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July 18 2011

13:00

Pew: Nonprofit journalism doesn’t mean ideology-free

Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism is out with a new study this morning that looks at the new universe of nonprofit journalism — and tries to get beyond the ProPublicas of the world to see who else is producing journalism under the legal structure of a 501(c)3 exemption. After all, remember, “nonprofit” signals a tax status, not a belief system or a commitment to any particular ideals, journalistic or otherwise.

The study found more than a little ideology lurking under that IRS umbrella. Of the 46 sites examined — 39 nonprofit and 7 commercial as a control — around half “produced news coverage that was clearly ideological in nature,” the researchers report.

Pew had the expected nice things to say about the usual nonprofit rock stars, like ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, MinnPost, and California Watch. They’re transparent about their funding sources, which are numerous; their doesn’t skew too far in one political direction; they produce a lot of journalism, compared to their nonprofit peers. But the major national networks of state politics sites — the conservative Watchdog.org sites and the liberal American Independent News Network — don’t reveal much about who’s paying their bills, and their work skews clearly in one direction, both in the topics they cover and the content of individual stories.

(Because it attempted to cover an entire universe of nonprofit outlets, researchers had to limit their targets to a reasonable number. As a result, older news orgs like the Center for Public Integrity and metro-scale outlets like Voice of San Diego were both excluded.)

PEJ does a great job, with this and other studies, of moving past barroom debates and gathering real-world data on the new worlds of journalism. And while this research doesn’t draw explicit moral conclusions, it won’t be hard for others to: These nonprofits aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They’re not objective; they’re hidden tools of politicos; they’re no replacement for newspapers. Beyond the flagships like ProPublica and Texas Tribune, it’s a mucky world.

And there’s some truth in that! But two points: First, few of even the most ambitious nonprofit outlets consider themselves true replacements for newspapers. The scale just isn’t there; as Pew’s study notes, the median editorial-staff size at the nonprofits they studied was three. (Although those three people are usually more topic-focused than their print peers — a nonprofit site covering a statehouse might be the biggest player in town with three reporters.) Replacement is a straw man; the vast majority of nonprofits, ideological or not, view themselves more as supplements.

Second, a little ideology isn’t such a bad thing. Take the right-of-center Watchdog.org sites, which we wrote about last year. They say their mission is to “promote social welfare and civil betterment by undertaking programs that promote journalism and the education of the public about corruption, incompetence, fraud, or taxpayer abuse by elected officials at all levels of government.” They investigate Democrats a lot more than Republicans, and they’re no great fans of what they see as wasteful big government.

The left-of-center American Independent News Network sites works the other side, saying its reporting “emphasizes the positive role of democratically elected government in securing the common good and social welfare, and the continuing benefits of our founding culture of egalitarian government by the people, for the people.” They take on the GOP more than Democrats, and they write a lot about the environment and labor issues.

Viewed as replacements, they fall short of what we’d expect from a good newspaper. But as supplements, I’m happy that both exist — that in a state with both a Watchdog site and an Independent site, both sides of the aisle will be poked and prodded, and that stories will surface that otherwise wouldn’t. I’d draw a distinction between ideological outlets as drivers of political culture — Fox News being a prime example — and as drivers of new information. The biggest risk posed by the loss of reporting manpower in places like our nation’s statehouses is that real stories will go unreported. Adding ideological outlets to the mix reduces that chance; at least someone will be paying attention to environmental issues or fraud at the DMV. And, unlike with Fox News, the readers of many of these sites tend to be high-information consumers of political news; a statehouse-news-only site isn’t ever going to reach the broader general audience of a newspaper or TV station.

Anyway, that’s just one take on what is a data-rich analysis, a snapshot of an important group of new players in the news world. Go read the full paper.

April 21 2011

21:00

AP expands its content-distribution experiment with nonprofit news

Earlier today, the Associated Press announced that it will be expanding its project to distribute content from nonprofit news outfits to newspapers. The expansion builds on the partnerships the cooperative — itself a nonprofit — had developed with the public-interest news providers ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity,the Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Investigative Reporting Workshop. The partnerships were built in hopes of a win-win scenario: wider content distribution for the nonprofits, and more high-quality content for papers. Today’s announcement doubles down on the project’s implied institutionalization of an ecosystem that promotes collaboration between nonprofit and for-profit news sources. (With it, the AP is also announcing a fifth partner: the Maynard Institute.)

Expansion-of-an-existing-project isn’t always big news, of course, but it’s worth noting in this case because the AP’s nonprofit-distribution effort has been an undertaking that, as our Laura McGann noted in February, was less pathbreaking than participants had hoped it would be when it was first announced — largely because the nonprofits’ content (most of it, anyway) simply wasn’t picked up by newspapers.

“We wish it had gone better,” Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, told the Lab after the project’s six-month beta period. John Raess, AP’s San Francisco bureau chief (and one of the project’s leads), acknowledged the same thing his partners did: that the project had been, at that point, “not as hugely successful as we’d like.” And Sue Cross, the AP’s senior vice president for global new media and US media markets (and the executive who launched the project), noted that there’d been no talk of expanding it.

So today’s announcement of an expansion is not just news, but also, potentially, good news — both for nonprofit outlets and the consumers who stand to benefit from the public-interest reporting they do.

“It’s been very low-key because we’ve been taking it slowly,” says Kate Butler, the AP’s vice president for U.S. newspaper markets — a rollout that’s been both experimental and intentional. “We wanted to start small, see what the issues were — and see what worked,” she told me. And a big part of that came down to solving — or, at least, improving — a logistical problem Laura noted in February: the delivery platform AP uses to share the stories themselves. The AP has been engaged in an org-wide effort to transition its members from its satellite wire to its web-based AP Exchange — a process that, save for a few stragglers, was pretty much completed as of this March, John Raess told me.

During the project’s beta, Butler notes, the AP had been using AP Exchange as its web portal. To find content — including the content from nonprofits — editors would log into the Exchange system and actively search for stories. But the expanded partnership with nonprofits will make use of the AP WebFeeds technology, which includes metadata for stories and allows for easier searching and sorting of those stories — and, crucially, allows content to flow directly into papers’ content management systems.

Essentially, the cooperative has traded push notifications for pull in distributing nonprofit-produced news content to papers. The new system, Butler says, “removes a step and makes it easier for the content to be seen.”

The nonprofit stories are opt-in for news publishers — sent to your CMS only if you want them to be — but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which a paper would turn down exposure to stories that are, ostensibly, both in the public interest and, you know, good. (No money changes hands in the exchange.) Though he declines to specify the particular outfits at this point, Raess has so far talked to around 15 publications, he told me — and “every editor I’ve talked to has said yes.”

March 08 2011

17:00

A perpetual motion machine for investigative reporting: CPI and PRI partner on state corruption project

There is a flaw in the investigative reporting model and it has to do with longevity. Follow me on this for a second: A reporter works months at a time scouring documents, meeting sources, verifying details, writing, and perhaps even building a database. And then the piece is published.

And that’s it.

The lifespan of investigative reporting, at least as it’s typically done through newspapers, can be disappointingly short given the painful labor and birthing process. Once stories are released, the hope is the public (or perhaps lawmakers) will pick up the torch to right the wrongs illuminated by reporters. But the drumbeat stops after a while. Reporters have to move on to new assignments, and the public’s desire to change laws and right wrongs can be overtaken by things like #Winning.

In an ambitious new project, the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International, and Global Integrity are trying to build a new mechanism that keeps the intensity and awareness of investigative reporting at a steady pace.

What they’re building is a fifty-state corruption risk index. Think of it like a Homeland Security threat level indicator that shows just how susceptible your state is to corruption. Already this is no small task: They plan to hire a reporter in each state to do ground-level reporting and compile information for the index as well write stories. Where they hope to transform the investigative reporting machine, though, is by going transparent and getting people invested in the project before it officially drops next year. Instead of holding onto information before the project is complete, they’ll invite the public in, ask for a little crowdsourcing, and build momentum — and a network. The goal is to make the corruption index something of a perpetual motion machine.

