News organizations are finding it increasingly difficult to turn a profit, thus making non-profit news an increasingly attractive solution. Jim Barnett has been studying and blogging about non-profit journalism for 5 years and he says new organizations are springing up left and right.
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. We all know how difficult a time newspapers are having, trying to turn a profit, so difficult, in fact, that many new journalistic enterprises are abandoning the for-profit model altogether. In 2005, a venture capitalist put up the money to launch the Voice of San Diego, a non-profit organization focused on local investigative reports. In 2007, MinnPost.com, also a non-profit, was founded to provide coverage of Minnesota. And then there’s ProPublica, which set out in 2008, with the help of tens of millions of dollars in grant money, to do local and national investigative reporting, sometimes teaming up with the likes of 60 Minutes, The New York Times, CNN, and even our producing station, WNYC. A slightly different model is coming from long-established non-profit groups that are starting their very own news organizations, like the Kaiser Family Foundation. In 2007, it launched Kaiser Health News, its own news service devoted to health care issues, yielding articles that have been reprinted in The Washington Post and elsewhere. After a 20-year career as a newspaper reporter, Jim Barnett has made a beat out of covering all these non-profit news organizations. It started five years ago when he was working in the D.C. bureau of The Oregonian and felt like the bureau’s days might be numbered, so he left the newspaper and set out to learn all he could about the non-profit world. And he blogs about it for the Nieman Media Lab. Jim, welcome to the show.
JIM BARNETT: Thanks, glad to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: You've written that in the non-profit model that good journalism alone won't do the trick. What else do we need, if not just good journalism?
JIM BARNETT: The ones who are succeeding, who are being recognized, these are non-profits that have developed a deeper relationship with their readers and have succeeded in converting readers into donors. They see it as a two-way conversation, and they like to host events for their readers. They interact with their readers, which is not something that comes naturally to newspapers. But beyond that, I really think that the ones that are going to succeed for the very long haul are going to have a smart business plan, strategies that include membership development, much like a lot of the local public radio stations, pursuit of corporate sponsorships, and also pursuit of advertising dollars, as well, you know, perhaps even developing some for-profit subsidiaries that can help supplement revenue just like a for-profit would, in a lot of ways.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's talk about interest groups being the benefactors of a news organization. You've written about the Kaiser Family Foundation which, they were worried about health and medical reporters taking buyouts and otherwise losing their jobs from major news organizations. They started hiring them themselves. By what means does the reporting get to the world?
JIM BARNETT: Largely online. They have their website and an email service, as well. What they have produced has been a lot of really solid data that are cited in news reports, as well as some analysis of some very difficult topics. One emblem of the fact that this is seen as equal to newspaper journalism is that a lot of their coverage is now picked up by newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, let's just say Kaiser, in particular, is pure, and it has no agenda that it is going to pursue at the expense of objectivity or truth or balance or what have you. And, you know, maybe we can say the same about Human Rights Watch but maybe not because, after all, it is an advocacy organization. But I'm willing to bet that we couldn't expect an evenhanded treatment from a labor union like the AFL-CIO if it decided to start funding journalism. Is this not a slippery slope?
JIM BARNETT: It’s a very good point, because I think a lot of advocacy organizations are looking around and saying, hey, wait a minute, why not us. And one criticism of the foundation model is that you create a whole new universe of sacred cows, that if you’re focused on one particular area you may be blind to other areas that need to be covered. And that’s what a newspaper does very well, by being broad in its coverage. And one of the things that I think that needs to be decided is what does separate a news organization from an advocacy organization, and how thick must that firewall be? This is something that journalists really should decide and should talk about right now going forward because if we don't the question will be decided for us. And I'm speaking here as a journalist.
BOB GARFIELD: One final thing: When you mentioned to your colleagues that you were leaving The Oregonian and were going to start looking into non-profit journalism, I imagine you got some funny looks from friends who probably thought you were a little unhinged. I guess nobody thinks you’re unhinged anymore.
JIM BARNETT: [LAUGHS] They did sort of scratch their heads and say, you know, gosh, you know, Jim’s a pretty dedicated journalist, why is he getting out? But I think more importantly what I have seen is the seismic shift within the population of journalists that I know. Even up ‘til two years ago people saw newspapers, serious reporters saw newspapers as their ultimate destination. Now, that’s no longer the case. People recognize that there may be an answer here, not the answer, but an answer. And so, I think that’s what has been the sea change in the last year.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Jim, thank you so much.
JIM BARNETT: You’re welcome. Glad to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Jim Barnett is a former reporter for The Oregonian. He blogs now at Nieman Journalism Lab.