Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Done For Now

This is my last post on this blog -- at least for a while. Two reasons.

First, I no longer have the perspective I enjoyed as a student working on my master's in nonprofit management at George Washington University -- I graduated last May, after four years.

Although I was in school only part-time, being a student required me to approach my topic with the discipline of academia. It was a lot like being a newspaper reporter again -- a role that demanded the ability to view an issue with a high degree of objectivity. This is the first fall since 2006 that I haven't had a class in which some research paper or project helped me keep that perspective fresh. I never thought I'd say this, but I miss it.

Second, the world of nonprofit news has changed dramatically. When I began this blog a couple of years ago, not a lot of people knew how nonprofit news organizations worked, nor could many appreciate the promise they held for public service journalism. That's all different now.

Nonprofits are now fully integrated into the journalism business model. Just look at the New York Times and its nonprofit strategy. It now has regional editions in Texas, Chicago and the Bay Area that are supported by nonprofits.

And today, I saw evidence of the transformation that was particularly gratifying on a personal level. On the front page of today's Seattle Times, there's a promotion for a story about the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day. That was the result of a content-sharing partnership between AARP and the Washington Post News Service that I brokered.

So I'm done -- at least for now.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Think Tank "Journalism"

I admire Rob Bluey's determination and initiative. He's a conservative blogger at the conservative Heritage Foundation, and he seems to be intent on revolutionizing or at least reinvigorating journalism at a time when so many of of legacy media have become more preoccupied with the bottom line than the public good.

Yesterday, Bluey popped up with another in a series of posts on of discipline he calls "thinktank journalism."

Bluey's case for think tanks getting into the journalism business seems to be that that they cover "stories that are often ignored by other media outlets." And according to Bluey, that means think thanks are "re-shaping" journalism.

If only it were that easy. Bluey's plug for "thinktank journalism" seems geared more toward crafting a new pitch to entice Heritage's donors than developing the kind of intellectual rigor that Heritage is known for.

My issue with Bluey and those he praises in his posts is twofold.

1) What they are producing is investigative, but it certainly isn't journalism. That's not to say it isn't factual -- it just isn't put to the same kind of contextual stress-testing as real journalism.

2) More importantly, many of the conservative-leaning "watchdog" sites commit the sin that journalists hold in greatest contempt -- hypocrisy. They demand transparency of politicians, government and people who receive government benefits, yet they hide the sources of their funding.

Worse yet, they encourage readers to donate anonymously, encourage them to take charitable tax deductions and then pretend they they don't receive government support for their work. Those deductions are often referred to as "tax expenditures," and conservatives have been villfying them for years.

Bluey and Heritage, to their credit, are open about their point of view. Heritage's mission "is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense." Bluey's very job was conceived as a part of that mission, and that may be important work. But it's certainly not the mission of journalism.

To be clear, I'm not arguing here that Heritage -- or any other think tank of any persuasion, for that matter -- should not be digging around government programs and politicians. They can be great, vital sources of information -- and fodder for real journalism. In my days as a Capitol Hill reporter for a daily newspaper, I spent a lot of time in the auditorium at Heritage because I got great material from great thinkers.

But neither Bluey nor Heritage nor and other "think tank journalist" should pretend that what they're posting is real journalism. It's not, and it never will be.

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."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Pew Study's Lack Of Comparison

While I was on vacation a couple of weeks ago, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism released a groundbreaking new study that attempted to address the most pervasive criticism of nonprofit news organizations -- that their journalism is biased by their business model.

In "Non-Profit News: Assessing a New Landscape in Journalism," Pew asks the right questions -- "Are these sites delivering, as they generally purport to be, independent and disinterested news reporting? Or are some of them more political and ideological in their reporting?" -- and it succeeds in providing us with the first methodical assessment of nonprofits that have launched since 2005. Among other things, it finds that transparency of mission, size of staff and multiplicity of funders are associated with balanced reporting.

But where the study falls short is in benchmarking its findings. It looks at a total of 46 sites that purport to produce objective state and/or national news, and it includes seven sites that operate as for-profit business. It then applies a content analysis to determine which harbor some kind of ideological bias, and it concludes that 44 percent of the sites in its universe are "ideological."

That conclusion led to this unfortunate headline in the Chronicle of Philanthropy: "Ideology Drives Many Nonprofit News Sites, Study Says." What constitutes "many"? We don't know because Pew didn't compare nonprofits to a broader universe of state and national media.

Take a look around, and it's not hard to discern the ideological biases that guide many of our media outlets. Plenty of for-profit outlets skew their reporting to capture the loyalties of a particular slice of the market and deliver it to advertisers. Fox News is the obvious example of how to make a profit by introducing ideological bias into news reporting. But it happens in less obvious ways as well. Online newsletters often reflect the biases of the industries and professions they serve, for example.

I don't dispute the method Pew used to assess ideology, but I think the analysis would have benefited from having a more rigorous comparison with a broader control group. As a result, we are left to ask: Ideological? Comapred to what?

