Nonprofit journalism: A model that’s here to stay — and spread

byAshley Nguyen
Mar 26, 2015 in Media Entrepreneurship

Internationally, nonprofit journalism continues to gradually expand and grow.

Direkt36 in Hungary launched earlier this year. A team of Brazilian journalists run Agência Pública in São Paulo. Sheila Coronel founded the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

There’s also the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London. The list goes on.

Nonprofit journalism isn’t new to the United States. (The Associated Press, established in 1846, is a nonprofit.) There are around 100 nonprofit journalism outlets in the U.S.

At a recent event hosted by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and OpenGov Hub, panelists debated whether the U.S. nonprofit journalism model should be exported elsewhere.

Newer nonprofit journalism initiatives outside the U.S. often look to ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) as models to replicate in other countries. CIMA Senior Director Mark Nelson said using successful nonprofit templates may be useful in countries that “are having difficulties establishing sustainable, independent media."

“The media is either being captured by governments or by private-sector players who are trying to influence the government,” Nelson said. “It means a lot of countries do not have the kind of important independent voices in order to stimulate development and create possibilities for improving their lives.”

During the panel, Nelson, ProPublica President Dick Tofel, CPI founder Charles Lewis and former Wall Street Journal reporter and author Tim Carrington discussed the past, present and future of nonprofit journalism. Here are some takeaways:

The right timing

At a CUNY Graduate School of Journalism event, Tofel sat in on a session about what makes startups successful. It’s not leadership or concept, Tofel recalled, it’s timing.

When Paul Steiger founded ProPublica in 2007, there was a significant business crisis of the press, and ProPublica filled an increasing gap in investigative journalism at the opportune time.

“Certain kinds of journalism [had] been subsidized in the old traditional model by the enormous profits that were swirling around everywhere,” said Tofel, ProPublica’s founding general manager and current president. “When those profits — particularly around 2005 — began to recede ... those things stopped getting subsidized."

“What brought most people into nonprofit journalism was that the money wasn’t there to sustain investigative reporting or international reporting for an American audience."

Find the right funders

For various reasons, nonprofit journalism has succeeded in the U.S., but Lewis, who started the CPI in 1989, said it only works with the support of individuals who recognize the importance of information.

“Most of the funding has not come from media organizations,” Lewis noted. “Most funding comes from other foundations who realize if you don’t have information you don’t have community; if you don’t have community, you may have some issues with this thing called democracy.”

Lewis acknowledged that tax laws outside the U.S. are less beneficial for people who want to support nonprofit journalism initiatives, but he urges fellow journalists to seek alternatives.

“When my overseas journalist friends say they have a problem with their tax laws, I say, ‘Gosh, so I guess you don’t have any wealthy folks?’” Lewis said jokingly. “They reply they have many people, and I ask, ‘Do some of them like information?’”

His friends grudgingly answer yes.

“We need people philanthropically to give [ProPublica] money because we’ve tried every single other thing, and I don’t see anything producing meaningful results [for us], or frankly for anyone else,” Tofel later added.

Forge partnerships

Within the past year alone, The New York Times ran 38 of ProPublica's articles. The nonprofit journalism website continually partners with news organizations, including the The Washington PostThis American Life and NPR, to distribute content. In fact, ProPublica has a whole list of partners and allows anyone to republish its work under certain terms and conditions.

"Partnerships are good for getting things noticed," Tofel said.

To hear the entire discussion, watch the CIMA-produced video below.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Chris-Håvard Berge.