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October 20 2010

13:00

Meet “The Hub,” a virtual clubhouse for community nonprofit news sites

At the Block by Block community news conference last month, an irony emerged: Local site publishers, who spend their days cultivating community, hadn’t enjoyed much community amongst themselves. Again and again during the event — a convergence that co-host Jay Rosen aptly described as “entrepreneur atomization overcome” — participants expressed their desire for a centralized spot for conversation, information…and commiseration. As one publisher put it during the conference’s introduction session: “I just don’t want to feel like I’m alone in this.”

Enter The Hub, a new site that wants to be just what its name suggests: a centralized space — in this case, one for community news nonprofits. The site wants to be a go-to spot — the go-to spot, actually — for the people involved in nonprofit news, from journalists to publishers, from academics to funders. Click over to the site now, and you’ll find, among other things: a Getting Started section with legal and tax primers, editorial guidelines, and samples of marketing collateral; a Beyond the Basics section with info on business modeling and engagement strategies; an Academics and Research section with reports and teaching tips; a searchable database of participating news sites; a collection of contextual materials, like Q&As with, and videos of, nonprofit experts; and — maybe the most valuable resource for a nonprofit startup — a list of organizations that fund nonprofit journalism.

The Hub is overseen by Voice of San Diego, which has emerged of late as a kind of mega-org, leading collaboration efforts with fellow nonprofits. The idea for the site, says Scott Lewis, VOSD’s CEO, came in part from the many, many occasions in which VOSD execs and editors found themselves fielding requests for consulting and advice from people hoping to start their own nonprofit news sites. (Little surprise: The logistics to be worked out when it comes to news startup-ing — editorial, legal, and, of course, financial — are dizzying.) “We were getting so many people asking so many questions and wanting so many documents,” Lewis told me, “that we just thought, ‘Okay, let’s put it up. Let’s put it all up.’”

Though the idea was conceived by journalists, the site was funded by a foundation — the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation — and built by academics: San Diego State University assistant professor Amy Schmitz Weiss, with the help of grad students Jessica Plautz and Yueh-hui Chiang. They designed the site (work began in May) and then, over a busy summer, seeded it with relevant data. The hope, though, is that news organizations will supplement the existing infrastructure with their own contributions: information about their operating models, resources they’ve found helpful in building out those models, etc. Ultimately, Lewis says, he’d love to see each outlet with its own profile page on the network. (“Like a Facebook for nonprofit news sites,” he says.) From there, The Hub could also function as means of connecting community sites, both fledgling and already existing, not only to each other, Block by Block-style…but also to the organizations that might want to fund them. Voila!

The Hub doesn’t want to be simply a repository of documents, though, or even a connector of institutions; it also wants to be a centralized space for conversations. This past spring, the Knight Foundation convened a group of nonprofit journalism practitioners in Austin to share best practices, consider opportunities for collaboration, and generally discuss strategies for sustaining themselves into the future. (Check out videos of that meeting here and here and here and here.) Many new insights sprang from that meeting, Lewis notes — one of them being the meta-insight that was the need for a spot to incubate those insights in the first place. “We needed a natural place to put ideas once they come out,” he puts it — and “a natural place to promote them and make sure they spread.”

Lewis recently wrote a much-circulated blog post on the benefits of revenue promiscuity in the nonprofit world; it’s now hosted on The Hub. Ideally, he says, other people will contribute their own posts — original topics, or riffs on writings from other contributors — that will live on the site and fashion it into a kind of virtual brain trust. (Think Snarkmarket, the excellent group blog run by Twitter’s Robin Sloan, NPR’s Matt Thompson, and Wired’s Tim Carmody.) If the current state of the site is any indication, though, Voice of San Diego will continue to play a leadership role in cultivating the conversation, with the outfit’s models and strategies continuing to be a guiding resource for emerging startups. It’s a one-for-all approach that serves an all-for-one goal in nonprofit journalism. “If we and everyone else are seen as a viable solution that the community can turn to,” Lewis says, “then that helps us all.”

March 24 2010

09:00

FairWarning: A beat-focused model for a nonprofit investigative startup

It’s a cliché because it’s true: Investigative reporting is the core of the journalism that democracy requires to thrive. It’s good news, then, that this morning brings the launch of another nonprofit news outlet focused solely on I-reporting — this one, under the direction of a pair of former Los Angeles Times reporters. FairWarning aims, like its fellow investigative outfits, “to provide robust, public interest journalism”; unlike its fellow outlets, though, the site has carved a concentrated focus within its broader mission: it will cover, exclusively, consumer-driven issues of heath, safety, and corporate conduct.

