Nonprofit news models

White House Fence

White House tried to squash fainting-intern story

mediawiremorningGood morning. Here are 10 media stories.

  1. White House edits pool reports: The White House press office sometimes demands changes to pool reports before it “forwards them via e-mail to a database of thousands of recipients, including news outlets, federal agencies and congressional offices,” Paul Farhi reports. “This two-step process enables White House staffers to read the pool reports — and potentially object to them — before press aides send them to recipients.” HuffPost’s Jennifer Bendery tells Farhi the White House tried to squash her fainting-intern story. (WP)
  2. Pirates release journalist: Somali pirates released freelancer Michael Scott Moore, CNN reports. Michel Todd of Pacific Standard, for which Moore wrote a weekly column, said the magazine “had been encouraged by the FBI and State Department to (not) write about it because this would hurt his cause.” (CNN)
  3. Layoff season is upon us: The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal laid off 17 people yesterday, according to the Memphis Newspaper Guild. (Poynter) | The O.C. Register laid off people yesterday after owner Aaron Kushner abruptly closed the Los Angeles Register. Gustavo Arellano has 19 names. (OC Weekly) | The Des Moines Register “said on Monday that it was restructuring its newsroom, making cuts among editing and production staff and requiring all existing employees to reapply for their jobs.” (WSJ) | Related: “The Washington Post announced large cuts in retirement benefits on Tuesday, declaring that it would eliminate future retirement medical benefits and freeze defined-benefit pensions for nonunion employees.” (WP)
  4. Hoax alert: A company called Rantic Marketing says it was behind a purported threat to release nude photos of the actress Emma Watson. (HuffPost) | A lot of outlets reported on the “threat,” including the New York Daily News, Mashable, CNN and Slate. | Related: The “three-breasted woman” story is a hoax, too. (TMZ, Snopes)
  5. Speaking of things that may be illusory: San Diego philanthropist Malin Burnham wants to turn U-T San Diego into a nonprofit. Liam Dillon reports Burnham’s hopes well for Voice of San Diego, but an editor’s note on Nieman Lab, which republished the interview, says “I think there’s reason to believe that, in three months, we’ll either still be waiting for an IRS judgment on this or hearing about how the deal didn’t work out.” (Nieman)
  6. AP and Deloitte survey Middle Eastern and North African news consumers: “Seventy percent of respondents use social media for news more today than they did last year, and 59 percent discover the majority of news this way. However, the research also indicates that TV remains important for finding out more on a story once it has broken, with 43 percent accessing it first to get more information.” (AP)
  7. News orgs ask DOJ to investigate how Ferguson officials treated the press: 44 news organizations signed a RCFP letter urging “that the unlawful arrest and mistreatment of journalists covering events in Ferguson be included in the investigation.” (RCFP)
  8. Great moments in sports media, Wednesday edition: The San Francisco Giants are reportedly boycotting CSN Bay Area reporter Andrew Baggarly after he reported on an argument between pitcher Sergio Romo and coach Shawon Dunston. (Deadspin) | “Tiger: ‘Off the record? Because the majors are over.’ Asked him for comment on the record. He paused and said, ‘Because the majors are over’ (@dougferguson405)
  9. Front page of the day, selected by Kristen Hare: TBT, a publication of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times, fronts the three-breasted woman hoax, which, surprisingly, is a Florida story.


  10. Job moves, edited by Benjamin Mullin: Jill Geisler will be an affiliate at Poynter. She is senior faculty of leadership and management there. (Poynter) | Leila Brillson is now digital editorial director at Nylon and NylonGuys. Previously, she was entertainment director for Refinery29. (Email) | Clinton Cargill will be director of photography for Bloomberg Businessweek. Previously, he was photo editor at The New York Times Magazine. (Email) | Blathnaid Healy is now UK editor at Mashable. Previously, she was chief operations officer for Tim Chester has been named deputy UK editor at Mashable. Previously, he was senior Web editor at Rough Guides. Ben Maher is now UK advertising director at Mashable. He was agency director at Weve. (PRWeb) | Andy Lack has been named CEO of U.S. international media overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. He is chairman of the Bloomberg Media Group. (TV Newser) | Iain Williamson is now an associate publisher at Defense One. Previously, he was director of sales at Intermarkets, Inc. Patrick Lavan is now senior account director of Defense One. Previously, he was an account director there. (Email) | Kristin Boehm is now deputy editor at Previously, she was director of news and engagement there. (Fishbowl NY) | Job of the day: Scripps Treasure Coast Media is looking for an “innovative columnist.” Get your résumés in! (Journalism Jobs) | Send Ben your job moves:

Programming note: MediaWire Morning and the rest of the Poynter dot org crew will be at ONA in Chicago through Saturday. I’d love to say hello if you’re there! (@abeaujon/703-594-1103/ I’ll observe Central time while there, so you may get this roundup later than usual on Thursday and Friday.

