Investigative Reporting Enterprises (WIRE), a global gateway to investigative journalism - a multimedia platform for the best original stories by some of the best journalists in the world, commissioned by, reported, written, edited, and published or produced for WIRE. The privately owned company includes investors who are socially committed to this work and who don't expect 20-plus percent annual profits - people I know personally and trust.

Then comes the business model, which relies both on payment for content and donations from readers and "associates":

(B)y the end of 2013 profits were at 5 percent. By then, we had accumulated one thousand media partners throughout the world, using a syndication model in which content is exchanged for online page views, which WIRE then uses to sell advertising - with a share of that advertising income paid back to the partner site. Revenue is derived from advertising and reader donations. The latter has vastly exceeded our expectations. Thousands of civic-minded individuals became so excited by the historic nature of WIRE and the public service it provides that they became reader-contributors, what we call WIRE Associates - crowd-funding by credit card, not for an individual project or subject area, but for the entire operation.

Will it work? Looks like we'll soon find out.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Creative Commons Licensing

In this space, I try to highlight ideas and resources that might be of benefit to people trying to pursue nonprofit journalism. Reading Dick Tofel's post from Saturday about the Associated Press' decision to distribute the work of ProPublica, I was reminded of one of those resources - an outfit known as Creative Commons.

The organization, a nonprofit, offers content creators (including nonprofit news organizations) off-the-shelf licensing agreements that allow them to give away their work, but do so under their terms - such as a requiring attribution and prohibiting "derivative" works. These kinds of agreements help build brands and show funders that the journalism is creating impact.

For more info, check out the video on their "about" page - the third one on the page, next to the header, "Our other legal tools and resources." It's about three minutes long, and is fairly compelling.

CC's motto: "Saving the world from failed sharing."

Monday, June 15, 2009

ProPublica's Plan for Sustainability

This just in from Dick Tofel in response to a question regarding exactly how ProPublica would invest the $1 million grant it will get from the Knight Foundation:
We’re going to use the grant to launch a broad effort at development. We’ll almost certainly begin by conducting a study, using a leading fundraising consulting firm. Will be guided by the results of that.

Along the way, I’m sure we’ll need to bring on a development director, but want to more about where we’re aiming so we can know just what skill set and experience is optimal for that.

And Knight has put its money where its money is as well, adding an important element of general support to the project funding for development.

Sorry not to be able to be more specific, but if we had all the answers already, we wouldn’t need to do this work.

The grant also marks a big step for ProPublica in that it is the first seven-digit grant from anyone other than the Sandler Foundation, which put up $30 million to launch the organization in 2007.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Knight Foundation's Grants

At the IRE conference in Baltimore yesterday, the Knight Foundation announced in a statement that it would dole out $15 million in grants "to help develop new economic models for investigative reporting on digital platforms."

One piece of good news is that it looks like most of that money will be channeled into the nonprofit sector, where experimentation can take place while sheltered - at least in the incubation stage - from bottom-line pressures. Among the grantees are ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Even better news: $3 million of the $15 million is yet unclaimed. Remember, you can't win if you don't enter.

Now here’s my little black cloud. Look at the approximately $12 million in grants already awarded, and it seems that only about half really might have anything to do with developing new economic models.

One example of what I mean: $2 million goes to IRE "to create an endowment to permanently train journalists in the areas of watchdog and computer assisted journalism." Great! But that's an investment in the journalism, not the business model.

And among those that sound like they're about the business model, I have questions as well.

Nearly $5 million is going to News21 "to help 12 university-based investigative reporting projects look for a model of self-sustainability." Again, great. But News21 is Knight's partnership with Carnegie to support journalism education. Its mission statement says in part:

The initiative will experiment with curriculum and hands-on experience with the hope of creating a national conversation with other schools across the country.

How is this is about an economic model?

The only thing that sounded like it was even close to the mark was a $250,000 grant to Boston University "to create a regional, university-based investigative reporting unit that draws on reporters from the local print, broadcast and digital press." Now there's an idea you can take to the bank. Or at least try.

Which is the whole point here. A time of crisis - the Knight release notes that "America’s daily newspapers employ some 10,000 fewer journalists in their newsrooms than they did a decade ago" - is no time to stick to the well-worn path of the familiar.

