Tuesday, March 30, 2010

John Thornton, Myth-Buster

Those of us who work in the nonprofit sector in journalism have gotten used to what Texas Tribune founder John Thornton calls the "familiar refrains" of those who moan and groan about how the nonprofit model simply won't work because there's not enough foundation money, how nonprofits could never replace legacy media, blah, blah, blah, yada, yada, yada.

The latest installment comes from Alan Mutter. Why today? I'm not sure. But it's worth reading his post and then John's response. Unlike Alan, John has lived and breathed the nonprofit model, and their experiences (or lack thereof) are revealed clearly in what they write. Alan builds the nonprofit model into an easily felled straw man. But John sees it for what it is -- one way (of many) to fill the growing void of socially responsible journalism.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Len Downie's Nonprofit Network

By any measure, former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie epitomized success in the traditional, subscription-and-advertising model of newspaper journalism: With a staff that once topped 900 and an annual budget of $100 million, his newsroom hauled in 25 Pulitzer Prizes over 17 years and wielded influence from Capitol Hill to the darkest recesses of the nation's capital.

Since stepping down from the Post's top newsroom job at age 66, Downie has taken on a professorship at Arizona State University. But behind the scenes, he also is lending his experience to help shape the practices and prospects for the burgeoning nonprofit sector in journalism.

Why? Simple, Downie says. The for-profit model alone no longer can support the kinds of investigative, explanatory and accountability journalism that society needs. As the for-profit sector shrinks, journalists and interested readers must explore new ways to underwrite their work.

"There are going to have to be many different kinds of economic models,” Downie said in an interview Wednesday afternoon at the Post's offices. "The future is a much more diverse ecosystem."

Downie has made himself an expert on the nonprofit model, and wrote about its possibiliies in his recent report, "The Reconstruction of American Journalism," with Michael Schudson.

Less known, perhaps, is that Downie casts a wide net as within the nonprofit sector of journalism. He's on the board of Investigative Reporters and Editors, which has incorporated panels on the nonprofit model in its conferences. He's also a board member at the Center for Investigative Reporting, which recently launched California Watch to cover money and politics at the state level. And he chairs the journalism advisory committee at Kaiser Health News, which has provided niche explanatory reporting to leading newspapers, including the Post.

Looking across the sector, Downie sees great potential -- and some big, unanswered questions.

On the upside, nonprofits are helping journalism move toward a more collaborative model, Downie said. In the old days, newspapers resisted ideas and assistance from outside. But in the new news ecosystem, collaboration is a way of life. “All of our ideas have been changed about that," he said.

Also a plus: Big foundations and the public at large are warming to the idea that news organizations are deserving of their support, just like the symphony or any other nonprofit that contributes to society's cultural assets. “There’s a question of whether there’s enough public realization," Downie said. "I think we’re heading to that direction. Awareness is growing steadily.”

But a lot of questions still must be sorted out, Downie said.

High on the list, he said, is the most basic of all: Where will the money come from? Like other nonprofits, nonprofit news organizations will have to find the right mix of foundation money, grassroots support, advertising, and perhaps additional government support, he said.

That leads to the other big question of sustainability: It's not clear that all the nonprofits that have launched in recent years will survive. “How many will succeed and for how long?” Downie wondered. A related question: How will the collaborative model will settle out, and where nonprofits will find productive niches?

Downie said he also has been watching nonprofits wrestle with the issue of credibility -- how to achieve it and how to keep it.

The answer begins with editorial independence and transparency about financial supporters, Downie said. But when it comes to painting a bright line between journalism and ideology, advocacy or spin, there are no magic formulas to assure readers -- just the experience of trial and error.

“It’s one of these things that’s proven by its exceptions," Downie said. "When there’s an exception, it’s a scandal.”

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

AOL's Foray Into Nonprofit Journalism

Big, pathbreaking news from AOL. The company announced this afternoon that its Patch Media subsidiary is launching a nonprofit subsidiary, Patch.org, to provide hyperlocal coverage to underserved communities.

According to the announcement: "Patch.org will partner with community foundations and other organizations to launch Patch sites and bring objective local news and information to communities and neighborhoods around the world that lack adequate news media and online local information resources."

This is a significant development because by creating a nonprofit hyperlocal operation to match its for-profit cousin, AOL gives us proof of concept that nonprofits can complement for-profit media by delivering value that for-profits cannot. We've seen the dynamic at work in other cases -- but usually when a nonprofit hands over a story to an independent, for-profit partner that no longer can afford to do all the enterprise journalism that it would like.

AOL gets it. And that's refreshing.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Fair Warning: Here Comes FairWarning

A couple of former Los Angeles Times staffers next week plan to launch a new, nonprofit news service called FairWarning that will focus on "safety and health issues facing consumers and workers, and related topics of government and corporate accountability," according to a statement released Thursday. The site will go live March 24.

