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May 29 2013

14:00

Scott Lewis: Learning from social platforms to build a better news site

About four years ago, I nervously sat on a roundtable between Madeline Albright and Alberto Ibargüen, CEO of the Knight Foundation. Next to Ibarguen was Marissa Mayer, then an executive at Google. She was co-chair of a commission Knight put together to study the information needs of communities at the height of what seemed like a crisis for news and civics.

During the discussion, Mayer described her vision of a hyper-personalized news stream. News publishers, she said, needed to learn from what social media and YouTube were doing. Here’s how a writeup of the gathering later paraphrased her remarks about a new type of news publishing:

Users could get a constant stream of content based on their interests, on what is good for them or on the popular ethos. They could also introduce serendipity. These streams could be available by subscription. They could also involve hyper-personalized, well-targeted advertising that would be engaging.

While Mayer spoke, Ibarguen leaned over to me. He quietly said I should do that on the Voice of San Diego’s website. He would help if I gave it a go.

And that’s when I got the old same feeling I’ve gotten for years: dread. Once again, I would have to reveal how truly far behind on technology we were. We were almost imposters. Counterparts and leaders in our industry across the nation had called Voice of San Diego digital pioneers. Yet we knew next to nothing about technology and had put a paltry amount of resources into it.

Four years later, Mayer runs Yahoo and now Tumblr. I’d like to think she is heading furiously toward her vision of a hyper-personalized news and content experience. I’d like to think I finally am, too. I just couldn’t afford Tumblr. Or anything.

A mission to educate

Because of how Voice of San Diego started and how we’ve grown, we’ve never built up the kind of capital to make a major investment in technology. If we added resources, it was always writers. Then, the focus was on sustainability, and diversifying the money coming in to make the organization stronger and, frankly, to make payroll.

In fact, resource strain has defined us, and in some ways has been an asset. To do cool things, we needed partners. We created innovative relationships that became national standards. Our paucity obligated us to focus. A focused reporting staff distinguished Voice of San Diego for its investigative work.

Thrift, however, also pushed us to use an affordable content management system to run our website. It was Blox, the main product of the well-run, customer service-oriented TownNews.com in Moline, Ill.

I love TownNews.com. Without TownNews.com, we would not have achieved anything we did. The team there truly made the barrier to entry low and we turned the opportunity it provided us into a local institution. But we were only one of a couple of web-native clients for TownNews.com, which mainly services many hundreds of newspapers. Those newspaper publishers are still focused on one primary mission for their websites: Display daily posts and sell advertising next to them.

That’s not Voice of San Diego’s mission. Our mission is to help people get information. It is an educational mission. That’s why we have the nonprofit status we do.

If your job is to help people get educated, you can’t just display stories. Imagine a university that simply invited students into a room with huge posters and pictures and expected them to find everything they needed. Everywhere I look, news sites remain committed to simply displaying their stories and images. At the same time, social sites keep working on how to serve users.

And we’re watching social media eat news sites’ lunch. We’re gawking at an act of bullying taking place right before our eyes. When newspapers write about Mayer’s dream of well-targeted, engaging advertising and her visions for Tumblr, do they realize that’s money newspapers are not going to get?

Falling short

We’ve fallen many years behind social media platforms in serving users. Some news publishers have ceded the ground completely. They let Facebook run their social layer or rely on YouTube for their video sharing.

I’ve been watching this develop for years. Two years ago, I was positively despondent. I went so far as to dream that Facebook itself would create a content management system for news publishers. I’d be the first to sign up.

How far are we from actual Facebook or Tumblr-based news organization? Are you a news publisher? Ask yourself what your CMS does that Tumblr doesn’t. Mayer’s vision of a hyper-personalized news stream isn’t just something she thinks should happen. It is something that will happen. Are news organizations going to be a part of it?

If so, we have to stop working solely to display our content well and start working to serve our users well. Those are not mutually exclusive, but they are different.

Let me rephrase: If we think our community is going to pay for our services (as many, including Voice of San Diego, The New York Times, and Andrew Sullivan do), then we absolutely have to learn how to serve users.

It doesn’t mean that we compete with social media platforms. That ship has sailed. But social is as much about a way of doing things as it is a technology. Social platforms, for instance, have taught us a few things that users now expect. Here are three:

  • You should expect to be notified if something you “follow” is updated.
  • Anyone should be allowed to submit content. It should be easy to do and its success is dependent on the community.
  • You should be able to relentlessly tailor your feed of information, bringing it closer and closer to what Mayer might call a “hyper-personalized” experience.

So you can see why I was despondent. I was nowhere near being able to be part of this. The best I could hope for was to continue displaying content. Then maybe I could master social media, somehow weaving it all together to serve our users and build a loyal, grateful community.

Making the switch

This is where I was last year when I met Kelly Abbott, who runs Realtidbits, a company that provides the commenting and social layer for sites like ESPN, Cleveland.com, the Irish Times and even Lady Gaga. Abbott went from not knowing about us to one of our most loyal readers and donating members. And then he decided he wanted to help more.

He recommended we switch content management systems. The thought made me nauseous. Anyone who knows CMS transitions knows why. But Abbott persisted. He had the same vision I did and he wanted to tackle it. Voice of San Diego was lucky enough to be a part of a great discussion in this country about the future of local news. We had an obligation to bring our technology up to speed.

Abbott created what he called an “engineer-free zone” for me. We would first solve basic website frustrations I had about mobile, search engine optimization, and commenting. But then we would dream. What would I create if I could?

I wanted to switch from an effort to display content well to one focused on serving users. Sure, our stories, photographs, and images needed to look good but my mission was to get people educated and to raise money to make the service stronger. A local foundation, Price Charities, came aboard to help us with the initiative. Then, we brought along another partner: Idea Melt, a company working to help publishers “imagine and thread beautiful, holistic, and engaging social experiences for your community.” And we chose to switch to WordPress.

Finally, last week we launched. Our stories and images look better. Our search engine indexing is much improved and our mobile experience is improved with a new responsive design. We also added three new features.

  • Notifications: Users can now follow storylines, or “narratives,” on the site. If there’s a new update, they don’t need to search for a section heading, they should see a notification.
  • Peer-to-peer and reader-to-author following: They can also follow individual writers, or even their peers.
  • The Plaza: Here, users can submit text, photos, links or video and their peers can vote on it to buoy it above other submissions. Yes, it’s a lot like Reddit.

All of these features need work and we’re moving furiously on a massive to-do list. But I look at everything with different eyes now. Soon, we’ll begin building our membership system into the site. Our 1,600 members will be able to check their status, learn about events they might want to attend, and get special alerts.

What we have is a new future. We can spend it constantly evolving to serve the community more in line with our mission and our business model.

We’re a long way from the vision Mayer described. But at least we started walking.

Scott Lewis is the CEO of Voice of San Diego. You can reach him at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or on Twitter at @vosdscott.

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.

July 08 2011

20:32

Reinventing the newspaper - The rise of philanthrojournalism

Economist :: What's now being tried across America, is to build new, internet-native metropolitan news organisations supported by philanthropy. Examples include the Voice of San Diego, the St Louis Beacon, the MinnPost in Minneapolis, the Texas Tribune in Austin and the Bay Citizen in San Francisco.

Where they exist, they are doing a very good job, in some cases exceeding the quality of dailies,” says Ken Doctor, a news-industry analyst at Outsell. Because traditional newspapers are in trouble, these not-for-profit online news organisations can take their pick of experienced journalists, many of whom are also attracted by the new sites’ focus on politics, civic engagement and accountability journalism.

[Jonathan Weber, editor of the Bay Citizen] We believe the gap that we’re trying to fill has to do with reporting. There’s a lot of opinion out there, and a dearth of reporting.