If foundations want to make a difference in journalism, they need to take some chances. Because of its legacy in the news business, Knight was better suited than any to place its bets strategically. By going with proven successes and in-house favorites, it sends the wrong signal to other foundations that are interested in joining the field but have yet to develop the necessary internal expertise.

AP to Distribute Four Nonprofits' Work

You may have seen this already, but it bears repeating in this space: The AP (also a nonprofit) on July 1 will begin distributing articles from four nonprofit news organizations, according to an article Saturday in the New York Times.

The article notes that the arrangement is a six-month trial that could be expanded. It says:

The A.P. called the arrangement a six-month experiment that could later be broadened to include other investigative nonprofits, and to serve its nonmember clients, which include broadcast and Internet outlets.

The article does not touch on any financial considerations - presumably, the nonprofits would receive no direct compensation for their work - but the enormous visibility that AP distribution offers the nonprofits does create some interesting possibilities as nonprofits seek sustainable business models.

The four nonprofits are: ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity, and the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Fast to Failure

We began our panel Friday with a quotation from Clay Shirky's essay, "Thinking the Unthinkable," to give the NIMSP conferees some idea of what is going on in the world of serious journalism. The upshot: Institutions are crumbling faster than they can be replaced, and nobody can know for certain what ultimately will replace them.

From that premise, our panelists began hurling ideas for what the future might hold - online media brands that will replace the books, newspapers and magazines that depend on crumbling business models.

A key to understanding how the next few years will unfold is a strategy John Thornton calls "fast to failure" - the idea that we need to test as many plausible ideas as possible to sort out those that actually will work. And as John notes, the best laboratory is the nonprofit sector, where innovators are freed from pressure to produce immediate profits. His answer is the Texas Tribune, an online investigative news source that he hopes to launch later this year and, he acknowledges, must navigate "a thousand ways to fail."

But as NIMSP board president Jeff Malachowsky said later, it's hard to get one's head around exactly what this means and why somebody would want to try. He and other conferees wondered why John didn't spend his time and money working with an established institution such as one or more of Texas' ailing newspapers. In the world of philanthropy, carfeul conservation of resources is part of the culture.

The answer, to paraphrase John loosely, is that established media simply don't get it - and they can't get it - because they are wed to a model that is failing. A "patch" is just that - it's not innovation.

Thinking the unthinkable, it turns out, is hard to do - even for highly imaginative people.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Moment of Shameless Self-Promotion

For the next couple of days, I'll be at the annual conference of the National Institute for Money in State Politics - an event I mentioned in a post a couple of days ago. On Friday, I'll be part of a panel entitled "Information and News in a New Age" from 3:15pm-4:45pm Mountain Time. You can tune in to the panel (and the whole conference) by clicking this link.

We've got a really good group - not just old newspaper creatures like me. The other panelists are:

- Laurel Ruma, Editor, O'Reilly Media
- John Thornton, General Partner, Austin Ventures
- Robert McClure, Vice President, Investigate West

Some topics I hope we'll cover:

- Watchdog/enterprise/investigative journalism as a public good
- Hybrids and the blurry, blurry line between nonprofit and for-profit
- Nonprofit models that might work; models not so much
- Haves and have-nots, and the quest for sustainability
- New research, metrics and other steps toward scaling up

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Three Conversations

Steve Katz, a fundraiser for Mother Jones, does a nice job of sorting out the various narratives now being woven about the role of nonprofits in preserving journalism.

His post, in sum, says there are three conversations about journalism and nonprofits that need to come together. Steve is a talented writer who knows a lot about this topic - check out more on his blog - but here's the boiled-down, eight-grade-reading-level version.

The groups still talking mostly among themselves are:
- Newspaper people trying to survive
- People who think we need public policy to support journalism
- Problem-solvers steeped in strategic philanthropy

(Did I get this approximately right, Steve?)

Again, the upshot is that the three groups need to start talking to each other, as Steve says, "because when we do I suspect very good things will happen."

While we're on the topic of getting people to talk to each other, Steve's post reminds me of a conversation I had last month with Dick Tofel of ProPublica. We were talking about how nonprofits might sustain themselves over the long haul, and I asked where he looked for ideas. One place he mentioned was the The Pew Charitable Trusts' Cultural Data Project.

The project, which is being built out on a state-by-state basis, uses a common "Data Profile" used by nonprofits seeking support from foundations. Though it's long, it's not rocket science. It's an attempt to get nonprofits to address common metrics, making it easier for donors to see which ones best fit their profile.

