Exploring Journalism's Unchartered Future

Nonprofit Journalism Model: A Future of Environmental Reporting?

When Marianne Lavelle left U.S. News and World Report a year ago, the news weekly was rapidly shrinking the amount of space devoted to in-depth reporting as part of its transition to becoming strictly an online journal.

“You could just see there wasn’t going to be a place for that kind of reporting any more,” says the long-time environmental writer.

After 11 years with the magazine, the past eight covering energy and environment, she decided to become a staff writer for The Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit publisher. She says the new job allows her to devote the time and space necessary to tell complex environmental stories, with a focus on environmental and energy policy.

One of her recent articles focused on growth in the number of lobbyists working on climate change issues in Washington. That feature required the work of three staff reporters and resulted in a detailed picture of the lobbying landscape on climate change providing “real value” to readers, Lavelle says. It’s the kind of in-depth labor-intensive journalism increasingly rare in many daily newspapers.

It’s no secret that these are difficult times for traditional, mainstream media, print in particular, as major metropolitan dailies cease publication, restrict themselves to online versions only, cut back on home distribution, or fight their way through bankruptcy proceedings.

News articles and new books are routinely detailing what some see as the end of the line for some metropolitan daily newspapers or, far worse, for serious journalism generally. Journalism scholar and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, captures the journalism turmoil in a newly released book: Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy, published this year by Oxford University Press.

It’s gotten to the point that some in Washington, D.C., are falling over themselves to offer help, or at least comfort. A Senate subcommittee recently held hearings on the future of news. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) is so concerned about the number of reporters disappearing from newspapers, including The Baltimore Sun, that on March 24th he introduced The Newspaper Revitalization Act to make clear that newspapers can operate as nonprofits if they choose to do so, an option intended to save newspapers on the brink of their demise. Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather recently opined in a Washington Post column in support of his plea to President Obama for an official commission to study “the perilous state of America’s news media.”

‘Pocantico Declaration’

This past spring, a coalition of nonprofits gathered to sign the Pocantico Declaration, with the goal of establishing an investigative news network of nonprofit news publishers. And many environmental reporters are heading in that same direction, turning to a variety of upstart nonprofits which publish solely on the Internet. Dozens of such online ventures have sprung up in recent years, including, among the most highly visible, The Center for Public Integrity’s, The Washington Independent, MinnPost.com, and VoiceOfSanDiego.org.

These online ventures, some funded primarily by foundation money, offer an alternative outlet for those who are committed to covering the environment. But can they replace mainstream journalism?

“We know how important watchdog journalism is and we’re worried about what’s happening in the media,” said Bill Buzenberg, executive director of The Center for Public Integrity which, along with the Center for Investigative Reporting, sponsored the Pocantico conference in New York City as a launching point for nonprofit investigative news organizations. Leaders of 20 nonprofit news organizations attended.

Buzenberg says the groups’ goal is to grow membership just as National Public Radio has done over three-plus decades: NPR started with 90 stations in 1971 and now has more than 700. He thinks that having nonprofits work together and share information will help make it a more successful outlet with a bigger impact and economies of scale. The goal is to raise $200,000 from foundations and individuals as a starting point to launch a website and get the umbrella group established as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, involving many different news organizations that will be inter-connected.

“The nonprofit media is where the energy and ideas and effort are going now,” Buzenberg says.

Michael E. Grass, editor of The Center for Independent Media, which runs six state websites, says nonprofits covering local issues have an advantage over traditional outlets in that they are less likely than newspapers to be beholden to quarterly earnings statements and major local employers.

“We have more freedom and flexibility than some traditional media outlets,” he said. And he focuses on stories that are “local, but not parochial,” attracting a broad readership. Not being wedded to shareholders and the quest for big profits is “liberating,” allowing journalism to return to its public-service roots, he said.

“We’re really on the ground floor of something that’s extremely powerful and promising,” he said. It’s a sentiment one hears often from “new media” advocates fleeing from the crumbling house of old-line media interests.

But with some advantages also come some disadvantages. Audience and reputation or standing of the new news outlet are among the concerns veteran environmental journalists express.

Lavelle, whose previous employer, U.S. News and World Report, had 2 million subscribers, says most of the public, including news sources, is unfamiliar with The Center for Public Integrity, and she finds it frustrating constantly having to explain it to sources.

It’s also a practical problem because sources unfamiliar with the name can take weeks to return her phone calls, a serious issue in the fast-paced world of climate change policy and the round-the-clock news cycle.

Recently, The Center for Public Integrity reached an agreement with AP to get stories distributed to AP member news organizations. Under this arrangement, AP gets in-depth stories for free; The Center gets its stories widely distributed. It’s another sign of the “legacy” or “mainstream” news organizations’ increasing dependence on independent news interests for their in-depth coverage. Lavelle says she hopes arrangements like this will help address some of the visibility and recognition concerns.

Key Questions: Who Will Pay for Journalism Quality?

“The overriding question is who will pay for quality journalism in the future?” says Roy Peter Clark, vice president of The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education group that owns The St. Petersburg Times. He says no one can yet answer that question, because the media are in a time of great turmoil, “but also great experimentation,” with nonprofit journalism a part of that experimentation.