“I always felt like, even back when times were fatter and more prosperous, there wasn’t enough of this work being done in traditional media,” says Myron Levin, a veteran consumer-interest investigative reporter and FairWarning’s founder and editor. “These stories are a little bit technical; to some people they’re a little bit boring. They’re not sexy, usually.” What they are, though, is important. FairWarning’s name, Levin told me, is meant to evoke “the shared responsibility between consumers and businesses.” And its goal, he says, is “to provide a flow for this kind of news and information, and to see it reach a wider audience.”

In terms of the content mix it offers, FairWarning is akin to its counterpart outlets. In addition to deep-dive treatments of health and safety issues (currently: a spotlight of the trail of victims of a combustible line of pickup trucks; an examination of undercounting and cheating in workplace injury reports; and a look at the politics of regulating all-terrain vehicles to minimize injuries and deaths), the site has a blog, News and Notes, which will contain summaries of stories and more personalized takes on their findings. Levin and Joanna Lin, the site’s assistant editor, also plan to offer daily aggregations of other outlets’ investigations in the health-and-safety arena — the whole do what you do best and link to the rest idea — and of legal and regulatory news more generally. It’s about “creating a portal,” says Lin, “where people can find this information, even if we weren’t the producers of it.”

Social media, it almost goes without saying, will play a role in that creation. FairWarning has a Twitter feed and a Facebook page — the followers are few at this point, but the hope is to build audiences on them over time. “I know there are a lot of people — especially the people who would benefit from the information in our stories — who aren’t on Twitter or Facebook,” Lin told me. “So we’re still looking, to try to find as many ways as we can to reach them. If they’re reading newspapers, we want to be in newspapers. If they’re on Twitter, we want to be on Twitter. For us, the medium is secondary to just getting the message across.”

Structurally, in other words, FairWarning is a concentrated version of the cross-platform strategies employed by many of the nonprofit outfits that are emerging fill the void left as traditional investigative teams have disintegrated. But it differs from those other outlets not only in size, but in scope. Generally, investigative-reporting startups focus on the broad universe of investigative reporting, narrowing their coverage (or not) according to geographical interests — national (ProPublica), regional (California Watch), local (Voice of San Diego) — more than anything else. Reporters may have beats within their respective newsrooms, but overall, the outlets aim to produce “investigations in the public interest” that are aimed at a particular public.

FairWarning marks a move from that model. It defines itself not according to a geographical area, but rather to a rhetorical one — a beat, in other words, unto itself.

Because of that, collaboration and partnerships will be key. Which can be something of a challenge. “There’s kind of a balance we’re trying to strike,” Lin says. “We’re trying to appeal to people at smaller papers, because we think our stuff will be of interest to their readers — but a lot of these papers are saying, ‘Well, our readers only about things in this specific region.’ So we’re trying to work around that.”

An added challenge: The staff doing that work is — for now, anyway — small (or, in startupese, nimble). Levin and Lin share a small office in Sherman Oaks, and they’re assisted by three part-time researcher-reporters — journalism masters’ students — who work remotely: Bridget Huber and Jill Replogle from UC Berkeley, and Matthew Richmond from USC. (The outlet turned to students not only for economic reasons, but also because, as Lin puts it, “the industry has a responsibility for its own survival, really, to bring up a new generation of reporters.”) Diana Hoff, administrator of the Portland-based Renaissance Foundation, one of FairWarning’s funders, provides business-side and web assistance, and an all-star board — including Margaret Engel, Charles Lewis, Vernon Loeb, Bill Marimow, and Henry Weinstein — provide insight and oversight.

FairWarning also has a broad initial slate of supporters. The Charles Evans Foundation is the outfit’s primary funder, but it also receives assistance from Renaissance, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism, Public Welfare, and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University’s School of Communication. “We’ve lucked out, because there’s so many people with their hands out right now, trying to get these journalism projects going,” Levin notes. And there’s a “Contribute” badge on FairWarning.org to give readers the option of helping out. Still, that nagging question — how will we pay for it? — will be an constant one, and one FairWarning will have to address even as it sets about telling stories and build a brand. Realistically, Levin says, “we have about a year’s money. We’re not out of the woods.”

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