NIMSP and Transparency

One of the best examples that the nonprofit sector can play in supporting watchdog journalism comes from our friends at the National Institute for Money in State Politics.

The institute prides itself as the "only publicly available source in the country of comprehensive state-level campaign-finance information." Its painstaking work is the fuel for journalism that may not win a lot of Pulitzer Prizes, but lets elected leaders know that someone is watching and that they are accountable.

Founded in 1999 and based in Helena, Mont., the institute this week celebrates its 10th anniversary with a stakeholders' conference on Flathead Lake. It goal is to continue to make its online data more accessible to users of all kinds - and in the process, create the kind of transparency could have been imagined only a few years ago. It is positioned to become an essential resource to startup journalism nonprofits. As a result, its value to states and communities across the country is certain to grow exponentially. As executive director Ed Bender notes:

The demise of legacy news organizations means our resources are more valuable than ever to the citizens in states that no longer have reporters in Capitol rotundas or in the halls of legislators.

Best of all, it's free.

Here's some info on ways to join the conference remotely:

Please join us in these important and informative discussions: we will broadcast a video feed live via the internet. Find the video on our homepage:

FollowTheMoney.org, or on our
• Facebook fan page (http://www.facebook.com/login.php#/pages/FollowTheMoneyorg/136781845057) (under the boxes tab), or
• direct from our Ustream page (http://www.ustream.tv/channel/Flathead-Convening).
• Send feedback and questions via Twitter, using the hashtag #Transparency09.
(If you aren’t already following us on Twitter, find us at: @MoneyInPolitics.)

View the schedule at: http://www.followthemoney.org/content/flathead-convening.phtml?em=55. If you are unable to view these discussions live, look for them on our webpage after the event.

Please join us for any or all of this conference. If you have any questions about this event you can send them at: http://www.followthemoney.org/Contact/index.phtml?em=55.

Monday, June 8, 2009

J-Lab: By the Numbers

Here's a follow-up on the item posted here last week about the J-Lab at American University and its groundbreaking report on philanthropic support of news projects.

As a review, the report found that a collective $128 million had been raised since 2005 for 117 projects excluding public broadcasting programs, the underwriting of documentaries, journalism training and student news services.

A major criticism of the nonprofit model is that there will never be enough money to go around to make a dent in the need for enterprise and investigative journalism being left by traditional (newspaper) media. And some people said the J-Lab report only underscored that problem because it found that $30 million of the $128 million went from the Sandler foundation to ProPublica.

I won't argue either point in this space. But I thought it would be interesting to crunch the numbers in the J-Lab database. Here's what I found out: Indeed, nearly half the money counted (about $63 million) went to three news sources: ProPublica and two established outfits, Center for Public Integrity and New America Media/Pacific News Service.

More telling, perhaps, is that the average of all grants listed in the database is about $453,000, but the median is $80,000. That tells me two things: 1) The Big Three indeed are racking up the lion's share of grant money. 2) But there are lots of relatively small (less than $100,000) grants out there going funding a lot of people's experiments, hopes and dreams.

J-Lab's executive director, Jan Schaffer, said her group discussed whether to include the big ones. But they decided to go ahead because they wanted to capture the fact that investigative startups have begun commanding big donations. In an email, she writes:

We debated whether or not to include the likes of the big investigative grants, like to Pro Publica or Center for Public Integrity. But we realized that if we didn’t include them, we’d miss out on showing how investigative projects overall account for something like $65 million of this pool of money. Fresh money went into 5-6 investigative startups that have launched fairly recently.

Another slice of the database showed that some smaller outfits have succeeded in diversifying their donor base - a key to long-term survival. While the big names still lead in number of donors, some lesser known names - Health News Florida, for example - crack the top 10.