Continue to read from the print edition, www.economist.com

June 15 2011

16:00

Does a new report mean doom and gloom for local online news? Maybe, but here are a few balancing factors

Matthew Hindman’s new paper showing miserably low levels of local online news consumption is a terrific addition to research on how journalism gets produced and consumed online. He found, using panel data from comScore, that local news sites received, on average, only about three pageviews per person per week in their local markets.

And that’s in total, adding up all local news sites — individual sites fared even worse. The largest local news site in a typical market reached only about 17.8 percent of local web users in a given month, and it drew only about five minutes of the typical web user’s attention during that month.

Nikki Usher summarized the report’s findings for us in a separate post. But while Hindman’s research is a welcome reminder of local online news’ limitations and failings, I think there are a number of factors that complicate his findings a bit. Here are four reasons why I think the doom and gloom that I expect to circle around this report might not be spot on.

comScore’s dataset isn’t perfect

Among the various traffic-measurement firms, comScore has a very solid reputation. But it is also subject to some of the criticisms that have historically faced Nielsen’s TV ratings, most notably that their sample may not be a representative one. For example, comScore panel data doesn’t measure mobile traffic. And it likely undercounts web traffic from people at work, which Pablo Boczkowski and others have shown to be where a disproportionate amount of online news consumption occurs. (Hindman, to his credit, highlights these problems with comScore’s dataset.)

And, frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the kind of person willing to install comScore’s traffic-recording tool on their computers isn’t perfectly representative of the web-using public. The biggest news nerds might be underrepresented.

But the reality is these are quibbles, and Hindman’s larger point remains. Even if comScore is undercounting by a factor of three or four, we’re still talking about a small-numbers showing for local online media.

Reach does not mean impact

If raw readership totals equaled impact — on political discussion, on democracy, on the culture — then USA Today would be more important than The New York Times and Reader’s Digest would be more important than The New Yorker. Reaching the “right” people — and by that I mean the people who have disproportionate influence in political discussion, democracy, or culture — can make an outlet’s reach more potent than traffic numbers would suggest.

So for sites like MinnPost or Voice of San Diego, which write extensively about politics and local government, it’s possible to be both a must-read in the corridors of City Hall or the statehouse and still reach an audience that’s disproportionately influential.

Take MinnPost, for instance. According to Hindman’s analysis, 0.61 percent of all pageviews in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area went to local news sites. And only about 0.001 percent of total pageviews went to MinnPost (varying slightly by month).

But MinnPost’s Joel Kramer told us in March that, in January and February, MinnPost.com had received 921,000 visits. Each of those generated at least one pageview. The site has 5,700 daily email newsletter subscribers, 2,500 weekly email subscribers, and over 10,000 followers on Twitter.

In other words, while MinnPost may look like a rounding error in the overall scheme of Twin Cities web traffic, it is reaching many thousands of people. And even if those people are a small subset of the area population, a site like MinnPost can still have a significant positive impact on public affairs.

In Hindman’s previous book, The Myth of Digital Democracy, he advanced a largely similar argument based around political blogs. Here’s the book’s promo copy from its publisher:

Matthew Hindman argues that, though hundreds of thousands of Americans blog about politics, blogs receive only a miniscule portion of Web traffic, and most blog readership goes to a handful of mainstream, highly educated professionals. He shows how, despite the wealth of independent Web sites, online news audiences are concentrated on the top twenty outlets, and online organizing and fund-raising are dominated by a few powerful interest groups. Hindman tracks nearly three million Web pages, analyzing how their links are structured, how citizens search for political content, and how leading search engines like Google and Yahoo! funnel traffic to popular outlets. He finds that while the Internet has increased some forms of political participation and transformed the way interest groups and candidates organize, mobilize, and raise funds, elites still strongly shape how political material on the Web is presented and accessed.

You can see the DNA of that argument in the current paper. And I think Hindman’s right: If your goal for online media is to create a digital version of the New England town hall, then yes, you’re going to be disappointed that online media creates its own new class of media elites. But I’d argue that, if we’re judging online media’s value or worthiness to democracy, it’s important to do so through a lens that isn’t merely transposed from the days of big broadcast towers and giant metro newspapers.

I think, even taking Hindman’s facts on political blogs, that it’s impossible to argue that they haven’t had a significant impact on political discussion in America — despite their comparatively small readership and their power-law popularity structure. So I’d caution against anyone drawing similar conclusions based on this new paper about online media more broadly.

Local news does not equal “news”

It’s worth noting that, while the comScore data found little interest in local news, it did find substantially more interest in national and global outlets. Hindman’s analysis found that local news made up only about 19 percent of all pageviews to news sites measured. (The remainder is only defined as “nonlocal news sources,” but we can presume that a healthy chunk of that is made up of the big national news brands: CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, etc.)

The numbers were even more lopsided when you look at minutes spent rather than pageviews. Only about 15 percent of all time spent consuming online news was spent on local news sites.

While that’s not great news for local sites, it does indicate that people’s interest in online news more broadly isn’t in the same state of disrepair as their interest in local news. And it perhaps speaks to the wisdom of strategies that try to inject local news into national news brands — for instance, what MSNBC.com is doing with EveryBlock, or what AOL is trying to do in marrying HuffPo to Patch and Outside.in.

Watch your comparison sphere

One final note: Be cautious about reading too much into any statistics that look at online news as a fraction of total time spent online. That’s putting online news in competition not just with other traditional content sources, but with Gmail, and Facebook, and shopping on Amazon, and all the other bazillion things we do all day on the Internet. In other words, as more and more activities that traditionally took place outside the browser move inside it, it only makes sense that online news’ share might not keep up — even if online news consumption were held constant. (For example, if online news reading went up 10 percent, but total online usage went up 100 percent, online news as a share of online activity would drop — even though people were consuming more online news. Time spent shopping for shoes at Zappos shouldn’t count against time spent reading local headlines.

Again, that’s not to invalidate (or even to argue against) Hindman’s findings; his raw numbers of minutes spent are plenty low enough on their own, even without any comparison to the rest of the web. But if we are going to judge online news consumption, let’s use the numbers that make the most sense.

Separately, because the FCC-funded research process is pleasantly open, you can read Hindman’s initial draft of his paper, a peer review of it by Iris Chyi at the University of Texas, Hindman’s response to Chyi’s remarks, and the final version. Probably only of interest to the nerdiest of news nerds, but Chyi raises some good points.

January 05 2011

14:05

Why ProPublica is publishing web ads — and what that means for the nonprofit outfit’s funding future

Check out ProPublica’s website today, and you might notice — along with blog posts, donation buttons, links to special projects, and the kind of deep-dive investigative journalism that the nonprofit outfit is celebrated for — a new feature: advertisements. Starting today, the outfit is serving ads on its site to complement the funding it takes in from foundation support and reader contributions, its two primary revenue streams.

“This has been something we’ve been expecting to do for some time,” Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s general manager, told me in a phone call. “It was a question of when.”

ProPublica isn’t alone in venturing into the realm of dot-org advertising. A number of ProPublica’s nonprofit peers, California Watch, Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego, and MinnPost among them, already run sponsored messages on their sites, served directly and via community partnerships and corporate underwriting. As Tofel noted in a blog post explaining the decision to take on ad support: “We’re doing this for the usual reason: to help raise revenue that can fuel our operations, promoting what people in the non-profit world call ’sustainability.’”