Suggestions? Criticisms? Would like me to send you this roundup each morning? Please email me:

Correction A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Bloomberg chairman Andy Lack was named CEO of the United States International Communications Agency. In fact, he was named CEO of U.S. international media overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Read more


OC Register strikes content-sharing deal with news nonprofit

OC Weekly | Voice of OC

The Orange County Register has formed a content-sharing deal with the news nonprofit Voice of OC, OC Weekly Editor Gustavo Arellano reported Monday.

Reached by email Monday, Voice of OC Editor-in-Chief Norberto Santana Jr. said Arellano’s account was “accurate… About our syndication deal with OCR.”

Arellano torched the deal, saying Voice of OC “just sold out any indie cred it had built up by becoming [Register owner Aaron] Kushner’s useful idiot.”

But the only winner in all this is Kushner. The Voice of OC loses by entering into an agreement with their competitor, a competitor they have wonderfully exposed as a hater of journalism ethics in the past–wish I could be the fly in the wall in Kushner’s office next time the Voice of OC ever do a story like that, if they ever bother with that beat again. Register readers lose out by allowing Kushner to pass off sloppy seconds to them, all the while as he insists he’s giving them a superior product…by using a competitor. The Reg newsroom loses out, as this syndication deal amounts to a vote of no confidence by Kushner and Curley, and an indication that any future hires won’t go to the investigations team–so much for any commitment to actual hard news!

Santana writes that the Register will “run our stories on local government, basically akin to a wire service agreement.” Voice of OC will “get monetization for stories they run, and obviously increase our reach into Orange County ensuring that the community gets solid coverage of municipal affairs from a non-profit newsroom just focused on city hall coverage.” It will assign its own stories, Santana writes, and the Register has the choice of running them. He continues: Read more


Lorie Hearn, the founder, executive director and editor of inewsource, wrote Tuesday for Nieman Report about the challenges that come with starting a nonprofit news site. Investigative reporting is tough, Hearn wrote.

But if you think being an investigative reporter is hard work, try finding the business model to support it. We journalists think we’re above talking about money, let alone asking for it. We’re too self-righteous for that. At least, I thought I was. Well, the cold hard facts about the future of accountability journalism lie in cold hard cash.

The biggest mistake I made in founding a journalism nonprofit was thinking that good work will automatically attract funding.

(Related: How two inewsource reporters uncovered a scandal)

Lorie Hearn, Nieman


Knight will give $1 million to news nonprofits fund

Investigative News Network

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation expects to give up to $35,000 each to about 30 news nonprofits and public media outlets as part of a $1 million grant to a fund administered by the Investigative News Network.

INN is an umbrella group for news nonprofits that helps such organizations share resources and work toward sustainability. INN will choose the recipients of the grants and manage the “INNovation Fund.” Read more


News nonprofit starts taking donations in Bitcoin

San Diego news nonprofit inewsource began accepting donations in the online currency Bitcoin Monday. It took the plunge because “a potential donor indicated he’d like to contribute bitcoin,” inewsource Executive Director and Editor Lorie Hearn tells Poynter in an email. “And he did, the equivalent of $205 US.”

According to this list, only a few news organizations accept donations in the currency: Among them, two that say they’re affiliated with the hacking collective Anonymous and Juice Rap News.

Setting up the donation mechanism “was easy,” inewsource reporter Brad Racino, who arranged the method, tells Poynter in an email. He used a site called Coinbase that was free but requires a verified bank account, which receives the donations in cash. “The site generates a code for a bitcoin ‘button’ you can place on a website. It’s the same as, say, a Paypal button,” Racino writes. “Donors just click the button, log into their bitcoin account, and choose an amount to donate from their digital wallet.”

As of the time I’m writing this, 1 bitcoin is worth $1,056.53.

Related: I’m Changing My Mind About Bitcoin (Business Insider) Read more


Merger between St. Louis Beacon, St. Louis Public Radio gets closer

St. Louis Beacon

University of Missouri curators will likely approve the merger of St. Louis Public Radio, which the university owns, with the nonprofit news site St. Louis Beacon, Dale Singer reports. The combined organization, which has no name yet, will “cover local news online, on the air, on social media and on any new technologies that come up,” Singer writes. St. Louis Public Radio General Manager Tim Eby will manage the combined operation. Employees of the new organization will work for the University of Missouri.