“The idea here is that in recent years really good, solid investigative reporting on the state level has fallen off, and state newspapers have had to make cutbacks,” said Caitlin Ginley, the project coordinator for CPI. “We see this as a great way to revitalize that.”

The corruption index is not without some precedent. In 2009, The Center for Public Integrity released States of Disclosure, a fifty-state ranking of financial disclosure laws for local legislators (and source for the map above). Ginley told me they wanted to build on that foundation for the corruption index, using financial disclosure laws, conflict-of-interest laws, FOIA regulations, lobbyist rules, and other accountability standards as indicators to gauge the likelihood of corruption.

“Reporters can take that information and see this is where [their state is] doing very poorly and report that out,” Ginley said.

In its role, Global Integrity will help by creating a methodology and guiding the analysis of the data that comes in. (Reporters will also be using Global Integrity’s Indaba tool to collect and publish information.) The end result will be much like States of Disclosure, with report cards and rankings, as well as background data from each state, Ginley said.

But the work that starts now, aside from the hiring of journalists in each state (JOB ALERT), is identifying people or organizations who can be helpful over the course of the corruption project.

“We have the tools now for people to get engaged in stories as they go along and that creates a lasting commitment so its not a one-shot deal,” said Michael Skoler, vice president of Interactive Media for PRI. Just as important as finding reporters and document-hounding is cultivating a community that can guide and assist the reporting, Skoler told me. (Skoler is familiar with the concept, having established the Public Insight Network while working for American Public Media.)

“The standard mode for investigative reporting is that people don’t talk at all about what they’re doing,” he told me.

PRI will work with its more than 800 partner stations to find expertise and build interest in the project over the next twelve months so that ideally, when the report is produced, there will be a built-in audience who can share it with others or try to minimize corruption in their state. Projects around government and budgets are ripe conditions for crowdsourcing, but Skoler thinks the crowdsourcing concept is something far too many people attempt but ultimately don’t understand.

“I think one of the misconceptions about crowdsourcing is when you crowdsource, you’re trying to attract and engage everyone. And that doesn’t work,” Skoler said. “Crowdsourcing is about reaching out to the people who are naturally interested and knowledgeable about something and inviting them to play.”

Within each state, he points out, there are honest government/open government groups, think tanks, academics, and non-profits who have an interest in state corruption and could assist in the project. Skoler thinks approaching these specific people and groups, unlike asking the general readership for help, could produce better results.

He also things that approach could help to increase the reach of investigative reporting. Instead of hoping that the results a reporter produces will automatically take on a life of their own, the corruption index hopes to apply strategy to extending the shelf life of accountability journalism. As Skoler puts it, “It’s a new way of thinking about impact for investigative journalism — and about building impact in through a whole process.”

March 01 2011

15:07

DocumentCloud Passes Major Milestone: 1 Million Pages Uploaded

DocumentCloud's Jeremy Ashkenas collaborated on this post.

It has been less than a year since DocumentCloud began adding users to our beta. Late Monday morning, a user uploaded our millionth page of primary source documents.

The thousands of documents in our catalog have arrived in small batches: five pages here, twenty there. The vast majority of the 65,000 documents that those million pages comprise remain private, but we're fast closing in on 10,000 public documents in our catalog.

Broad Appeal

Journalists are using DocumentCloud to publish all sorts of documents, including these:

Remaking History

Documents in our catalog reach back into the past, as well. In 1970 Ruben Salazar was killed by police while covering an anti-war protest in east Los Angeles. A story rife with controversy, questions, and suspicions, his death became a rallying point in the Mexican American civil rights movement. Forty years later -- after refusing a public records request for documents that might shed some light on the circumstances of his death -- the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department agreed to turn the files over to the Office of Independent Review.

While Los Angeles Times reporters waited for the report, they assembled their own folio of early clippings on Ruben Salazar. Readers can review FBI files obtained by the Times in 1999 and LAPD records on the department's repeated clashes with the journalist as well as a draft of the report prepared by the Office of Independent Review.

Join the Cloud

You can browse recently published documents by searching for "filter: published" or read up on other searches you might want to run. Here's hoping that the next year brings millions more pages, and more great document-driven reporting.

November 11 2010

16:00

The Newsonomics of journalist headcounts

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

We try to make sense of how much we’ve lost and how much we’ve gained through journalism’s massive upheaval. It’s a dizzying picture; our almost universal access to news and the ability of any writer to be her own publisher gives the appearance of lots more journalism being available. Simultaneously, the numbers of paid professional people practicing the craft has certainly lowered the output through traditional media.

It’s a paradox that we’re in the midst of wrestling with. We’re in the experimental phase of figuring out how much journalists, inside and out of branded media, are producing — and where the biggest gaps are. We know that numbers matter, but we don’t yet know how they play with that odd measure that no metrics can yet definitively tell us: quality.

I’ve used the number of 1,000,000 as a rough approximation of how many newspaper stories would go unwritten in 2010, as compared to 2005, based on staffing reduction. When I brought that up on panel in New York City in January, fellow panelist Jeff Jarvis asked: “But how many of those million stories do we need? How many are duplicated?” Good questions, and ones that of course there are no definitive answers for. We know that local communities are getting less branded news; unevenly, more blog-based news; and much more commentary, some of it produced by experienced journalists. There’s no equivalency between old and new, but we can get some comparative numbers to give us some guidelines.

For now, let’s look mainly at text-based media, though we’ll include public radio here, as it makes profound moves to digital-first and text. (Broadcast and cable news, of course, are a significant part of the news diet. U.S. Labor Department numbers show more than 30,000 people employed in the production of broadcast news, but it’s tough to divine how much of that effort so far has had an impact on text-based news. National broadcast numbers aren’t easily found, though we know there are more than 3,500 people (only a percentage of them in editorial) working in news divisions of the Big Four, NBC, ABC, Fox, and CBS — a total that’s dropped more than 25 percent in recent years.)

Let’s start our look at text-based media with the big dog: daily newspapers. ASNE’s annual count put the national daily newsroom number at 41,500 in 2010, down from 56,400 in 2001 (and 56,900 in 1990). Those numbers are approximations, bases on partial survey, and they are the best we have for the daily industry. So, let’s use 14,000 as the number of daily newsroom jobs gone in a decade. We don’t have numbers for community weekly newspapers, with no census done by either the National Newspaper Association or most state press associations. A good estimate looks to be in the 8,000-10,000 range for the 2,000 or so weeklies in the NNA membership, plus lots of stringers.

Importantly, wire services aren’t included in the ASNE numbers. Put together the Associated Press, Reuters, and Bloomberg (though some of those workforces are worldwide, not U.S.-based) and you’ve got about 7,500 editorial staffers.

Let’s look at some areas that are growing, starting with public radio. Public radio, on the road to becoming public media, has produced a steady drumbeat of news about its expansion lately (“The Newsonomics of public radio argonauts,” “Public Radio $100 Million Plan: 100 Journalist Per City,”), as Impact of Government, Project Argo, Local Journalism Centers add more several hundred journalists across the country. But how many journalists work in public broadcasting? Try 3,224, a number recently counted in a census conducted for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That’s “professional journalists”, about 80% of them full-time. About 2,500 of them are in public radio, the rest in public TV. Should all the announced funding programs come to fruition, the number could rise to more than 4,000 by the end of 2011.