The revenue raised, though, won’t likely be much in comparison to that offered by ProPublica’s other funding streams. The site had 1,300 donors in 2010, Tofel notes, providing $3.8 million on top of the funding provided by the Sandler Foundation; web advertising being what it is, the revenue that comes from the ads will likely be a trickle compared to the site’s donation-based funding streams. “Given what’s happened to web advertising in the last five years, on any kind of reasonable projection of the size of our audience” — though the number fluctuates, ProPublica currently averages a little more than a million pageviews a month, he told me — “we’re not talking about a great deal of money.”

So HuffPost this is not. And that will be true not only in terms of the revenue generated by the ads, but also in terms of their content itself. ProPublica’s ads will be served as part of the Public Media Interactive Network, a digital ad network — operated by National Public Media — that started in 2008 to sell remnant ad space on NPR.org and PBS.org, but which recently expanded to include nonprofit news sites. (According to this press release, Texas Tribune and MinnPost are also members.) The network sells packages; publishers can either opt into or opt out of running those packages’ ads on their sites. And while “we’ve looked at the range of their clients, and I don’t see any at the moment that we’d have a problem with,” Tofel notes — none of those “lose inches of belly fat!” monstrosities here, folks — ultimately, “it’s our decision about whether to accept a particular advertiser that they have found.” As ProPublica explains in its new Advertising Acceptability Policy statement:

First, ProPublica reserves the right to accept or decline any advertisement or sponsorship it is offered.

ProPublica will decline to accept advertising that it knows or believes to be misleading, inaccurate, fraudulent or illegal, or that fails to comply, in ProPublica’s sole discretion, with its standards of decency, taste or dignity.

ProPublica, like all quality publishers of original journalism, maintains a clear separation between news and advertising content. Advertising that attempts to blur this distinction in a manner that, in ProPublica’s sole judgment, confuses readers will be rejected.

It’s an expect-the-best/prepare-for-the-worst approach to ceding a bit of control over what readers see when they visit the site, Tofel explained. “You just want to leave yourself the latitude so that you don’t get into a situation that is uncomfortable — or that undermines, most importantly, readers’ faith in what they’re reading.”

And that transaction with readers — one that, ultimately, understands an audience not as an anonymous collective of eyeballs and click-givers, but as individuals and, in the best sense, message-amplifiers — will remain a constant even as ProPublica tweaks its revenue strategy. As will, Tofel notes, the outlet’s partnerships with other news organizations (48 last year alone!) — and its rare-in-the-media-world comfort with sending users away to other outlets, partner and otherwise. While, yes, the inclusion of web ads represents an interest in keeping — and growing — direct traffic to ProPublica’s own site, “we are not in business to make money,” Tofel says. “We are in business to make change. And that’s still very much the case. But we do need to come up with enough money to float the boat, not just today and tomorrow, but on into the future.”

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.

October 29 2010

14:00

How does audience engagement work in the newsroom?

So…how’s that Twitter thing working out for you? I’m sure American Public Media will be less glib than that when asking journalists how audience engagement works for them.

APM’s Public Insight Network is surveying journalists about their methods of reaching out to readers, but perhaps more importantly, asking them if they think it’s doing them any good.

The survey was launched last week and the Public Insight Network is hoping to poll the most connected journalists they can find this weekend at the Online News Association conference in Washington, D.C. (Though anyone can take the survey online.) They plan to produce a white paper with the findings and potentially find new partners for the expanding network.

I emailed Andrew Haeg, editor of the Public Insight Network, to ask why they want to examine engagement now and why tap ONA. “ONA has become the go-to conference for journalists searching for new ways to create distinctive content that cuts through the noise of the Internet, and audience engagement has emerged as a major piece of any news operation’s efforts to stand out online,” Haeg wrote.

In their zeal to get involved in social media, Haeg said news outlets have taken a “shoot first, ask questions later’ kind of approach. Now that more journalists have audience engagement experience under their belt, we’re curious to find out how efforts are measuring up.”

This seems to jibe with recent signs that more newspapers, magazines and other news outlets are past the introduction phase with social media, as well as the fact that both Twitter and Facebook have people dedicated to working with news organizations. At the same time a number of media start-ups, including TBD, the Honolulu Civil Beat, and Voice of San Diego have made audience engagement a priority from launch.

The insight network’s open-ended survey asks basic questions about journalists’ familiarity and comfort using Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms to reach out to readers. The big question appears to be whether audience engagement is important and a worthwhile use of time. Haeg said they also want to find out what the expectations are when it comes to online outreach and how journalists gauge success in engagement.

“Is it primarily a way to drive traffic?” Haeg asked. “Does it afford journalist the chance to gather new information, get in touch with sources they otherwise couldn’t have, and seek out new stories? Does it feel like a lot of busy work that’s not adding up to much?”

In particular, the question of “what is engagement” may be of interest to future-of-news watchers becoming skeptical of what the word means in relation to news. Is it just using Twitter and Facebook, is it talking to readers in comments, is it publishing user-created content? In looking at what mainstream media outlets are successful in social media engagement, ReadWriteWeb based its recent findings on Postrank’s analysis, which studies RSS feed items and tallies comments, bookmarks, Diggs, and mentions on Twitter. Over at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, Joy Mayer is taking the long view on engagement, examining how various news outlets define the term.

Haeg said they plan to release the white paper after ONA and ask respondents to test out new engagement tools the insight network creates.

October 25 2010

18:25

5 Ways to Improve the Non-Profit Journalism Hub

The Voice of San Diego, one of the oldest of the new guard of non-profit news orgs that have been popping up, has teamed up with some academics from San Diego State University to launch The Hub, a handy database of information about non-profit community news organizations. If you're looking to start your own non-profit news org or want to learn more about what's already out there, this is the place to start. 

Megan Garber over at NiemanLab has a detailed rundown on the who's and what's involved.


I'm a big fan of things that solve problems, and The Hub clearly does that. Voice of San Diego CEO Scott Lewis told Garber the site was created in response to "many, many occasions in which VOSD execs and editors found themselves fielding requests for consulting and advice from people hoping to start their own non-profit news sites."

I spent some time cruising around and think it shows a lot of promise. I've also got five ideas for how it could be made even better and more useful.

Inside The Hub

The piece that I'm most interested in is the simple directory of existing non-profit news orgs that The Hub has put into motion. This is a great idea. Structured directories are almost always awesome. The Hub's directory is pretty simple, currently listing just 13 organizations that qualify as non-profit, community-based news organizations. All the big players you usually read about in stories are there: New Haven Independent, Texas Tribune, Bay Citizen, etc. Each profile page includes a quick rundown on the org's background and then a short Q and A with someone from the organization answering basic questions about its goals and origins.

It might not sound like much, but this is really useful stuff for people looking to learn more about this area. That said, there are a few ways these profiles could be improved on to make the site as a whole much more useful:

  1. More structured data -- I'd love to see The Hub focus more on structured data over narrative. The interviews I read were fairly interesting, but the ability to take in all the important details about an organization at a glance is more valuable than the ability to read a Q & A that may or may not contain the same information. What I'd love to see would be for The Hub to borrow a page from CrunchBase in how all the data is structured and links to clickable search results. An emphasis on getting more structured data would be a bigger win than getting more narrative info on these profile pages.
  2. Funding information -- The biggest piece of structured data missing is the funding for each organization. As a reader, I want to know how much funding each news org has received so far and what the source of it is. From my own reading, I know that there's a vast disparity in funding levels between some of these organizations. Visitors need to be able to see this at a glance so they can put the rest of the information into the proper context.
  3. Rundown on key personnel -- Similarly, the structured data for each news org should include the names of the top editors and the publisher of each organization. These pages could link to "people" pages on The Hub, or they could just link out to LinkedIn profiles or Twitter accounts. Either way, people will want to know who's in charge at these news orgs so they can get a better sense of what they're doing and how they're doing it.
  4. Subscriber/follower counts for social media accounts -- The Hub's profile pages helpfully link out to the social media accounts for each news organization. What they don't tell you, however, is how many followers that news organization has right now. This might seem like a small thing, but it could actually be very useful information if acquired automatically. It would be great to be able to rank non-profit news orgs based on how many followers they have on Twitter, or by number of fans on Facebook, for example.
  5. Info on how freelancers can pitch them and how interested parties can support them -- My final suggestion would be for The Hub's profile pages to prominently include information aimed at freelancers looking to learn more about how to pitch non-profit news organizations and for fans and avid readers looking for how to support these new enterprises and their work. These are two use cases I think will be pretty common among visitors to The Hub and they don't appear to be addressed specifically on the profile pages.

