Friday, July 31, 2009

Good Journalism is a Public Good

I've just finished reading two posts of great interest to those of us following the nonprofit model in journalism: TechCrunch's Michael Arrington on a "New New York Times" and John Thornton's response on his blog Insomniactive, arguing for a nonprofit solution.

The upshot of Arrington's piece is that the best 10 percent of reporters and editors at the NYT - the really good ones - should pack their desks, start their own news site, get funding from venture capitalists and then make a profit doing the kind of socially responsible journalism we expect from the NYT.

John's point is that when left to the for-profit model, the good stuff almost always loses out - as he says, it means "deciding between keeping the Baghdad bureau open and keeping up with TMZ." It's not going to work as a for-profit venture. And John should know - he's a venture capitalist.

No two ways around it. Socially responsible journalism - everything from investigating WMD to explaining healthcare reform - is a public good. It's a lot like national defense. Everybody needs it, but not everybody wants to pay for it.

This is not to say that every for-profit news organization will abandon a social mission. But if you don't like the idea of the government subsidizing journalism - and there are a lot of good reasons not to - that leaves you with the nonprofit sector to help get us out of the fine mess we're in.

Take it from Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, which has done more than anybody to demolish the newspaper business model. It was a year ago today at an Advertising Age conference where he famously lamented the decline of investigative journalism. Schmidt called the state of affairs "a tragedy for America," and said, "I'm very worried about it."

Google still hasn't done a thing to help remedy the problem. But that's another post.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Here's a tip for nonprofit journalists trying to expand their donor bases - and who isn't these days? A relatively new outfit called GreatNonprofits has positioned itself as a kind of social network for people interested in the nonprofit sector - "a place to find, review, and talk about great - and perhaps not so great - nonprofits," as the group's Web site explains.

Here's how it works: The site, which pulls data from GuideStar, automatically generates a profile for every 501(c)3 registered with the IRS. It has a search function that lets you look up nonprofits by sector or by name, and then captures your review. Based on all reviews, it assigns a rating on a five-star scale.

Not surprisingly, most of the reviews are positive and the ratings are high. But while the site might serve as a check on bad actors, its primary purpose is to give high-functioning nonprofits a place to let fans tell their stories - and then use the collected testimonial as a resource for fundraising and other development. As marketing and outreach director Shari Ilsen explains in a short video, the goal is to help nonprofits raise their profiles within their communities. "It's just a wonderful resource for free marketing," she said.

There are profiles for most of the journalism nonprofits you might think of. The search function didn't have journalism listed among its approximately has about two dozen categories. But Shari told me in an email today that she would add one.

GreatNonprofits is headed by Perla Ni, former publisher of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, who developed the idea following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Her staff wanted to do a story about the nonprofit sector's response, but could not find a reliable source of information about nonprofits that had descended upon New Orleans in the wake of the storm.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Importance of Relationships

At a panel discussion Friday hosted by Justice at Stake, I was struck again by the importance of relationships with readers as the digital revolution re-writes the rules for newsgathering.

A couple of my co-panelists touched on two important aspects of the changing relationship that ultimately will determine whether nonprofits, especially smaller niche players, will survive for the long haul.

Jason Barnett (no relation, but he seems to be a stand-up guy) of The UpTake stressed the importance of maintaining a dialogue with readers. If a reader tweets The UpTake, The UpTake tweets back. "It does take a lot of time, but that's the way the world is going to be," he said. "You can't just push your information out."

Now, the money part. The relationships built with that kind of effort have to translate to a sustainable level of support from readers.

Another of my co-panelists, Blake de Pastino, of the Center for Independent Media offered a related thought: Someday, he'd like to have a button next to each story that allows readers to make a contribution if they liked it.

What Blake didn't say (but I think is implied) is that readers are more likely to contribute money to a story to which they also have contributed ideas - or a story that expresses a similar thought they had while driving or in the shower.

So here's the key for nonprofits doing journalism: The social value that readers place in relationships with their news sources is, to some extent, taking the place of the cold economic value that newspaper readers once created by paying for subscriptions.

The problem may be that the new model goes only so far. One of the startups most attuned to the power of relationships with readers is Voice of San Diego. But the good folks at VOSD know that it's not enough. In an interview with CUNY's News Innovation, editor Matthew Donohue says he is considering syndication, paid obituaries and for-hire reporting.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Texas Tribune on the Move

Texas Tribune, the online startup being created by Austin venture capitalist John Thornton, has had a busy week in preparation for its planned fall launch.

