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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?

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