The Hub is a useful project off to a great start. People working on the edges of journalism need more projects like these that give shape and voice to what's happening in the field. I look forward to seeing how this develops.

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.”

August 19 2010

18:30

Seeking Sustainability, Part 3: VOSD’s Scott Lewis and others on engagement, community-building

Seeking Sustainability: Presentation on engagement and community-building from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

This spring, the Knight Foundation hosted a roundtable discussion exploring a crucial issue in journalism: the sustainability of nonprofit news organizations. This week, we’re passing along some videos of the conversations that resulted (and, as always, we’d love to continue the discussion in the comments section). We posted Part 1 of the series, a talk focused on business-model viability over time, on Monday, and Part 2 — on revenue-generation — yesterday.

In today’s pair of videos, Scott Lewis, CEO of Voice of San Diego, leads a discussion on the crucial topic of community engagement: how to leverage limited resources to build community, how to develop meaningful comments boards and conversations, how to use new technologies to develop audience affection, how to translate loyalty into money — and how to measure the murky issue of “audience engagement” in the first place. Scott’s introduction is above; the video below features a conversation among Knight’s panel of heavy-hitters.

Among them, in general order of appearance: the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Robert Rosenthal, Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith and Higinio Maycotte, The Bay Citizen’s Lisa Frazier, the St. Louis Beacon’s Nicole Hollway and Margaret Wolf Freivogel, the Chicago News Cooperative’s Peter Osnos, Voice of San Diego’s Buzz Woolley and Andrew Donohue, the New Haven Independent’s Paul Bass, the Gotham Gazette’s Gail Robinson, the FCC’s (and formerly Beliefnet’s) Steven Waldman, the Huffington Post Investigative Fund’s Nick Penniman, and Seattle CrossCut’s David Brewster.

Seeking Sustainability: Discussion on engagement and community-building session from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

August 18 2010

16:30

Seeking Sustainability, Part 2: John Thornton and others on strategies for nonprofit revenue generation

This spring, the Knight Foundation hosted a roundtable discussion exploring a crucial issue in journalism: the sustainability of nonprofit news organizations. This week, we’re passing along some videos of the conversations that resulted (and, as always, we’d love to continue the discussion in the comments section). We posted Part 1 of the series, a talk focused on business-model viability over time, yesterday. And in today’s pair of videos, John Thornton, chairman of the excitement-inducing Texas Tribune, leads a discussion about a topic near and dear to the hearts of even, yes, nonprofit news outlets: revenue generation.

“It is nowhere in the mid-life venture capital playbook to start a nonprofit news organization,” Thornton noted; “and so none of us would be doing this if the central mission weren’t about public service.”

Thornton’s introduction is above; below is a discussion that it sparked among the nonprofit all-stars Knight brought together for the occasion — among them The Bay Citizen’s Lisa Frazier, the Chicago News Cooperative’s Jim O’Shea and Peter Osnos, the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis, The Atlantic PhilanthropiesJack Rosenthal, Seattle CrossCut’s David Brewster, the New Haven Independent’s Paul Bass, California Watch’s Mark Katches, J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer, and the St. Louis Beacon’s Nicole Hollway. The group discussed finance-crucial issues like publicity, community, membership incentives, collaboration, demographic measurement, branding, corporate sponsorship, and more…not from a theoretical perspective, but from the point of view of practitioners who spend their days thinking about how to keep their organizations thriving.

The conversation, by the way, is well worth watching all the way to the end: The video closes with group members discussing some of their more outlandish — and, so, intriguing — ideas for revenue-generation.

August 17 2010

20:00

Seeking Sustainability, Part 1: Voice of San Diego’s Woolley and others on the role of the “venture mindset”

This spring, the Knight Foundation hosted a roundtable discussion exploring a crucial issue in journalism: sustaining nonprofit news organizations after an initial injection of funding gets them off the ground. The Seeking Sustainability conversation sought to examine nonprofit outfits not just as recipients of philanthropic funding, but also — and more so — as businesses that share many of the same concerns that their for-profit counterparts do.

“Traditional media companies have been particularly distressed by shifts in the markets and business models that historically supported them — and the conversation about how to ’save’ or ‘reinvent’ journalism has been largely focused on their concerns,” Knight noted in its summary of the roundtable. But

to a growing group of practitioners, funders and observers…the challenge is not saving traditional news organizations or traditional forms of journalism. The challenge is creating, strengthening and protecting informed communities and local information ecosystems, of which journalism is a necessary component.

Thus enters the nonprofit model, which allows organizations to pursue a journalistic mission without the competing demands of operating a for-profit business. Nonprofit news startups have been created in communities across the country, most with funding from major donors or foundations. The Knight Foundation alone has funded more than 200 experiments with what it calls a “build to learn” approach.

To benefit from the education those startups have been receiving, the foundation convened a group of experts to share practical insights about improving and sustaining nonprofit journalism. It also, thankfully, recorded the conversation that resulted. In a series this week, we’ll pass along the videos of those conversations (and, as always, we’d love to continue the discussion in the comments section).

In today’s first pair of videos, Buzz Woolley, chairman of Voice of San Diego, discusses the power of what he calls the “venture mindset” in journalism (above). In the second video (below), he is joined by an all-star panel of nonprofit startup leaders, including — in general order of appearance — J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer, the Chicago News Cooperative’s Peter Osnos and Jim O’Shea, the St. Louis Beacon’s Margaret Wolf Freivogel, Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, Voice of San Diego’s Andrew Donohue and Scott Lewis, Knight president Alberto Ibargüen, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Robert Rosenthal, the Connecticut Mirror’s James Cutie, The Bay Citizen’s Lisa Frazier, Oakland Local’s Susan Mernit, and the New Haven Independent’s Paul Bass.

June 28 2010

14:00

Opening up journalism’s boundaries to bring change back in: How Knight and its News Challenge have evolved

It was with considerable irony that I found myself last week missing much of the action surrounding the announcement of the latest winners of the Knight News Challenge, all because I was scrambling to put the finishing touches on a dissertation about…the Knight News Challenge.

Go figure.

Now that the dissertation is finished (at least temporarily, in the hands of my committee members), I’ve had a chance to reflect on how this fourth class of winners fits into the overall picture that has developed from the Knight News Challenge. This contest matters because, far and away, it’s the most prominent innovation effort of its kind in the future-of-journalism space. And so, in some sense, the News Challenge has an agenda-setting impact on the rest of the field at large, emphasizing certain trends over others and altogether giving shape to what we think of as “news innovation.”

But to understand the News Challenge in full, we have to step back and consider the organization behind it — the nonprofit John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the leading funder of journalism training for years and now the biggest philanthropic supporter of news-related startups and experiments. This, of course, is especially true in the nonprofit news sector: Just pick your favorite news upstart (Voice of San Diego, Texas Tribune, et al.), and chances are it has a good share of Knight funding. [Including this website — full disclosure, the Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Nieman Journalism Lab. —Josh]

So, the question that prompted my dissertation was simply this: With all this investment and influence in journalism innovation, what is the Knight Foundation trying to accomplish? (We can put this another way. Mark Dowie, in his 2002 investigation of nonprofit foundations, said, “If foundations are indeed ‘America’s passing gear,’ we need to ask what, or whom, they are passing, and where are they taking the country?” In our case, if Knight is akin to journalism’s passing gear, how — and toward what future — is it attempting to drive the field?)