The combined news organization will also provide opportunities for student work in “urban journalism,” Singer writes. Dean Mills, the dean of the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, Mo., tells Singer “this will probably lead UMSL to engage a little more in what we call professional journalism education.” Read more

Cover art from Knight Foundation's report on nonprofit news startups. (Knight Foundation)

Knight Foundation support for nonprofit news startups shifts focus to growth, sustainability

The Knight Foundation has released a detailed new report today arguing that well-run nonprofit news sites can weather their growing pains and operate at break-even or better.

The report itself has a wealth of statistics on 18 selected sites, all operating for at least three years, but I found the subtext even more interesting.

To those venturing to launch nonprofit sites, the good news is that the turn from start-up funding to new and diversified sources of revenue can be done.

To potential foundation funders, the message is that these sites do important work and have a realistic chance to be in business and expanding in three to five years after initial grants have run out.

Though the sites were chosen as examples of good practice, they together showed revenue growth of 30 percent over the three-year period, 2010-2012.  And for 2012, 14 of the 18 operated at break-even or better.

Mayur Patel, Knight vice president for strategy and assessment, told me in a phone interview that the foundation’s own support of the sector has changed recently from new launches to a focus on developing existing sites. That is significant since Knight is the biggest foundation supporting journalism and a thought leader for others — though it has also long worked to expand the base of foundations interested in the future of news.

Knight was a substantial funder of startups like Minnpost, Voice of San Diego and ProPublica.  It escaped my notice, but in the last 18 months it gave $1.9 million to ProPublica to “expand its industry-leading work in data-driven news applications” and $1.5 million to Texas Tribune for several projects including “a how-to curriculum” for other news sites.

Patel said he anticipates the foundation will do “an additional round of funding” next year with similar goals. Knight, he said, will be making grants to additional sites “that have shown momentum” and “smaller scale support of particular practices.”

While there may be few sites that can build to the scale of ProPublica, Texas Tribune or Center for Investigative Reporting (all $5-million-a-year-plus operations), Patel said “we are not too far (with the Texas Tribune model) from imagining what could replicated in other states if the capital is there.”  (And smaller states might not need as big an organization).

This report, like one Knight did two years ago, and a Pew Research Center report earlier this year identifies two main elements of success. Sites that are flourishing are now drawing contributions from individuals and smaller local foundations, have made producing events a profit center and get some revenue from advertising and sponsorships.

Diverse sources of revenue is one characteristic of nonprofit news sites that are surviving. (Knight Foundation)


The other common thread is that they use some staff positions for development and other business functions or, in the case of smaller sites, devote a share of the time of staffers to those activities. Sites focused solely on  journalism — like the defunct Chicago News Collective and its successor the Chicago News Cooperative — tend to run out of steam after a few years.

The first section of the report, directed both to nonprofit practitioners and funders, is about “Social Value Creation.” That reflects how much the foundation world is accustomed to measures of impact for the service and advocacy groups it typically supports.  As Charles Lewis and Hilary Niles of American University explored in a paper earlier this year, those kinds of measures do not come naturally to the hard-charging investigative reporters and editors who populate the nonprofit sites.

But the report echoes Lewis and Niles in saying that the organizations need to understand their audience and document both traffic and engagement as well as documenting the impact of their reporting.

A concluding section lays out a daunting list of eight recommended practices such as:

  • Attack your assumptions always.
  • Provide services, don’t just publish.
  • Bolster the brand by building partnerships.
  • Move to where your audience is.

The last of these essentially says that the sites need to be responsive to social media and available on mobile devices like smart phones. The technology and product design to get that done is proving challenging for much larger legacy organizations, in my view, and may be out of reach for all but the biggest of the nonprofits. But Knight seems to be directing some of its effort to shareable models smaller organizations can simply adopt.

This latest report nails down the basics of a survival manual for news nonprofits, though the sector is still young enough that other issues will emerge over the next several years.  I also think the big picture is rounded out  by an earlier study by J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer (also Knight supported), who argues that many small sites thrive on the volunteered time of a dedicated core group and can last indefinitely without significant revenue if that enthusiasm holds up.

I have heard grumblings in recent weeks that Pew and Knight may be over-focused on studies of the nonprofits, being nonprofits themselves, and overestimate their potential impact. But I did not find that in talking with Patel.

