By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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A harder future for non-profit journalism

What does the future of non-profit news look like? Maybe not as bright as we had hoped.

Nieman Journalism Lab director Joshua Benton gave a talk recently on “Eight Trends for Journalism in 2011.” There are a lot of interesting nuggets, and I want to give it a more careful read later. (Thanks to Jay Rosen for flagging it on Twitter.) But I was particularly struck by Benton’s prediction that we may have reached a peak in non-profit journalism, and that the slogging will be tougher from here on out. Benton writes:

I do think that 2011 is going to see some trimming back, because a lot of these news organizations were started on initial gifts from very well intentioned wealthy people, or local foundations that gave lump-sum payments. And a lot of them are having a real difficult time transitioning to anything that looks sustainable.

The non-profit project I follow most closely is the New Haven Independent. Benton’s prediction will not be news to the founder and editor, Paul Bass. In fact, he and I talked last summer about how to move from a model that relies mostly on foundation grants to one that relies mostly on user contributions and sponsorships, similar to public radio.

Since last fall, the Independent has used Journalism Online’s Press Plus system to ask for voluntary contributions.

Still, a site like the Independent, serving a small, poor community, is hardly a public radio station, many of which draw on large, affluent regions, and whose listeners can thus afford to give.

Ultimately, I wonder if local foundation officials will have to face up to the reality that journalism is a social service essential to the community fabric and needs to be funded on a sustaining basis.

I understand that when foundations give money to non-profit news organizations, they have that much less they can allocate to traditional programs helping young people, the homeless and the like. No doubt that makes for a very hard sell.

But a good non-profit news organization can foster the kind of civic engagement that makes it more likely people will take an interest in their community — and perhaps to donate money to those foundations. I think that’s called a virtuous circle.

A celebration of non-profit journalism

Paul Bass. Yes, that's Linda McMahon in the background. Click on image for more photos.

Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon of Connecticut was there. So was New Haven Mayor John DeStefano. So were about 150 other friends of the New Haven Independent as the non-profit news site celebrated its fifth anniversary on Wednesday evening.

“It’s a powerful idea, which is that out-of-town corporations that could care less about us no longer own our news. They no longer control our news. We the people control the news,” Independent founder and editor Paul Bass told the crowd. (Click to hear Bass address the crowd.)

The party was held in the third-floor offices of La Voz Hispana de Connecticut, a Spanish-language newspaper where the Independent has use of a spare room. Bass was introduced by Norma Rodriguez-Reyes, publisher of La Voz, who also chairs the board of the Online Journalism Project, which publishes the Independent.

“At La Voz Hispana we’re very proud to have the New Haven Independent here with us, and we want to wish cien años — 100 years more,” Rodriguez-Reyes said, standing on a chair and holding aloft a glass of wine.

One of the goals was to unveil a voluntary subscription system that Bass hopes will make the Independent less dependent on foundation grants. Readers are being asked to pay $10 or $18 a month. As it turned out, though, money barely got a mention.

“We didn’t want people feeling like we got them in there, and then we were going to hit them up,” Bass told me afterwards, adding that many of the folks who showed up were already financial backers.

Was the party what Bass had expected?

“I guess,” he said. “Sorry, what am I supposed to say? Norma loves to throw parties. I hate parties.”

The party was also covered by the Yale Daily News and, of course, by the Independent.

In New Haven, seeking non-profit sustainability

The challenge for non-profit news sites is that national and local foundations may be willing to help them get off the ground, but at some point they want them to be self-sustaining. Will readers of a site like the New Haven Independent give money on a continuing basis — a model well-established in the world of public television and radio stations?

Independent founder and editor Paul Bass intends to find out. Late this afternoon he posted a fifth-anniversary message, asking readers to choose a voluntary subscription of $10 or $18 a month (or more) in order to support an operation that has grown to a nearly $500,000 annual budget with six full-time reporters, several part-timers, affiliated sites covering Branford and the Naugatuck Valley and a State House reporter. Bass writes:

Five years ago today, the New Haven Independent hit the net with a new idea: completely local multimedia online-only professional news reporting focused on city news and issues, with reporting used as a springboard for wide-ranging community discussion. Not a “newspaper.” Not a radio or TV news program. A journalism-driven online urban community….

Cities like New Haven are returning to the “good old days” of multiple local media outlets where readers can find news, weigh in, and obtain different takes on what’s happening at home. No longer can a corporate monopoly control and choke off the flow of news and debate in one community.

Unlike, say, WGBH or WBUR in Boston, the Independent serves a poor, largely minority urban community. Bass’ challenge is very different from that of a public broadcasting executive appealing to affluent, well-educated viewers and listeners.

The Independent will celebrate its fifth birthday at a party on Sept. 15. I plan to be there. It will be interesting to see how many people turn out (57 have already said via Facebook that they’re coming) — and what level of support Bass is able to attract as he begins his sixth year.

In Vermont, a journalistic conflict too far

Now here’s a bad idea. The Commons, a monthly, non-profit newspaper that covers the Brattleboro, Vt., area, recently applied for — and received — a $25,000 loan from the town government in order to relaunch as a weekly and refurbish its website.

As Bill Densmore observes at the New England News Forum, Brattleboro is something of a hotbed for citizen journalism, as it is the home of the pioneering DIY news site iBrattleboro. The town is also covered by the Brattleboro Reformer, owned by Dean Singleton’s financially ailing MediaNews Group.

According to this story by Susan Keese of Vermont Public Radio, Jeff Potter, The Commons’ executive editor, says his paper is an example of a news organization that is “more of a public utility and less of a commercial enterprise.” Select Board chairman Dick DeGray sees no problem with the town’s funding a newspaper, saying:

We viewed it as a small business loan. It didn’t have any bearing that it was a newspaper. Since I’ve been on the board we’ve given money to a local brewery we’ve given money to a bagel start up. So as long as they meet the criteria, which they did.

