Non-profit news ventures go big time
The founder of the Chi-Town Daily News, a pioneering grassroots journalism project, happened to phone last week shortly before word got out that a wealthy businessman had donated $5 million to launch a major non-profit news venture in San Francisco.
“I can’t believe it,” said Geoff Dougherty, whose non-profit news venture ran out of money at summer’s end, forcing him to lay off himself and his four-person staff and put the site into a state of suspended animation in the hopes of finding someone, anyone to take it over. “I can’t find a few hundred thousand dollars anywhere in Chicago to keep the doors open.”
Dougherty would have been even more discouraged if he had known Warren Hellman was about to announce a $5 million donation to provide the seed financing for a new non-profit organization to help fill the void created by the incredibly shrinking news coverage at the financially strapped dailies in Northern California.
Though Dougherty may have been on the right side of history, his timing unfortunately was off.
Like a number of others across the country, he began trying to develop a new model to support public-interest journalism before the kinds of folks who could have written million-dollar checks came to recognize the crisis in coverage caused in the last few years by the retrenchment of the traditional local press.
But recent developments suggest that movers and shakers across the country get it now. And they are getting busy. So get ready:
The fight to save public affairs reporting likely is moving to a whole new level that will be characterized by more financial firepower, more professionalism and more civic muscle than ever before.
This will accelerate the development of new media models and hearten those who care about quality journalism. It also undoubtedly will lead to any number of intriguing and unanticipated outcomes for both non-profit news start-ups and the incumbent media organizations with whom they will compete.
The move of non-profit journalism into the ranks of major-league philanthropy is illustrated not only in the Hellman gift in San Francisco. It also is reflected in the $3.5 million raised in a matter of months for the Texas Tribune, a soon-to-be-launched statewide online news site, and the $14 million raised by Pro Publica, the national non-profit investigative reporting venture founded in 2007.
Organizers and executives at each of these ventures say they are aiming to become self-sustaining civic institutions that are as visible and enduring as the private universities, museums and performing-arts organizations that historically have been built and supported by contributions from foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals.
The emerging shift in the nature of journalism start-ups appears to be taking place because a growing number of philanthropists and civic leaders are waking up to the danger posed to their communities and our democracy by the breakdown of the newspaper business, which has been ravaged by a host of structural changes and the general inability of publishers and editors to react creatively to them.
Excesses, errors and lapses aside, newspapers for generations did nearly as much good for the public as they did for the fortunate few who owned them. Because newspapers deployed the largest news-gathering staffs in each of the markets they served, they were, in the best cases, the eyes and ears and consciences of their communities.
But those vital functions are faltering, as publishers continue nibbling away at their ever-shrinking news coverage in the hopes of preserving an anachronistic and rapidly deteriorating business model.
In response, a growing number of dismayed civic leaders seem to be concluding they can’t count on their local newspapers to provide the diligence and leadership they had in the past.
So, the leaders are beginning to turn their wealth, connections and energy to exploring new ways to support public-interest journalism. One of the ways they are doing this is by generously underwriting the sort of innovative, non-profit ventures that previously were started on a shoestring by well-intentioned, but typically underfunded, idealists and entrepreneurs.
An example of the new approach to non-profit journalism is the Texas Tribune,which plans to launch shortly to fill what organizers say is a gap in in-depth reporting in the Lone Star State.
As reported here in July, Austin venture capitalist John Thornton put up $1 million of his own money to start the Texas Tribune and then began working his considerable base of business and social contacts to assemble solid funding for the project in the neighborhood of $4 milion to $5 million.
Thornton anticipates that it will take “three to four years” to bring the Trib to the point it can wean itself away from charitable funding by generating $2 million in annual revenues through donations, subscriptions and sponsorships to support a staff of 15 journalists.
Thornton’s approach – or something similar it – almost certainly will be replicated in a bigger way in San Francisco, where Warren Hellman, one of the most respected and prominent business leaders in the community, will leverage his stature to gather additional support for his ambitious non-profit news venture.
To ensure the success of his project, Hellman already has enlisted as partners KQED, the largest public broadcaster in Northern California, and the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. For good measure, Hellman said he is well along in discussions to have the New York Times carry the reports that will be produced by the nascent news project.
It’s far too early to know how the San Francisco project will shape up. But you can get a sense of the possibilities by comparing the scale of grassroots non-profits with their bigger, institutional counterparts. That’s what we’ll do in the next installment.
Next: Size matters in non-profit news