Here's a look at the top 10 fundraisers as measured by J-Lab:

Organization - Grants Since 2005
ProPublica $30,800,000
Center for Public Integrity $14,942,479
New America Media/Pacific News Svc $13,922,091
Stateline.org $7,500,000
Ctr for Investigative Rept’g $7,249,000
Schuster Institute for Investigative Journ $5,000,000
Calif. Ctr for HC Journalism $3,700,000
Chicago Matters $3,660,000
California Healthline $2,500,000
iHealthBeat $2,500,000

And here are the top 10 in terms of donors:

Organization - Number of Grants
Center for Public Integrity 42
Ctr for Investigative Rept’g 40
New America Media/Pacific News Svc 34
Women’s eNews 18
Pulitzer Ctr on Crisis Reporting 8
New York Cmty Media Alliance 8
Health News Florida 8
ProPublica 7
Gotham Gazette 7
Voice of San Diego 6

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Kinsley Report

If you don't get The Washington Post at home or online, it's worth a few minutes to read Michael Kinsley's column this morning on the role of "grandees" in supporting journalism, for-profit or nonprofit.

The upshot of Kinsley's piece is that the nonprofit model is no better at providing the "combination of financial security and editorial freedom that newspapers need" than old-fashioned, deep-pocketed, profit-seeking owners.

On what does he base this conclusion? His time at Harper's, where his board was comprised of people who held "ruthlessly conventional views about most subjects and an inability to imagine how anyone sensible could hold any other views."

Sorry to hear that Kinsley had a frustrating experience trying to get his ideas into print - what good journalist hasn't? - but that's a bit like arguing the Google model is bad because he had a hard time selling mainframes for IBM in the 1990s.

Kinlsey's argument really is a thinly veiled peeve - a drive-by - and I expected more from him. It lacks intellectual rigor, and more to the point, reflects little knowledge about the role of the nonprofit sector in our democratic society. It's a place for creativity and experimentation, and it has a long history of producing ideas that eventually turned into profit-making businesses. A related point is that the debate here isn't about newspapers so much as the enterprise and investigative journalism they produce. That's what needs to be saved.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Interview: Phil Bennett

If nonprofits are to transform the ailing news business, their investigative reporting must “enter the discussion in a really forceful way. … Impact is what is going to define success,” says Phil Bennett, former managing editor of The Washington Post.

So far, that hasn’t happened, Bennett says. New, high-profile forays into investigative journalism haven’t taken the place of what the nation’s biggest newspapers are still doing, he says. And to some extent, they compete.

Meanwhile, major philanthropic support has bypassed smaller communities, where it is needed most, he says. The Post, for example, easily could raise $5 million or more to endow its investigative desk. But what about the Kansas City Star or other smaller papers?

“I think what is happening is that the organizations that have the least amount of need for it are the most attractive to donors,” he said. That disconnect is among the “contradictions that have to shake themselves out.”

Bennett, who will begin teaching at Duke University this fall, was asked in an interview to discuss how newsroom executives view the emerging nonprofit sector in journalism – and the extent to which they might employ nonprofit models in the reporting of news, particularly enterprise and investigative.

In his new job at Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, Bennett will be at the forefront of a major new effort to address the “fundamental market failures” that threaten enterprise and investigative journalism. Among other things, the center is investigating how the nonprofit model might lead to solutions.

Converting existing newspapers into nonprofits isn’t among them, Bennett says. Journalists tend to think that by shifting a newspaper to nonprofit status, it becomes okay to lose tens of millions of dollars a year, he says. But that’s not so. If anything, tax laws that apply to nonprofits would expose newspapers to greater public scrutiny of their finances.

“Nonprofit status does not solve the current business crisis,” Bennett says. “The conversion model doesn’t convince me.”

Beneath Bennett’s top layer of skepticism about the nonprofit model replacing newspaper journalism runs a deep vein of ideas for how nonprofits might partner with traditional news organizations.

Journalism nonprofits work best when they grow organically to address a community need – and when they are “niche-y,” Bennett says. By that, he means they should address a specific community defined either by geography or a special interest such as health, or more specifically, diabetes.

Another possibility for the nonprofit model is that newspapers might shore up their standing as aggregators of community interests – if not their finances, as well – by spinning off nonprofits, he says. For example, after its series on the abuses at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital, the Post might have spun off a nonprofit site that is dedicated to veterans’ health issues.

Bennett is among a growing consensus that believes a truly new business model that supports enterprise and investigative journalism has yet to manifest itself, regardless of whether newspapers are the medium. And as for a nonprofit model that works for newspapers, he says, “We’re waiting for a model to replicate.”

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Duke and Journalism

Play word association with “journalism school,” and you might blurt “Columbia” or “Missouri” or “Carolina.” But “Duke”? That seems an odd pairing, especially for us Chapel Hill alums. But Duke’s conference on nonprofit media last month was no random act. It was part of a new, deliberate effort by the university to help save the business of journalism.