DeGray adds that the loan does not come with any strings attached with respect to how The Commons covers Brattleboro.

Well, then. First, let’s acknowledge that this isn’t a simple question. In an e-mail exchange yesterday, Densmore reminded me that many for-profit community newspapers are heavily dependent on legal ads placed by the local government. And as we struggle toward new models for sustaining journalism, conflicts will inevitably arise.

For instance, the New Haven Independent, a non-profit news site that I follow closely, has come under criticism for allegedly favoring a Latino parents group that receives funding from the same foundation that also pays the Independent to cover education reform.

Last year, you may recall, the Bay State Banner, a for-profit paper that covers Boston’s African-American community, staved off a crisis with the help of a $200,000 loan arranged by Mayor Tom Menino. As Adam Reilly reported in the Boston Phoenix, the Banner quickly morphed from a harsh Menino critic into Sergeant Schultz.

Journalism is rife with conflicts, starting with the daily conflict of not wanting to offend advertisers. And I’m sure the folks in Brattleboro are earnest and well-intentioned — we are talking about Vermont, after all. But it still seems to me that rule number one is you can’t take money directly from the very government you are supposed to be keeping an eye on.

ProPublica and non-profit journalism

In my latest for the Guardian, I write that ProPublica’s Pulitzer haul is evidence that the era of non-profit journalism has arrived.

The future of journalism and the law

This Friday I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion titled “The Future of Journalism: Law and Ethics in a Changing Media Ecosystem.” It’s part of an all-day conference called “Journalism’s Digital Transition: Unique Legal Challenges and Opportunities,” sponsored by the Citizen Media Law Project and to be held at Harvard Law School.

Our panel, to be held from 3:10 to 5 p.m., will focus on issues such as whether shield laws can be crafted so that bloggers and citizen journalists can protect their confidential sources, and if the shift toward nonprofit journalism means fewer First Amendment rights. (Among other things, non-profit organizations may not endorse political candidates.)

The other panelists:

The moderator will be Phil Malone, clinical professor of law and director of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Reporting sexual assaults on campus

My former Boston Phoenix colleague Kristen Lombardi is the lead reporter in a series on how college and university administrators respond to allegations of sexual assault. Published by the Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit investigative-reporting project, the series is the product of months of work and scores of interviews.

Lombardi reports that when law enforcement declines to step in because of insufficient evidence, conflicting stories and the like, colleges are mandated under federal law to investigate. Yet victims and alleged victims encounter a frustrating atmosphere of secrecy and of administrators who don’t always take them seriously. Lombardi writes:

College administrators bristle at the idea they’re shielding rapes. But they admit they’ve wrestled with confidentiality in campus assault proceedings because of FERPA and the Clery Act [federal laws that mandate privacy]. Confusion over the laws has reinforced what critics see as a culture of silence that casts doubt on the credibility of the process. “People will think we’re running star chambers,” says Don Gehring, founder of the Association for Student Conduct Administration, referring to secret, arbitrary courts in old England. “And that’s what’s happening now.”

The series, “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice,” is a vivid example of investigative journalism’s migration to online, non-profit organizations. And, as is more and more often the case with such projects, it comes complete with multimedia, additional resources and an extensive “Reporter’s Toolkit” to help news organizations follow up on the work produced by Lombardi and her fellow journalists.

Last week, Lombardi discussed her report on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.”

The New York Times’ non-profit partners

What should we think about a partnership the New York Times has announced with a Chicago non-profit news organization that will supply two pages of news each week for the Times’ new Chicago edition?

On the one hand, the Times, a for-profit enterprise, is using material from a non-profit in order to take business away from two other for-profit enterprises, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. (Earlier, a similar arrangement was announced for a San Francisco edition of the Times.)

I’m a huge fan of non-profit journalism, but this strikes me as raising the specter of unfair competition. The non-profit, after all, enjoys certain tax advantages not available to a for-profit.

On the other hand, no one objects when for-profit newspapers run material from non-profit news organizations such as the Christian Science Monitor. My gut tells me this is different, but I can’t explain why.

We’re all debating whether for-profit newspapers can or should take the non-profit route. At least in a small way, the Times is now doing exactly that through the back door.

Tax incentives, yes. Government subsidies, no.

Len Downie

Len Downie

Len Downie, former executive editor of the Washington Post, and Michael Schudson of Columbia University will release a report tomorrow that calls, among other things, for direct government funding of local journalism. Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute says such funding could amount to $500 million a year.

Despite Downie’s sterling credentials — and he’s looking better every day — I suspect this isn’t going anywhere, nor should it. True, Downie and Schudson try to draw parallels to existing models such as the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities in order to make their proposed Fund for Local Journalism seem less exotic. But it still amounts to a direct government bailout for the news business, which would severely compromise journalism’s ability to act as a watchdog on government.

Indirect government subsidies in the form of non-profit status and the tax incentives that go with that status make much more sense. Not that every news organization should go non-profit. But many non-profit news organizations are already doing good work, including public radio and television (which, alas, do receive some direct government funding) and community Web sites such as Voice of San Diego, MinnPost and the New Haven Independent.

If legislation is needed to bring non-profit news more into the mainstream, that might not be a bad idea. But when government starts writing checks, it will, inevitably, demand to have some say in what it’s paying for.

Declarations of independence

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that concerns about the independence of non-profit news organizations are overblown — unless you believe that for-profit news orgs are fully independent of their advertisers.

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