Let’s look at another kind of emerging, non-profit-based journalism numbers, categorized as the most interesting and credible nonprofit online publishers by Investigative Reporting Workshop’s iLab site. That recent census includes 60 sites, with the largest including Mother Jones magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and and the Center for Public Integrity. Also included are such newsworthy sites as Texas Tribune, Bay Citizen, Voice of San Diego, the New Haven Independent and the St. Louis Beacon. Their total full-time employment: 658. Additionally, there are high dozens, if not hundreds, of journalists operating their own hyperlocal blog sites around the country. Add in other for-profit start-ups, from Politico to Huffington Post to GlobalPost to TBD to Patch to a revived National Journal, and the journalists hired by Yahoo, MSN and AOL (beyond Patch), and you’ve got a number around another thousand.

How about the alternative press — though not often cited in online news, they’re improving their digital game, though unevenly. Though AAN — the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies — hasn’t done a formal census, we can get an educated guess from Mark Zusman, former president of AAN and long-time editor of Portland’s Willamette Week, winner of 2005 Pulitzer for investigative reporting. “The 132 papers together employ something in the range of 800 edit employees, and that’s probably down 20 or 25 percent from five years ago”.

Add in the business press, outside of daily newspapers. American City Business Journals itself employs about 600 journalists, spread over the USA. Figure that from the now-veteran Marketwatch to the upstart Business Insider and numerous other business news websites, we again approach 1,000 journalists here.

What about sports journalists working outside of dailies? ESPN alone probably can count somewhere between 500 and 1000, of its total 5,000-plus workforce. Comcast is hiring by the dozens and publications like Sporting News are ramping up as well (“The Newsonomics of sports avidity“). So, we’re on the way to a thousand.

How about newsmagazine journalists? Figure about 500, though that number seems to slip by the day, as U.S. News finally puts its print to bed.

So let’s look broadly at those numbers. Count them all up — and undoubtedly, numerous ones are missing — and you’ve got something more than 65,000 journalists, working for brands of one kind or another. What interim conclusions can we draw?

  • Daily newspaper employment is still the big dog, responsible for a little less than two-thirds of the journalistic output, though down from levels of 80 percent or more. When someone tells you that the loss of newspaper reporting isn’t a big deal, don’t believe it. While lots of new jobs are being created — that 14,000 loss in a decade is still a big number. We’re still not close to replacing that number of jobs, even if some of the journalism being created outside of dailies is better than what some of what used to be created within them.
  • If we look at areas growing fastest (public radio’s push, online-only growth, niche growth in business and sports), we see a number approaching 7,500. That’s a little less than 20 percent of daily newspaper totals, but a number far higher than most people would believe.
  • When we define journalism, we have to define it — and count it — far more widely than we have. The ASNE number has long been the annual, depressing marker of what’s lost — a necrology for the business as we knew it — not suggesting what’s being gained. An index of journalism employment overall gives us a truer and more nuanced picture.
  • Full-time equivalent counts only go so far in a pro-am world, where the machines of Demand, Seed, Associated Content, Helium and the like harness all kinds of content, some of it from well-pedigreed reporters. While all these operations raise lots of questions on pay, value and quality, they are part of the mix going forward.

In a sense, technologies and growing audiences have built out a huge capacity for news, and that new capacity is only now being filled in. It’s a Sim City of journalism, with population trends in upheaval and the urban map sure to look much different by 2015.

Photo by Steve Crane used under a Creative Commons license.

November 08 2010

15:00

Center for Public Integrity changes up its audience strategy to build a new revenue stream from readers

Nonprofit news outlets reach an audience in different ways. To borrow an analogy, imagine that there are two camps: wholesalers and retailers. Under the wholesale umbrella, we find organizations like ProPublica that primarily reach their audience through partnerships with established news organizations. Retailers, meanwhile, reach an audience directly, like Voice of San Diego or MinnPost.

Both strategies can make sense. But as journalism fundraising becomes increasingly competitive, that audience distinction is blurring. ProPublica, for one, is investing more resources into its website. And the Center for Public Integrity, a longtime wholesaler known for projects that appear in newspapers like the Washington Post or The New York Times, is now rethinking its digital strategy and wading into retailing, too. “It’s not an either or proposition,” the Center’s new executive editor John Solomon told me recently. With a $1.5 million investment from the Knight Foundation, they’re working on revamping their digital strategy to reach readers directly, via the web and mobile products. The strategy isn’t just about distribution for distribution’s sake — it’s about the bottom line.

“The Center had a different challenge than the rest of the journalism industry,” Solomon told me, referring to the for-profit world. “When the Center started, it was the center of the nonprofit world. Today there are 70, 80, 90, 100 groups all competing for the same limited pool of nonprofit dollars — the Knights, the Fords, the Carnegies, all these gracious funders of nonprofit journalism. So the Center has decided to take the leap aggressively and listen to funders and try to create earned revenue that augments our donations, that creates a sustainable model.”

Solomon’s goal is to produce $2 worth of journalism for every $1 a foundation donates. To do that, he’s looking beyond foundations to readers. That’s akin to a model very familiar to the Center’s executive director, Bill Buzenberg, who spent almost 30 years in public radio (supported by listeners, like you!) at NPR and Minnesota Public Radio. The Center isn’t alone in trying to rethink its nonprofit model. Knight recently announced a $15 million grant project to help figure out longterm funding solutions for journalism.

The first step toward that new revenue stream is pulling in a new audience. Since Solomon started on new digital projects a few months ago, including making its website more SEO friendly, time on the Center’s site is up dramatically, to a remarkable 12 minutes per user. (He showed me the Google Analytics chart for proof.) Pageviews have skyrocketed too. The site is in the midst of a complete redesign, which will make it feel more like a news site and less like a think tank’s. We recently wrote about a new HTML5 product that makes reading long-form journalism pleasant on any device and without an app.

I asked Solomon how he plans to round up these new, engaged readers. He pointed to some of the successes he pulled off in widening the audience both online and in print at the Washington Times, where he had been executive editor for a little less than two years. “One of the little dirty secrets in my last eight months at the Washington Times before the Moon family erupted and the paper fell apart, web traffic was up 500 percent,” he told me. “Digital revenues were up 360 percent and our national print publication grew circulation by 25 percent. There is no other print publication, that I can think of, in the middle of a recession that had that kind of double-digit gains.” (Although, to be fair, many conservative outlets saw increases in audience pegged to the election and administration of Barack Obama.)

Washington journalism is in a time of significant revenue rethinking — from the paywall-only National Journal opening up a free version of its site, to free Politico launching paid products, the movement toward multiple revenue streams is afoot. General manager of the Allbritton-backed startup TBD, Jim Brady, recently said at a Online News Association panel that his business model is “shrapnel” — “there isn’t one stream that’s going to make us successful.”

If the Center can figure out a way to monetize a new audience, there will likely be an eager audience watching that success. “I really believe the nonprofit journalism world can be the innovation lab where the business models change,” Solomon said.

November 04 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of Kindle Singles

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Maybe the newspaper is like the old LP — you know, as in “Long Play.” It may be a 33 1/3, though it seems like it came out of the age of 78s sometimes, a relic of the post-Victorian Victrola age. It is what it is, a wonderful compendium of one day in the life (of a nation, a city, a village), a one-size-fits-all product, the same singular product delivered to mass volumes of readers.

In the short history of Internet disintermediation and disruption of the traditional news business, we’ve heard endless debate of the “the content and the container,” as people have tried to peel back the difference between the physical form of the newspaper — its container — and what it had in it. It’s a been a tough mindset change, and the many disruptors of the world — the Googles, the Newsers, and the Huffington Posts, for instance — have expertly picked apart the confusions and the potentials new technologies have made possible. The news business has been atomized, not by Large Hadron Colliders, but by simple digital technology that has blown up the container and treats each article as a digestible unit. Aggregate those digestible units with some scheme that makes sense to readers (Google: news search; Newser: smart selection and précis; HuffPo: aggregation, personality and passion), and you’ve got a new business, and one with a very low cost basis.

