Monday, September 28, 2009

Non-profit news ventures go big time

First of two parts. The second part is here.

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


Blogger GeronL said...

The leftist media is dying. Face it. When people see a million people march on DC and gets mentioned, barely, on Page 12 but 40 leftists on a bus "tour" gets huge write-ups. Believe me, the people notice.

Its not rare, its every story, every day. People know they cannot trust the media any longer.

6:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No doubt philanthropy can keep traditional journalism alive for a while, in a few small non-profit lifeboats. But, as UCC points out above, the audience is leaving in droves.

Old-style journalists haven't broken the big stories of the past month: ACORN, Van Jones, the Tea Parties. To get the real news, one must look elsewhere. What use is a non-profit medium if no-one reads it?

2:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To United Citizens Council - Please don't paint all the "media" with the same brush. That's a cop-out.

All viewpoints are represented if you know where to look. Yes, many of the larger national outlets are more liberal than others, but this is still a free country and all viewpoints should be represented and respected.

Bruce Wood

5:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just have one simple statement, "non-profits will now work for the news industry".

I hope all news orgs become non-profit then companies like mine will pick up the advertisers and gather market share.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Chris O'Brien said...

It should be noted that Chi-Town did receive a decent chunk of money from the Knight Foundation. That's different than a local benefactor. But they did get foundation support.

10:42 PM  
Anonymous Sam Fosdick said...

To the nay sayers? PALEEZE...It's easy to toss bricks at what they think WON'T work. What ideas to serve the publics' interest might be tumbling around their heads?

I think this is a great start, particularly if the goal is to get off the charity teet. It's an idea. It's worth working at.

The consequences of local news, real news, floating away leaves a democracy in search of a much-needed and required voice.

Sam Fosdick
Glen Rock, PA

7:12 AM  
Anonymous RPM said...

Two points: When will the left-hating pundits such as United Citizens Council realize (or admit) that the collapse of the daily newspaper industry has absolutely nothing to do with political tilt? It has to do with recklessly accrued newspaper chain debt, the recession, the housing slump and Craigslist, in that order, more or less.
Second, who's going to report on these generous philanthropists if they're caught dipping their silver spoons where they don't belong?

7:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sure, this will be a great effort by philanthropists, and ideally it will work.

Unfortunately, the term "ideally" doesn't work much anymore, especially in the news industry. That term has been replaced by a more realistic term: "revenue."

9:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sam Fosdick, that's the point.

It never was real news.

The elephant in the room is the assumption that journalism as we know it actually delivers something of value to democratic society.

2:21 PM  
Blogger sharecropper said...

A million people? A million people? Are your delirious or just on the sauce? Worse, just being the wingnut and lying. 60,000 ought to impress you. That it doesn't tells us of your disappointments. A million? My god, have you no shame sir, at long last, no shame?

5:00 PM  
Blogger James Breiner said...

Alan, I really like your focus on the business side of journalism. I also like the fact that you´re looking for solutions instead of lamenting the past.
The San Francisco and Texas Tribune projects could be part of a trend like the funding of community symphony orchestras. I blogged about it in Spanish here

5:14 AM  
Blogger Jamie Ward said...

I was recently laid off from a local newspaper as a reporter but want to form a hyperlocal online, nonprofit news venture. As someone who had an extensive IT and consulting career in business prior to reporting, I see the possibilities now.

Initially it's just going to myself reporting like a journalist on the local government scene here in the North Atlanta suburbs of Georgia. As I take the concept to the local business community while reporting and updating my online site daily, like a newspaper would, how do I legally form the business initially? Do I form an LLC first with the intent being nonprofit? I've registered the domain name I plan to use and am scoping out the Web site for development now, but am unsure how to form the business legally? Can one individual who plans to grow form a 501c3 initially?

10:58 AM  

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