The Rise of Nonprofit Journalism
by Alexis Grant '03
It’s totally in. All my friends are doing it. And I’m starting to wonder: should I join them?
I’m talking about nonprofit journalism.
Several of my reporter friends have transitioned from newspapers to nonprofits. One’s at the Texas Tribune , an online publication that focuses on public policy, politics and government. Another friend was lured by California Watch, an investigative team created this year by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
It's a solid alternative to the world of traditional media, much of which is struggling financially. “Even up until two years ago, serious reporters saw newspapers as their ultimate destination,” Jim Barnett, an expert on the nonprofit model, said in a radio interview. “Now that’s no longer the case. People recognize that there may be an answer here (in nonprofit journalism) – not thee answer, but an answer.”
A former reporter, Barnett’s studying nonprofit journalism for his master’s of public administration. If you don’t already read his blog, The Nonprofit Road, you should. He lays out the pros and cons of going nonprofit: it helps preserve journalism -- a public good -- but doesn't necessarily provide a long-term solution to the demise of newspapers; it may fund expensive investigative work, but not other parts of the paper; and, like all new ventures, some nonprofit startups will succeed, but more are likely to fail.
Some not-for-profit media organizations like The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio and the Associated Press have long proven the model works. But now that an increasing number of these outlets are cropping up – attracting some reporters who have lost their jobs with traditional media – critics are asking questions about this type of funding.
While leaders of nonprofits say they don't have financially-driven biases like for-profit media, critics counter that those hidden agendas have simply shifted according to the desires of funders. “Having just evicted the usual gatekeepers, how many readers are going to be eager to have philanthropists reset the news agenda?” asks Jack Shafer in a Slate column called Nonprofit journalism comes at a cost.
In an article entitled The trouble with nonprofit journalism, Jonathan Weber writes that “new (for-profit) business approaches will, ultimately, be a much better guarantor of quality journalism - and democracy - than sugar daddies." He poses this question: "How can a news organization properly go about its business when it’s constantly on bended knee looking for funders?"
There are, however, plenty of supporters who say nonprofit works – and will continue to work. Among them are the founders of several new startups (Barnett offers a list of startups on his site). Check out, for example, the rationale of the Texas Tribune. “Journalism in the public interest is too vital to a civilized society, to a functioning democracy, to be left to the vagaries of the free market,” its founders write. “Philanthropy must and will become a bigger part of the equation.”
So as I prepare to re-enter the workforce as a journalist, I ask myself: should I go nonprofit? In the end, the job market may help make that decision for me.
'03 is a journalist writing her first book, a travel memoir about
backpacking solo through Africa. Until May 2008, she was a reporter at