None of this is a revelation. What is new, and why I re-think that context is the advent of Kindle Singles. The Lab covered Amazon’s announcement of less-than-a-book, more-than-as-story Kindle Singles out of the chute a couple of weeks ago. Josh Benton described how the new form could well serve as a new package, a new container, for longer, high-quality investigative pieces, those now being well produced in quantity by ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting (and its California Watch), and the Center for Public Integrity. That’s a great potential usage, I think.

In fact, Kindle Singles may open the door even further to wider news business application, for news companies — old and new, publicly funded and profit-seeking, text-based and video-oriented. It takes the old 78s and 33 1/3s, and opens a world of 45s, mixes, and infinite remixes. It says: You know what a book is, right? Think again. It can also say: You know what a newspaper is, right? Think again. While the Kindle Singles notion itself seems to have its limits — it’s text and fixed in time, not updatable on the fly — it springs loose the wider idea of publishing all kinds of new news and newsy content in new containers. Amazon is trying to define this strange new middle, with the Kindle Singles nomenclature, while some have used the term “chapbook” to describe it. We’ve got to wonder what Apple is thinking in response — what’s an app in Kindle Singles world? What’s a Kindle Single in an apps world? It’s not a book, an article, a newspaper, or a magazine, but something new. We now get to define that something new, both in name, but most importantly in content possibility.

What it may be for news organizations is a variety of news-on-demand. Today, we could be reading tailored and segmented sections on the election, from red and blue perspectives, from historical perspectives, from numerical perspectives. Today, we in the Bay Area could get not just a single triumphant San Francisco Giants celebratory section, but our choice of several, one providing San Francisco Giants history, one providing New York Giants history, one looking at the players themselves; the list goes on and on. More mundane, and more evergreen commercial topics? Job-hunting, job-finding, job-prep guides, tailored to skills, ages, and wants? Neighborhood profile sections for those seeking new housing (pick one or several neighborhoods, some with data, some with resident views, others tapping into neighborhood blogs). It’s endless special sections, on demand, some ad-supported, some not; a marketer’s dream. Some are priced high; some are priced low; some are free and become great lead generators for other digital reader products.

A few recent initiatives in the news business news lend themselves to Singles thinking. Take Politico’s newly announced topical e-newsletters. Take Rupert Murdoch’s notion of a paid-content portal, Alesia, which had within the idea of mixing and matching content differently, until its plug was recently pulled. Take AP’s new rights consortium, a venture that could build on this approach. Again, endless permutations are possible.

Who is going to come up with the ideas for the content? Well, editors themselves should have their shot, though one-size-fits-all thinking has circumscribed the imagination of too many. Still, there are hundreds of editors (and reporters and designers and copy editors) still in traditional ranks and now employed outside of it capable of creating new audience-pleasing packages. Some will work; some won’t. Experiment, and fail quickly. The biggest potential, though? Letting readers take open-sourced news content and create packages themselves, giving them a small revenue share, on sales. (Both the Guardian and the New York Times, among others, have opened themselves up for such potential usage.) Tapping audiences to serve audiences, to mix and match content, makes a lot of sense.

Why might this work when various little experiments have failed to produce much revenue for news companies, thinking of Scribd and HP’s MagCloud? Well, it’s the installed bases and paid-content channels established by the Amazons (and the Apples). They’ve got the customers and the credit cards, and they’ve tapped the willingness to pay. They need stuff to sell.

For newspaper companies, it’s another chance to rewrite the economics of the business. The newsonomics of Kindle Singles may mean that publishers can worry less about cost of content production, for a minute, and more about its supply. Maybe the problem hasn’t been the cost of professional content, but its old-school one-size-fits-all distribution package. That sports story or neighborhood profile could bring in lots more money per unit, if Singles notion takes off.

One big caution here: Singles thinking leads us into a more Darwinian world than ever. In my Newsonomics book, I chose as Law #1: “In the age of Darwinian content, we’re becoming our own and each other’s editors.” Great, useful content will sell; mediocre content will die faster. Repackaging content pushes the new content meritocracy to greater heights. As we approach 2011, news publishers are hoping to hit home runs with new paid content models. Maybe the future is as much small ball, hitting a lot of one-base hits, of striking out as often — and of Singles.

October 29 2010

16:00

Center for Public Integrity’s HTML5 product aims to make long-form journalism readable on any device

Is it possible to enjoy long-form investigative journalism in a digital age without a fancy tablet? A 5,000-word piece can be tough to get through on an ad-supported website. And while the experience on iPad apps is promising, an app is a costly investment — or investments, in a world with multiple incompatible platforms — for a news organization to make.

The nonprofit news organization Center for Public Integrity is announcing an alternative today at the annual Online News Association conference. The Center wants to make reading its work more enjoyable for the user, and a smarter investment for an organization rethinking its online and mobile strategies. The Center has a new HTML5 product that gives users an app-like experience in a web browser. The project is part of a new digital initiative at the Center, funded by $1.5 million in grants from the Knight Foundation.

“We think we’ve created a better way to consume investigative reporting,” John Solomon, the chief digital officer told me, and at a much lower cost than developing apps for different devices.

Solomon gave me a demo yesterday, and I have to say, I was impressed. You can flip through stories from right to left the way you can on an iPad or an iPhone. Text and images resize easily for whatever screen you’re on, whether phone or desktop. It loads fast and smooth and has a clean, easy-on-the-eyes design. The impulse is to keep flipping through, from page to page or story to story.

The product was created with Treesaver, a platform specifically designed to make digital reading easier. It’s a project of, among others, the noted graphic designer Roger Black, whose famous three-color dictum — “the first color is white; the second is black; the third is red: the three together are the best” — is in evidence at Treesaver’s website (and the Lab’s). Treesaver is also working with Nomad, a startup that plans to put out paid electronic magazines.

I spoke with Filipe Fortes, the developer of Treesaver, about what his product means for long-form journalism. “The idea is to be reader friendly,” he said. As an example, he pulled up a website of a large regional newspaper and had me click on a story. (No need to name names — the experience would have been similar across most newspaper sites.) “It’s really kind of hostile to the reader, I feel,” he said, pointing out all the ads and social media boxes that distract from the text of the story. “I think that’s why people are loving the apps,” he said. “It’s just a chance to finally read again. There’s a lot of cool things happening on apps, but people on desktops are missing out.”

Those distractions Treesaver is trying to spare us from are also what monetize the content — but Fortes says he’s not against advertising, just how we display it with the content now. By lowering the bar to the content (as he puts it), by letting users easily flip along, fewer, cleaner ads can be monetized more effectively. He showed me a mockup of a Nomad magazine that runs full page ads between pages, similar to an iPad app. “If you can get people coming in from a blog or Google and you get them to read three stories [by flipping along],” he said, “Congratulations, you just tripled your revenue on that user.”

Fortes is presenting Treesaver at the ONA conference this afternoon. He says he’s eager to work with more news organizations, and is in talks with several.

October 14 2010

14:30

The Newsonomics of replacement journalism

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Finally, we’re seeing light on the horizon. Journalism hiring is picking up.

The second half of the year has so far produced TBD’s hiring of 50 in Washington, Patch’s push to pick up 500 journalists across the country, and the new alliance for public media plan to hire more than 300 journalists in four major cities, if funding can be found in 2011. In addition, the brand-name journalist market has suddenly flowered, as everyone from National Journal to the Daily Beast to Bloomberg to AOL to the Huffington Post to Yahoo compete for talent. These are bigger numbers — and more activity — than we’ve previously seen, though they build on earlier hirings from ProPublica to California Watch to Bay Citizen to Texas Tribune to MinnPost and well beyond.

It’s a dizzying quilt of hiring, in some ways hard to make sense of, as business models (how exactly is Patch’s business model going to succeed? what happens when the foundation money dries up?) remain in deep flux. Yet, amid the hope, now comes this question: Are we beginning to see “replacement journalism” arriving?

