The Rise of the Non-Profit News Model

Last Updated Sep 27, 2009 11:09 AM EDT

There have been a lot of creative efforts to re-energize serious journalism lately, especially from the non-profit perspective, with the latest being a $5 million grant from a local philanthropist to set up a new Bay Area news bureau in San Francisco.

A group of former newspaper journalists and prominent citizens also intend to set up a non-profit "watchdog" site in Orange County, California, by the end of this year. To be named "The Voice of OC," this site is based on the five-year-old non-profit operation further south, "Voice of San Diego."
Other projects have been reportedly emerging in Chicago, Seattle, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. And there also is the recent expansion of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) with its state-wide California Watch. Not to mention the innovative Spot.us, among others too numerous to cite here.

It was almost a year and a half ago, here at Bnet Media, that we raised the key question underlying all of these non-profit ventures:

Does Non-Profit Media Have a Competitive Edge?
Unlike in the past, when those of us launching and running these types of organizations had to engage in a fierce, uphill struggle to educate funders and raise grants, these days philanthropists and other wealthy patrons clearly see the dire state of the traditional media industry, particularly local newspapers, and they are therefore much more likley to try and do something about it.

This represents a sea-change for journalism, particularly at the local level.

It is fascinating and heartening to see this develop. But, in order to succeed, the new media NPOs will need to make sure they commit themselves to fundamentally rethinking the way they go about covering their communities. The old ways of doing things will no longer cut it.

If anyone intends to rely on foundations or individual donors to simply re-invent the wheel of traditional newspapers, for example, they will not last long in today's changed media landscape. Rather, they will soon go the way of the newspapers.

The good news is that, thanks to blogging and social media like Twitter and Facebook, there are many ways to bring the community into the news-gathering process. Striking the right balance between "citizen journalism" and the professional variety will be one key to each new organization's success.

Another key will be to leverage technology to capture and display the multitude of documents that we journalists base our work in. One promising effort in this context is Document Cloud, which promises to "make original source documents easy to find, share, read and collaborate on, anywhere on the Web."

On Friday, Document Cloud announced that it has signed up 20 news and information organizations, including the Washington Post, MSNBC, The New Yorker, and CIR, to contribute documents and test out the concept when it launches by the end of this year.

Perhaps even more important to these ventures' success than citizen journalism and leveraging data will be facilitating readers urge to share their content. This may sound elemental, but sharing content is the most efficient way of attracting new users and building traffic.

People love to share content. Making it simple to do so means your initial base of readers will do the work of circulating your content via their social networks, thereby vastly expanding the number of eyeballs that see your content.

You need their Facebook Friends and Twitter Followers to become involved with your service, but trying to accomplish that in a traditional manner would be prohibitively expensive. Here, the acquisition cost can approach zero.

Finally, there must be, from the start, a plan for charging for content. This does not necessarily mean charging for news content, which won't work (yet), but a commitment to development a premium model of tools and services plus exclusive content to be ready when -- a year from now -- Google's micropayment platform for publishers is scheduled to be ready.

No paywalls at the start. That is not a good idea, to put it mildly. But recognizing that a new era of incremental charges for access to content is around the corner should get content executives thinking about how to position their service to take advantage of that critical future revenue stream.

In general, of course, establishing as diverse a set of revenue streams is a much more sustainable model than relying on one investor, or a handful of sources of funding.

If the NPOs just now getting off the ground recognize and execute against these new media "best practices," among others, they'll soon be on their way to serving their communities in ways traditional newspapers, even in their Golden Age, never did.

Disclosure: I co-founded of the Center for Investigative Reporting in 1977, and remain an active member of its board of directors.

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.