Last Friday, it announced that it had hired Evan Smith from the highly regarded Texas Monthly. Smith will serve as CEO of the Tribune.

On Thursday, the Tribune announced that it would buy Texas Weekly, an online, subscription newsletter on Texas statehouse politics. The weekly's editor, Ross Ramsey, will be the Tribune's managing editor. The announcement also includes bios on the Tribune's first five reporting hires.

A couple of things are noteworthy about these moves.

One is the quality of the journalists that the Tribune has been able to attract. In addition to Smith and Ramsey, the five reporters named to the Tribune's staff have top-notch resumes; most are veteran reporters leaving well known publications, including some of Texas' biggest daily newspapers. All due respect to the Tribune, but this speaks as much to journalists' rapidly changing view of newspapers as premier career destinations. Reporters want to work for news organizations that their sources and subjects respect, if not fear, and where they will be treated well. This is a professional flight to stability, and ultimately, to quality.

The other is Thornton's decision to buy an existing, subscription-based product. The purchase solves one of his biggest concerns - how to build an audience - as the weekly gives him entree to the state's opinion leaders. While the Tribune is decidedly a nonprofit - Thornton speaks passionately about the need to separate God and Mammon - it also provides a model for generating revenues that can sustain the Tribune beyond its startup phase.

This is one to watch.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Silverton Saves Its Paper

Here's one from the resourcefulness file:

When the chain that owned the Silverton, Colo., Standard newspaper announced it wanted to close, the editor and community leaders looked for help to keep it going - and got it from the nonprofit county historical society.

A mini-documentary video (about 7 minutes) about the sale of the paper is available here from the AARP Bulletin.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The NYT's Non-Salon Strategy

I've read and re-read Clark Hoyt's Public Editor piece in Sunday's New York Times several times now, and I keep coming away feeling like something big is missing. Some might call it a nut graf.

His column seems intended to explain why the Times is letting a freelancer use its name to solicit support on Spot.Us for a story about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Hoyt suggests that the collaboration is part of a broader trend among newspapers to seek outside support for newsgathering costs.

Hoyt then outlines what is clearly a deliberate strategy of partnering with the nonprofit sector, though he never says as much. In addition to the Spot.Us example, Hoyt also discusses the possibility of soliciting philanthropic support for the Times' science coverage, and he trumpets work done with ProPublica. But he never ties them together for us. When I'm done reading the piece, I'm still dying to know why the Times has chosen this path - what are the pros, the cons, the unknowns? Somebody somewhere in the Times' management must have had this kind of discussion. At least I hope they have.

Instead, Hoyt casts the Times' actions against those of The Washington Post and its marketing department's misbegotten plan to host pricey, off-the-record salons for lobbyists, administration officials and reporters. Why go there? It comes off as petty. And by implication, it puts the Times' nonprofit partnerships in the same basket of "new relationships" as the salon fiasco.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

NYT Rules Out Nonprofit Status

Poynter Online's Bill Mitchell has a new post in which he reports that the New York Times is considering taking foundation support to help underwrite some of its news-gathering costs - presumably stories that require extensive travel or investigative resources.

But the big news from Mitchell's interview with Times AME/standards editor Craig Whitney may have been buried in the seventh graf, where Whitney flatly rules out the idea of converting the Times into a nonprofit corporation of some sort. The Times has "no desire to become a nonprofit corporation," Mitchell quotes Whitney as saying.

This is news because no small amount of time and energy has gone into analyzing how the Times and the Times-owned Boston Globe might make the leap from for-profit to nonprofit status. Perhaps the most thorough examination was conducted by Penny Abernathy of UNC-Chapel Hill. Her paper, presented at a conference at Duke University in May, lays out four potential paths for the Times - all of which have significant downsides.

Whitney's statement - which I take as an accurate reflection of the Times' ownership view - underscores the difficulty of applying new operating rules to an old business. I think it also provides fresh proof that newspaper owners, no matter how well intentioned, feel compelled to harvest what profits they can by cutting, cutting, cutting utnil there's nothing left to cut.