Replacement journalism, by its nature, is a hazy notion. We won’t see some one-to-one swapping for what used to be with something new. Replacement journalism will though give us the sense that new journalism, of high quality, is getting funded, somehow, and that the vacuum created by the deepest cut in reporting we’ve ever seen is starting to be filled. It is an important, graspable question not just for journalists and aspiring journalists welling up in schools across the country, but also for readers: Are we beginning to see significant, tangible news coverage in this new, mainly digital world?

So, let’s assess where we on, on that road to replacement journalism. Let’s start with some numbers. Take the most useful census of daily newspaper newsroom employment, the annual ASNE (American Society of News Editors) census, conducted early each year and next reported out at its April 2011 conference. ASNE’s most current number is 41,500. That’s down from 46,700 a year earlier, from 52,600 in 2008 and from 55,000 in 2007. So, over those three-plus years, that’s a loss of 13,500 jobs, a 25-percent decline.

As we consider what’s been lost and what needs to replace it, we’ve got to look as much at possible at reporting. That news-gathering — not commentary (column or blog) — is what’s key to community information and understanding, fairly prerequisite in our struggling little democracy. While we don’t know how many of those 13,500 jobs lost are in reporting, we can do some extrapolation. Using that same ASNE census, we see that a little less than half (45 percent or so) of newsroom jobs are classified as reporting, while 20 percent are classified as copy/layout editors, 25 percent as supervisors and 10 percent as photographers and artists. So — while not undervaluing the contributions of non-reporters — let’s say, roughly, that half the jobs lost have been reporters. That would mean about 6,750 reporting jobs lost in three years.

Okay, so let’s use that number as a yardstick, against a quick list of journalist hiring:

  • Investigative and extended enterprise reporting: It’s tough to come up with any one number for investigative or long-form reporting in newspapers or in broadcast. We know that many newspapers and broadcasters have cut the investment in staff here, though, through the carnage of staff reduction. (One indication: “The membership of Investigative Reporters and Editors fell more than 30 percent, from 5,391 in 2003, to a 10-year low of 3,695 in 2009″, according to Mary Walton in the American Journalism Review.) Into this breach have come the new ProPublica, the restyled Center for Investigative Reporting (with its California Watch, most notably) and the growing Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. They are joined by smaller centers from Maine to Wisconsin to California. Loss: Probably in the high hundreds. Gain: Probably in the small hundreds. Net: We’ve seen real high-quality replacement journalism, but need more, especially on the community level.
  • Washington, D.C. reporting: Dozens of D.C.-based reporting positions have been lost over the last several years, certainly, and the number may stretch into the hundreds. For awhile, the biggest news was that the Al Jazeera bureau was among the fastest-growing. Now, of course, there’s the goldrush in government-oriented reporting as the newly emboldened (and funded) National Journal group and Bloomberg Government add a couple of hundred positions, and join Politico in the D.C-based fray. With both new efforts still in formation, we’re not clear what kind of reporting they’ll do. If it’s mainly government-as-business (Bloomberg’s seeming model) and/or if it’s mainly behind pay wall, then then this new stuff will be less replacement-like. Covering public policy implications for all of us nationally, and the particular impacts on those of locally, is a key, yawning need. Loss: Significant. Gain: Substantial. Net: Unclear we see the words on our screens in 2011.
  • Hyperlocal reporting: The biggest news here is Patch, of course. With 500 sites in various stages of rollout, we can’t yet assess how much new reporting — and of what quality, what depth — will be added back, replaced. Add in the redeployment of many metro staff reporters from Hartford to Dallas to L.A., and the fact that smaller community dailies and weeklies have weathered the storms better than bigger papers. Loss: Uncountable, but real across the country. Gain: With Patch and with the re-attention of metros to smaller communities through staff redeployment and blog aggregation, it’s now substantial. Net: One of the most promising areas in replacement journalism.
  • Metro-level reporting: The devastation seems clearest here, with newspapers like the San Jose Mercury News cut to 125 newsroom staffers from 400 a decade ago, and many other dailies down by 50 percent or more. The bulk of cuts, as well chronicled by Erica Smith at Paper Cuts, appear to be at metros — and they are continuing; witness recent job losses in Sacramento and Miami and at USA Today. On the positive end of the ledger, the TBD-Bay Citizen-Voice of San Diego-MinnPost-Texas Tribune-Chicago News Cooperative parade has added real journalistic depth in selected markets. Yet, unless they grow substantially from the dozens they are — the public media push, though only in formation, is the most promising here — there’s a low replacement ratio. This is the biggest conundrum in front of us: how do we maintain current newsroom staffing of 340 at The Boston Globe or 325 at The Dallas Morning News, against the ravages of change? Loss: Huge. Gain: Spirited and of noteworthy excellence. Net: Biggest gap to fill — and the gap may be widening still.

“Replacement journalism,” of course, is a tricky term, and maybe only an interim notion — a handle that helps us from there to here to there. By the very nature of digital and business disruption and transformation, we have to remind ourselves that the future is never a straight line from past to future, and that it will offer us great positive surprises as well as continuing disappointments. William Gibson’s enduring line sums that up: “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

Photo by Matt Wetzler used under a Creative Commons license.

August 02 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of membership, part 2

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

New news organizations have embraced the membership model (see part 1 of The Newsonomics of membership), but they don’t have to reinvent the wheel to do it. They can hone that wheel, for the digital-only and digital-first age. One of the best places to gain insight is in public radio, which has been plying the membership trade for more than 40 years now — learning the dos and don’ts and sharing some best practices internally.

As city sites begin to build on what MinnPost, Texas Tribune, and GlobalPost have started, they can certainly apply some of those lessons. I made an initial, unscientific foray into NPR membership, to feel the ground and see what’s shaking. I think at this point, pending much deeper study, we can see both some metrics and some lessons that have useful applications.

The Metrics

As I noted in my first membership post, there are at least three key metrics for new websites to master as they move forward:

  • What percentage of which part of the readership can news sites expect to contribute?
  • What’s the median gift?
  • How much of their going-forward budgets — and if and when foundation money dries up — can be made up by readers?

NPR station experience helps inform those metrics.

Percentage of listeners who become members: There is no single number to cite, but most reports come in at somewhere between 6 and 12 percent, though it’s clear that counting methodology is not consistent across the nation. KUT, Austin’s public radio station, is part of a group of eight like-sized stations which collectively pool their membership data. Those eight sign up 5.8 percent of listeners, Holly Gaete, KUT’s director of membership, told me. “Listeners” are those who listen for at least five minutes per week. KUT currently counts 17,338 contributors.

Oregon Public Broadcasting says it gets about 10 percent of its public TV viewers to become members, but has no similar data for the radio; that’s one of the nuances of counting, as a number of dual-license stations (public TV and public radio under one umbrella) complicate any apples-to-apples comparisons.

A few people make the point that it’s long-time listeners — those who’ve listened for two years or more — that make up the best universe of potential public radio members. That notion (akin to MinnPost’s Joel Kramer’s notion that frequent visitors offer greater potential than infrequent ones) makes sense, but is apparently not something widely measured in public radio.

What brings them in?: KUT’s Gaete makes the point that membership directors use diverse tools to gain members. Here’s her breakdown:

Radio pitches (those twice-yearly pledge drives): 37 percent
Mail: 36 percent
Web: 18 percent
Telesales: 5 percent
Other: 4 percent

Stewart Vanderwilt, KUT’s general manager, differentiates between those who make “intellectual” decisions to give — responding to mail, for instance — from those who make an “emotional” decision, often responding to an on-air appeal. The intellectual decision-makers’ average gift is higher, and they renew at a higher rate. KUT’s overall renewal rate is 58 percent.

