Monday, December 07, 2009

The pioneers who paved way for non-profit news

The excitement over the growing number of emerging non-profit news operations overlooks the achievements – and lessons to be learned from – the non-profit news ventures that have paved the way for them.

In this guest perspective, Steve Katz, the interim chief executive of Mother Jones, talks about some of the things he and his colleagues have learned at their 34-year-old multimedia venture. Steve also comments on these topics on his personal blog, Maimonides’ Ladder.

By Steve Katz

With fresh non-profit news ventures seemingly turning up left and right, you would think this was a brand new idea. But it’s not.

A wide variety of non-profit news ventures have been providing unique, professional-caliber, and invigorating perspectives on our world for many years.

A number of ventures – like the Center for Investigative Reporting, Ms., or my own organization, Mother Jones – predate the popularization of the Internet by more than two decades. And let’s not even begin to count how many years The Progressive, Harpers, National Geographic or The Nation Institute have been around!

The pioneers of non-profit journalism cover the full array of media, from magazines, to radio and television, to online.

Here’s an incomplete list of non-profit journalism orgs that pre-date the latest wave (you can find links to many of these at the Media Consortium website – of which many, but not all, are members):


The American Prospect

Bitch Magazine

Center for Investigative Reporting

Center for Public Integrity


Democracy Now

Free Speech TV



High Country News

In These Times


Mother Jones


The Nation Institute

National Geographic

New America Media

The Progressive

Public News Service

The Real News

Southern Exposure/Facing South

The Texas Observer

The Washington Monthly

Yes! Magazine

It's obvious that this is a pretty polyglot list, representing what admittedly is a messy, diverse gang of organizations. Some are larger and financially stronger than others, some hew to the traditional canon of journalism more than others, some serve a general audience while others are very focused, and so on.

These veteran non-profit publishers don’t tightly cluster around one platform or function nor one way of looking at the world. That makes them notably less homogeneous than the new local and regional news startups that seem to be capturing so much attention – and funding.

The proliferation of new local-news projects seems to have been causednot only by the well documented decline of traditional newspapers, but also because of how the money has been flowing lately: in the direction of these new news operations. Chalk that up, in part at least, to the influence, for good and otherwise (mostly for good) of the Knight Foundation, the philanthropic leader in funding innovative experiments in journalism.

Here's the problem, though: The veteran non-profit journalism organizations – all of which produce their own original content, all of which generate genuine news for an attentive audience – represent an ensemble of voices that too often gets shunted to the side in "the future of news" conversation.

This has the effect – unintended, mostly – of excluding not just Mother Jones but other non-profit journalism outfits that for one reason or another don't fit into the new meme about what constitutes legitimate non-profit journalism.

I fear this may reproduce the traditional – and these days irrelevant – division between "mainstream" and "alternative" media, and narrow the conversation about our shared future. Why not learn from the experience of many people who have struggled for years with the same issues they are confronting today?

And for the start-ups especially, that's a real loss. It's not as if these guys really need to reinvent the wheel all by themselves. We've been at it for a long time, with, well, sobering results: there are benefits and costs of doing this non-profit approach - there's no magic, just a lot of hard work.

Common ground for a productive conversation, I’d say.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with non-profits is what Congress gives, it can also take away. There is nothing in the Constitution protecting charities and the proliferation of businesses seeking advantagous tax benefits by setting themselves up as non-profits (1.1 million last year) is certain to create a political backlash from businesses paying full freight. There is a tax reform bill coming, and small tax rules changes can have a big impact.

7:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

By "non-profit journalism", you mean "political advocacy".

Not that there's anything wrong with non-profit lobby groups pushing their agenda. But please don't pretend it's "news".

It would be good if the journalistic profession -- or what remains of it -- were to be honest about what it does.

2:29 PM  
Anonymous Jeffrey Dvorkin said...

It's interesting that Katz doesn't mention public broadcasting but does mention some so-called news orgs that are more about wishful ideological thinking and ax-grinding than about informing citizens. Public broadcasting has its faults and its detractors, but it is still far ahead of much of what passes either for mainstream news or alternative media.

5:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We have two examples of non-profit newspapers you do not mention. Neither of them is very helpful to your promotion of non-profits. One is the St. Petersburg Times, and the other is the Christian Science Monitor. The Times became such a drag on the endowment that the Poynter Institute that runs it this year was forced to sell off Congressional Quarterly. In the case of the Monitor, the lack of revenues forced the organization to move to a Web-based operation. Endowments, no matter how healthy, eventually run down especially as recessions eat into regular revenues.

8:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not a J-school gal, so this may be obvious to others, but could someone define the shades of gray between "journalism" and "political advocacy"? We can all identify a few examples of each extreme, but how to rate the tweeners . . .

6:53 AM  
Anonymous Neil Skene said...

Although the point made by Anonymous 8:28 may not be affected, I want to correct the description of the St. Petersburg Times. Times Publishing is a for-profit corporation, and pays income tax on its net income. For all of the years I was an employee, its profits were healthy, though regularly below the margins of chain papers. The stock of Times Publishing is held by the Poynter Institute, a non-profit educational institution (not an endowment), which has an investment endowment and has received dividends from the Times. Also, just to be clear, CQ was a financial contributor to the overall company’s income.

So the Poynter/Times structure is very different from Pro Publica or NPR or non-profit operations.

I also suspect, but do not know, that some publications that perennially lose money may have for-profit partnership structures to flow losses through to their partners, although the tax benefits of that were curtailed a couple of decades ago.

7:57 AM  
Blogger Don't Print That! said...

You overlooked several non-profit youth journalism organizations that are thriving and surviving:

New Youth Connections Magazine - 1976
L.A. Youth, newspaper by and about teens - 1988
Youth Radio - 1990
VOX newspaper - 1994

Donna Myrow
Executive Director/Publisher
L.A. Youth

10:23 AM  
Anonymous Seth Lewis said...

"Chalk that up, in part at least, to the influence, for good and otherwise (mostly for good) of the Knight Foundation, the philanthropic leader in funding innovative experiments in journalism."

Out of curiosity: Can you elaborate on what you see as both the "good" and (particularly) the "otherwise" in the Knight Foundation's influence? Thanks.

9:31 AM  

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