Nonprofit newsrooms are reaching bigger audiences by teaming up with other outlets

NBC News intern Cassie Semyon, dashing to beat the competition AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

When images of NBC intern Cassie Semyon sprinting out of the Paul Manafort trial to deliver the verdict to her newsroom went viral, questions bubbled up on social media. Is she a trained runner? Was she barefoot? What was she holding?

What no one asked was, why was she running so fast? That was obvious: to beat the competition. After all, everyone expects journalists to fight for scoops and guard sources jealously to make sure no one steals their stories.

But a new group of newsrooms is changing that. Instead of taking pride in beating the competition, these organizations are sharing their high-quality journalism with other outlets. By teaming up, they can inform bigger audiences about the problems like corruption, environmental dangers and abusive business practices.

I examine this behavior, common among nonprofit news organizations across the U.S., in my new book, “Journalism Without Profit: Making News When the Market Fails.”

Growth followed long history

The nonprofit news media has a long history in the U.S.

The biggest and oldest example, the Associated Press, began to operate in the 1840s when newspapers teamed up to cover the Mexican-American War. The Christian Science Monitor – which belongs to The First Church of Christ, Scientist and gets support from donors and grants – got its start in 1908. National Public Radio, which draws about 15 percent of its budget from the federal government and gets the rest of its funding from corporate and individual donors as well as foundations, has been around since 1970.

But the modern nonprofit media model really took off about 10 years ago.

With the financial crisis hitting an already battered news industry, American journalists started to wonder how to fund journalism without relying on the plummeting advertising market or on the capriciousness of clicks.

In 2009, 27 nonprofit publishers started what became the Institute for Nonprofit News, which today has more than 180 members operating on vastly different scales.

The East Lansing Info, a citizen-run, hyperlocal news co-op in Michigan had only US$47,000 in funding in 2017 while the Center for Public Integrity, an investigative journalism organization had a nearly $10 million budget. NPR, meanwhile, had a $220 million budget.

Most are neither that big or that small. The median revenue for these organizations last year was $680,000, according to preliminary data from the Institute for Nonprofit News. No matter their size, what these newsrooms have in common is that they rely on philanthropy through foundation grants and audience donations, often supplementing that with earned revenue from activities like selling ads, holding events and subscriptions to print editions.

Systemic collaboration

Most of the people starting these organizations are worried about the fate of public service journalism. That is, the coverage society needs for democracy to function – including reporting on government policies and elections. This is often the kind of reporting that’s hard to fund through advertising and subscription revenue.

That means that many of these journalists make getting their work out as broadly as possible a primary goal. And since many of these outlets are tiny or aren’t commanding a regular readership, their websites have few regular readers.

Instead of publishing exclusively on its own website, for instance, ProPublica partners regularly with big media outlets like The New York Times, as it did in 2017 with its reporting about deregulation in the Trump era, to reach a mass audience.

You have probably never heard of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, but you’ve likely heard of Panama Papers, a global collaboration of more than 100 news organizations working together to expose tax evasion and publishing the stories in their own papers and websites around the world. The project’s many repercussions ultimately led to the resignation of the prime minister of Iceland and the dismissal and conviction of Pakistan’s prime minister.

Similarly, the Green Bay Press Gazette published in-depth reporting conducted by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism about flawed FBI investigations.

For news nonprofits, sharing coverage with other newsrooms to reach a wider audience helps elevate the quality of the media where people are already going for news: newspapers and newscasts, whether directly or through Facebook and Twitter.

Potential drawbacks

My major concern about the sharing model is that it may limit innovation. That’s because to entice newspapers to publish articles from another news organization, those articles need to at least resemble conventional news coverage.

My preliminary research in Europe suggests a different process is playing out there, with nonprofit news outlets like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the United Kingdom and Correctiv in Germany fighting nativism by not just reporting but by engaging their communities in that process.

And when it turned out that their reporting on domestic violence lent itself to a one-woman play about the issue, they were open to doing that, too.

Some critics, including the media scholar Victor Pickard and Jeff Jarvis, an expert on entrepreneurship in journalism, worry that funding from foundations and wealthy donors will never pay all of journalism’s bills. What’s more, they say that relying on readers to pay the bills can mean that the news media will focus on wealthy communities.

These critiques are certainly valid and important to keep in mind as the nonprofit news media continues to grow. Still, nonprofit newsrooms are making big strides in filling the gaps left as journalism shrinks. I believe that they’ll remain one important model for public service journalism going forward.

The Conversation, a nonprofit media outlet, relies on support from its university partners and grants from more than a dozen foundations.

The Conversation

Magda Konieczna received a fellowship from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to help with the completion of this project.