Can Nonprofit News Rescue Environmental Journalism?

March 1, 2015

Special Report



It was a damning epithet in the early 1980s, with anti-Castro groups regularly in the headlines and Cuban-Americans increasingly pulling the levers of power in Miami. And it was aimed at… the Associated Press.

The epithet-hurler was a curmudgeon named Frank Eidge, the legendary newsman and wordsmith par excellence at the Miami bureau of United Press International, then a predominant news service.I was a kid just out of college who Frank often oversaw as we covered mass murders, refugees, drug busts, hijackings and all manner of stories that ended up on the national wire.

UPI was (and remains) a for-profit operation. Our competitors at the Associated Press, on the other hand, worked for an organization that was (and remains) a cooperative. In otherwords, a nonprofit.

I would go on to serve for-profit newspapers, all the while embracing my mentor’s pride about working at a place that never had to ask for a handout. How smug I was.

After the decades I spent producing in-depth coverage of the environment, energy and related topics in for-profit journalism, for-profit journalism left me. My last stop, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, went online-only and in 2009 showed 90 percent of its staff to the door.

By then the news industry was in meltdown. Something like $4 billion disappeared from American newspaper payrolls between 2007 and 2013.

So I joined a burgeoning nonprofit news movement that is held up today by some as the savior of in-depth reportage on issues crucial to democracy. But it is also decried by others as a distraction from the important work of making the market again pay for the civic good we call journalism. And the funding troubles at one promising venture, Environmental Health News, have sounded a cautionary note.

Both proponents and critics of nonprofit journalism have some valid points. Let’s take a look at where we are headed.

Oh, and I should note that in doing the research for this story I found out that my mentor Frank Eidge was demonstrably wrong about the AP.

Movement grows – no communists here, though

It turns out that AP was founded in 1846, nearly two years before Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published “The Communist Manifesto.” Even more tellingly, the AP was an outgrowth of decidedly capitalist New York newspaper barons who employed Pony Express riders to quickly bring back news of the Mexican-American War. That morphed into the AP.

The next major entry into nonprofit journalism I’ve been able to find is the National Geographic magazine in 1888, followed by The Christian Science Monitor in 1908, Foreign Affairs magazine in 1922 and Consumer Reports in 1936.

The anti-establishment atmosphere of the late 1960s and early 1970s spawned PBS and NPR, Mother Jones and High Country News, The Chicago Reporter and, in New York, City Limits (and this list is by no means comprehensive).

In the aftermath of Watergate, the Center for Investigative Reporting arose in the Bay Area. And an eastern counterpart came online in 1989 in the form of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. Others continued to fuel the movement, notably Seattle-based Grist in 1999 and the Voice of San Diego six years later.

But this really became a full-fledged national movement when the Great Recession combined with the increasingly broken advertising model to shred the budgets of newspapers – especially the big ones, the metro dailies that traditionally did so much of the in-depth reporting.

By the time a young, just-promoted executive from the Hearst Corp.’s shiny new $500 million headquarters in midtown Manhattan walked into the Seattle P-I’s rented quarters (where trains passing just next door made the building tremble) in 2009 to say the paper was “for sale,” many journalists nationwide were beginning to realize something.

The slow and sometimes not-so-slow death of newspapers was steadily wiping out what Alex Jones of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press calls the “iron core” of journalism.

New rise of nonprofits seeks to sustain investigative journalism

Jones is talking about the serious news, from what happened at the local zoning board up to piercing investigations that topple governments, and so much in between.

It’s the stuff that The Daily Miracle used to support with revenue from a mass circulation-model that worked because it was paired with comics and sports and recipes and ads for groceries, real estate and cars.

“Traditional journalists have long believed that this form of fact-based accountability news is the essential food supply of democracy and that without enough of this healthy nourishment, democracy will weaken, sicken, or even fail,” Jones wrote in a compelling excerpt of his 2009 book “Losing the News.”

Jones continues:

“It is the nation's newspapers that provide the vast majority of iron core news. My own estimate is that 85 percent of professionally reported accountability news comes from newspapers, but I have heard guesses from credible sources that go as high as 95 percent. While people may think they get their news from television or the Web, when it comes to this kind of news, it is almost always newspapers that have done the actual reporting. Everything else is usually just a delivery system… .”

By the time I became a serious student of nonprofit news in 2009, several new organizations were on the rise, among them ProPublica and, in the Twin Cities, MinnPost, both early advisors to InvestigateWest, the organization I now direct.

In rapid succession amid the bust, more than a dozen nonprofit news startups were birthed alongside InvestigateWest. A few months after InvestigateWest first rented an office on April Fool’sDay of 2009, we sent co-founder Daniel Lathrop to a gathering of nearly two dozen nonprofit news organizations, old and new, who issued the Pocantico Declaration, which said in part:

“We, representatives of nonprofit news organizations, gather at a time when investigative reporting, so crucial to a functioning democracy, is under threat. There is an urgent need to nourish and sustain the emerging investigative journalism ecosystem to better serve the public.”

Fast-forward six years.

The Investigative News Network, a clearinghouse and advocacy organization for the nonprofit news movement, grew out of the Pocantico Declaration. Headquartered in the Los Angeles area, INN today includes about 100 nonprofit news organizations, from behemoths like the Center for Investigative Reporting, with a newsroom of 40, to one-person operations.

In fact, so popular has the nonprofit model become that INN members include many shops that aren’t really doing investigative work. But to a one they exist to continue to provide that iron core of journalism. In recognition of the new reality that so much serious journalism is now under the nonprofit umbrella, the INN board is announcing that it is changing its name from the Investigative News Network to the Institute for Nonprofit News.