But at the same time, Whtiney's statement does highlight the potential for newspapers to help create hybrid business models that allow them to do the enterprise and investigative reporting that is vanishing with every newsroom layoff. Will hybrids solve all of the newspaper industry's problems? Of course not. But they might help them preserve journalistic capacity until a sustainable model can emerge.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Foundations and Healthcare Journalism

I'm sorry I missed it when it came out last month, but there's a really good new paper from Harvard's Shorenstein Center that examines the potential for conflict when foundations throw financial assistance behind reporting on health care.

The paper by Maralee Schwartz spends a lot of time on Kaiser Health News, which was launched in June by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Schwartz talks to many of the parties involved in the creation and oversight of KHN, as well as editors at its biggest partner, The Washington Post.

Written in a journalistic style, the paper allays potential concerns about the relationship between foundation and news service and documents the care that foundation leaders exercised in establishing the news service's independence and credibility. In an interview with Poynter Online, Schwartz said she began her study skeptical of the relationship. But by the time she had completed her work, she told Poynter, "I can't tell you how surprisingly comfortable I became with it in the end."

I have to say, I had a similar experience. Before I met foundation SVP Matt James in January, I thought the news service would be a weak substitute for real journalism. As James says in his elevator speech, they do mostly explanatory journalism - no "gotcha" - so I wondered if their work could have teeth. But I was persuaded that everything they do to cover news would be SOP in any major newspaper's newsroom.

This is not to say the job of avoiding conflict is a one-time proposition. Schwartz includes in her paper the opinions and observations from some of journalism's leading lights, and one in particular struck me. It came from Ted Gup, the incoming head of the journalism department at Emerson College. Gup worries not so much about the relationship between foundation and news service, but the relationship between news service and client. As Schwartz reports:

“The exigencies of circumstance can compromise standards,” said Ted Gup, a former journalist and recently named chair of the journalism department at Emerson College. “Part of my concern is not just that some of these sources have agendas, but that the mere availability of content may skew coverage.”

The deployment of declining resources reflects what people want to know versus what they need to know, Gup continued. “We can’t have what we cover defined by the charity or magnanimity of others. It has to be defined by all of society’s vulnerabilities.” Gup said he also worries that dependence on free content will lead to an erosion of reporting and a failure of journalists to keep abreast of what is happening, leaving the public at risk. He pointed to the Bernard Madoff scandal as an example. “Editing is not the same as generating — the system atrophies.”

Gup has a good point. But those are problems that also may be overcome. As Schwartz's paper notes, there is a great opportunity for foundations to support specialty journalism, and we're likely to see more. We should hope that others take the same care as the Kaiser Foundation.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Second Great Age of Patronage

Clay Shirky, the NYU prof and journalism's Nostradamus, has a wonderful essay in the Cato Institute's online magazine that lays out the implications of how the subsidization of journalism is changing the craft in ways we won't fully understand for decades to come.

Some of his most tantalizing insight touches on the nonprofit model and the impact that nonprofits can have in the chaos that will follow the demise of newspapers. Please do read the entire essay. But here's a shortcut to the most salient bit, which follows his prediction of a "second great age of patronage":

In an age where the cost of making things public has fallen precipitously, patronage models suddenly look not just viable but eminently reproducible. The leverage to be gotten from motivations other than profit is now growing rather than shrinking; a poorly capitalized journalistic weblog is now likelier to reach a million readers than a well-funded but traditional journalistic outfit is.

Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Herein lies the Shirky genius. He doesn't tell us. And the difficult truth is that we have no way of knowing. Clearly, he sees a world in which the Rockefellers, Carnegies and Fords have an opportunity to preserve socially responsible journalism - or corrupt it into something that serves their own vision of truth, however worthy or not.

The lesson here, of course, is that the future of socially responsible journalism remains in the hands of those who care most about it. From the Medicis on down, patronage has had its pros and its cons. It's up to the practitioners to draw the ethical boundaries.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Council on Foreign Relations Model

I had a chance recently to chat with Penny Abernathy, the UNC-Chapel Hill professor who recently presented a paper on four nonprofit models for The New York Times. The paper, for those who haven't read it, presents itself modestly, but is nothing short of a roadmap to survival for newspapers that take investigative and watchdog reporting seriously.

