iLAB

New journalism ecosystem thrives

Oct. 29, 2010

In the immortal words of Sir Isaac Newton more than three centuries ago, “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.”  It is perhaps peculiar and maybe even ill-advised to apply Newton’s immortal Laws of Motion to the quirky, peculiar world of journalism.

But this much we know: As news consumption in America began to decline decades ago, as advertising revenue and commercial newsgathering began to contract, the bean counters increasing their brutal, cost-cutting efficiencies, the out-of-town owners harvesting their mature (i.e. no longer growing) investments, newsrooms becoming quieter and less enterprising, many serious reporters and editors necessarily went elsewhere. They were desperately seeking a different, more hospitable milieu in which to work, a non-commercial, nonprofit environment more conducive to investigative and other public-service journalism. And over time a new journalism ecosystem has begun to emerge, which we have attempted to define and describe here.

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Before doing so, what has happened to traditional newspaper journalism as we have known it for generations must be put in context. Not only has the human impact of this seismic transformation been devastating, as Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson found last year in “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” but the number of commercial newspaper editorial employees also has dropped by 33 percent — from more than 60,000 in 1992 to about 40,000 in 2009. As we know too well, venerable American newspapers, such as The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Baltimore Sun and others, have struggled financially, with some in bankruptcy protection. Others, such as the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, no longer exist. More than 100 daily papers have stopped print publication on Saturdays or other days of the week. According to the Project on Excellence in Journalism, the number of reporters covering state capitals full time dropped from 524 in 2003 to 355 in early 2009.

The impact of newsroom contraction is obviously that certain public and private activities by those in power are simply no longer being covered. As PEJ found, and this is the case in city after city, between 1980 and 2005, the number of newspapers reporters covering the local metropolitan Philadelphia area fell from 500 to 220.

 


At the same time, it is also well understood that by far the most extensive, substantive, public-service journalism in America the past century has been initiated, supported and published by the nation’s newspapers. And so the specific impact of the current and continuing newsroom carnage on the capacity to actually do investigative reporting — one of the most time-consuming (i.e. expensive), difficult and unpredictable genres of journalism —has been and continues to be dire. Investigative reporting teams, “I-teams,” have been dismantled, and numerous overseas and domestic bureau staffs have contracted or disappeared altogether. Only a few newspapers still employ full-time foreign correspondents; investigative and international reporting increasingly have come to be regarded by management as high-risk, high-maintenance, high-priced impracticalities.

The obvious, net result of this hollowing out process: There are fewer people today to report, write and edit original news stories about our infinitely more complex, dynamic world, fewer journalists to hold those in power accountable. And to put this in very sobering perspective, at the same time as the historic shrinking of newspaper, radio and television newsrooms across America over three decades starting in 1980, the number of public relations specialists and managers doubled from approximately 45,000 to 90,000 people. As Robert McChesney and John Nichols have written in their recent book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, “Even as journalism shrinks, the “news” will still exist. It will increasingly be provided by tens of thousands of well-paid and skilled PR specialists ready and determined to explain the world to the citizenry, in a manner that suits their corporate and government employers.”

The serious news and information void is also being filled increasingly by major non-government organizations and think tanks, specializing and implicitly or explicitly advocating in certain subject areas, such as the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and the Natural Resources Defense Council. And while the traditional, elite news organizations have pondered whether and how to adapt to the new information age exigencies and effronteries to their traditional “gatekeeper” role, deciding for the public what news is fit to print, the non-journalism, global, online marketplace of ideas and information has become utterly massive and is perpetually expanding, the quality and credibility of content widely varying, to put it charitably. 

It is against this complex and noisy backdrop that a new flowering of nonprofit news organizations has arisen. This report, The New Journalism Ecosystem, is an ambitious, inevitably imperfect attempt to systematically track an exciting, dynamic phenomenon and maybe even provoke a public conversation. What we are releasing today is intended to be a “living resource,” continually updated on the Investigative Reporting Workshop's iLab site, an expanding roster profiling the most interesting and credible nonprofit, online publishers in the United States, and in 2011, around the world.