Here's one piece of the analysis that I thought worth cheering. Pew found that news organizations with high levels of transparency and diversity of revenue sources were most balanced in their reporting. From the report:
Sites that offered a mixed or balanced political perspective, on the other hand, tended to have multiple funders, more revenue streams, more transparency and more content with a deeper bench of reporters. The six most transparent sites studied, for instance, were among the most balanced in the news they produced.
That conclusion confirms what a lot of people in the nonprofit sector have assumed for years, and it lends additional credibility to many of the organizations that have worked hardest to play by the rules of good journalism.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Welcome Aboard, Sandy

Last week, Sandy Rowe, the editor who hired me at The Oregonian back in 1994, published a new paper at the Shorenstein Center about collaborations to support watchdog reporting in an age of limited newsroom resources.

Sandy's bottom-line take in "Partners of Necessity: The Case for Collaboration in Local Investigative Reporting" is that the crumbling business models that have underwritten the cost of watchdog/accountability/investigative reporting -- primarily newspapers – will continue to crumble and that "no new business model is within reach."

Then, in the next paragraph she writes:
Growing evidence suggests that collaborations and partnerships between new and established news organizations, universities and foundations may be the overlooked key for investigative journalism to thrive at the local and state levels. These partnerships, variously and often loosely organized, can share responsibility for content creation, generate wider distribution of stories and spread the substantial cost of accountability journalism.
What's this? Sounds like a business model. And if it sounds like a familiar one, it should.

This model -- let's call it the collaboration model -- has been around about as long as modern daily journalism. Back in 1846, a handful of newspapers in New York City pooled their resources to pay for news couriers from the Mexican-American War. That collaboration worked quite well, and today it is the nonprofit news organization known as the Associated Press.

With her paper, Sandy does a fantastic job of describing the emerging landscape of newsgathering collaborations at the national and local level. But she approaches the topic -- understandably -- from the point of view of a newsroom executive, not a publisher. And in doing so, she sells short the potential of the very business model she has documented.

Today, smaller scale nonprofit models are being replicated in communities across the nation -- sometimes formally, sometimes informally -- among traditional news outlets, startup newsrooms and universities. Why? Because nonprofits are a highly adaptable business model when traditional models and markets fail.

Yes, as Sandy notes, many of the startups that supply original investigative content to these collaborations are highly dependent on foundations, and they probably will be for a while. And yes, many will fail because their leadership comes from the old school of journalism, which shunned the notion of an entrepreneurial newsroom.

But "give it away" is more than what Sandy calls a "new value" of investigative journalism. In today's news online news ecosystem, it's also a hard fact of economic life, and with all respect to the New York Times’ effort to erect an online pay wall, there’s no for-profit model that can change its impact. For better or worse, as Texas Tribune founder John Thornton ably argued a couple of years ago, the potential for infinite replication of a news story on the Internet drives its production cost toward zero. So if you’re wondering why there’s not as much great investigative journalism coming out of for-profit enterprises as there used to be, the reason is simple: There’s no money in it. The only way to get it in the quantities we need is to have nonprofits do the work that that our old models used to do – without the profit imperative.

While Sandy cites the successes of nonprofit newsrooms from ProPublica to the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, she overlooks how rapidly the model is evolving -- and the success that some are having in weaning themselves from the cycle of grantmaking. Recently, Texas Tribune disclosed that only 51 percent of its revenues come from philanthropy. That bears repeating: 51 percent. Just three years ago, getting under 80 percent would have been regarded as something of a 4-minute-mile mark, deemed impossible to break. But it has happened.

And it won’t stop there. New institutions – particularly Investigative News Network, the two-year-old umbrella organization for nonprofit news organizations – are looking for ways to bring collaboration to scale. Will they find a silver bullet this year or next? Probably not. But by sharing experience and expertise, they’re going to get a lot closer a lot faster than we might surmise from our observations to date. While some well-known startups are girding for a fight with their brethren over foundation funding, the savvy ones are getting on board the network bandwagon.

A parting thought: It’s easy to forget how much progress has been made so quickly. But I am reminded and highly encouraged by what I see behind Sandy’s paper: Here we have one of journalism’s leading lights wrapping her mind around a model that, after her Shorenstein stint, I hope she will embrace by applying herself to a leadership position that might not have existed two or three years ago. I think she could accomplish things that she never imagined.

At the very beginning of her paper, Sandy recounts the blow she felt when one of her managing editors and her investigative editor left The Oregonian in 2008 to join ProPublica. That anecdote made me flash back a couple of years earlier, to 2006, when after a great deal of research, I sent Sandy an email from my seat in the D.C. bureau proposing that The Oregonian’s parent, Newhouse newspapers, create a nonprofit to do investigative journalism at the national level. Her reply at the time was a courteous, one-line dismissal saying in essence that she was too busy to look at the proposal and would send it to her next-in-command in the newsroom. Now I have the kind of response I had been hoping for, and I’m glad to see it.

Welcome aboard, Sandy.

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.