Nonprofit News and the Future of Journalism

The Pen & Pencil Club hosted a panel discussion called “Journalism Without Profit: Making News When the Market Fails”. Local journalists and experts discussed the growth of news nonprofits in America. What do these changes mean for journalism? Are these organizations sustainable? How do they affect reporting on underserved communities?


Panelists included:

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky: co-executive director of Resolve, a nonprofit, solutions-based collaboration of over 20 newsrooms in the Philadelphia area.

Ariella Cohen: managing editor of Plan Philly, a project of WHYY, and co-founder of the Lens, a nonprofit investigative newsroom in New Orleans.

Mariela Morales: an operations analyst at the Lenfest Institute. Before the Institute, she worked at The Aspen Institute and Cubanet, a nonprofit news organization that publishes work from independent journalists in Cuba.

Magda Konieczna: journalism professor at Temple University and author of Journalism Without Profit: Making News When the Market Fails.


Morales’ opening statement mostly cited this study by the Institute of Nonprofit News.

Until 10 years ago, nonprofit news was generally a footnote on the tax status of a few dozen investigative news outlets. Today, there are more than 200 nonprofit newsrooms and growing in the U.S.


Some of the most significant American journalism is coming from nonprofit newsrooms. Despite small size, these newsrooms produce quality journalism. In the Online Journalism Awards, half of the 2018 news finalists came from nonprofit newsrooms, an impressive share of the media industry. They increasingly win public support as well. In a one year-end fundraising campaign, NewsMatch 2017, the public donated $33 million to support nonprofit journalism, much of that from first-time supporters.


Konieczna told the group of local journalists that at the core (for the group that she studies) is “the idea that the business model for journalism is not exactly falling apart but a big problem.” The folks that Konieczna studied were either leaving commercial journalism or getting laid off from a commercial news operation and were trying to figure out how to continue doing the journalism they had always been doing but under a different business model. From 1989 through 2012, Konieczna said it seemed like “most people in the space were saying journalism works reasonably well; we just need a different business structure to figure out how to let it operate.”    


Cohen noted nonprofit journalism is not a sustainable answer; for-profit journalism isn’t either. “Organizations like Resolve provide a network of support so people can do interesting things from either vantage,” she said.    


In Friedman-Rudovsky’s mind, there is no distinction. “I don’t feel like the nonprofit newsrooms that are part of Broke in Philly are more gung-ho about the project or have a different reason for being at the table,” she said. “Everyone has their own unique reasons for being at the table. The silver lining is not just nonprofit news but everyone being willing to try something different in journalism. What we have been doing has not been working on the business end and ‘the relationship with community’ end.” With her Reentry project, Broke in Philly had no commercial TV stations as part of the group and they now do with NBC and Telemundo.   


Even if there isn’t a business imperative, some people realize it still may be good to do anyway. Friedman-Rudovsky thinks at some point the business model of local TV is going to drop out as well. “They can see that written in the stars and so are coming on board,” she said.  


Konieczna’s impression has been that this collaborative sharing behavior came from nonprofit news and now is common across all kinds of commercial media. When she was starting this project in 2009, there was a big collaboration in the city of Madison WI where she was living. Maybe 30 organizations got together to report on healthcare and the big local daily sat out. The editor said there was no direct benefit in it for them. It was surprising to Konieczna that he said that out loud.      


Friedman-Rudovsky said that we’re trained to be competitive with one another, to beat each other out for stories. “As the competition for advertising dollars has lowered, that has paved the way for a different conception of the other competition that we feel. I can see that shift from my perspective,” she added.


Cohen thinks there is not enough money to support journalism without some private sector business model. According to Friedman-Rudovsky, the most sustainable business model is going to have alternative revenue streams whether it is corporate underwriting, sponsored content, product development or membership. The whole array is going to be important, even for the sustainability of nonprofit news because there are only so many brands that are out there and there are only so many wealthy donors who want to support journalism.


“I think that the group of funders who are interested in journalism is only going to grow. A combination of the collapsing business model but also President Trump and his war against the free press–maybe to his dismay–is galvanizing a ton of support for solid media organizations,” she told the crowd.


There is a discussion happening now that if there is public funding for the ballet or billions of dollars going to dance and the arts, why shouldn’t that be going to the circulation of news and information?