Under a new director, Jay Hamilton, and a new, five-year plan, Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy is applying a think-tank approach to the “fundamental market failures” that threaten enterprise and investigative journalism. Among other things, the center is trying to discern how the nonprofit model might be best applied; the May conference was part of that effort.

In an article in Duke Magazine, Hamilton, an economist, had this to say about the premise for nonprofits in journalism:

When you look at where news markets are today, I think that it's pretty clear that the biggest market failure lies in the threat to accountability journalism. People have four different types of information demands: producer, consumer, entertainment, and voter. The first three work pretty well, because people seek them out. For voter information, the fact that you're not really the decider, that your single vote will not determine the outcome of the election, means that many people remain rationally ignorant about the details of politics. That means papers often don't have a profit incentive to engage in significant watchdog or accountability journalism.

As part of the center’s new direction, it has hired two new professors, both of whom previously worked at The Washington Post.

Sarah Cohen, who will teach and pursure reasearch in “computational journalism,” which Hamilton says “holds the promise of combining traditional public records and database work with new methods and tools adapted from other disciplines to help renew watchdog coverage.”

Phil Bennett, the Post’s former managing editor, will teach and be “a strong contributor to debates about the future of accountability and watchdog journalism,” Hamilton said.

Bennett talked with me today about his view of evolving role of nonprofits in journalism. More about that in a post coming soon.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

J-Lab: Toolkit for Journalism Nonprofits

We all know that nonprofit journalism is on the rise. But now Jan Schaffer and the J-Lab at American University's School of Communication have done what no one else has - they've actually put real numbers around the size and scope of the movement.

The J-Lab report, released today, found that 180 foundations have contributed nearly $128 million since 2005 to "news and information initiatives." The report's overview also gives a sense of the hunger for old-fashioned, independent journalism that exists in communities across the U.S. It says:

These are not random acts of journalism, such as eyewitnesses uploading photos or videos of a major catastrophe. Nor are they the rants of Internet cowboys opining on the state of neighborhood affairs in their individual blogs.

Rather, these new projects are often organized acts of journalism, constructed with an architecture and a mind-set to investigate discrete topics or cover geographic
areas. The projects provide deliberate, accurate and fair accounts of day-to-day happenings in communities that nowadays have little or no daily news coverage.

And increasingly, as legacy news organizations fret about future business models or fail entirely, these shoestring start-ups are attracting support from philanthropic organizations whose mission statements never mention the word “media.”

Better still, the J-Lab also offers a toolkit on how to go about getting funding for such start-ups. There's also a database of grants made.

This is powerful stuff - a desperately needed bridge between the worlds of journalism and philanthropy that had become increasingly conspicuous by its absence.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Charles Barkley of Nonprofit Journalism?

As Kaiser Health News, a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, makes its formal launch today, it's worth reflecting on what this new venture can do to advance the cause of nonprofit journalism.

KHN plans "to do in-depth coverage of health policy that informs and explains and that increasingly cannot be done in the mainstream news business," Kaiser president and CEO Drew Altman said in a release this morning.

A remarkable aspect of KHN is the foundation's decision to grant it editorial independence under an advisory board of leading journalists led by former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie. In today's release, Downie sizes up the stakes:

Kaiser Health News is an important initiative in non-profit news reporting, which will be closely watched in the search for new models for in-depth, public service journalism.

But will KHN - can it - be a role model that inspires emulators? Surprisingly, Altman has played down that notion. In a column written May 1, Altman says:

Will KHN be the model for nonprofit journalism? I'm not so sure. That's not our goal, and that in fact is the wrong question, from our perspective at Kaiser.

But he goes on to say:

Our aim is not investigative reports, snarky opinion or blogs, or breaking news headlines that can fit on a cable news ticker or Twitter feed, though we have no problem if KHN sometimes “breaks news.” Nor do we want to cover regular daily health news, a job which will get done without us. ... Indeed it is what is most different and un-replicable about us that is probably most striking. KHN’s objective is simply to report, inform and explain.

NBA great Charles Barkley also tried to lower the stakes for himself, saying, "I'm not a role model." But saying you're not a role model doesn't make it so. Likewise, by any measure, KHN is a slam dunk.