Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How Will Non-Profit Investigative Journalism Survive?

The U.S. has seen an explosion of non-profit efforts aimed at providing investigative journalism to communities that are witnessing cutbacks in conventional media operations.

In most cases, private foundations have provided the start-up funds to hire journalists and launch the operations, many of which have their primary presence on the web. Universities are also partners in many of the enterprises.

As these organizations mature and enter their second and third years, they all have to figure out a sustainable business model. Although a number of foundations have been very generous and have pledged multi-year support, it is not at all clear that these commitments will continue indefinitely. In short, the question will soon be: how will these ventures survive?

Perhaps the largest start-up is called ProPublica. Under a tab that says "steal our stories," it announces: "You can republish our articles and graphics for free, so long as you credit us, link to us, and don’t edit our material or sell it separately." With headquarters in Manhattan, ProPublica employs 32 journalists and has generous support from the Sandler Foundation and a host of other philanthropic groups.

Voiceofsandiego.org bills itself as the only professionally-staffed, non-profit provider or online local news in the state. It has a funding model very different from ProPublica's, relying on a mix of revenue from foundations, private individuals and advertisers on its website.

The Texas Tribune doesn't accept advertising, but it has already raised more than $3.6 million from foundations and corporations. It doesn't hurt that its chairman has been a venture capitalist in Austin, Texas for nearly 30 years. It claims to be non partisan, and its focus is exclusively on public policy, politics, and government. "Because we’re non-profit, we don’t have to sacrifice our mission at the altar of commercial considerations." A surprising sentiment from a Texas venture capitalist.

One of the new players on the scene is California Watch, a Sacramento-based venture that will launch in earnest next month as a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. They too have lined up significant start-up money from foundations, but their strategy is not to give away their content or invite anyone to steal it. Their hope is to syndicate the material to news outlets that wish to buy it.

In September, California Watch whetted the appetite of news outlets by distributing a successful package of stories on homeland security spending. It charged just a nominal fee for stories that reached 1.8 million newspaper subscribers and millions more on TV and online. But that was just a teaser.

"The mission of California Watch is to distribute high-impact investigative and enterprise journalism," it says on its website. "But we won’t last long if we give it away. Over the coming months we plan to explore all types of distribution models. The goal will be to develop an equitable payment structure that works for us and for our partners. No one knows exactly what that will look like."

Of course, reliance on advertising and commercial models may eventually land the new ventures back to the same problems that are currently hurting conventional media outlets. When success is defined by the number of eyeballs that can be delivered to an advertiser, the founding principles of some of the outlets might take on less importance. It is the same conundrum that non-profits in many fields face.

But if a non-profit news venture is truly filling an important niche, and doing a consistently good job at it, there is reason to believe it could rely on ongoing support from charitable foundations that believe in the work. A good example is stateline.org, which has published online every weekday since Jan. 25, 1999. It was founded by the Pew Charitable Trusts in response to shrinking news coverage of state government in the U.S.

Ten years later, the site remains a thriving and credible source of news about state governments. There is no reason to think the same pattern couldn't hold true for investigative journalism sites.

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