The short answer is that Knight has sought to innovate journalism in part by stepping away from it, by making a strategic shift from “journalism” to “information.” This broadening of boundaries has created crucial space for innovators — from inside and outside journalism — to set forth a reformed view of what journalism is and ought to be. Chief among these new ethics is the emerging ethic of participation — the sense that journalism not only can be participatory, but indeed should be, and that something is missing if the public isn’t involved. In this sense, the foundation and its innovators, in rhetoric and action, are working to bring change to the rather ossified occupational ideology of journalism, or this professional culture that has developed much of its authority around the idea that it has gatekeeping control over what passes as “news.”

Now let me try to explain the longer answer. First, I came at this case study of the Knight Foundation and the Knight News Challenge from a number of angles: interviews with foundation leaders and more than a dozen KNC winners (namely, the ones who seemed to want to build a news organization/platform with their funding); an analysis of hundreds upon hundreds of pages of documents, such as foundation reports and News Challenge applications; and even some statistical analysis using a large body of data gathered on KNC applications from the first three years (the 2007, 2008 and 2009 contest cycles). There isn’t space in a single post to summarize my findings from each of these areas, but elsewhere I presented some early results on the KNC, and you can contact me if you’re interested in the final dissertation come July.

For now, I’ll touch on the big picture: how the Knight Foundation and its News Challenge have evolved in recent years.

From the news industry to the crowd

The Knight Foundation has long been a leading supporter of journalism education, and for much of the 1990s and early 2000s did this through the endowment of chaired professorships at journalism schools around the country. But after Alberto Ibargüen took over as foundation president and CEO in 2005, Knight began to realize that, as Ibargüen has said, it shouldn’t be in the business of teaching best practices for jobs that might not exist in the future.

Around the same time, Ibargüen and Knight became attracted to philanthropy’s growing use of challenge contests and other means of tapping into the “wisdom of the crowds” to find solutions to problems. If the “problem” for journalism in an era of digital disruption was the need to find new or refurbished models through which journalism’s core functions and societal benefits could be achieved — to “meet the information needs of communities,” in the foundation’s common refrain — then Knight was making a break from its past in turning away from faith in industry expertise and toward an acknowledgement that the solutions may well come from the aggregate expertise of a participatory crowd of contributors.

The Knight News Challenge was born in 2006 in this context: as a contest attempting to tackle a big professional problem (the shrinking of newspapers in many communities) by purposefully looking beyond the profession alone, seeking to engage a whole range of people — techies, entrepreneurs, activists, etc. — and their ideas that might shake up journalism. This crowdsourcing strategy is seen both in the nature of the contest — which is open to all — and in the actual content of the proposals that have been funded, many of which have a crowd-focused component of distributed participation (from Spot.Us in 2008 to Ushahidi in 2009 to GoMap Riga and Tilemapping in 2010).

From professional control to participation

These connected assumptions — that neither Knight nor the news industry had the solutions to its “informed communities” problem, but that answers could come through participation from distributed crowds that were newly connected online — led Knight to conclude that it should give up control over some facets of its philanthropy, as it did with its challenge contests, first the Knight News Challenge and more recently with the likes of Knight Community Information Challenge and Knight Arts Challenge.

What’s more, the foundation chose to give up control over maintaining journalism’s professional boundaries of exclusion — of defining journalism by one’s professional status — thus rhetorically opening the gates to greater participation from audiences. This was no small shift. Professionals, by nature, seek to be autonomous from outside influence, and so an acknowledgment of one’s lack of expertise or lack of control is a serious departure from the professional paradigm. Nevertheless, Ibargüen’s logic — of openness, of distributed control, of crowd wisdom and collective engagement — is more in tune with the digital media environment and its participatory culture. And, in this sense, his logic may reflect the Knight Foundation’s adaptation to the situation — its own way of “figuring out the flow” (Ibargüen’s words) and leveraging the momentum to accomplish its purposes.

All of this works to “open up” journalism in a way that allows something like crowd participation — which is still mostly at the margins of mainstream journalism — to become not only palatable but indeed truly valuable, a very ethic of good practice, in a rebooted formulation of journalism. This, in fact, is the general perspective of the KNC winners I interviewed, and is one of the core themes I explore further in the dissertation.

From journalism to information

In more recent times, the Knight Foundation has undergone a further evolution from “journalism” to “information,” both in rhetoric and practice. First, remember again that Knight’s ultimate goal is helping people get the information they need to function in (local) democracy. Historically, it was the newspaper that took care of providing that crucial information, and so the News Challenge was an effort to work on the problem of declining news at the community level.

But, as the News Challenge developed over time, Knight staff began to wonder if they were unduly focused on the “means” of informed communities — on the troubled journalism profession — and instead should be giving more emphasis to understanding and promoting the “outcomes” of informed communities, with less regard to how those outcomes were achieved. It’s kind of like being less concerned about the well-being of doctors and more concerned about public health, whether or not doctors are the ones doing the healing. As Ibargüen told me in an interview:

If you’re being agnostic about the form [i.e., digital delivery], shouldn’t you really focus on the end result? [Emphasis mine.] That is, stop trying to figure out how to fix current media and instead ask the question, “What does a community in a democracy need? What kind of information does it need in order to function well within a democracy? Where are we now, and what public policy can you support that will get us from where we are now to where we ought to be?”

In other words: Worry less about journalism and more about quality information, however it gets gathered and distributed. This line of thinking led to the formation of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. This high-level commission produced a report that was among the major future-of-journalism treatises to emerge in 2009. While journalism does receive fairly substantial treatment in the report, Amy Gahran was “struck by how little [the report] had to say about how professional journalists and mainstream news organizations fit into the future of civic media.”

Even more, the Knight Foundation appears to have realized that it can have a broader impact in philanthropy and society to the extent it downplays “journalism,” a term that, like it or not, comes with the baggage of stereotypes and a professional identity complex. “Information,” by contrast, has no particular ideology, and therefore can be malleably shaped to suit the circumstances. By invoking “information” and “information needs,” the Knight Foundation has been able to communicate to and connect with a range of fields, foundations, and corporations in a way “that we almost certainly would never have done before,” Ibargüen said. Because “information” is an empty vessel, open to interpretation, it has enabled Knight to speak the language of other fields, even as it seeks to advance the interests of its own. As Ibargüen told me:

One of the lessons for me is that when I used to talk about this as journalism, I’d get the great glazing of the eyes, as people would say, “Get over yourself, you’re just not that important, you know!” And now I know to say, “OK, this matters, this is at the center of almost anything. You tell me your subject, and I’ll tell you how information matters.” [Emphasis mine.]

This journalism-to-information shift can be seen in how the News Challenge has developed. My own examination of winners over the years suggests that projects have become less and less about “producing journalism” and increasingly about “supporting information,” some of which might be considered journalism in a traditional sense. And this gets us to the big existential question: What is journalism, anyway? In a world where the boundaries (rhetorical and structural) around news gathering, filtering, and distributing are becoming increasingly hard to detect, when does information become journalism? It is in this soup of uncertainty and confusion that the Knight Foundation has sought to bring profession-wide change: opening the boundaries of journalism and its own philanthropy to the logic of crowd wisdom, and using its position as a boundary-spanning agent, straddling several fields, as a means of bringing fresh ideas into a field that sorely needs them.

