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 »


Biodiversity in the investigative ecosystem

I’ve been reminded these past few days how many different species inhabit the mini-ecosystem that is nonprofit investigative reporting. In the natural world, biodiversity is key to an ecosystem’s  survival. Can the same be said of the journalism world?

The biodiversity metaphor came to mind on Saturday, while I was moderating the panel that opened the Columbia Spectator’s Media Conference. Sharing twin billing were Paul Steiger, the former Wall Street Journal managing editor and founder of Pro Publica, and Jeffrey Klein, the investigative journalist who co-founded the progressive muckraking magazine Mother Jones in 1976. No two people could be more different in temperament. Klein, a proponent of what he calls oppositional investigative reporting, has had a storied career exposing the shenanigans of Republican politicians, including Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. A left-wing liberal who believes that partisan journalism not only has a long, but also honorable, journalistic tradition, Klein likes to throw bombs (he famously said that most journalists are “sheep in wolves’ clothing,” and during the panel, made it clear – in far more colorful language – that Bob Woodward and Mike Wallace are exemplars of that pack).

Steiger  is hardly the flamethrower. But he’s a torchbearer for the nonpartisan, nonideological, professionally produced investigative reporting of the type that has won Pulitzers since 1985, when the venerable prize body opened an award in the investigative reporting category.  One of the best funded and best staffed investigative reporting operations in the U.S., if not the world, Pro Publica has won two Pulitzers in the four years since its founding. Steiger believes that as traditional news outlets cut back on reporting resources, centers like his, partisan outfits like Mother Jones and journalism schools will pick up the slack. “Americans have a passion for stuff that is impartial but tough,” he said, “I think there’s an important role for what we do, an important role for what Mother Jones does, and an important role for what The National Review does.”

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