 

Determining the list


Before revealing some of the most compelling findings from this compilation and analysis, it is important to address our methodology here. Indeed, how do we, how can anyone, attempt to define “credible” in this brave new world? By using the frames and sensibilities of the traditional newsgathering process that produces authoritative, original reporting so vital to an informed citizenry and democracy itself.

For this report, we have examined 60 new and not-so-new nonprofit journalism sites/organizations, providing citizens with vital information at the local community, regional, national and even international level, sometimes investigative, sometimes more explanatory, but all of it serious, public-service journalism. With humility, we emphatically are not suggesting this initial report is complete. There are several other organizations that also could be included here, and the subjective judgments made about what enterprises to include are the exclusive responsibility of the author.

For example, the great journalist Lowell Bergman has been a pioneer as co-founder of the Center for Investigative Reporting in 1977, and his award-winning, multimedia collaborations the past decade with The New York Times, the PBS documentary program Frontline and others from the Investigative Reporting program at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. On the other side of the continent, in recent years, Walter Robinson, distinguished professor of journalism at Northeastern University, has helped his students there report, write and see published 16 front-page investigative stories in The Boston Globe. Additionally, with funding from the Knight Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence Foundation in July, he is beginning an important new Initiative for Investigative Journalism there.

Executive Editor Chuck Lewis talks about the Workshop’s groundbreaking iLab report on the emerging world of non-profit journalism.


But neither of these exciting, impressive programs is included in this initial ecosystem report because of their non-institutional nature to date. Similarly, university, student-run news services are now in the ascendant nationwide, as statehouse and Washington bureau coverage has severely contracted, and their nonprofit journalism must be considered closely as part of the ecosystem in the near future.

We have described the activities of 14 nonprofit journalism organizations at or near a university, which is 23 percent of the total. Eight Centers are part of universities, and six are legally and financially separate, 501 (c)(3) organizations located at universities. This number is likely to increase over time. In all cases, undergraduate and graduate students are learning the craft of investigative reporting, working with experienced, veteran journalists. Nearly all of them are dependent on obtaining external funding.

To shine a brighter light on the new nonprofit landscape, for purposes relating to sanity, we have not included any public broadcasting entities in this compilation, such as National Public Radio, or its various award-winning programs or any of its hundreds of local stations. Or PBS programs such as Frontline. That great, important public-service journalism is published through these outlets is quite evident, and somehow, in future iterations of the ecosystem, this must be chronicled.

Conversely, some veteran journalists may be startled to see included here some nonprofit news organizations that publish primarily investigative research on their websites. Groups such as the Center for Responsive Politics with its money and politics information, the National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting (part of Investigative Reporters and Editors), the National Security Archive and the Transactional Records and Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) have all produced or enabled magnificent journalism over the years; they all publish online; and some of their employees have written significant books. It is long past time they are properly and accurately accorded their due as investigative news publishers. 

Three of the 60 organizations included in The New Journalism Ecosystem actually fund investigative reporting — the Alicia Patterson Foundation, the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. For example, at the Patterson Foundation, one-year and six-month grants are awarded to working journalists to pursue independent projects of significant interest, and they subsequently write articles based on their investigations for The APF Reporter, the foundation’s online magazine. All three organizations enable and publish online, directly or indirectly serious journalism (via links after publication elsewhere). There are other excellent journalism fellowship and funding programs that seem to be less involved in the editing and publication process, but that subjective assessment likely also needs to be revisited as things continue to evolve.

One other, final note about the rationale behind the admittedly motley assemblage of organizations here. A conscious effort was made to illuminate the far and wide of this ecosystem, geographically but also financially. So included here are new nonprofit publishers in painfully apparent, precarious startup mode, attempting to survive and then grow amid an unrelenting recession. As a founder of nonprofit organizations also currently serving on numerous boards and advisory boards, it is excruciating to behold these well-intentioned, desperately needed, excellent adventures figuratively hanging by their financial fingernails. At least eight nonprofits chronicled here and possibly more have annual operating budgets of less than $100,000, which means that several experienced journalists are working for little or no pay, volunteering their knowledge and time in the valiant, heroic attempt to create a new institution out of thin air.

