A fresh look at the rise of nonprofit journalism — and the issues that remain

January 6, 2019
Category: Business & Work

I am not a fan of most books about the business model dilemma of journalism. Things move so fast that they risk a degree of obsolescence by the time they hit print. And way too often, overstatement and hot-air theorizing mar the exercise.

A welcome exception crossed my desk during the holiday break — Bill Birnbauer’s “The Rise of Nonprofit Investigative Journalism in the United States.” Nothing flashy in that title or in the book itself, but the Australian academic, affiliated with Monash University there, makes good use of his distance from his subject — 9,500 miles, to be exact.

Birnbauer delivers a sober perspective on a distinctly American phenomenon: what journalism funders want, what non-profit entrepreneurs can deliver, the scope of the sector after 20 years of growth and tough questions about its ethics and sustainability. Birnbauer became curious about the topic while on a Knight fellowship at Stanford University.

The orderliness of his account can be inferred from chapter topics. First came developing comfort with collaboration — not an easy match for competitive and often lone-wolf journalists. Next was the unnatural act, for editors at least, of seeking out philanthropic funding. Then projects began to kick into gear as the devastating effects of the 2007-2009 financial crisis undercut legacy media.

Birnbauer, while still primarily a working journalist himself, was drawn into the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which has produced the Panama Papers and other blockbuster exposes of money laundering and the role of big banks.

He makes the case that individual benefactors and foundations saw the need for more investigative nonprofits and that digital publishing made it possible to focus resources on high-impact work rather than spending on printing plants, delivery trucks and ad sales.

As an aside, Birnbauer argues that individual donors have more often provided the organizing spark than institutional foundations. He cites ProPublica’s Dick Tofel saying that his own organization and such diverse others as Mother Jones, Texas Tribune, the Marshall Project, Chalkbeat and Inside Climate News, all had a single initial benefactor (though all quickly gathered foundation support as well).

That start-up funding pattern also created the main sustainability challenge. So far so good in 2019, but the successful venture capitalists and business executives who have provided for a launch usually do not want to be on the hook for years of operating losses. Nor do foundations, who typically see their role as seeding good work that gets its legs and prospers.

So nonprofits need to scramble to get past dependence on philanthropy. Birnbauer cites the success of Texas Tribune, MinnPost and others in adding alternative revenue sources like events, sponsorship and memberships.

But that has not proven an answer for everyone. In our work at Poynter, we have found that the fourth or fifth year is key in getting over the hump to an extended run. Unfortunately that’s about the same time frame some founders get worn out by the grind of wearing many hats and working 80-hour weeks.

Birnbauer cites my work a half-dozen times, accurately and succinctly. I particularly appreciate his fishing out my first big Poynter project, a detailed 2001 dive into the ethics question of how much independence journalists give up as they become “aligned” with a funder’s agenda.

I argued that there was denial on both sides about potential conflicts, especially if the journalism organization was angling for a renewal grant (that would depend on delivering results to the foundatioin’s liking).

Birnbauer sees that there is that potential for manipulation but considers it a necessary compromise that comes with the territory. Better to take the money while being aware and transparent about its source than not to do the work at all, he suggests. I will agree that looser standard is a fit for the reality of 2019 media economics — versus 2001, when resources were flowing much more freely.

Birnbauer does not attempt a statistical measure of the new sector compared to what’s left of legacy (still lots bigger). Nor does he go big on predicting the future. Investigative nonprofits have become established and impactful, but another decade of comparable growth is no sure thing.

It is hard to argue with his conclusion that the nonprofits have “added a much-needed layer of professional reporting to the thin ranks of legacy investigative journalists. ”He also gives credit to the many newspapers where editors have increased focus on investigations while making necessary cuts elsewhere.

The gestation period for a book prevented Birnbauer from considering new wave non-profit structures like Steve Waldman’s Report for America or the eccentric, blockchain-dependent Civil.

And I wouldn’t mind a parallel consideration of what for-profit start-ups bring to the party, defining essential journalism a bit more broadly — like TheSkimm daily aggregation newsletter for young women or Wirecutter’s product recommendations.

However, those are probably topics for another book. Birnbauer’s belongs on the shelf for anyone who wants to study and understand the nonprofit phenomenon, a landmark of this century so far.

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