Navigating non-profit news

My adventures in non-profit news began in the late ’70s, when I became a regular contributor to Morning Edition and a co-host of the weekly NPR foreign affairs show Communique. I flew to New York once a week to read foreign affairs commentary for a local WNET news show, at $100 a piece, plus shuttle airfare of $18 each way.

In 1997, I founded PublicAffairs books—a for-profit (I like the term “seeking profit”) venture with a non-profit sensibility. Our audience was a cross-over between NPR, PBS, C-Span, and national print publications like The Atlantic and The New Yorker. In 2006, I started the Caravan Project, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, enabling small and non-profit publishers to learn how to make digital books and audio. And for six years I was the admiring vice-chairman to the great Victor Navasky at CJR.

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In 2009, challenged by a friend from Chicago to do something about the deteriorating local news scene there, I helped launch the Chicago News Cooperative, which was run by Jim O’Shea, former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and editor of the Los Angeles Times. A website was developed, and CNC agreed to supply The New York Times with four pages a week of Chicago-area news for editions printed there. The enterprise, which raised about $4 million, lasted until Michael Ferro (later chairman of Tronc) abandoned the non-profit concept for a costly venture that started with buying the Chicago Sun-Times and ended up losing his investors about $80 million, according to a story in Crain’s Chicago Business in 2017.

At CJR, we tried what we called Encore Fellows, who were established journalists no longer working at their organizations and paid to write for the magazine with a grant from The Atlantic Foundation program for “aging.” It was a good idea, hobbled in my view by CJR calling them “downsized journalists.”

Without a significant early commitment, no matter how estimable you may think the idea is, it is very hard to break through.

Though Encore only lasted a year, the concept stayed with me, of recognizing the legions of experienced news people who were being laid off or taking buyouts and still very much interested in staying in the field. Over several years, I took the plan to three different university journalism programs for a partnership. Everyone liked the idea, but it never got past the proposal stage because we had no lead benefactor.

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Throughout all of this, I have learned some lessons about navigating through non-profit news, the fastest-growing slice of an otherwise-dismal news landscape. Here are a few:

 

What Works

  • A benefactor is key. Three of journalism’s most successful enterprises had a single backer that provided a significant amount of money—for instance, the Sandler family and ProPublica. The Marshall Project and The Texas Tribune were clearly enhanced by the contributions of Neil Barsky and John Thornton, respectively.
  • The benefactor needs a skilled newsroom partner. At ProPublica there was Paul Steiger, the ex-managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and Richard Tofel, his Journal partner and a lawyer with brains, news judgment, and business savvy. Neil Barsky hired Bill Keller, the former editor of The New York Times, and later Carroll Bogert, whose background in journalism and non-profit communications was doubly valuable, as president. The Texas Tribune hired Evan Smith from Texas Monthly. His charisma enabled a Texas-sized behemoth to take shape with events and data collection that made the coffers whole.
  • Visibility is critical. ProPublica and Marshall quickly established their bona fides by partnering with other news organizations. That doubtless had some financial benefit, but more importantly made their stories visible in respected places like the Times and The New Yorker. This is supposed to be the age of digital-first, but my sense is that appearing in print still carries more cachet than a pixel presence. When I discussed Encore with funders, they always asked, “Where will the stories appear?” A self-branded website was not enough.
  • Funders want a timeline. They won’t keep paying if the enterprise cannot raise its own money. With advertising so much less a factor supporting news, there is a need for subscribers, memberships, paywalls, events, and specialized products. A budget for out-years is essential.

Without a way to support your efforts, no matter how good, you will eventually fold. In the past, newsrooms left the business side to others. Today, collaboration and mutual respect for different functions is essential. This can be as risky to maintaining standards and values as it is necessary.

  • Curate a meaningful board. You need a mix of people with multiple strengths. There needs to be a “give-or-get” mentality when it comes to money and enough understanding of the journalism to keep it going.

 

What Doesn’t

  • Starting from scratch. What I call “standing on the street with a roll of quarters” is exceptionally hard. That was the case with the Encore initiatives. Without a significant early commitment, no matter how estimable you may think the idea is, it is very hard to break through. Those massive university funding campaigns always go through a quiet phase with announcement of the drive held back until the process is financially well along.
  • Beware the perils of bureaucracy. You need an institutional affiliation of some kind to get 501(c)(3) status. You need people to manage administration and finance. Working with the largest institutions—universities, for example—inevitably means being embedded in what are arduous discussions on systems and regulations. These are not necessarily malevolent, but they are cumbersome enough to be discouraging. A better option is #1 above: having enough money to create your own management structure or pay someone to do it for you.
  • Substituting clicks for quality and clarity. Because the number of readers is now essential to establishing a financial base, the temptation to go for the sensational is very strong. That tends to be like too much fast food. It makes you fat and feels hollow.

We are still in an early stage of the rebuilding of newsgathering. For the first time we are all editors in chief, choosing to design our own media portfolios. That is a magnificent opportunity, and a great responsibility to make the right choices.

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Peter Osnos is the founder of PublicAffairs books, and has been in journalism and publishing since the 1960s. His first article in CJR was published in 1977.