And it is this delicate, new, emerging dimension that is perhaps most intriguing. Of the 60 nonprofit organizations profiled here, 38, or 63 percent, were begun just since 2006. Three of the most robust efforts, ProPublica, The Bay Citizen and The Texas Tribune, were the brainchild of and founded by their donors Herb and Marion Sandler, Warren Hellman and John Thornton, respectively. But the overwhelming majority of these organizations were begun by newsroom editors and reporters who seldom wore suits or green eyeshades, folks long on guts but with little or no financial, entrepreneurial or management experience.

And here is where the Darwinian dimension of The New Journalism Ecosystem must be acknowledged. Some of these new organizations won’t make it, some will, and some new organizations will emerge later. This is a fluid, highly competitive, stressful environment, dependent on the vagaries of fate, the national and local economies, the moxie, stamina and entrepreneurialism of the founders, the steadfastness or fickleness of funders, the public resonance of the actual journalism, to name just a few variables.

As Karen Dunlap, president of The Poynter Institute, said, these new sites "offer solid ground for citizens to get information that they need, yet they operate under the glaring question of sustainability.  As nonprofits, they more directly challenge citizens with the question: Who will pay for the news?”

A year ago, the Chi-Town Daily News in Chicago "ceased operations . . . due to a lack of funding.” In just the past two weeks, it has been announced that The Huffington Post Investigative Fund, launched in 2009, will begin a new partnership, its small staff to be relocated and absorbed into the Center for Public Integrity in January.

Separately, according to Anne Galloway, the founder of VtDigger, which began in September 2009, her Vermont-based, nonprofit news organization merged this week with a local group there, the Vermont Journalism Trust. "VJT will be acting as VTdigger.org's publisher, raising money on our behalf,” she said. By adapting, with this change, she is excited about the future, and is looking forward to hiring full-time staff in 2011 on a projected budget of $160,000.

By contrast, the nonprofit organizations listed here with the highest annual operating budgets are:
• Mother Jones magazine (published by the 501 (c)(3) Foundation for National Progress), $10.6 million
• The Christian Science Monitor (published by the 501 (c)(3) First Church of Christ, Scientist), $10 million
• ProPublica, $10 million
• New America Media (a division of the 501 (c)(3) organization Pacific News Service), $5.5 million
• and the Center for Public Integrity, $5.2 million.

By our count, there are 658 full-time employees within the 60 organizations examined here. Two-thirds of these full-time employees have prior professional journalism experience. So a small fraction — 67 percent or 443 people to be exact — of the Diaspora of immensely talented journalists who had previously worked in commercial journalism have entered this nonprofit fray.

The cumulative total of the annual budgets of these organizations is $79.7 million. But 11 of the 60 groups, which employ 40 people full time, did not disclose their annual budget information. So the overall budgetary expenditure total for a snapshot year of The New Journalism Ecosystem is somewhere between $80 million and $85 million.

Specifically regarding the "what” of The New Journalism Ecosystem, for each organization we have attempted to identify who the founder(s) is; who the editors and publishers are; the precise nature of the corporate and governance structure; when the venture began; the number of full-time staff (some of the newest, smallest organizations have few full-time staff and heavily use donated time, student interns and contracted freelance writers); the number of full-time personnel with prior professional journalism experience; the degree of apparent adherence to traditional newsgathering techniques, including the extent of developed, internal news standards and practices; the quality and extent of editorial oversight; and professional peer recognition in the form of awards for what has been published.

We found that 28 of the 60 organizations have won awards for their reporting, which means that the profession of traditional journalism has gradually and increasingly begun to acknowledge the good, original work being published.