The sweet spot of giving: Again, counting standards differ, but it’s the $50-$150 range that draws a majority of gifts. The buck-a-week or 10-bucks-a-month pitch seems to have resonance with donors, with some making the point that “that’s cheaper than the daily newspaper.”

What’s the trend line?: Interestingly, the recession’s not done a great deal of damage to membership, at least not as much as we’ve seen circulation fall at dailies. Some stations report membership mildly down, but giving flat or up a tad. Others report membership even up a little, but giving down. Stations’ recent membership performance may indicate a couple of things: Long-term relationships may help weather bad economic periods, and listeners understand the increasing role of public radio in filling the news vacuum.

How important is membership giving?: KQED’s Scott Walton, executive director of communications, reports that membership tops 200,000 — and accounts for 60 percent of the stations’ $55 million budget. Oregon Public Broadcasting — its number of contributors up two percent over the last year — counts 120,000 members, which account for 64 percent of its budget.

The Lessons

Beware the power of the barker. Bill Buzenberg, now director of the Center for Public Integrity, used to serve as vice president of news for National Public Radio. He’s in a unique position to observe membership, given that background. As he compares online news startups with public radio, he notes one big distinction that will affect membership sign-ups.

“The difference is that public radio has a ‘barker channel,’ meaning they have the radio megaphone to get people to come into the tent or become members in the first place during membership drives in which they can withhold the programming,” he says. “That barker channel is great for public radio and drives up the membership numbers, even if listeners hate the membership drives. MinnPost, or other non-profit centers, have no barker channel.”

If barking helps, just talking to potential donors — and current ones — about the deep journalism crisis, especially the local one, helps too. Donors feel an obvious kinship with the stations — maybe akin to a loyalty newspaper subscribers have traditionally felt. Or perhaps, the notion of voluntary donation itself creates a reinforced relationship, more so than a fee-for-service “subscription.” That’s a key question as we see membership pushes for online media ramp up just as paywalls are increasingly erected by legacy news companies.

“People have the tangible sense that journalism is troubled,” reports Oregon Public Broadcasting CEO Steve Bass, who says he hears that from donors, as newspapers from The Oregonian to smaller dailies cut back on coverage.

Borrowing lessons from public radio isn’t easy. Metrics within public radio vary and are not freely available. In addition, we’re in the early stages of thinking about what’s different and what’s similar between public radio and online news sites. Further collaboration here — maybe abetted by such groups as the Knight Foundation — could be a win/win, though potential competition as we see developing in the Twin Cities (MPR, MinnPost) could be an issue.

Finally, as member-based sites ramp up — or, in the case of public radio, morph into digital-first news producers — one curious question will be the the advertising value of these members. Membership and ads need not be two separate universes. In fact, member data — how they read, what they read, what they buy, where they are — can greatly help the targeting of ads. That could make members even more lucrative than readers, and listeners, overall.

June 11 2010

14:00

Bill Buzenberg on Center for Public Integrity’s aim to “catalyze impact,” fundraise in a competitive field

Nonprofit news organizations may be all the rage, but they’re not a new animal. Last week, 20-year-old Center for Public Integrity announced a round of recent hires. Since January, CPI has brought on nine new journalists, including reporters, editors and a database expert. For a team of about 50, it’s a significant expansion.

New hires include John Solomon, long-time investigative reporter and the former executive editor of The Washington Times, as “reporter in residence,” Julie Vorman, former Reuters Washington editor as deputy managing editor, and Peter Stone of National Journal.

CPI is known for its investigative projects that appear in major print and broadcast outlets. A recent year-long project on campus sexual assault was picked up by outlets around the country, reaching what CPI said was an audience of 40 million. Last week CPI partnered with The New York Times in publishing Coast Guard logs suggesting authorities knew about the severity of the BP oil spill much sooner than announced. The logs were also published on the Center’s website and were widely used by newspapers across the country.

I spoke with Bill Buzenberg, CPI’s executive director about his expansion and the organization more broadly. Buzenberg says CPI does not fall on one side of the “impact v. audience” question, but acknowledged that their latest strategic plan emphasizes the organization’s desire to “catalyze impact.” He thinks it’s an exciting time for nonprofit journalism, but sees challenges in an increasingly crowded fundraising field. Here’s a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Is this a new team you’re hiring for a specific project or a general expansion of your editorial capacity?

It’s a general expansion of our editorial capacity. We have a very strong push on: The top major newspapers are all using our content, even online at The Huffington Post. The work is being used more than ever. Lots of places want to partner with us. There is so much watchdog work to be done.

Some nonprofits, like MinnPost, are focused on drawing a regular audience to their website. Others are looking for other outlets to pick up their work and reach an audience that way. Could you talk about where Center for Public Integrity fits?

I think from the beginning the Center has had the same trajectory. In the beginning, actually, it did reports, held news conferences and handed out those reports, and they were reported on by other publications. That is still part of our operation. We very much do reporting work — sometimes it’s a year, sometimes it’s months, sometimes its a few days — and we make it available to other organizations very broadly. And it gets used very, very broadly.

One example: We did a project on campus assault, just recently. We worked on it for a year. We collected the data from 160 universities, we did an investigation, we did a lot of FOIAs, which we increasingly do here, we get the documents and the data. Then we did a number of reports. And we look for a specific partner on each platform: online, print, radio, and television. That’s what we’ve done. ABC did a story on it. NPR did a number of reports on it. Huffington Post carried a number of reports. And we made a specific plan to provide a toolkit for campus newspapers: 65 campus newspapers have used that report. We made it available in an ebook. The sum total of that we can now say that 40 million people have heard, watched, seen, or read some part of our campus assault project. It is on our website. And there’s a community interested in this work, that’s concerned about what’s going on with campus assault. So we have a resource on our website. And it’s in the other publications.

So we’re both. We want people to come read it and get our work here, and we love it when it’s published elsewhere and linked back to us. There is always going to be more on our site — more data, more documents, more photographs. We want traffic to our site, as well as have it used elsewhere.

We also run the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The consortium is 100 journalists in 50 countries. We are working on, right now, three major cross-border investigations. We’ve been working on global tobacco for quite a while and issuing reports. Those reports are running in publications all over the world where those reporters work or have connections. For example, in July we have a project coming out with the BBC. The BBC has planned two documentaries and several programs. They’re using all of the work that we’ve started. We’re all doing it at the same time. It’ll come out the third week in July and it’ll run all over the world. Not just the BBC World Service, but in countries where we’ve been working. So we work internationally. We work in Washington, increasingly covering federal agencies. And we work at the state level, where we’re able to do 50-state projects. So that’s our model. It’s unique in how it operates. We’ve spent 20 years building this up. We’re very much pushing to do more, do it better, and do it widely.

You mention audience — is that how you measure success? There’s this debate happening right now: Is it audience, or is it impact? How do you define success at CPI?

Increasingly, the real way we measure success is impact. That is a huge part of our strategic plan: We want to catalyze impact. That means we want hearings to follow. We want laws to change. We want actions to happen. We are not an advocacy organization. We don’t go out and say “here is what you should do” in any way shape or form. We’re an investigative journalism organization. We do the reporting, but we love to see actions happen because of our reporting. A few years ago, when we reported on all the lobbyist-paid travel, where the records were kept in the basement of Capitol that no one had ever looked at — that took a year to do, with students. [Disclosure: I was one of those students.] But we listed every single trip taken by every single member of Congress for five years, and every staff member of every member of Congress. We showed every trip, every expense. The minute that was published, the travel started down. Then the new Congress came in and said, “oh, we have to close this loophole.” It was a loophole because it was public and transparent. We love that that’s an action that comes out of it.

But of course we like audience and we like engagement. So audience is a part of it. Engagement is increasingly a part of it. Are people writing comments, giving us ideas? How is the audience engaged? I was just up in Minnesota — the university there had just done a day-long session on campus assault, which came out of a public-radio interview they did with our reporter there. That’s an engagement in an issue at a local level that is very important.

