Nonprofit News: 3 Examples of An Increasingly Influential Media Model

Given the news industry’s struggle to make a profit for stakeholders, nonprofits have emerged as an increasingly influential alternative for sustainable journalism

Image via NS Newsflash/Flickr; used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

When last year’s Pulitzer Prizes for Journalism were announced, no one was surprised to see certain publications on the winners list. However, there was one – the 2013 Pulitzer for National Reporting – that may have been a bit unexpected.

The National Reporting honor, which had competition from The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, went to InsideClimate News.

A small, nonprofit website, InsideClimate’s win put the spotlight on how much the nonprofit journalism movement has grown in recent years.

Journalism nonprofits have been around since 1846, when five newspapers united to report on the Mexican-American War and became the Associated Press.  But given the news industry’s struggle to make a profit for stakeholders, nonprofits have emerged as an increasingly influential alternative for sustainable journalism.

In June 2013, Pew Research reported that 172 digital nonprofit sites have launched since 1987 — each with its own mission, audience, and challenges.

Most recently, this media model was in the spotlight when Bill Keller announced he was leaving The New York Times to become editor in chief of nonprofit news startup, The Marshall Project.

Here are three examples that offer a glimpse into the wide-ranging world of nonprofit news.

InsideClimate News

Prior to its Pulitzer win in 2013, InsideClimate News was not a name known by many. Founded five years ago, less than 10 full-time reporters and a handful of other contributors work together virtually,  scattered across the country.

With many mainstream outlets no longer able to dedicate resources to environmental reporting, InsideClimate’s mission is to “produce clear, objective stories that give the public and decision-makers the information they need to navigate the heat and emotion of climate and energy debates.”

The Pulitzer was awarded for InsideClimate’s “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of.”  What started as an investigation into a 2010 Michigan oil spill turned into a broader look at pipeline safety and the country’s lack of preparedness.

According to its website, this publication which helps fill a hole in today’s newsroom landscape is supported in full by readers and foundations like the Energy Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

ProPublica

Although InsideClimate’s Pulitzer is impressive because of the publication’s small staff and online-only presence, it was not the first digital nonprofit to win the Pulitzer in journalism. That honor goes to ProPublica, which won in 2010 and 2011.

In contrast to InsideClimate and many other nonprofit organizations, ProPublica has a newsroom of approximately 40 working journalists headquartered in Manhattan.

The publication also covers a broader range of topics – pursuing in-depth investigations into the economy, healthcare, surveillance, or one of 40-plus subjects listed on its site.

Some of these projects have 100 or more stories dedicated to them, which is in line with ProPublica’s description of what its staff does: “In short, we stay with issues so long as there is more to be told, or there are more people to reach.”

In addition to publishing stories on its website, ProPublica achieves a high level of visibility by providing many stories for free to other media points – sometimes exclusively or for reprint under a Creative Commons license.

San Francisco Public Press

Topic-based storytelling is not the only driving factor for nonprofit news. Just as with traditional media, many organizations are locally focused. The San Francisco Public Press, for example, provides public interest journalism that is targeted to a Bay Area audience and supported by a membership model.

The Public Press is notable because the staff publishes a quarterly print newspaper in addition to its online coverage. The print version sells for $1 at 50 local retail locations and is distributed for free to senior, community, and public health centers.

Print issues often are focused around a particular theme (the Spring 2013 issue showed different angles of the city’s minimum wage debate), while also providing follow-up coverage on previous issues.

Although support has come from the San Francisco Foundation and other funders, The Public Press explains on its About page that the goal is to eventually be funded by local membership much like public broadcasting. The publication’s own content also is supplemented with articles from nonprofit media partners.

***

While nonprofit news organizations don’t have to worry about dividends and profit margins, donors and grants are essential to funding operations. It’s a delicate system with organizations struggling to diversify donations amid fast-growing competition.

A roundtable on the future of nonprofit journalism was convened in September 2013 by the Pew Research Center and Knight Foundation. A post by the Pew Research Journalism Project highlighted four key takeaways of the discussion: the evolving role of philanthropy, need to build the business side of a nonprofit newsroom, technological challenges, and the debate over working together.

Most importantly, though, to succeed in serving the public good for years to come, nonprofit news organizations need to start – and stay – lean.

Amanda Hicken is a media relations manager at PR Newswire where she helps journalists and bloggers customize newsfeeds for their specific coverage areas.  Follow Amanda at @ADHicken for tweets about the media, comic books, and her love of Cleveland.

3 thoughts on “Nonprofit News: 3 Examples of An Increasingly Influential Media Model

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