The nonprofit news model is fragile

Nonprofits have been touted as a possible alternative to the collapsing business models of for-profit news. But a study released this week by the the Pew Research Center points to the fragility of that model and also to the need for a more concerted effort to shore it up.

The study identified 172 nonprofit news outlets throughout the U.S. – two-thirds of these were launched only since the 2008 financial crisis. While the recession has accelerated the closure of newspapers and the downsizing of news staffs throughout the country, it has given rise to a boom in nonprofit news.  Today 41 states have at least one nonprofit news organization.

Nonprofits have attracted a lot of attention partly because of the innovative and high-impact reporting some of them have done. Pro Publica celebrated its fifth birthday this month, with two Pulitzers under its belt and an impressive track record of trailblazing investigative journalism. The Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, meanwhile, have been making waves worldwide with the release of a series of stories on offshore secrecy. And last month, the little-known Inside Climate News, a Brooklyn startup with an eight-person staff, was awarded the Pulitzer for its investigation of an oil spill.

So can bad (financial) times be good times for news? Read the rest of this entry »

Will the nonprofit bubble burst?

The numbers are amazing and point to a clear trend.  While nonprofit news organizations have existed in the U.S. for decades, the last three to five years have seen a real explosion. Last fall, the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University published  a database of  75 news nonprofits in the United States. Their total funding, the survey found, was  $135 million; together, they had 1,300 full-time employees.

This nonprofit explosion provides a ray of hope to the somewhat parlous  projections about the viability of accountability journalism in the era of downsized newsrooms. The trend is global. News nonprofits are sprouting in  Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

But can it be sustained? Read the rest of this entry »

Opera, game theory and investigative journalism

Will investigative journalism be like opera? Not in the sense that journalists act like divas. Nor in the sense that they play to an effete and aging audience (I hope not!).  I mean in the sense that opera has always been subsidized, has always  depended on wealthy patrons for its sustenance. This idea has been getting credence in the U.S. recently, as it becomes clear that American newsrooms can no longer afford to invest the resources they used to in accountability reporting.

The presumption in the U.S. is that profitable news organizations  are the natural  home of investigative reporting. After all, the monopoly profits that newspapers made allowed them to invest in watchdog reporting.  The worry now  is that if for-profit media can no longer live up to that name, then accountability journalism will wither and die.

Elsewhere, that has certainly not been the case. Muckraking journalism has emerged under a variety of market conditions. For sure, it has thrived most successfully in the heyday of American newspapers. But then many countries that have thriving newspaper markets — India is a good example — don’t have an investigative tradition.

Read the rest of this entry »