April 24 2010

17:26

Insight into non-profit journalism in the US

The wealth of knowledge at the International Symposium on Online Journalism continued with a session on non-profit journalism, with examples from across the US.

First up, Scott Lewis, CEO of Voice of San Diego. He started by talking about the bundled model of the newspaper, which obviously changed with the internet.

But, said Lewis, the unbundling of information meant you have to go to it, rather than have it come to you.

The relevance for Voice of San Diego is producing something that people want to include in their online bundle of information.

Lewis said they realised early on that they cannot duplicate and be something that somebody else is already doing. This thinking applied to story decisions, and making choices about not covering a story unless they can do it better.

Initially, its mission focused on producing investigative journalism for San Diego. But now, said Lewis, they are transitioning to the second part of their mission – to increase civic participation by giving people the knowledge they need to be involved in society.

The site is a non-profit but still needs to raise funding. This comes from donations from loyal users, philanthropists, corporate memberships and for profit distribution of content.

The site currently has 1,080 people who have given money and it hopes to convert 10,000 users to donors by 2013.

Lewis cited recently launched initiatives in partnership with NBC on issues in San Diego. This helps market the site, but also bring in revenue

And mostly important, said Lewis, they try to keep down costs by not inventing technology, but incorporating existing technology.

Filling the gap in Chicago

Jim O’Shea, co-founder and editor, Chicago News Cooperative explained the site was set up to fill the news gap in the city. It currently has a full-time staff of six reporters and freelancers, with a basic website for now.

To launch, the site received $500,000 from the MacArthur Foundation and a contract with the New York Times for providing news from Chicago.

The business model for the non-profit is based on providing journalistic services, philanthropy and sponsorship, some ad revenue and, most importantly, said O’Shea, membership fees. The site asks members to pay $2 a week and get a range of services.

But O’Shea acknowledged that getting between 30,000 to 40,000 members to make the site self-sustaining can be a challenge.

“Money is, and remains, our major challenge to stability,” he said.

Saving public journalism

Another local start-up is Texas Tribune, launched last November because “public service journalism needed saving,” said Evan Smith, CEO and editor.

The site raised $4m dollars in 2009, and so far this year has raised more than $720,000. The average donation from its 1,600 members is $96, with more than 60 major donors.

The budget for the site is just above $2m a year.

The aim is to address a decline in the coverage of statewide issues in Texas. The problems in Texas are bigger, said Smith.

The start-up also aims to tackle a decline in political engagement, particularly among the young. And, said Smith, the media is becoming an echo chamber of partisan politics.

Above all, the profit model “will not pay for public interest journalism,” he stressed.

25 weeks since launch, the site has had more than 3.8 million page views, more than 1 million visits, with 40% of the traffic from outside of Texas. The site hit a million page views in March.

In terms of Texan traffic, a third come from Austin, a third from other large Texan cities and a third from the rest of Texas.

The most popular section are the data pages, getting two and a half time the traffic of the story pages.

Smith said the site’s success was due to:

  • hiring veteran and experienced journalists
  • focusing on data as journalism
  • organising events supported by corporate partners
  • take revenue from a variety of sources
  • content partnerships to distribute the journalism
  • tight focus, in the Tribune’s case, public policy in Texas

The three sites are strong examples of the non-profit wave in the US. What was not addressed in this panel is whether this is very much a US model and whether it could be adopted in countries which do not have the same philanthropic tradition.

Perhaps a discussion for next year’s symposium?

April 13 2010

14:30

Can explainers be the basis for a revenue stream? Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis thinks so

You may have seen Megan’s post a couple weeks ago about how lauded news nonprofit Voice of San Diego is trying to hire an “engagement editor” to help push its stories into social media and public consciousness. That piece references VOSD’s two-part mission:

To consistently deliver ground-breaking investigative journalism for the San Diego region.

To increase civic participation by giving residents the knowledge and in-depth analysis necessary to become advocates for good government and social progress.

It’s that second part that’s the subject of this video interview with Scott Lewis, VOSD’s CEO (whew, lots of initials there). Telling stories is one thing, but providing the analysis needed for public action is another. Led by Matt Thompson, the quest for context and explanation has been a hot topic for some time in future-of-journalism circles. But Scott explains here that he thinks explainers might be part of a business model, too: the kind of added value that convinces people to become a member of VOSD or otherwise contribute financially.

…if our mission is to help educate people about these issues so that they can become the advocates that the community needs to progress, then, perhaps, educating them means more than simply putting news up on the site. And that, perhaps, education means providing these explainers. Maybe it means providing a graphic novel on the top 10 stories of San Diego. Or maybe, it’s a book or a curriculum that they receive…We can have a rolling system of clinics from our reporters where they literally just say, “This is how the education system’s working right now.” And, maybe, for a fee or for a membership benefit, that’s something that you can participate in.

This interview is actually a few months old — our former staffer Zach Seward recorded it in October, back before he (and Megan! and Matt!) became “next generation digital visionaries.” I emailed Scott to see if anything he talked about in the interview needed an update; I’ve added those updates — including how VOSD has moved ahead with explainers on a big local platform — below the transcript.

Zach Seward: All right, I’m with Scott Lewis, CEO of Voice of San Diego. I was interested in what you were talking about explainers and context and a recent story sort of involved with that?

Scott Lewis: Yeah. Our mission is in two parts. One is to deliver ground-breaking investigative journalism. And by investigative, we mean stories that help people understand why things are the way they are, rather than just simply passing along information. And the second part of our mission, though, is broader. It actually says, “providing residents the information they need to become advocates for good government and social progress.” Well, I’ve embraced that latter part of the mission a lot more. And that means more than just simply putting out news and letting, you know, people make their own conclusions and figuring things out from what is available on the latest news.

What it might mean, we think, is also helping them understand San Diego better, understand how the government works better, understand how the education system works better. And we think that there’s a tool to do that in stories that are not just news and not just traditional investigative-type stories, but actually explainers, ways for people to understand these situations better. So, if we’re covering a complex topic, a story can go through the process of — even the first person, sometimes — of saying, “I don’t know how this works. Let’s go through this together and try to figure it out together. And I called this person, and he added this perspective. I called this person, they added this perspective. And this is a full presentation of everything I know about this topic.”

Because reporters have that, they have that experience and they have that. And a lot of times they’ll come up to me and they’ll say, “You know, we need, I want the inside scoop.” But what they really want when they say that, it seems like, is for you to break it down in plain English and help them understand, you know, the issue, the way that you might tell your girlfriend about or your friend about, in just words that help you paint a picture for them. So we think there’s incredible value in that that might actually transfer to a membership model, too.

Zach: Now, you just had a reporter go out and do that with a particular story?

Scott: Yeah. Liam Dillon covers government for us and politics. And there’s a big issue in San Diego about whether to expand the Convention Center. And the editor, Andrew Donohue, told him to, well, go find out about that and literally just explain what you find out. And he did it, and he did it in a first-person account, and he did it in a way that was really engaging as far as just explaining the entire situation, so that if you weren’t following it — you may have heard the debate. You may have heard updates about costs and about anger and conflict about the issue, but finding that story, it gave you everything that everyone had about where we were at with it, in a way that you could digest, and that was written in a conversational, easy-to-digest way.

And we received tons of comments and emails from people saying, “Wow, that was really. That was the best story yet about it.” They took it as a news story, and they took it really well. They said, “Wow, you really helped. This is the best, most comprehensive news story about this.” And in — I don’t know that in the past, a journalist would have thought of that as a news story, in particular, in the sense that it was really just an explanation. And I think there’s incredible power in that.

Zach: Did it pay off in terms of traffic?