One especially important criterion in this nonprofit context: transparency. Does the news organization publicly disclose its sources of funding on its website, the size of its operating budget, even the salaries of its senior personnel? Does it post its annual IRS Form 990, which contains this kind of vital information and insight (sans donors in most instances, as most nonprofits only disclose the "public” part of the form, not the "confidential” section, which includes precise donor contribution amounts). But overall, to what extent is the organization sensitive to the need for public transparency and accountability?

And it must be said that the single most surprising and disappointing fact to be found in The New Journalism Ecosystem is this: Only 13 out of 60 organizations, or 22 percent, post their annual IRS 990 form on their website or otherwise make their annual operating budget and salary information available on their website. (University-based centers have no 990 and their information is lost within the larger, behemoth university 990.) Some organizations don’t post on their websites but noted to us that their 990s are available via Guidestar, the nonprofit reporting system. That is obviously not as direct as the organization’s actual website.

It is slightly more promising that 78 percent, or 47 organizations, disclose their donors on their websites. But in many cases, the reluctance to be fully transparent is quite obvious. This information can be deeply buried amid hundreds of thousands or more words, inside FAQs (frequently asked questions) or long, ruminative blogs from many months ago. Ordinary citizens, not forensic accountants, must be able to easily access this information. Faux transparency is hypocritical for an ostensible watchdog organization, and it undermines the credibility of what has been reported and written.

Half of the organizations have an ethics/editorial policy, which indicates some introspection about standards and practices. And only 10 of the 60 organizations, or 17 percent, have a diversity policy. That number is slightly misleading, as some of the most ethnically diverse organizations actually have no diversity policy, one of them actually responding to our query by emailing: "not applicable.”

The number of organizations led by women is 23, or 38 percent of the total, although it should be noted that in four instances, we are talking about mixed gender leadership (i.e. co-editors).

Aside from the nitty-gritty particulars, this report hopefully provides a better, clearer picture of what we have all been witnessing the past few years in the United States.

Will the new models work?

And how do the iconic figures from the newspaper journalism world of yesteryear regard the emerging nonprofit journalism ecosystem? It is inspiring to Phil Meyer, the father of computer-assisted reporting and author of two seminal books, Precision Journalism (1973) and The Vanishing Newspaper (2004). "Nonprofit journalism works because its owners and managers have escaped the short-horizon straitjacket into which American business in general has tied itself,” said Meyer. "They still have to meet the costs and pay their bills, but they are free to work on behalf of the long-term health of their enterprises and the communities they serve.”

Barry Sussman has been to the mountaintop of American newspaper journalism as the special Watergate editor at The Washington Post who oversaw the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Today he is the editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project at Harvard University. Like Meyer, he is enthusiastic about the burgeoning nonprofit news phenomenon and the new energy and hope it is providing.

"Without much notice, some dedicated editors, reporters, news entrepreneurs and sponsors are refusing to lament the collapse of an industry,” he said. "Instead, working from a nonprofit model, they have for decades been breaking important stories, and in just the last few years have made striking gains in numbers, recognition and impact.
 
"Great reporting is still being done by the traditional media, but there is very little of it.  It is the nonprofit model . . . that shows the most promise. More than anything else I can think of, it will serve — is already serving — to hold leaders accountable and keep important issues in public view. 
 
"Nonprofit news organizations are important in another respect,” Sussman said. "The Watergate era made many people see journalism as honest, worthwhile work. They don’t today. The nonprofit model, as it grows and strengthens and stays independent, could bring that spirit back and draw bright, idealistic young people into the profession.
"And wouldn’t that be nice.”

 

For more resources and ideas, see our story and additional links and reports.

*Full disclosure: I am associated with several of the nonprofit journalism organizations mentioned in this report. Besides my role as the founding executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, I serve on the boards of the Center for Public Integrity, FairWarning, the Fund for Investigative Journalism, the Investigative News Network, the Watchdog Institute and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. I am also on the advisory boards of others: the Canadian Centre for Investigative Journalism, the International Reporting Project, Kaiser Health News and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.

Researchers Kate Musselwhite, Brittney Butts and Philippa Levenberg contributed to this report.

 



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