STVERAK: Investigations and explanations – two journalism tasks where nonprofits can thrive

April 14, 2010
Jason Stverak

The newspaper industry is struggling. According to a March 2010 report from the Pew Research Center’s annual Project for Excellence in Journalism, the American newspaper industry has lost $1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing capacity since 2000. In the last three years, the newspaper industry has cut thousands of full-time reporting and editing jobs.

The rapid decay of traditional for-profit news media is not because the public is less hungry for news. Indeed, the Pew study shows that Americans are avidly interested in news. What has changed is that Americans for the most part aren’t willing to pay for news, mostly because they believe they can get all the news they want without paying for it.

So how will America fill the growing void in journalism as traditional for-profit media models fail?

The answer is in nonprofit journalism organizations dedicated to producing quality journalism for all news consumers.
But what is nonprofit journalism? What purpose does it serve?

As most people would agree, journalism is gathering, verifying and conveying news, descriptive material and opinion — increasingly in the 21stcentury through a widening spectrum of media. A nonprofit organization operates to serve the public good without the shackle of debt and dividends.

Combining non and profit, two simple words, can create massive confusion.

The obvious answer is that nonprofit journalism is freed from the crippling constraints of business, but that definition is far too simple. Nonprofit journalism, which has grown exponentially over the last few years, has truly become the answer for an ailing news industry.

Online journalism organizations fill a void that traditional news media no longer can. One void is investigative journalism, the most effective weapon of the press, which has all but disappeared from many traditional newsrooms.

Many of the nonprofit journalism organizations serve as watchdogs on government, Wall Street and the media itself. Some serve as explanatory journalists, who have the space and time to elucidate the complex details of issues that newspapers and television cannot.

These nonprofit journalists are also showing the world that you don’t need to work at the New York Times or Washington Post to make headlines. Just recently, state-based watchdog groups demonstrated that online news websites can produce quality journalism, instead of the usual punditry. The effects of their reporting are being felt in every community around the nation.

It was a citizen reporter in New Mexico who broke the “Phantom Congressional District” story about the chaos in tracking American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. On November 16, 2009, Jim Scarantino, the investigative reporter for New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation, discovered that the recovery.gov Website listing federal stimulus money was riddled with ludicrous errors. A Watchdog in Texas recently discovered that the Department of Homeland Security lost nearly 1,000 computers in 2008. And it was a Watchdog in Nebraska who uncovered that their state’s educators were using taxpayer-funded credit cards to purchase a first class plane tickets to China for $11,000.

These are just a few of the many stories stemming from nonprofit journalism operations. Many of these organizations don’t have the staffing numbers that the traditional media may have, but they do have the capacity to spend time on a story, uncovering details that may get passed over in other media coverage.

Also, many traditional media outlets are using the news produced from nonprofit journalism organizations every day. Illinois Statehouse News (ISN) is a shining example of the success a nonprofit journalism organization can have when partnering with a for-profit media company. Since going live in December 2009, ISN’s daily content has been used by radio and television stations across the state, in addition to dozens of daily newspapers. A major statewide radio chain, which serves more than 100 radio stations across Illinois, outsourced most of its election coverage to ISN, which ensured ISN’s work was heard throughout the state and secured its place as a trusted source of real information.

The recent emergence of nonprofit journalism may lead some to believe that this is a new trend in a struggling industry. However, journalism nonprofits have been operating since the beginning of the newspaper age. In 1846, five New York newspapers united to share incoming reports from the Mexican-American War. That experiment in journalism became the Associated Press, which to this day is still a nonprofit cooperative.

The product of nonprofit journalism is often no different than the articles that emerge from for-profit news establishments like New York Times, ABC News, or CNN. In fact, in addition to Associated Press, there are many other nonprofit journalism organizations that have long histories of impacting the way news is conveyed, including National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System.

Across the United States, the need for nonprofit journalism organizations has never been as compelling. Founded amidst a media business and accountability crisis, these organizations dedicate themselves to investigating, exposing and pursuing corruption.

At a time when public corruption and malfeasance thrive, nonprofit journalism organizations are uniquely positioned to counterattack. They don’t have to worry about the bottom line being yanked out from under them, and they can make content available to all media for free without losing revenue.

They change the conversation in politics, media and for news consumers around the nation.

Although the distant future of journalism remains unclear, one thing for sure is that online nonprofit journalism will continue to serve as critical assets to readers of today and tomorrow.

Benjamin Franklin, a printer by trade, once said that “a newspaper in every home” was the “principle support of … morality” in civic life. The decline of American newspaper and television newsrooms might sadden Mr. Franklin, but the pursuit of greatness in journalism by nonprofits filling the void would without a doubt bring him pride and remind him of the citizen journalists who were essential to the founding of our nation.

Jason Stverak is the President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a journalism non-profit organization that provides reporters and non-profit organizations at the state and local level with training, expertise, and technical support.

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