Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Test For Nonprofit Newsrooms

I've talked a lot in this space about standards and credibility -- and what nonprofit news organizations can or should do to prove they've got what it takes. Along the way, I've looked for various proxies for a Good Housekeeping Seal of approval. The last place (or one of the last) I ever thought I'd find a decent one was at Comcast subsidiary NBC Universal. But there it was, in the list of criteria that NBC Universal is seeking in the nonprofit news organizations that its 10 local affiliates will consider partnering with.

The list:

•Robust local news gathering capabilities
•A track record of objectivity and excellence in journalism
•Strong journalistic qualifications
•Strong organizational management
•Strong financial resources capable of sustaining a multi-year relationship
•The ability to report on diverse stories and provide diverse viewpoints
•Diversity of your organization’s leadership and staff and its ties to the community it serves
•The ability to work collegially in a cooperative relationship

I think it's great that somebody at NBC Universal (at least that's who I presume drew up the list) took the time to think about what makes a reputable, reliable news organization. But here's the problem: I can't think of more than a handful of nonprofit news organizations across the country that meet all these criteria -- particularly the part about "strong financial resources."

In fairness, NBC Universal's San Diego affiliate, KSND, has been spoiled by its collaborative partnership with, which has been around for several years now and has dedicated patrons.

There are a few other nonprofit news organizations that fit the NBC Universal profile. But once you look beyond the nation's biggest cities to the places where traditional newsrooms have taken the biggest hit in recent years the list gets very short very fast. Which begs the question: What exactly is guiding NBC Universal's actions here? A desire to restore local news coverage and perfect a new business model for collaboration? Or, under Comcast's shadow, make a minimal effort to meet terms of the FCC's approval of the merger?

NBC Universal says: "The purpose of these arrangements is to work cooperatively in the development and presentation of locally focused news and information on multiple platforms and to enhance diversity of viewpoints and programming in the selected markets."

Fine. But the application itself reads as though it came from an executive in the marketing department. Check out Section VI, Question 1: "Describe the composition of your target audience. Be as specific as possible and include demographic, geographic and psychographic profiles."

Psychographic profiles? Really?

The last question asks in part "how working with your organization would help us achieve the goals of expanding the availability of locally focused news and information."

Most of the nonprofit news organizations I'm familiar with -- mostly members of Investigative News Network -- are staffed by deeply dedicated journalists. But most are startups and have budgets less -- often far less -- than $300,000. For them, psychographic studies and other market research is a dream. Meanwhile, Comcast has revenues of $36 billion -- that's billion with a "B" -- and they want to know what nonprofits can do for them?

As part of its deal with the FCC, Comcast agreed that it would report on the progress of its nonprofit partnerships every six months for three years. I just hope somebody at the FCC is watching closely what comes of their handiwork.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Final Final Exam

For the past four years, I have made my intellectual home at George Washington University's Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, pursuing a master's in nonprofit management. Today, I take my last exam, and on May 15 I take on a new title: alumnus.

The great thing about going back to school at my advanced age and with one master's under my belt, is that it really didn't matter to anyone except me what I did with my time at GW. Looking back, I think that perspective gave me license to pursue topics and questions that I otherwise might have not. It allowed me to help frame questions that the emerging nonprofit sector of journalism must answer in order to survive. It also allowed me to have some fun.

The journey began seven years ago, when I read an article by my first graduate school adviser, Philip Meyer, a man who has been 20 years ahead of his time for half a century. In "Saving Journalism," Phil made a compelling case that we needed to develop new economic models to support what he called "socially responsible journalism" -- the investigative, enterprise and accountability journalism that we need as a society, but aren't always willing to support as individuals. One of the models he suggested was the nonprofit model.

I was hooked. The more I looked at nonprofits, the more I became convinced that the structure was closely aligned with the goals of journalism itself. Nonprofits are supposed to be accountable, transparent and focused on public service. Like newspapers, they might not always meet those goals. But what better place to start looking for a solution?

Today, I am more convinced than ever that journalism and nonprofit models that support it can be mutually reinforcing institutions -- much like the "virtuous cycle" that made it economically desirable for newspapers to support public service journalism.

Now excuse me while I do some last-minute cramming for that econ final.