The nonprofit sites, together, “are not nearly as big as (they) need to be,” he said. “When you look at the amount of money still coming out of legacy media businesses, no way it replaces that.” Read more

hand with money

Nonprofit journalism sites are proving to be healthy but slow to scale

A recent Pew Research Center/Knight Foundation roundtable conference on the future of nonprofit journalism had the feeling of an annual physical. After three hours of poking and probing, the sector was found to be slowly getting stronger but with some serious lingering issues.

On the good news half of the examination, sites aimed at doing serious journalism, often investigative, are growing in number. Pew counted 174 in a study released this June.  And some potential heavyweight funders, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and MacArthur Foundation, were represented at the meeting.

Another plus is that many of the nonprofit startups are finding partners in legacy media willing to publish their reports to a wider audience. Many ProPublica stories have a national or regional publishing partner, and the Tampa Bay Times’ recent expose of America’s worst charities was a joint project with the Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN. That can open syndication as a possible revenue stream or at least spread the impact of the work beyond an organization’s own site.

The Pew study, and one in progress by Knight, are amplifying earlier reports that the strongest nonprofits are developing diverse sources of support and typically have some of their staff dedicated to the business and technical sides of the venture. However, while that works well for the bigger sites, like ProPublica or Texas Tribune, or a mid-sized one like MinnPost, it is hard to pull off at a small site with two to five employees.

Typically, nonprofit sites are launched with initial funding from a foundation or benefactor. Then the race is on to find support from other smaller foundations and individual donors, while developing advertising or special events as secondary revenue streams.

Dick Tofel, president of ProPublica, said that when the investigative site started in 2007, 90 percent of funding came from Herb and Marion Sandler. Last year, the Sandler percentage fell to 38, and he hopes to reduce it further to 30 this year. In a similar vein, John Thornton, the venture fund financier who launched Texas Tribune, said he had put in his second $1 million contribution and is done.

While operating as a nonprofit has the obvious advantage of attracting tax free donations, Tofel said, he has come to believe that there is a downside as well.

“Operating losses are economically sound if you are building enterprise value,” he said.  So The Huffington Post (barely profitable if at all) sold to AOL, and Twitter, among others, is preparing an initial public offering to go public. But, Tofel continued, “there is no such thing in a nonprofit; you cannot cash out.”

Another challenge is establishing metrics of success. Foundations are accustomed to getting detailed statistics demonstrating impact. But, as American University’s Chuck Lewis explored in a recent paper, hard-charging investigative reporters are unlikely to slow down to gather that documentation, nor is it clear just what constitutes proof that a site is making good on its goals.

Joel Kramer, founder of MinnPost, was blunt on the state of audience metrics. “Uniques are worse than worthless,” he said, since a high percentage of those look quickly at the site or a headline and never come back. However, Kramer has found that readers who return even four times a month are potential donors.

But the biggest issue for the sector is scale and finding major funding for expanding existing sites and starting new ones. Steven Waldman, lead author of the Federal Communications Commission report on shortfalls in robust accountability journalism in the broadband era, said he is still searching for a breakthrough.

“The winners in the new economy,” like Google, Apple and AT&T, Waldman said, are making tens of millions in profit per quarter. “If they would put just a tiny part of that into this problem,” he said, serious journalism could thrive.

There also appear to be some new challenges. Michael Maness, who heads Knight’s Journalism and Media innovation programs, said he still sees too much legacy thinking both in operational management and in content creation and display. He mentioned NPR’s recent redesign as a model of getting rid of “a newspaper-looking site” in favor of strong display on smartphones and tablets.

But modest nonprofits will find those changes hard to bring off and have no access to the capital that top sites like The Wall Street Journal and New York Times are putting into new technology.

Several at the conference mentioned the potential of establishing shared services, both for fundraising, management and tech development. But full details of how that might be done will wait for another day and another conference.

Meanwhile, it was encouraging to sit next to 20-something Elizabeth Green, who has launched a succession of New York education reform sites, and with 12 employees is now larger than average, according to Pew’s classification. Or to chat with Steve Beatty of The Lens in New Orleans, who is finding his site’s stories picked up by and the competing Advocate, as well as public radio.

But even the growth trajectory comes with a caution. Texas Tribune’s Thornton said there was a surge of launches in 2008 and 2009 when it appeared many newspapers might soon drop dead. But that wave, he said, “fizzled when people realized newspapers were not going away,” (though their newsrooms are still shrinking in 2013). Read more


Pew: Some news nonprofits would welcome govt. subsidies


39 percent of news nonprofits Pew surveyed “said they favor “some form of government subsidies” to help fund organizations like theirs,” Jodi Enda writes. 30 percent opposed taking public money.

