December 24, 2010

How non-profit journalism is changing the “news ecosystem”

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InvestigateWest’s stories on msnbc.com this week outlined how a super-toxic second generation of rat poisons is mysteriously seeping into the environment, and how the government took a generation to pass rules to keep these rodenticides out of the hands of young children. That might have remained a buried and unnoticed piece of history if not for a new movement sweeping America: nonprofit journalism. It’s an important force that is likely to become a key part of what folks are calling an evolving “news ecosystem” in this country.

This week’s pairing of the efforts of two nonprofit journalism entities with the for-profit msnbc.com is an example of the kind of experimentation that’s becoming common. I wrote the rat-poisons story for InvestigateWest, a nonprofit investigative journalism center focused on the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia that I helped to found in 2009.

The story idea and the assignment came from Marla Cone, editor at Environmental Health News, another nonprofit journalism center, whose mission is to advance public understanding about environmental health issues. Cone won many accolades as a longtime environmental reporter at the Los Angeles Times before joining EHN in 2008. (Her book “Silent Snow” documents the shockingly high levels of toxic contamination in the Arctic.)

Both entities are part of a new wave of journalism born of the chaotic decline we’ve seen in our nation’s newspapers and broadcast newsrooms. Nonprofit journalism centers are popping up all over the place. One of the best-known is ProPublica, which has its newsroom in a New York City office building, employs more than 30 top-notch journalists and enjoys substantial funding from large foundations.

More common are smaller groups such as InvestigateWest. We have three full-time staffers and a modest office in Seattle. Our financial support comes from small and medium-sized foundations. Importantly, we are also beginning to gather support from a growing number of individuals who want to see in-depth journalism survive the business-model crisis that saw American newspapers shed more than 35,000 jobs since 2007.

We are helping take up the slack, and we aim to do more.

InvestigateWest, unlike some journalism nonprofits, requires payment for our work. We charge prices on a sliding scale that make it affordable for news outlets big and small to purchase our stories. This helps spread news to a wider audience than would be typical of any given newspaper, website or broadcast outlet. (In the case of this week’s rat-poison package, Environmental Health News paid InvestigateWest and photographer Paul Joseph Brown a fee. Because of this, the story was distributed to msnbc.com at no charge. InvestigateWest contributed substantial extra time to reporting the story, which was possible because of our financial supporters. By drawing support from a large number of donors, as well as earning income, we are able to ensure editorial independence.)

Environmental Health News publishes its own work, such as a story this week on the toxic dangers of ski wax, and also provides a daily roundup of stories from around the globe. Both EHN and InvestigateWest meet high journalistic standards of non-advocacy.

Nonprofit journalism is far from new. In fact, one of the biggest news purveyors in the world, whose stories and broadcast copy you likely take in every day, is the Associated Press, a cooperative serving for-profit and nonprofit news outlets. The AP was launched in 1848. A few other examples emerged in the century that followed, with perhaps the most noteworthy being the Christian Science Monitor.

The tumult of the 1960s and ’70s helped spawn a mini-wave of such centers, including Mother Jones, High Country News, the Center for Investigative Reporting and, in the 1980s, the Center for Public Integrity.

Today, about 50 nonprofit journalism centers have banded together into the Investigative News Network. Together we are trying to eke out a living while figuring out how to recreate a business model that supports the journalism that is oxygen to our democracy.

That’s really what it’s all about: preserving editorial voices that can inform Americans and keep the powers-that-be honest. On InvestigateWest’s office wall we have a bumper sticker: “Democracy depends on journalism.” And our motto is: “Journalism for the common good.”

This new nonprofit journalism seeks to preserve and modernize the journalistic craft that has for generations shined a light into dark corners that many in government and private industry would rather keep hidden. It offers the citizenry in-depth treatment of important public-policy stories that would otherwise be overlooked entirely or dealt with in less detail.

I would be the last to hope that the days of for-profit news are gone; I worked in for-profit newsrooms for nearly three decades and I’m definitely rooting for the news outlets that remain. But I’m looking forward to a new era in which those voices are supplemented by a lot of non-profit journalism ventures as well. It’s what’s best for all of us.

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