Can non-profit journalism save the day?

September 20, 2010

The non-profit sector and the media continue to flirt with each other, and even have the occasional offspring. This morning, the Guardian launched its website on global development, http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development. Madeleine Bunting introduced the new baby on the oped page and the web. It is interesting because it is funded by the Gates Foundation, and indeed they are credited on the site’s home page. The peg is the UN summit on Global Development in New York, though the partnership is longer lasting and more substantial.

“It is the first time the Guardian has developed a partnership with a major charitable foundation to fund a strand of its core journalism,” says Bunting. “Part of the agreement includes safeguarding the Guardian’s editorial independence. Both organisations are committed to making achievement of the UN goals a central strand of the new site. But alongside the challenge of working in a partnership with a foundation, the site has set itself a big ambition of curating a global conversation about development.”

Beyond editorial independence, a second (and related) issue is that not everyone agrees about development: its importance, how it is funded, what results are possible or desirable. There are lots of different audiences, and as Bunting says: “The problem about these different audiences is that while they often have much knowledge of the subject, they don’t much like talking to each other. Part of the challenge on the new site will be to host all these conversations – all of which are crucial to the debate in their very different ways. Will that mean that everyone gets cross at some point or another with the site? Probably.”

Non-profits have an agenda, a way of working and resolving conflicts, and they have  financial interests. It will be interesting to see how the new experiments work out. How easy will the site and its funders be with controversy? And with mistakes? And with conflict? All of these things are somewhat inevitable in reporting. The cultural issues will be significant if the new journalism is to mean more than just taking a handout.

My own brief experience in non-profits is that there are massive opportunities for both sides in teaming up, or working alongside each other, or even in replacing each other from time to time. Non-profits are starting to make interesting moves into the field; journalism is starting to look for other funding .

There are many different models. ProPublica is essentially a news venture that focuses on developing public interest stories and finances them through foundation grants and individual donations. It aims to get its stories into mainstream publications and media where possible. FreePress puts more of a political and social message around non-profit and low-profit ventures. The Guardian is featuring journalism funded by the non-profit sector, but not guided by it. National Public Radio (often forgotten) is a hybrid of public and private funding. Human Rights Watch produces its own media, more or less, and hired a bunch of journos.

Not surprisingly, this flirtation between non-profits and journos has excited a lot of policy wonkery. Duke University’s Sanford School looked at the options in this series of papers, based on a conference. This conference at UW Madison examined some of the ethical issues, including who was an acceptable backer. And the Nieman Journalism Lab has looked at what makes non-profit journalism legit, and proposed some standards. This blog covers the issues.

Despite the anguished ethical debates, conflict of interest is only part of the issue: it is at least as much a question of conflict of cultures, and this will be hard to bridge, as Mary Walton explains in the American Journalism Review. “Says Laura Frank, who is navigating the new channels as head of a startup, the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, “People think, ‘Oh, wow. You don’t have to deal with advertisers,’ but it’s kind of the same thing. Foundations are used to funding something and having control over it. You have to explain to them that there is a firewall: ‘What you’re funding is the act of journalism for the benefit of society.’ ”

There are a couple of bigger questions for the non-profits and foundations, too – like: why fund journalism? “I have in my wallet three million dollars,” said Jack Shafer, media critic of Slate, at a symposium on investigative reporting quoted in the AJR piece.  “The opera wants it, the ballet wants it, the museum wants it, the YMCA, poor kids in Africa want it.” Why give it to journalists? Or journalism? Or news? Or media?  Can they get more by handing over money, or internalizing the resources and doing it themselves? What bang for their buck do they get?

Newsosaur, a blogger who writes on the news and business, is completely unconvinced. It would require far, far more money than the charitable sector is capable of providing to pay for all current newsgathering, he says. “So, let’s stop dreaming about a visit from the Non-Profit News Bunny and get serious about discovering some realistic possibilities.” To be fair, no-one is saying that everything will go this way, but he has a point.

The trend can only continue; I have some (non-rhetorical) questions about this:

  1. Is this a good use of money (Can’t they get a proper job)? Why does journalism deserve charitable status or money? What are the non-profits getting out of it that they couldn’t through other means?  Why pour money into activities and people that apparently weren’t capable of generating it themselves?
  2. Will this produce good journalism (Up to a point, Lady Bountiful)? Does the institutional culture of journalism work with a foundation culture? Will people still pick fights, dig dirt, kick against the pricks? Or will it tend towards the worst aspects of non-profits and trade journalism: inward looking, clubby, self-satisfied? Does the need to sell and be read actually have a role to play 9and can these be decoupled)?
  3. What about competition (Mr Gates)? What impact will this have on other media that remains revenue-focussed? Will it price some of it out of the market? Will there still be a role for competition in the coverage of, say, development through (for example) the New Internationalist (a workers co-op, btw). Does it make sense to have competition in any case?
  4. Does this only work for some things? Does this decouple investigative and public interest journalism from the city beat, sports, financial, community reporting, politics etc? One of the advantages of the old model was that everyone competed for space and shared resources; is that over? Does public interest journalism now exist in a subsidized, gilded ghetto?
  5. What happens to the stuff that gets left out? We accept that not all new business models will cover everything. So: if some stuff can be paid for (business, sport and celebrity); and some can be locally  or crowd-sourced (community news, reviews etc); and some gets paid for by non-profits, what falls through the cracks? What can’t be covered by money, vanity, love and charity? And does it matter? Reporting on mental health? Local government?