[Buzenberg said that CPI's site attracts more than 1 million unique visitors per year, but declined to release exact traffic statistics.]

Nonprofit journalism is a hot topic right now, but there have been outlets like yours for a long time. I’m wondering, in terms of fundraising, does that give you a leg up right now, given that you’re established, or is it becoming difficult in a more crowded field?

I was in public radio for 27 years, both at National Public Radio and local. I was the head of news at national for seven years and then went to Minnesota Public Radio, now called American Public Media nationally. We raised a lot of money in both places. That’s nonprofit journalism with an important audience and it does great work.

Right now, I think, many funders have understood that the watchdog work, the investigative work, it’s expensive, it’s difficult, it’s risky. It’s the first thing often that gets cut when newspapers are declining, or magazines, or television, when they don’t have as many people out doing it. I think it’s been a period in which foundations and individuals have seen the importance of the kind of work that we do and we’ve gotten some strong support to continue to do this work. Yes, it’s competitive. It’s difficult.

We’re raising money in three ways. We do have foundation support. We’re talking with something like 86 foundations, many of whom do support us. We also are raising money from individuals — small donations with membership, much like public radio. Larger donations from people with resources. We do have a strong base of individual donors. And the third way is earned revenue, and we’re working on various scenarios of how we can earn that. We just did research for BBC. We sold our map on the global climate lobby to National Geographic. We’re selling ebooks. We do have various small revenue streams we want to grow. Those are three ways we raise the money to do this work. It’s important work and it’s not free. Public radio’s not free either. They get government resources — a small amount really. But at the Center we don’t take government money, direct corporate money, and we don’t take anonymous money. We make transparent, which is a very important thing, who is supporting us. It’s difficult. It’s not easy. With all the new centers popping up, there’s competition. There’s a lot going on, but I think many foundations, locally and nationally — and increasingly internationally, because we’ve gotten some good international support — have understood that this kind of work needs to be supported.

One thing I wanted to circle back to is your expansion. It seems like your recent expansion is into financial coverage. How did you come to that decision to expand in such a focussed way?

It came when the financial crisis hit the fall of 2008. We felt like no one was really saying who had caused the subprime problems — who was behind that? So we did a project. We started with 350 million mortgages. The mortgages are public information. From that, we named the 7.5 million subprime mortgages and we picked the 25 top lenders. Who they were, who supported them, where they did their lending, at what interest rates. We put it into a report. It took us six months. It’s “Who is behind the financial meltdown?” It still gets traffic. We put it out as an ebook. It’s being used by attorneys general. It’s being used by all sorts of people. No one had done the definitive work. That’s a project I’m really proud of. From that we grew a business and finance area. We thought there was so much more.

We’re tracking financial regulation and financial regulation issues in a way other people aren’t doing. That’s what our three-person team is doing. Financial is one area — money and politics is obviously one area we work in at the state and the national level. I might add when we did the global climate lobby before Coppenhagen, we were working globally. The other area is environment. The stories we’re working on with the BBC are environment. We’re doing a big project on the 10 most toxic workplaces and the 10 most toxic communities in America. It’ll take us six months.

How big are you? How many people work at the Center?

Right now, with the additions, we’re about 40. With fellows, we have 5 fellows and 6 interns, so we’re close to 50 people, if you add in fellowships and interns. It’s a major investment, there’s no question about it. That’s how we’re able to focus on these new projects.

This is a little touchy, but it jumped out at me. When I looked at the press release for the expansion I noticed that the eight new editorial hires are all men, I’m just curious about your struggles with diversity and bringing on women?

Well, first of all, the corrected version of the press release we sent out has Julie Vorman. We hired a deputy managing editor whose name should have been on there and it’s not on there. It’s not all the hires at the center — the six interns we hired, for example, are all women. We had 350 applicants for our internship program and we picked six, the best six. There are women at the Center. If I looked at the overall Center numbers, it is diverse, and it does have women. My COO and the head of development are in there, and on and on. There are many women here. It looked more male than it should have in the latest hires. It’s a fair question, but I think if you look at the overall numbers of the Center both with diversity and women reporters.

[After our conversation, Buzenberg looked up a breakdown of all staff at the Center, finding 43 percent are women and 23 percent are minority. Their staff page, showing individual positions, is here.]

March 04 2010

19:11

A “reporting recipe” to dig up dirt like ProPublica

A core goal of nonprofit news organizations is to create impact. Foundations and donors expect evidence of journalism’s impact in a way that the local department store never did. Jack Shafer wrote a scathing critique of the nonprofit-as-impact driver not long ago, arguing that for-profit media is better insulated against donor whims because the audience is the client:

Nonprofit outlets almost always measure their success in terms of influence, not audience, because their customers are the donors who’ve donated cash to influence politics, promote justice, or otherwise build a better world.

(His view of the nonprofit drive to change the world is more jaded than mine. What for-profit newspaper writer got into the business not to change the world?)

Whatever your stance, the reality is here: Maximizing impact is a key part of nonprofits’ aims. Outlets like the Center for Public IntegrityThe American Independent News Network (where I edited The Washington Independent), ProPublica, and others measure the reach and impact of their work to drum up support. They do this a number of ways. Center for Public Integrity published its work under a Creative Commons license to try to get other publications to reprint it and amplify the message. (They also participate in a young, and struggling, AP-nonprofit distribution program.) The Washington Independent tracks both media pickup and how its work resulted in real change. ProPublica partners with newspapers around the country in printing its stories — all of which is aimed at maximizing their journalism’s impact.

Today ProPublica is unveiling a new approach in increasing impact: a step-by-step reporting guide that shows how its reporters executed a major investigation, with the hopes that state-based reporters and interested citizen journalists will continue their work.

Reporters Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber have created a guide that reverse-engineers how they reported a year-and-a-half-long investigation on how states handle disciplinary action against nurses. The results of their work were alarming, and its consequences were swift: One day after the Los Angeles Times ran a story on how it took years for the state nursing board to take disciplinary action, while allowing dangerous nurses to keep working, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger removed most members of the state nursing board. Newspapers in several other states have picked up on ProPublica’s work and run their own versions.

It took Ornstein and Weber over a year to research their series, but by making the state-based data available and building a guide on how to do the reporting, they say it should be much simpler and less time-consuming for another reporter to follow in their footsteps. The data alone should at least help “find the smoke” in federal reporting-requirement lapses quickly, so a reporter knows where to invest her time, Weber said. They’re both eager to talk to interested reporters, too. (You can contact them directly, or join in on a conference call that will be scheduled soon.)

“When you called all these different states, you realized you were talking to folks who had never talked to journalists before,” Weber told me. “It made me think it was so ripe for local reporters to take a look at this because, frankly, everyone is touched by a nurse.” The guide lays out seven broad steps for reporting out a regulatory board story, with details under each section, including relevant federal law. It also includes relevant links for certain states.

She added the guide’s methods could be applied to any regulatory board, not just those that govern nurses. “This gives them a map to say, ‘Okay, let’s go take a look at this’…They could maybe change the way these boards are overseen in their state if they find, for instance, they never disciplined anyone, which we found, and that just seems impossible.”

Ornstein told me he hopes this experiment, specifically pointing to the online database of disclosure data, creates real change — and impact. “If somebody has to pay $20 to get a copy of a disciplinary order against a nurse, if they’re looking for a home health nurse, is that something they’re really going to do? Is the state really helping them make a smart choice to protect them? I don’t think so. By pointing this out, we’re really doing a service.”

December 14 2009

16:30

Are news nonprofits doomed to reliance on big gifts? A study in fundraising — and sustainability

I’ve been studying journalism nonprofits one way or another for about five years now, and I confess that in all that time, I’ve looked at their business models really as being slightly different iterations of the same species. But now, I’m not so sure.