Abernathy spent her early career as a reporter, and it shows: Her paper, presented at a conference at Duke University, is scrupulously evenhanded, and it's nearly impossible to tell which if any of the four models she presents she likes or dislikes. But as we talked, it became clear she sees great promise in a nonprofit model for newspapers based on the Council on Foreign Relations, the venerable New York think tank.

The way Abernathy sees it, a CFR-type nonprofit could be set up by a handful of major newspapers as a home for topic-expert reporters who would share their work across media. Rather than limiting them to one venue - the newspaper - the nonprofit could continue to employ them as they move from breaking news to magazine-style story to published book - collecting revenue all along the way. And like CFR, the nonprofit could host conferences and pull in corporate sponsorships as well.

To be clear, Abernathy did not single out this as a solution to the challenges faced by the Times. The hardest part about getting newspapers on board is getting their editors to stop thinking in terms of scoops and exclusives, she said. "They're still thinking the old way," she said.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Investigate West Launches

A group of former Seattle Post-Intelligencer editors and reporters today launched Investigate West, a nonprofit that plans to do investigative stories from the environmental, social justice and health beats. To be sure, there is a lot of overlap, especially in the western states they plan to cover.

The new outfit plans to fund itself through a mix of foundation support, content sales and memberships, according to an article on Poynter Online. In the first year, $850,000 of the $1.35 million budget would come from foundations.

So far, Poynter reports, only a $3,000 grant is in hand. "We're not laboring under the illusion that all we have to do is set up shop, start doing great stories and everything will be all right," says Rita Hibbard, the executive director and editor.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

DinnerGate and the Nonprofit Fallout

It may be easy enough to blow off the recent controversy surrounding the Washington Post's "salons" as the work of a marketing department run amok. But the narrative of the past week or so should strike fear into the heart of every budding nonprofit publisher and journalist.

Why? Look at any journalism nonprofit's business plan - at least those who are willing to share - and you're almost certain to see a plan to host member events, idea-fests or corporate sponsorships of some sort. The only difference between those events and what Post publisher Katharine Weymouth had in mind is the amount that attendees expect to spend and the quality of the hors d'ouvres.

I'm not saying that journalism nonprofits should drop the idea of hosting events as a pillar of their development plans. And I don't mean to be a scold. But given the potential for the appearance of conflict, journalism nonprofits need to be extra careful in how they market such events and, in doing so, not underestimate the clout they wield in their communities.

There are no bright lines here. And if you don't believe me, read David Bradley, publisher of The Atlantic, trying to create one in his recent column about the magazine's mover-and-shaker dinners. I'm sure his line of argument sells in D.C., but in Peoria, forget it.

This is an amazing, promising time for nonprofit journalism. If this kind of controversy surrounded a nonprofit publisher - which it easily might have - it could easily undermine a movement.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Westphal Report: Role of Foundations

David Westhpal, USC fellow and former D.C. bureau chief for McClatchy, has issued a tinely report on foundations' role in supporting journalism.

No surprises here: Saving journalism, he finds, is a bigger task than all of U.S. philanthropy is able to take on. And we learn that we may be entering a "gray age" of information in which newspapers and other legacy media cut budgets faster than other sources can fill the void.

But the parts that may be most interesting are those in which Westphal explores some possible new models in interviews with leaders of the St. Petersburg Times and Human Rights Watch, an advocacy organization that is stepping into a new role as content producer. He also dives deeper into the notion of specialty nonprofits a la Kaiser Health News.

In any case, it's a well written, informative narrative, and it shines some light on what the field of journalism looks like from the point of view of foundations at the national and community levels.

For more info, here's the official press release on Westphal's report.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Pocantico Declaration

Another big step in the process of scaling up: After meeting for the past three days at the Rockefeller Foundation's Pocantico Conference Center, about three dozen editors and publishers of nonprofit news organizations today issued a declaration of their intent to build a first-ever Investigative News Network.

I'll let the Pocantico Declaration speak for itself, but the upshot is that there is a lot of room for collaboration among journalism nonprofits - everything from sharing news and information to combining back office functions such as benefits. There's even a mention of doing joint fundraising. It's an ambitious agenda.

The next big goal is to create a new, nonprofit corporation to coordinate this work. Until then, the Center for Public Integrity will act as the network's agent.

For more on the conference, David Westphal has a post on his site at USC-Annenberg. Hashtag for Twitter is #inewsnet.

(Hat tip to Andrew Donohue at for his Twitter tip on this.)