Scott: Yeah, it was our most-read story for that week. It was a — and again, the engagement, the discussion level rose after that. We got letters and comments, and it was a powerful piece.

Zach: And you said also you’re having reporters be in charge of individual pages around subjects that they cover?

Scott: Oh, no.

Zach: No, okay.

Scott: No, that was Salon’s doing that. I took some. It seems cool.

Zach: Maybe, it’s a possibility in the future? Fair enough.

Scott: I’m trying to figure out. It seems like that issue, and you’ve been talking about it at Nieman, and Matt Thompson, and others have talked about it, about re-forming the news story around topic pages and that. I think there’s a design problem I’d love to help solve with that. And if we could figure out what that page looks like and why you would want to continue going to it and how you represent it on a front page or a home page. If we could help be part of what that looks like, I think there’s definite power in it, for sure.

Zach: So, the thing you mentioned earlier, understanding of course it’s entirely speculative, is the possibility that a membership model could include, you know, paying members of Voice of San Diego have special access to some of these kind of explainers? Is that the thought or…

Scott: Yeah, we’re thinking about if — and there’s a lot of things to work out — but if our mission is to help educate people about these issues so that they can become the advocates that the community needs to progress, then, perhaps, educating them means more than simply putting news up on the site. And that, perhaps, education means providing these explainers. Maybe it means providing a graphic novel on the top 10 stories of San Diego. Or maybe, it’s a book or a curriculum that they receive.

Zach: A one-hour, in-person class.

Scott: Exactly, exactly. We can have a rolling system of clinics from our reporters where they literally just say, “This is how the education system’s working right now.” And, maybe, for a fee or for a membership benefit, that’s something that you can participate in.

You know, what we want to do is learn from how these other organizations that have started to build their own membership programs, how some of them crossed the line that a lot of people felt was, you know, unethical with like what The Washington Post was thinking of doing as far as special events. But I think that if it’s just reporters talking and simply sharing, that this kind of explainer — it could be pretty powerful. Again, it’s just something to think about and work on. But the idea of membership having more benefit than simply a bumper sticker and then, maybe, even having some benefit as far as helping, you know, more clearly understand San Diego, that’d be really cool.

Right now, we do a thing somewhat like this. Every month we host a members’ coffee. So if you’ve given us money or if you’ve renewed your membership that month, then you’re invited to come to this thing. And, you know, between five and a dozen people usually show up, and they and tell us about what they’re interested in. We usually end up talking about city politics or city education issues or new media issues, mostly. And it’s fun for them. They enjoy getting that sort of in-plain-English explainer of both what we think is happening to the newspaper world and what we think’s happening to City Hall.

Zach: Sure. At this point, what are your current revenue streams?

Scott: Five. We have major donors, minor donors. And those are separate for a very good reason. I mean, they’re just completely different animals. Foundation grants and then corporate sponsors. And by corporate sponsors, we mean any organization that hosts an ad or a sponsorship message on the site. And so that can be a union or a nonprofit or whatever. We get a lot of that.

And then the fifth is a syndication revenue we’re trying to develop more and more. And this is — we realize we’re not just a website. We’re a source of information. So, if others want to package and distribute it better than we can, all the power to them.

Zach: You say that you’re ahead of revenue projections this year?

Scott: Yeah.

Zach: Is the largest chunks of those five sources still foundation support?

Scott: No, the largest chunk, I think, would be our two main major donors, which amount to about 35 percent of our budget right now. And that would be the two big donors. Then foundations are about that same level. And it’s all going to fall into place, I think, interestingly. And then the rest is split between the small donors and the corporate sponsors.

Zach: And, obviously, one goal is to grow the whole pie, but within the pie, is the goal to even that out? Like you’d like to have 20 percent from each, or is that too facile?

Scott: No, no, no — that’s exactly it. I don’t know what sustainability is. But to me, it means diversification to the point where, if one source falls or something, that it’s not crippling. And in that sense, then, I have two obsessions: One is to diversify the revenue inside those sources and then pursue other sources to diversify the sources. Do you know what I mean?

Zach: Sure, sure.

Scott: So, it’s a two-part obsession. And, yeah, I won’t be happy until we’ve gotten to the point where no single person has, or entity or grant has more than, you know, say, 10 or 15 percent of the budget responsibility. So that’s the goal. Ideally, it would be one percent over, you know, a thousand different types of sources. No, that wouldn’t —

Zach: Oh, yeah, well, that would be pretty good, in any event. [Laughter] That would be the future of news.

Scott: You know, ideally, it would get to — and it’s diversity, I think, that has the power. That if you have a lot of different sources of revenue, it provides for credibility and it provides for sustainability. And that’s why it’s such an obsession. And I think MinnPost and us and others are equally obsessed with that holy grail.

Zach: Sure. Well, thanks, Scott.

Scott: Yeah, thank you.

Updates and followups from Scott Lewis:

— Comments weren’t actually allowed on VOSD at the time Liam’s story ran, so by “comments” he meant direct feedback and what they called “letters” to the editor.

— Efforts to diversify VOSD’s revenue streams are ongoing. Scott: “We have begun to collect revenue from our content services or syndication effort, especially in regard to our new San Diego Explained series with the local NBC affiliate.”

So explainers might be a revenue source after all. But when it comes to a membership model, Scott typed this from his iPhone: “Finally, yes I believe that context explainers etc can serve as a basis for membership engagement but it’s a lot easier said than done and we’re still trying to figure it out. But haven’t abandoned it.”

March 31 2010

12:38

What Voice of San Diego wants in an “engagement editor”

One thing you should know about Voice of San Diego’s new engagement editor gig: it’s not (just) about social media. Yes, being active on Facebook and Twitter will be part of the job, but that’s a means rather than an end. Really, the new position is about leveraging new tools to achieve goals that have always been challenges for journalism: publicity, conversation, context.

Per the job announcement:

The pioneering news organization voiceofsandiego.org wants someone to revolutionize how it presents its content and engages the San Diego community. You will find creative ways — from e-mail to blogs to twitter and more — to deliver our service to San Diegans. You will also be a new age opinion editor, sparking dynamic debates and discussions on the site. And you will be a guide to our service, helping our users find the needed context to keep up with the complex local issues that determine San Diego’s quality of life.

In other words, Voice of San Diego is looking for an editor who will use all the information and communication tools available to us — online and in person — to expand our often tweetcentric view of what “community engagement” actually means.

Take the “new age opinion editor” idea. “Imagine if there were an opinion editor who had never heard of what an opinion editor was in a newspaper,” says Scott Lewis, Voice of San Diego’s CEO. That person would aim to spark discussions. And expand discussions. And guide discussions. And frame discussions.

That person would also curate the web — no information overload, only filter failure — to add depth and breadth to those discussions. “I’m really sold on this idea of context as the future of news,” Lewis told me. “For so long we had this idea, from newspapers, that you put a story up for 24 hours, and it did what it needed to do, and then you moved on.” Now, though, we’re engaging differently with our news — and are more in need than ever of people to act as stewards of engagement. That’s where this new editor will step in.

The idea for the job sprang from a series VoSD recently posted, about San Diego County’s social services. The project was about a year in the making, and “the reporters just gave their heart and soul, and it was beautiful, and very impactful,” Lewis says. “It was everything we want to do.”

A few days after the series launched, though, the outlet’s staff realized that a particular reader — an advocate type, “somebody you’d consider an engaged reader,” Lewis says, “a woman who was part of the circle of people who would respond to this” — hadn’t, in fact, responded to it. Because she hadn’t seen it.