As part of my graduate studies in nonprofit management at George Washington University, this fall I took a closer look at the finances of a dozen journalism nonprofits, keeping in mind the most pressing question for many: How can they diversify revenues and achieve some level of sustainability?

I acknowledge up front that my method was not perfect — I’ll explain at the end — but I think I’ve discovered what may be two critical distinctions within the group I studied.

First, the six nonprofits that served geographically defined communities — whether they be cities, states or regions — generally did a better job of diversifying their revenue sources than did those that attempted to speak to a national audience.

Second, among these “regionals,” there appeared to be some correlation between bigger budgets and greater diversity in revenues sources. This pattern suggested to me that there is a happy dynamic at work here — a virtuous cycle in which diversity of revenue helps create institutional heft that in turn attracts additional philanthropy in the form of major individual gifts and foundation grants.

What are the diverse sources that these nonprofits are tapping? For lack of a better descriptor, I lumped them together under the heading of “transactional” revenues — advertising, subscriptions, memberships, royalties, event ticket sales, contract research, and anything else that didn’t go under the “direct public support” line on Form 990. Some of these sources are taxable, some are not, and the difference was not always clear. Different nonprofits treated similar revenues in different ways. But I digress.

Regional news nonprofits: With size comes funding diversity

Here’s the graph that shows the correlation between average annual budget and a declining dependence on direct public support:

If this trend holds true, I think it would portend a relatively bright future for the nonprofit model as a major contributor in places like city halls and state capitals where newspaper bureaus have been emptied out. These are the places where the disintegration of the newspaper business model is most obvious to readers — and where for-profit alternatives have a hard time realizing returns on investment. Here, the case for philanthropy is clear — and so is a nonprofit’s potential to supplement its revenues with advertising and other market-driven revenues streams as it scales up its operations.

The trend also suggests a cruel and ironic corollary: The journalism nonprofits that can demonstrate the least dependence on foundations and large gifts may be the most likely to succeed in winning them.

National news nonprofits: Greater dependence on large gifts

At the same time, studying the finances of six “nationals” caused me to look at those organizations in a wholly different light.

Like the regionals, journalism nonprofits with national aspirations are feeling pressure to diversify their revenue base beyond foundations and founding donors. And at least some are looking to the regionals’ success for tactics they can replicate — witness ProPublica’s hiring of Watershed Co., a consultancy with expertise in online and grassroots fundraising. But from what I’ve seen, most depend on major gifts and foundation grants regardless of size. Here’s a graph showing average annual budget and dependence on direct public support:

As I reported here in September, Madeline Stanionis, Watershed’s CEO, pronounced herself “skeptical” of prospects for building a national network of small donors. As Stanionis said at the time, donors to political and other “citizen-powered” campaigns have been conditioned to believe that the candidate or institution that receives their donations will respond directly to their demands. But journalism does not — and should not — operate that way, she said. “I just think trying to force a journalistic endeavor into a hole created by these campaigns is not correct,” she said.

My suspicion is that the “nationals” also suffer from being one too many levels of abstraction from readers’ lives. Their reports, however compelling in their conclusions, don’t explain to the reader why city sewer rates are so high or why the state legislature just slashed school spending. As Mike Worth, my graduate advisor and GW’s former vice president for development, remarked: “The problem with the case (for philanthropy) is that it’s intellectual. Nobody ever died from lack of public journalism.” The latter might be debatable, but I think he’s got it right.

What’s the lesson here? I think there are two, either (or both) of which may be a blinding glimpse of the obvious.

First, the nationals have a solid track record of tapping foundation support and keeping it flowing over a long period. Here, I’m thinking of the Center for Public Integrity, which has relied almost exclusively on foundations and major gifts since Chuck Lewis founded it 20 years ago. Why tamper with success? The only real benefit from the time and effort required to build a grassroots network may be the added credibility of having to answer to an audience. This is doubly true for those such as CPI and ProPublica that specialize in investigative work and also claim to be nonpartisan and/or non-ideological.

The second lesson is that any effort to build a grassroots network at the national level is going to require a lot of refinement. There are simply too many competing news sources and too many requests for support. Breaking through all that background noise is an enormous challenge. Best of luck to those that try.

Except for Mother Jones

Now here’s the big exception to the rule: Mother Jones. Among the nationals, MoJo stood out in its time-tested ability to pull revenue from all kinds of sources — advertising, memberships, events and investment income. Steve Katz, the magazine’s chief fundraiser, tells me that the model is an outgrowth of a deliberate effort to define and serve a particular constituency.

In an email, Steve told me that MoJo has “worked mightily to make the case that you won’t find our kind of point of view anywhere else, and that our journalism is also rooted in a ‘value proposition’ a.k.a. a point of view a.k.a. a politics, and hence our journalism — which must stand on its own as professional grade work — is also about changing the world.”

I’ll buy that. But I also think that if you take Steve’s view to its ultimate conclusion in our current economic and technological environment, it points to a tough road ahead for news organizations trying to replicate the newspaper model of objectivity in the online world. The new national news organizations most likely to prosper are those that already have a built-in constituency — or a primary purpose other than producing journalism.

Here, I am thinking of David Westphal’s reporting on Human Rights Watch and its transformation from journalism source to journalism producer. As David noted in his recent testimony at the Federal Trade Commission: “A key point here is that not all of the new players are news organizations.” This trend raises important questions about governance and process within nonprofits — how they try (if they try at all) to insulate their news-gathering operations from their advocacy, much as newsrooms were separated from advertising departments at newspapers.

Where does it all go from here? In my view, the nonprofit model will shake out into two, three or maybe four discrete models, depending on reach and mission. Like cousins, at first glance, they’ll look somewhat alike and may get together once a year for reunions. But each will have its own distinct direction, habits, inclinations — and contributions to the public debate.

A note on the methodology: How’d I select the 12 nonprofits for my study? Frankly, it wasn’t very scientific; it was more an exercise in putting together a fact pattern. I began by listing the nonprofits I knew that (a) existed primarily to produce journalism and (b) had revenues of $100,000 or more a year, and 3) had filed their Form 990 tax returns someplace where I could find them online.

The list worked out to an even dozen, with six that I considered to be national in reach (ProPublica, Center for Public Integrity, Center for Investigative Reporting, Mother Jones, The Nation, Grist) and six that were primarily regional (Texas Observer, High Country News, MinnPost, Voice of San Diego, Chi-Town Daily News, New Haven Independent).

From there, I assembled all available revenue data from 2002 onward a developed an annual average for each nonprofit’s revenues and the percentage of revenues derived from “direct public support.” Then I plotted them on two graphs, one for regionals and the other for nationals.

November 14 2009

21:41

Coalition of non-profit news organizations gets funding

The Investigative News Network, a coalition of nonprofit news organizations that met for the first time this summer, is getting closer to launch: They’ve raised more than $500,000, one of the group’s leaders said today.

We first wrote about INN after their meeting in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., where the leaders of more than 20 nonprofits discussed ways they could collaborate on journalism, fundraising, and back-office operations. At a Yale Law School conference today, Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, told me that INN had received funding commitments from a variety of sources, including six-figure donations from the Knight Foundation, Open Society Institute, and Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Buzz Woolley, a one-time venture capitalist who helped found the Voice of San Diego, has also pledged two annual gifts of $100,000. With other, smaller funders, the total amounts to more than a half-million dollars, Buzenberg said.

Lois Beckett explained some of INN’s ambitions after the Pocantico meeting:

The network’s back-office collaborations may include teaming up for payroll and accounting, health care, libel insurance, web development, or legal and other services, as well as creating common templates for time-consuming documents like a memorandum of understanding. The collaborations, in addition to aiding exisiting news sites, could make it easier for startups to enter the field.

At Yale today, Buzenberg put it this way: “We can be the back office. We can create economies of scale.”

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