Journalism Online tests one-click paywall tool

February 3, 2010

Journalism Online's new venture

The one-click pay-to-view tool could transform some areas of journalism. We accept it for music and other online goodies; why not for news? (That isn’t a rhetorical question – there may well be good reasons why it doesn’t work for news).

The Guardian’s PaidContent has some screen shots and detail here on how it may work, based on a project by Journalism Online.

But: at least one industry veteran is very pessimistic about the prospects. 

Newspapers lost their last chance to hang together when it became clear yesterday that the wheels seemingly have come off Journalism Online, the ambitious, global pay-wall initiative launched last year by serial entrepreneur Steven Brill,” writes Alan Mutter, the venerable Newsosaur.

“After a year of trying to persuade publishers worldwide to join the universal content-vending system that he envisioned, Brill told the New York Times the only committed client he could identify was a Lilliputian daily in Lancaster, PA. Brill said more affiliates are on the way for a service he christened Press+.”


Economist puts up the wall

October 6, 2009

The Economist has put in place a pay wall for some content, the latest sign of a coming trend. But it isn’t the Great Wall; more a hedge.

“Beginning October 13th, we will be limiting access to certain sections of our site to subscribers only,” says Ben Edwards, Publisher of Economist.com. “Over the past few years, Economist.com has become a hub for intelligent discussion, with news commentary, blogs and an award-winning debate series. We will continue to encourage both subscribers and non-subscribers to participate in those conversations. We will also enhance the experience we offer our most loyal readers by expanding our subscribers-only features.”

“Currently, all content published within the last year is free of charge. Soon, this access will be limited to articles published within the last 90 days. The print edition contents page, which offers a convenient way to browse articles and features from the latest issue of The Economist, will also be limited to subscribers only.”

As PaidContent notes, “The press release calls this “experimentation with a new website pay wall”. But the magazine, which is proving especially resilient in print, is rejecting the opportunity to go entirely pay-for.”

The Guardian notes that “The Times and Sunday Times yesterday revealed plans for a readers’ club with a £50 membership fee to non-subscribers, another example of newspapers attempting to develop new revenue streams from loyal readers rather than following a high-volume strategy.”


Charging Online is Fine, But What About the Ads?

September 24, 2009

A good (very thought-provoking) survey of online advertising by Jennifer Saba at Editor and Publisher.

“Newspapers “never really had their eyes on online ad revenue in the first place,” says Mark Potts, author of the Recovering Journalist blog and CEO of GrowthSpur, which helps hyperlocal and community sites generate revenue. “It was supplemental to print, and rarely had its own distinct strategy. I think newspapers never took it seriously enough or got around it the right way. They got caught up pursuing traditional advertisers online.””

New strategies: reduce classified’s slice of the pie. “At Scripps, that change means taking a different approach to selling and targeting advertising. It boils down to one simple question posed to current and prospective advertisers: Who do you want to reach?” It also means moving beyond basic banner ads.

Read this, even if you don’t know your CPM from your CRM – it is worth it, as the seeds of what may make the news industry pay are containe within this: pragmatic, careful, entrepenurial, imaginative use of the medium to do what it does best: create an audience.


Here comes the pay wall (for some)

September 20, 2009

Paid content is coming. Get your credit card out. Does this solve the problem for the media? Depends what you mean by “solve,” “problem” and “media”.

“With their advertising revenue drying up, newspaper publishers spent much of the spring and summer debating whether to cut off free online access to some of the material they run in their shrinking print editions,” says Associated Press. “It looks like the talk will turn to action this fall, when some large newspapers are expected to put up Internet toll booths.”

“A recent study by the American Press Institute found 58 percent of the responding newspapers are considering online fees,” says AP. “Of that group, 22 percent expect to introduce the fee before the end of the year.”

Media Week says many – most?  – media publishers are working on adding some measure of paid content  to their online offerings. “As revenue-strapped publishers consider paid content models, some are quietly tucking more of their material behind a pay wall, while others from Newsweek to The Economist are working on hybrid approaches,” it says. “I see multiple models, and the model has to fit with what the product is and what relationship it has with the reader,” said Sarah Chubb, president of Condé Nast Digital. “The magazines that are broadest in audience have probably the lowest opportunity for charging for content.”