So part of the new job will be to help Voice of San Diego avoid tree-falling-in-forest syndrome — and the other part will be ensuring that its stories make as loud a sound as possible when they drop. The outlet, after all, has a double mission: to do investigative journalism, yes, but also to educate and engage the community. “We just realized that there’s a whole list of things you have to do,” Lewis says. “Not only to notify people that things are up on the site, but also to help them respond to it — to be engaged and loyal followers of a narrative.”

January 22 2010

17:01

A new convert to nonprofit journalism out west?

The start-up Bay Area News Project announced its new leadership team yesterday, as reported by the New York Times and paidContent, and it’s unfortunate that the most eye-catching bit of the news was CEO Lisa Frazier’s $400,000 salary. Yes, that’s a lot of money, and, like the news about Paul Steiger getting $570,000 to run ProPublica, it invites questions about what are appropriate salaries for a nonprofit.

But let’s set those aside for now, and let’s appreciate the news about the hiring of NewWest.net founder Jonathan Weber as editor-in-chief of BANP.

A year ago, Weber authored a thoughtful and well-argued, if withering, critique of the nonprofit model as a solution to the financial problems plaguing newspapers and journalism more generally.

Weber’s essay, entitled “The Trouble with Nonprofit Journalism,” dismisses the nonprofit model as an ill-suited to define what is newsworthy and unlikely to be sustainable. Here’s a passage:

[W]hen I started NewWest.Net in 2005 I considered going the non-profit route, but decided against it for what I still think are good reasons. I had to raise investment capital, which was arduous and way, way more time-consuming than I anticipated, but with luck I won’t have to do it again. Even more importantly, we are held to the brutal discipline of the market, which is very unpleasant a lot of the time but I think is ultimately a healthy thing. For the core problem that non-profit journalism will never be able to solve properly is deciding what is worthy. In a business, the customers ultimately decide what is worthy, for better and for worse. Managers at good companies can think for the long term and the greater good — and in fact there is clearly a market for thoughtful journalism — but as the VCs like to say, eventually the dogs have to eat the dog food. It keeps you honest. In a non-profit, either the board or the employees decide what is worthy — and why them?

Think Weber included the essay when he sent his resume to BANP founder Warren Hellman? Me, neither.

But this is not the place or time for told-you-so’s or questions about how much Weber’s being paid to run BANP. Rather, I take Weber’s conversion as validation of the nonprofit model as a place “to keep the spirit and tradition of socially responsible journalism alive,” as University of North Carolina professor Philip Meyer said in 2004.

In his own way, Weber said as much in the paidContent article when asked how a nonprofit differs from his work at NewWest:

In terms of profit versus non-profit, I’ve certainly been an advocate of the for-profit model. I do think there are for-profit models that work, but at the same time, the reality these days is that investment capital is not going into for-profit companies where the primary use of proceeds of that capital is to pay journalists. For whatever reasons, investors have not seen that as a big opportunity to date. There may be a few exceptions in narrow niches but certainly for general news there’s been very little investment of that type.

But I think there’s more to it than where the capital is flowing.

Since Weber wrote his essay just a year ago, the nonprofit model in journalism has undergone a full generation of transformation and growth. It used to be that nonprofits were oddities and one-offs, however successful financially or journalistically. ProPublica was really the only grand experiment anybody could name. But now, there are any number of start-ups that are using nonprofit status and the IRS 501(c)3 tax designation as a tool to create new business models that can sustain socially responsible journalism. In addition to BANP, we now have examples in Texas Tribune and the Chicago News Cooperative. And some of the early, community-based experiments such as MinnPost and Voice of San Diego seem to have held their own through the downturn in the economy while finding new ways to attract readers and donors.

It is said that converts become evangelists. I’m looking forward to seeing what Weber will do at BANP — and what role he will play within the nonprofit sector. As a co-founder of the now-defunct magazine The Industry Standard, Weber has a distinguished track record as an innovator, and I think he’ll find his new environs will be a hospitable place for his creativity.

Welcome aboard, Jonathan.

January 05 2010

18:00

California Watch: The latest entrant in the dot-org journalism boom

“Ten years ago,” says Mark Katches, editorial director of California Watch, “there were 85 reporters covering the California state house; today there are fewer than 25.”

Katches sees California Watch, which officially launched yesterday after a soft launch period and months of preparation, as stepping into a “big void in doing investigative work in California.” Katches has assembled the largest investigative team in the state: seven reporters, two multimedia producers, and two editors.

The site is focused on investigative watchdog journalism. It won’t cover the ins and outs of the California legislature or other governmental minutiae, aiming instead to “expose injustice, waste, mismanagement, wrongdoing, questionable practices and corruption, so that those responsible can be held to account and the public is armed with the information it needs to debate solutions and spark change.” Besides political topics, the site will cover higher education, health and welfare, and criminal justice.

Assembling the team

Based in Berkeley, California Watch has a four-person team in Sacramento, and hopes to open a Los Angeles office as well. 

The team’s credentials are impressive. Katches is a California native who lived in the state most of his life; he directed investigative teams at The Orange County Register and for the past two years at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The team’s director is Louis Freedberg, a longtime reporter on California affairs for the San Francisco Chronicle and other state and national publications. Senior editor Robert Salladay is a veteran of the L. A. Times; senior reporter Lance Williams has 32 years of California coverage experience and was one of the two reporters at the Chronicle who uncovered the Barry Bonds-BALCO steroid doping scandal.  Web entrepreneur Susan Mernit, a veteran of AOL, Netscape and Yahoo, supplies web strategy. Multimedia guru Mark Luckie (of 10,000 Words fame) is producing content. And longtime Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Robert Rosenthal, director of CIR, and others on the CIR staff supply development and administrative support.

I asked Katches whether California Watch is doling out the kind of salaries reported to be going to the top talent at recent nonprofit startup Texas Tribune ($315,000 to CEO Evan Smith, $90,000 to top reporter Brian Thevenot). “Not even close,” he said. Top California Watch executives are paid closer to what Texas Tribune reporters get, but Katches says the pay scales are competitive and appropriate for the levels of talent and scope of management involved.

The model

The site aims for up to a dozen updates every weekday, including daily blog entries by most staffers. A rotation of four top stories are featured front and center, followed by the “WatchBlog” and an inside-the-newsroom feature. Like The Texas Tribune, the site offers an extensive data center, currently featuring information about stimulus-funding distribution, campaign finance, educational costs, and wildfires. It’s not as extensive or interactive as the Texas Trib databases and document collection, but the intent is to build up its contents over time.

California Watch is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, the oldest nonprofit investigative news organization in the country (founded 1977), and joins a growing list of state and regional nonprofits that have in common a serious journalistic mission but take a variety of approaches to funding, coverage and distribution. The highest profile, best-funded members of that list now include The Texas Tribune, MinnPost, the St. Louis Beacon, Voice of San Diego, and (at a national level) ProPublica. “The dot-org boom” is really one of the top journalism stories of 2009, Katches says.

CIR garnered about $3.5 million in funding to start California Watch (roughly the same amount as The Texas Tribune), enough for more than two years of operations at its $1.5 million annual budget. Major funding came from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation [also a supporter of this site —Ed.], the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the James Irvine Foundation.

Going forward, California Watch plans to develop a business model that includes continued philanthropic support, along with revenue from sponsorship, individual memberships, advertising, and licensing. The site is offering its content to the state’s newspapers and other media on a fee basis. One of its first stories during the development period was carried by 25 of the state’s papers, all on the front page. (This fee-based model differs from The Texas Tribune, which is offering its content free to Texas media outlets for now; Texas Tribune also covers day-to-day politics in addition to doing investigative journalism.) California Watch partners with KQED in San Francisco for radio and TV distribution; with the Associated Press for distribution through its Exchange marketplace; and with New America Media for distribution of translated versions to ethnic media.

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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