Are nonprofits the only way journalism can survive?
In the landscape of declining revenues for traditional media outlets, there's been one model that has excelled in recent years: the nonprofit newsroom.
It's a formula that has kept public radio and television afloat for years. It's given people a quality media product and one that covers what the for-profit media misses while they dissect every Facebook entry by Sarah Palin.
The best example in Texas is the Texas Tribune, which is less than a year-old but has already become a major player in politics, policy analysis and investigate journalism in Texas.
The Tribune describes their purpose in simple terms: to expand on and augment what local newspapers produce with their increasingly limited means.
The reason we started the Trib is not because your local paper doesn’t believe in journalism in the public interest. It does, and it produces as much as it can. But in this severely depressed economy, human and financial resources are not as plentiful as they once were. So papers have had to make hard choices. In the end, most of them have eliminated people and pages, and as a result, coverage of policy and politics has been cut way back. This has created a substantive void. You can’t solve big problems if you don’t know about them, and you can’t know about them unless someone tees them up.
And now Texas Tribune has validation from America's most prestigious publication — it will be working with The New York Times to produce in-depth Texas coverage. The twice-weekly, in-depth features will be known as The Texas Report and featured prominently in the regional issues and on their own dedicated New York Times page.
"This collaboration with The Texas Tribune will allow us to expand our coverage of the state of Texas, supplementing our own work with sophisticated reporting by local journalists who have deep roots in the community," said Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, in a press release.
The Texas Tribune deal follows two other coverage partnerships the Times has established with local non-profit news organizations, in San Francisco with The Bay Citizen and in Chicago with The Chicago News Cooperative.
And the non-profit news wave just keeps growing. On the heels of the Times/Tribune announcement, The Huffington Post announced that its independent, nonprofit Investigative Fund would be joining with the Center for Public Integrity. The combined CPI staff of 50 will be the largest nonprofit newsroom in the country, and will have a guaranteed publishing platform on a dedicated channel in The Huffington Post.
"I’m delighted about this new partnership,” said Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post and chair of the Fund’s board. “Too often, important stories are only covered after things go bad, as happened with the war in Iraq and the economic crisis. We need more stories uncovered before disaster strikes. I believe this partnership will help with this great project of uncovering."
Is this the future of journalism? The questions remains whether news coming from a nonprofit source will rehabilitate the mainstream media's image as increasingly partisan. According to critics, the perceived or real bias comes not from excessive corporate fealty but from a pervasive liberal outlook of the writers and editors producing the content — I think "elite" is the preferred derogatory term.
But when traditional print outlets are having trouble finding innovative ways to produce content to compete with blogs and cable news — note the recent breakdown in merger talks between Newsweek and The Daily Beast — perhaps nonprofits are the answer.
After all, an informed populace is critical to a functioning democracy. Maybe the news is too important to be left to the bottom line.