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.

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