“In fact, the notion that the government would subsidize the news business is not new,” Enda writes. Read more


New Pew study finds nonprofit news sites are ‘growing but fragile’

The Pew Research Center is out with a new report this morning documenting just how difficult it is for startup, nonprofit news sites, to achieve financial stability.

A typical site starts with a substantial foundation grant, often more than $100,000, according to Pew’s survey of 93 outlets. They handle their money conservatively; most have cash in the bank. While they recognize business and financial capacity to build other revenue streams as their top staffing need, many cannot afford that help and still meet their news mission.

That leaves them reliant on the original funder, though only 28 percent of those getting a significant initial grant reported getting additional money from that source.

On the positive side, Pew found all but nine states had at least one nonprofit news outlet. Their focus is on investigative (21 percent) and government (18 percent) reporting and most report healthy audience growth. And they are optimistic — 81 percent said they were confident their sites would be financially solvent in five years.

It is clear by now that such sites have several alternate sources of revenue — attracting other foundation backers, contributions from readers, advertising and sponsorships, and media partnerships paying for their content and events.

However, Pew finds that the “broader nonprofit culture” is problematic. Organizations are rewarded by prospective funders and monitoring agencies for spending money on program services rather than business and revenue development.

“Part of what we hear is the extent to which there is a strong sense of uncertainty about how to manage,” Amy Mitchell, acting director of Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and co-author of the report, told me by phone. “They say ‘We don’t really understand — we’re getting mixed messages.’”

One organization cited in the report summarized its problems raising money this way: “We don’t have time to do this. And we don’t know how.”

The Pew methodology of surveying active sites did not directly measure rates of survival. But Mitchell told me seven of the sites agreeing to be surveyed went out of business or merged during the six months it took to complete. Earlier screening showed 23 sites had closed or become inactive between 2008 and 2012.

Other Pew findings of note:

  • More than two-thirds of the outlets are sponsored by another organization, including many universities. However, the independents tend to be less reliant on seed grants.
  • The peak years for launches were 2008 and 2009 when newspaper’s fortunes were at their worst. Forty-six percent launched during that period with roughly equal numbers between 1987 and 2007 or in 2010-2011. One described its editorial mission as “filling the holes that chain media outlets swerve around.”
  • More than one-third of the nonprofits focus on state-level news (a particular casualty of newspaper cutbacks). While many do have a community focus, 20 percent specialize in national or international news.
  • The sites typically specialize in brief straight news reports. In two weeks Pew sampled, 77 percent ran no opinion pieces, and 63 percent produced no story longer than 1,000 words. The output is text-heavy with 73 percent producing no video or database journalism.
  • Staffs are small. About three-quarters have five or fewer full-time staffers.  Those are often supplemented by part-timers and volunteers.
  • 15 percent of the outlets surveyed had annual budgets of more than $1 million, while 59 percent operated on less than $500,000.

While several studies have focused on the difficulty of obtaining nonprofit status from the IRS (construing news gathering as an educational activity), 86 percent of those surveyed didn’t view this as a major business challenge.

The Pew findings are broadly consistent with earlier assessments of the nonprofit group. Michele McLellan and Mayur Patel closely studied eight of the largest and found that the successful ones had business managers and fundraising specialists rather than spending all they could raise on hiring journalists.

Jodi Enda (who has since joined the Pew Research Center staff), just last week won a Mirror Award for her piece on the sector titled, “Staying Alive.” Her finding: “The journalism is the easy part. Supporting it is hard.”

Earlier research by J-Lab’s Executive Director Jan Schaffer identified a great many sites that are mainly volunteer in nature sustained by a few committed individuals, who do not expect to be paid much or at all. So they can survive as long as the founders’ community service impulse stays strong.

A piece of mine in October 2009 conservatively estimated that newspapers were spending $1.6 billion less per year on editorial than in the first half of the 2000s (a news deficit that has increased in the years since). Though nonprofits are not burdened with legacy printing and distribution costs and can focus on a few important topics, their scale and collective mass are not coming close to replacing what has been lost.

Mitchell told me that Pew regards its new study as a baseline. The center will likely revisit the topic with the same questions in another few years, she said, to assess financial strength, growth and other changes.

Meanwhile, I can’t improve on the Pew report’s concluding summary:

“Even some of the outlets that expressed higher degrees of confidence in their future did not see a perfectly clear path forward: ‘All experimentation welcome,’ wrote one. Said another, ‘It seems to us that sustainability, meaning very little dependence on grant funding, is a long way off.’”

(Disclosure: I work for Pew on the annual State of the News Media reports but had nothing to do with this research.)

  Read more


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