“[M]y guess is for niche and specialist markets … it will be possible to do it but I think it is unlikely that you will be able to do it for all news, says Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Speaking at the Royal Televison Society Convention in the UK and quoted by PaidContent UK. But he questioned whether (as Rupert Murdoch is reportedly planning) this would work for broader news offerings. “In general these models have not worked for general public consumption because there are enough free sources that the marginal value of paying is not justified based on the incremental value of quantity.”)

There still isn’t any consensus on all this, notes Editor and Publisher. “Most newsroom leaders who spoke with E&P said no decisions have been made but admit they welcome a paid approach to online, noting that readers seem to be willing to pay for Web content that is useful, exclusive and/or in-depth. In each region, however, the definition of marketable content varies. Some editors believe everything is chargeable. Others point at sports, or find blogs and analysis the most sellable.”

And Journalism Online, the busienss venture that hopes to offer “freemium” content, says it has 1,000 publications ready to go; or at least with letters of intent.  “Letters of intent to become affiliates don’t mean they’ve signed on to more than sharing information and discussion possibilities, says PaidContent. “The number of outlets shows the potential reach but the actual number participating in a beta launch likely will much smaller—a chain with 80 papers may start with one or two, for instance.”

Will it work? “In a worst-case scenario, imposing online fees would drive away so much of a newspaper’s Web audience that publishers would lose more in Internet ad sales than they would gain in new revenue,” says AP. “In a best-case scenario, newspapers charging their online readers would still retain enough of the audience for their Web sites to remain attractive marketing channels. What may be even more important, the fees might make readers more willing to pay for the print editions if the same content isn’t on the Web for free, especially if print subscriptions include free or discounted Web access.”

So will this solve the problem for the media? It won’t make up all the revenue shortfalls; it will help add a little for some somewhere and sometimes. Not everyone will get the cash they want. And many of the strategies founded on building audience will have to be rejiggered. It’s a gamble, but then in the media industry most things are these days.


BizWeek on the Journalism Job Market

September 20, 2009
Michael Mandel at Business Week has done some great work analysing changes in US journalism jobs. The bad news: a decline of a third in newspaper jobs in a decade. The good news: more internet jobs and twice as many information services jobs. But the net result is that this sector is shrinking. “What we have is a wipeout in newspapers, plus what looks like a combination of secular and cyclical declines in other “journalistic” industries.”

Bureau for Investigative Journalism seeks boss

July 20, 2009

A very desirable job is on offer at London’s new Bureau of Investigative Journalism as Managing Editor. The Bureau, likely to be based at City University, is funded by the Potter foundation. This is the press release announcing its launch.

“Its aim is to foster independent public interest journalistic inquiry while encouraging a new generation of reporters,” says Roy Greenslade in the Guardian.

“It will hire a managing editor, two or three reporters and will also fund freelance investigators and researchers,” says Press Gazette. “Its aim is to dig out – and then sell – the stories that many news organisations say they can no longer afford to cover in-house.”

“One of the journalists behind the campaign, Stephen Grey, will be acting editor of the new bureau as it prepares for launch, until a permanent managing editor is appointed.” Many journalists will know Grey from his work on extraordinary rendition.

The project is supported by the Investigations Fund, launched by the newly created Foundation for Investigative Reporting. The FIR includes a a number of UK luminaries, including Grey, Misha Glenny, Antony Barnett, Martin Bright, Heather Brooke, Peter Barron, Nick Davies, Nick Fielding,  Mark Hollingsworth, Andrew Jennings, Philip Knightley, Paul Lashmar, David Leigh and Jason Lewis.

The organisation is essentially a copy of ProPublica, the US body. “ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest,” it describes itself. “Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”

Gavin Macfadyen, the Director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, and one of the founders of the Bureau sayes in the press release: “We will experiment with all the techniques available to us from ‘crowdfunding’ to ‘crowdsourcing’ and provide content across the media spectrum. But there is no substitute for first rate reporters being given time and resources to deliver great stories, which hold the powerful to account. The Bureau will offer investigative journalists both proper funding and the support of senior and experienced editors and researchers to carry out important investigations that are in the public interest.”

Will it work? That probably depends on what you mean by work. It will produce journalism as a “production house” rather than a publisher – a news agency. Such models are hard to make work. The lack of a commercial factor will help in the sense that revenue will not be a daily fixation, but it still needs money to survive. And the lack of publishing platform means that it will need others to help drive audiences.

As paidContent sniffily says: “Journalism Now A Charity Case.” It notes “the irony – buoyed by The Telegraph’s MP expenses investigation and The Guardian’s mobile hacking story, investigative and data-driven journalism is more popular than it has been in years.”