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April 25 2011

14:36

Good things come in eights

Yep, it’s true, thirty-eight years ago today, I was tossed, kicking and screaming, into this world. I’ve been trying not to screw it up ever since.

Like many, I have a love-hate relationship with birthdays, but this year it’s all love.

Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I feel like I’m in better shape, smarter, and happier than I have ever been, and I have a sense in my gut that it’s only going to get better. That’s a nice place to be when you’re staring straight down the barrel of the big four-oh.

April is also a fun month for celebrating because it’s the month that I officially hung out my shingle as an independent consultant, just over eight years ago.

I once read that less than 50% of new businesses last more than five years, so every year after the fifth has felt like a real victory over the odds.

Thinking back, I like to remember the story of “my first big client,” Grist magazine (now they just call themselves Grist). Grist had published a 50+ page request for proposal for a content-management system, and — in one short week — an ad-hoc team was pulled together and a proposal submitted.

When we heard that we made the short list, we went so far as to send a baby monitor to the Grist office with a note that said “We’ll always be there for you.”

Those were some fun days; it was all raw energy, creativity, and a hefty dose of naiveté.

We got the contract.

We took Grist from a static HTML site that they were updating by hand:

grist-old.jpg


To an industrial-strength CMS that met their needs for the next four and a half years:

grist-new.jpg


It was a challenging project. But it was the important first step on a path that has kept me working closely with online publishers ever since.

Call me crazy, but I can’t wait to get started on the next eight years.

The real work will have to wait until tomorrow, however, because Rule No. 1 in the Phillip Smith ‘Tao of Consulting’ Handbook is “Let go, when your work is done (or when it’s your birthday).”

August 03 2010

17:51

The Climate Desk: Time-Intensive Collaboration Pays Off

When I first heard about The Climate Desk back in April, I was impressed by its ambitious mission:

The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact -- human, environmental, economic, political -- of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Mother Jones, Slate, Wired, and PBS's new public affairs show "Need To Know."

As someone who's managed several large-scale journalistic partnerships, I was curious to peek under the proverbial hood and see how the project was going several months in. Were the partners achieving their goals? What could other journalists interested in cross-organization collaboration learn from their experiences? I checked in with one of Climate Desk's de facto managers, Monika Bauerlein, co-editor at Mother Jones; a transcript of our email conversation follows.

Q&A

Please describe how Climate Desk is structured and staffed.

Monika Bauerlein: The Climate Desk is designed to produce a few major projects per year, with ad-hoc collaborations, content exchange, and link love continuing in between. Our first major project was a series exploring how business is adapting to climate change. We have several projects planned for the coming year. At the moment, we are focusing on collaboratively covering and exchanging content on the BP oil disaster.

It's a very flat structure, basically a consortium of peers -- there are one or two editors who serve as the main contacts at each of the partner organizations. We have met in person twice and talk via conference call regularly.

Among the group of editors involved, Clara (Jeffery, co-editor, Mother Jones) and I have thus far taken on most of the coordination and cat-herding (which can be quite time-consuming -- at key moments it's probably taken more than 50 percent of our time, but most of the time it's quite a bit less). All decisions are made collaboratively.

There was not really another project similar enough for us to model this collaboration on -- most of the ones we're aware of have been one-shot reporting projects (e.g. The Arizona Project and the Chauncey Bailey Project, both focused on the killing of reporters), whereas this is more of a soup-to-nuts, brainstorm-to-publication-to-"tweetstream":http://twitter.com/theclimatedesk collaboration.

But we certainly got ideas from a range of other projects and hope to in turn make our experience available to others.

How are project participants defining "collaboration" for the purposes of this project? How did you arrive at that definition?

bauerlein.jpg

Bauerlein: We started out with a very simple thought: How cool would it be if some of the smartest editors we know got in a room together? A cross between imaginary dinner party and dream-team edit meeting, if you will. We wanted to share three things: ideas, content, and audiences. We hoped that the resulting cross-pollination would produce a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. That's proven true -- we've all really enjoyed the exchange of ideas, we've all gotten great content out of it, and we've been able to introduce some of our users to each other's work.

In practice, here's what we did: We brainstormed how the collaboration should work and, for our first big project, settled on doing a distributed package of stories as a pilot project. As our topic, we chose an exploration of how business is adapting to climate change. Several of the main feature stories were conceived and assigned by the group; in addition, each partner organization produced stories that were made available to the group as part of the package. Some partners also produced stories that were not shared, but were linked to from other partner sites.

During the publication phase of this series (the two weeks surrounding Earth Day 2010), the stories ran on all the partner sites, and we used a collaborative widget from Publish2 to give users a running feed of the entire package. We also built theclimatedesk.org as a repository for our FAQ and story feed; it continues to be updated with reporting from the partner organizations.

What has been the project's biggest success so far, and why? What success metrics are you using?

Bauerlein: Honestly, for this many journalists from fairly different organizations to play well together and enjoy themselves felt like a big success. Demonstrating to ourselves that it could be done, and be fun, was great.

Beyond that, we produced a lot of really good content that got widely seen and commented on, as well as buzz in the trade press and great feedback from the rest of the journalism community. And, perhaps most importantly, through the pilot project we created both a framework for working together and a great deal of trust among the group, which has already helped us seize opportunities for further collaboration.

For example, we were in the planning stages for our next project when news of the BP oil spill hit; at that point, we shifted gears to focus on this major story, with an ongoing content exchange and ad-hoc collaborations among individual members of the group. In the past few weeks, "Need to Know" has teamed up with the Atlantic, Mother Jones, and Grist to produce segments for its show. All the partners have exchanged content about the spill. In the meantime, we have started a podcast and are continuing to work on our next big project.

What has been harder than you expected? What would it take to ease this difficulty?

Bauerlein: It¹s really all about time and bandwidth, but we've managed to find both because the rewards are great. What we'd love to do is raise enough money to have a dedicated project manager as well as technology/interactive design and user participation talent. This would allow us to really pull in the best ideas from each of the partners and develop the collaboration to its full potential.

If a genie appeared and could grant you three wishes to make Climate Desk succeed beyond your wildest dreams -- what would your three wishes be?

Bauerlein: 1. Major celebrity and massive funder falls in love with this project.

2. We create cutting-edge projects that engage a broad audience -- even beyond our existing 27 million users -- and fundamentally change the conversation about climate. It's a very abstract concept for many people; what we want to do is make it tangible and intellectually engaging.

3. Is this where we ask the genie for three more wishes?

The former editorial director of PBS.org, Amanda Hirsch is a digital media consultant who recently managed the EconomyStory collaboration, a journalistic partnership between 12 public media organizations. Learn more about Amanda's background at amandahirsch.com and follow her on Twitter at @publicmediagirl.

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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.

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