Wednesday, August 31, 2011

ProPublica Joins INN

A long time ago, the poet John Donne wrote that "No man is an island." The same could be said today of nonprofit news organizations, and here's our newest proof point: ProPublica has joined Investigative News Network, according to a release from the two organizations yesterday.

This move benefits both parties greatly. For INN, it means the addition of a successful, innovative and high-profile member. But in the long run, it does a lot more for ProPublica: It may well ensure the organization's survival.

Founded in 2007, ProPublica was among the first wave of nonprofits news organizations that was formed in response to the crumbling of the newspaper model and its diminishing capacity to support public service journalism. Arguably, it has been the most successful as a journalistic enterprise, having won two Pulitzer Prizes. And it came out of the gate as one of the best funded, thanks to an initial $10 million-per-year commitment from the Sandler Foundation. ProPublica also had the advantage of being a first mover.

But as dozens of other nonprofit news organizations launched, ProPublica began looking like something of an outlier, at least in terms of its business model. It produced world-class journalism, but it struggled with how to diversify its revenue base. For a time, it seemed that ProPublica's idea of revenue diversification was to gain support from a half-dozen foundations instead of one.

Meanwhile, dozens of smaller and lower-profile organizations were working to crack the code of sustainability. None has found the silver bullet yet. But that's the whole point of INN: The network's founding members realized early (2009) on that they would be stronger together than apart.

Today, it's clear that those who aren't on board will be doomed to a zero-sum competition for resources, and they are more likely to repeat mistakes that others have made before. That's not good for anybody -- especially the foundations that want to see measurable results and could cut off funding in two or three years if they don't see any.

ProPublica's move makes Donne's directive all the more apt for nonprofit news organizations: "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

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