Clark says he hopes nonprofit journalism interests will devote themselves not only to the big stories, but to those traditional nuts-and-bolts news stories still valued by local audiences. (That hope runs counter to those who fear nonprofit funding will largely go to the bigger and more “glamorous” organizations and stories.) He expects nonprofit journalism ventures will be one of a number of useful experiments: Even if they initially fail, they will help “move us in directions we hadn’t thought of,” and the early efforts may lead to successes and progress down the road.

… and the Outlook for Journalism Ethics

Clark says nonprofit journalism will have to deal with its own set of difficult journalism ethics issues. Because many nonprofit funders and organizations have their own sets of biases and positions, transparency will be of crucial importance, he cautions. He says nonprofit journalism interests face conflict-of-interest issues no less than news outlets dependent on advertising revenues and subject to traditional financial concerns.

So the new media business models must reflect standards and practices to guard against those potential conflicts, according to Clark.

Several of the reporters contacted for this article said their new online publishers maintain editorial/business/advertising firewalls, much like those long in place at most major newspapers to prevent conflicts. But most observers nonetheless agree that in the no-rules/no-standards free-wheeling nature of the Internet and the Web, each party will have to decide how best to establish, and how aggressively to enforce, its own ethical codes.

‘Visibility’ in Lieu of Pay and Benefits?

Beyond the kinds of journalism ethics issues common to most news outlets, another potential cloud on the horizon of the new emerging media voices involves how, and how much, writers are compensated for their work: pay.

It’s not uncommon to see new reporting “opportunities” advertised online with a promise of “visibility” and “exposure” rather than fundamentals like salary, annual leave, and health benefits. That can be a pretty sobering message for those suddenly finding their newsrooms pink-slipped and their assumed lifetime positions eliminated. More than a few news reporters “down-sized” from traditional newsrooms over the past few years have found themselves freelancing or blogging and often without the kinds of health care and leave benefits they had become accustomed to as employees … and with substantially less take-home pay.

Receiving fair compensation for their journalistic work is an issue addressed frequently, and often heatedly, on journalism list serves. These issues have been prominent for months, for instance, among members of the Society of Environmental Journalists, SEJ, and the National Association of Science Writers, NASW, both of which have memberships consisting substantially of freelancers.

NASW’s membership has long been made up largely of freelancers and others not employed at conventional newspaper, magazine, or broadcast news outlets. SEJ also now has more members who are freelancers (375) than daily newspaper reporters (298), in part reflecting recent lay-offs of so many journalists now trying to make a go of it on their own, some through upstart nonprofits.

Supporting members wanting to stay afloat as journalists during this turbulent time is key, says Christy George, Oregon Public Broadcasting special projects producer and SEJ President. But she doesn’t think nonprofits alone will successfully fill the void. She includes public radio among the media interests feeling the pinch in the current economy. She points to recent cancellations of National Public Radio shows “Day to Day” and “News and Notes,” to elimination of more than 60 NPR positions, and to announcement of a $23 million projected deficit.

While George says she appreciates answering directly to the public and relying on public financial support in return, she is cautious about the widespread application of the nonprofit journalism model. “I look at all these models based on nonprofit, foundation funding, direct gifts from your audience, and there’s not enough foundation money to go around,” she says. “This is not the model that will save journalism.”

Concerns like these are prompting journalism interests to explore potential new business models that can support quality journalism. SEJ, for instance, is considering starting a Fund for Environmental Journalism that the group would administer to pay for things like reporter’s travel or fellowship grants.

Long-time SEJ Executive Director Beth Parke says that under the proposed new venture, SEJ could administer grants made to journalists working for either for-profit or nonprofit news organizations. “We’re not turning our backs on any of the streams of work,” she said, emphasizing the organization’s goal of supporting environmental reporting across various media and organizational structures. And, she emphasizes that “the fund is the dream. We don’t have it yet.”

Colleges and universities also are being examined as potential host sites for ongoing hard-news journalism interests, although they too have suffered financially during the past months’ economic recession, and many currently appear reluctant to actively entertain ambitious and costly new ventures.

For the foreseeable future, just exactly what mix of business plans and quality journalism will “save journalism,” as George says, remains something of a mystery. It’s likely one that will be a hybrid of various approaches, a challenge solved incrementally, and then over a period of years or decades.

With smaller, and probably fewer, daily newspapers feeding the news stream, and with a continuing emphasis in popular media on “lighter” editorial fare and shorter stories overall, it’s unclear how inevitable journalistic and information voids eventually might be filled. That reality itself can be energizing and not just demoralizing, and the prospect for being part of the emerging news and journalism future presents its own sets of both challenges and opportunities.

It’s just that situation that makes this a particularly interesting and important time to be involved in communications on complex and long-term issues such as climate change. With the future blends of both for-profit and nonprofit journalism yet to be defined, journalists today can, at the very least, take comfort in being “there at the beginning.”

Julie Halpert

Julie Halpert, who has covered the environment for more than two decades for national publications, is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Mi. She is a regular contributor to The Yale Forum. (E-mail: julie@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @julhalps)
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One Response to Nonprofit Journalism Model: A Future of Environmental Reporting?

  1. Anna Haynes says:

    > “some in Washington, D.C., are falling over themselves to offer help”

    What about postage rates? My understanding is that rate increases have really hurt orgs. that distribute their news via the USPS.

    If the survival of investigative journalism is important, cutting news orgs a break on postage would seem to be a no-brainer.