Sue Crump, here being greeted in the hospital by her daughter Chelsea, worked for 23 years as a chemotherapy unit pharmacist, mixing the toxic chemicals that save lives, before she herself succumbed to cancer, like many other former workers in chemotherapy. Their story, reported by InvestigateWest, was directly responsible for Washington becoming the first state in the nation to regulate chemotherapy drugs as a workplace hazard, and led to a law requiring the state cancer registry to record information about cancer patients' occupations.
                                                       Photo: © Paul Joseph Brown,

Long-term sustainability of new ventures in question

Many questions remain, though. The crucial one is whether these organizations are sustainable in the long run. Notwithstanding the longtime success of the likes of NPR and PBS (who now face their own funding challenges), it’s not clear how long the foundations that have provided the lion’s share of the startup cash for this movement will stay motivated enough to keep supporting it.

INN Executive Director Kevin Davis traces the decline of newspapers to before the days of the internet, when publicly traded corporations bought out family-owned operations with local roots and ties. But the internet didn’t help.

“On the commercial side is a barrage of technology changes, shifts in user behavior and a total dismantling of the business model that supported high-quality journalism in the commercial sector,” Davis said in an interview with SEJournal.

“Commercial media as a result has pulled back. They’re not pulling back on sports and entertainment. They’re pulling back on civic and environmental journalism and educational journalism.”

He acknowledges that funding challenges remain.

Perhaps the best recent example of that in the environmental journalism arena is the cutbacks announced late last year at Environmental Health News and The Daily Climate, both online news sites founded alongside the large crop of new nonprofit news sites – and ones I considered bright spots in this nonprofit movement.

They announced just before Thanksgiving that they would be laying off longtime enviro-reporter-extraordinaire Marla Cone, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, as editor of EHN, along with five others (Cone was later hired by National Geographic). And long-time former CNN editor Peter Dykstra, publisher of EHN and Daily Climate, went part-time and now oversees a weekend edition “featuring analysis, commentary and the week’s top news.”

This was especially disturbing because the whole operation is headed up by Pete Myers, the longtime former head of the W. Alton Jones Foundation before founding Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of both EHN and Daily Climate. I wondered: If a guy as well-connected in the philanthropic world as Pete Myers is struggling, what’s a former reporter like me to do?

I couldn’t find Myers on deadline but I did talk to Douglas Fischer, who is now director of both Daily Climate and EHN. Fischer, who serves on the SEJ board with me, told me that until the downsizing he had done little to no thinking about how the operation was funded.

“I was asleep for six years,” Fischer said.

The case for commercial news

Now it’s Fischer’s job to figure out how to fund it and run it.

“It was just getting to a place where it was unsustainable,” Fischer said. “Enterprise journalism as we were doing it was unfunded.We felt we had to pare back and now monetize our journalism to make it work. My job now is to go out there and find money for journalism.”

Yep. Mine, too. And it’s hard.

So if this movement is to truly provide an ever-increasing share of the “iron core” of journalism, who is going to pay for it? It’s an important question that those of us inside the movement are constantly exploring.

But some say philanthropists never should have supported the movement in the first place.

A leading critic of the nonprofit news movement is Jeff Jarvis at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, who is better known as founder – albeit a short-time resident – of Entertainment Weekly. He begged off an interview request, explaining he was out of the country.

But Jarvis explained his reasoning pretty well in a number of posts on his site. Here’s an example:

“On a trip to Silicon Valley with my new dean, Sarah Bartlett, I heard technology people express concern about the state of news. That is good of them, for they have had a role in the disruption of news — and I’m glad they have. Now they need to consider taking the fruits of their technology and the innovation, efficiency, productivity, profitability, and wealth it has created and turn some of it and their attention toward the good of society and perhaps, with it, journalism.

“But not as philanthropists. That was my plea to them. We in journalism need them to bring their innovation and investment to news, to teach us how to see and exploit new opportunities to improve news and sustain it.”

He is perhaps best known, however, for this Tweet:

“Every time a rich person gives to a news nonprofit, a journalism startup loses its wings.”

And Jarvis is far from the only thoughtful person to question the advisability of the nonprofit news movement.

Educating the public on where news comes from

They are making some valid points.

As a person who paired his journalism major with an economics minor, I pine for the time when the market provided this essential service to democracy, this “journalism for the common good,” the phrase we’ve adopted as InvestigateWest’s informal motto.

Even INN’s Davis admits that the challenges are manifold. For one thing, nonprofit news shops tend to be in the same major markets where decent for-profit operations hang on. Yet there is little coverage of the outback.

“How we serve underserved communities where the communities themselves are unable to serve these nonprofits is a problem we have yet to tackle,” he said. And yet, the for-profit sector never did that particularly well, either.

Davis, a veteran of for-profit media like me, remains optimistic because he says nonprofit journalism’s core values “are focused on civic ROI [return on investment] versus commercial ROI, which we think makes it viable for the long term.”

Above all the challenge is sustainability. Are Americans willing to pay for news that sustains democracy? Davis acknowledges that most people don’t put journalism in the same bucket as the opera, the homeless shelter and the animal-rescue operation.

“Most consumers of news – nonprofit news or otherwise – aren’t asking the question: Where is the news coming from? How does this news organization get funded and should I care?” he says. “So we have a lot of work to do on educating the public, educating people in the foundations and the philanthropy space, and carving out a niche for ourselves in the long term.”

Robert McClure is executive director of InvestigateWest, which is pioneering the concept of a journalism studio for the Pacific Northwest focused on the environment, public health and government accountability. He serves on the SEJ board of directors and as chairman of the editorial board of the SEJournal.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2015. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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