The new organization will be led by Myron Levin with help from Joanna Lin and three graduate journalism students from UC-Berkeley and the University of Southern California. The organization also has an all-star board of directors, including:

* Margaret Engel, director of the Alicia Patterson Foundation and a former editor and reporter for The Washington Post
*Chuck Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication
*Vernon Loeb, deputy managing editor for news and multimedia at The Philadelphia Inquirer
*Bill Marimow, editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner
*Henry Weinstein, a law professor at UC Irvine, former Los Angeles Times reporter and a founder of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

I asked Lewis what he found compelling about Levin's vision for FairWarning. Here's what he told me in an email:

Over the years, I had known and had great respect for Myron Levin's important work investigating the tobacco companies and other health and safety subjects. The idea that someone that talented suddenly had nowhere to do that kind of in-depth work was outrageous and unacceptable. Myron asked if I (as the first incubated "new models" project of the Investigative Reporting Workshop's iLab) would help him form a 501c3 nonprofit and I helped him get a small grant from the Public Welfare Foundation to get moving, and I am honored now to serve on his Board.

In the Great Recession, Myron has gone out and singlehandedly landed two other much larger grants, and important stories are springing forth. He's off to the races. This is an increasingly familiar story today -- veteran investigative reporter also becomes editor and publisher, as a necessary act of entrepreneurialism, all for the public good. It is thrilling and inspiring to behold.

In the statement, Levin said he founded FairWarning "as a new model for presenting essential news and information that is underreported or absent from traditional media."

“Even before news budgets went into free fall, few news organizations gave adequate attention to safety and health investigations, despite the potential to save readers from injury or death,” Levin said. “In today’s hollowed-out newsrooms, even fewer reporters can tackle these complex and time-intensive stories. We want to help fill the gap.”

Friday, March 12, 2010

What I Meant To Say ...

We had a great panel Wednesday at the We Media conference on the rise of nonprofits as contributors to the news ecosystem. My fellow panelists for the session were Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, Andrew Sherry of the Center for American Progress, and Jonathan Aiken of the Red Cross.

We had lots of great questions and a rousing discussion. But that meant I didn't get to use my prepared remarks. So for those who might be interested, here they are:

Four years ago, I was a Washington correspondent for a major metro daily, working in the national bureau of a medium-sized newspaper chain. Today, my former bureau and my former job are gone.

I’ve been lucky. Now I work as a strategic analyst for AARP, arguably the nation’s biggest nonprofit news publisher. A big part of my job is to find new ways we can leverage the nonprofit model in journalism to create value for our members – and for society as a whole.

I got interested in the nonprofit model for journalism in 2004, when I read an essay by my graduate advisor at Chapel Hill, Phil Meyer, entitled “Saving Journalism.”
My first thought after reading Phil’s piece was, hey, great, somebody might actually want to give me money to do the kind of reporting I want to do.

So I decided to start my own nonprofit newsroom, and I set about contacting journalists and foundations who I thought might help me.

I got nowhere fast.

But in my failure, I learned a lot. For one thing, I realized that 99 percent of journalists had no idea how nonprofits worked.

Over the years, I have come to another important realization: Journalists who view the nonprofit model as I did then – as a way to solve their immediate problems – shortchange its possibilities.

While the nonprofit model has gained some cachet recently, nonprofit journalism is as old as the Associated Press, which began in 1846 as a cooperative of New York newspapers interested in defraying the cost of covering the Mexican-American War.

That history is important because it also speaks to future possibilities. Then as now, the nonprofit model supports creativity through partnerships and collaboration rather than competition and “not invented here” mentalities.

This aspect of the nonprofit model, I think, makes it particularly well suited to the online world and a news ecosystem where consumers expect information to be free of charge.

I’ve also come to the conclusion that journalism is the easy part.

The nonprofit model requires vigorous strategic planning and no small measure of entrepreneurial spirit – just like any business. And to succeed, nonprofits must show how their journalism can connect friends, neighborhoods, communities and, ultimately, a society.

That’s what the really good ones are doing. And if a nonprofit can reach that level, a member’s donation takes on a whole new meaning. It becomes an affirmation of values.

Until recently, nonprofits were anomalies in a largely for-profit ecosystem, despite some well-regarded successes – Mother Jones magazine, the Christian Science Monitor and Center for Public Integrity, to name a few.

But today, the nonprofit model is becoming just that – a model with basic structures that can be replicated and perfected in any variety of circumstances and communities. And the model is evolving rapidly as startup nonprofits experiment and create new revenue sources through events, thought-leadership conferences, corporate sponsorships, and, of course, advertising. Some are functioning as membership organizations, much like AARP.

There are signs that the sector’s creativity is paying off.

When we talked about a “virtuous cycle” in the old days, it was the notion that great journalism boosted circulation. That helped boost ad rates, which in turn made it possible for newspapers to hire more great journalists.

While that cycle now has turned into a death spiral of staff cuts and declining circulation, the nonprofit model offers us a new kind of virtuous cycle – one in which diversity of revenues appears to correlate with growing news budgets.
Are there flaws in the nonprofit model? Absolutely.

Perhaps the most frequent argument I hear is that nonprofit journalism somehow lacks credibility because it hasn’t withstood the discipline of the market.

To this criticism, I say that philanthropy indeed is a means to legitimacy - if it's done properly. Nonprofits measure success not by the revenues and profits they generate, but by yardsticks such as how many people read their work, educational value, and the impact it has on decision-makers. If they create social value, they will reap the financial rewards. If not, they’ll wither.

This is the lesson I’ve gleaned from my travels: Great journalism isn’t enough. What really counts are the relationships that the nonprofit develops with its readers. Journalism is only part of the nonprofit’s value proposition, and at the end of the day, it might not be the most important part.