WASHINGTON, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA — When the American Independent News Network launched nearly six years ago as the Center for Independent Media, its goals were small. The nonprofit news organization was one of several that launched around the same time, including ProPublica, MinnPost.com, and Voice of San Diego, mostly in response to the ebbing fortunes of newspapers and a perceived shortage of investigative journalism. And while now its closest analogue of the three may be ProPublica, AINN started as primarily a local venture, first launching in Minnesota and Colorado before expanding to five more states and Washington, D.C. in later years, after declaring the early experiments a success.
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But with expansion came new costs and, as the economy floundered, fewer donations. On Tuesday, the network re-launched with just one remaining state site (Colorado) and a renewed focus (and slick redesign) of its national flagship AmericanIndependent.com. The re-launch follows the departure of AINN co-founder and former CEO David Bennahum, who left the organization in the fall of 2011 after shuttering most of the networks remaining state sites. The last of those sites other then the ongoing Colorado site, The Florida Independent, will cease publishing today. The recalibrated AINN’s goals will now be more similar to ProPublica, as the now two-site network will encourage other news organizations to use their material early and often, for free.
“I think readership is just being redefined,” says Hanaa Rifaey, AINN’s president and publisher, explaining the reasoning behind the strategy she and AINN’s leadership are betting on to ensure the organization’s survival. She says that traffic to AINN sites will be less a measure of success than how many eyeballs end up on AINN stories period, at their site or elsewhere. The new markers, Rifaey says, will be “if the stories are getting out there, if the people are learning what you’re learning about these issues.”
The network already has some partnerships in place, including with Ms. Magazine and the liberal news outlet Alternet. But even though AINN’s coverage skews similarly progressive (the networks CEO, Ari Rabin-Havt, is also the executive vice president of liberal press watchdog Media Matters and editor-in-chief Jeremy Schulman used to run that outlet’s investigations team) Rifaey says the network’s goal remains independently-minded watchdog news. The main difference now is that any story on state government will have to be justified by larger national implications. AINN will aim more directly at the national reader rather than its previous model of aiming at a local reader and working to get secondary, national traffic by reposting the story on The American Independent.
This past fall, the network marked its five-year anniversary, which makes it one of the elders in the online news media world. “It’s really a lifetime,” Rifaey says. She explains that the recent shift in distribution strategy will be accompanied by a renewed focus on quality, including longer posts that are more in the range of 2,000 to 3,000 words. Part of the strategy is to allow reporters to delve deeper into stories, but Rifaey says that it’s also about giving other outlets more journalism to chew on, all the better to get stories past the borders of AINN’s sites. “Maybe it gets picked up by Huffington Post or a larger outlet, or maybe it’s a more local outlet,” Rifaey says. “We’re just trying something different.”
This is a departure from much of AINN’s history, when the network tried to get as many eyeballs as possible to their own sites, concentrating on shorter posts geared toward ginning up page views. That strategy produced a number of web reporting stars, many from the now-defunct D.C. vertical, The Washington Independent. The site (which remains live as an archive) shut down in December 2010 and yet still claims some of AINN’s most widely-read stories, having been powered by a number of up-and-coming journalists, like Spencer Ackerman, Dave Weigel, and Annie Lowrey, among others.
On the state sites, meanwhile, the journalism never strayed much from some of AINN’s earliest stories, like a 2006 report in the Colorado Independent (then known as Colorado Confidential) that revealed that a prominent state Republican group might have played fast and loose with campaign finance laws. That report won a Society of Professional Journalists award for online breaking news. More recently, Andrew Restuccia’s series of stories on natural gas pipeline safety has also won SPJ awards. AINN’s reporters-which now number around a dozen-have done this while producing several stories a day, though for many of them, who have never worked at traditional print news organization, this isn’t as tall an order as it may seem. “We benefit from having a lot of younger reporters,” Rifaey says. Pay for reporters is scaled to where they work, but “competitive” with other media organizations, she says, declining to go into specifics.
After peaking in traffic and revenues in 2009 and 2010, the network has seen both numbers drop off considerably. Revenues were nearly cut in half in the fiscal year starting in May 2009, falling to $2.2 million from $4.1 million the prior year, according to the organization’s tax forms. The revenue decline continued between May 2010 and April of 2011, declines that Rifaey attributed in part to the slow economy. The network’s traffic also went downhill, peaking at an estimated 400,000 visitors a month in February 2010 before falling to around a tenth of that in March 2012, according to Quantcast. (Traffic at the Americanindependent.com, the network’s flagship, has leveled off to around 44,000 visitors a month, while traffic at other sites in the network has also been up and down.)
The network responded to the revenue and traffic drops by sinking into a months-long thought process that tried to map AINN’s long-term survival. That process–which in part led the group to change its name in January 2010–is still ongoing, but the instability is nothing new for the network, having previously gone through a round of layoffs in 2008, 2010, and 2011. And Rifaey says that AINN is hardly the first nonprofit news site to experience a drop off in donations. Even so, the site receives greater than 90 percent of its funding from contributions, and remains, like most nonprofits, heavily dependent on those returns. “Everybody’s trying to figure out what a more independent funding now would look like,” Rifaey says. “The entire nonprofit sector took a big hit … You learn to be more efficient.”
With all but one of the state sites gone, the goal now, Rifaey says, is to make the network’s reach truly national, while focusing nearly all of the company’s resources on the flagship, the better to increase AINN’s scope and to attract a potentially wider base of donors and advertisers. The latter, however, has historically been less of a focus for the network, and the ads AINN does sell come primarily through advertising networks, though some are also sold directly. “It tends to be that people come to us,” Rifaey says.
Whether AINN ultimately finds a sustainable model may be a telltale sign for other organizations trying to do much the same thing, even if some of those, like ProPublica, are, at the moment, better positioned for the future. Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s general manager, tells CJR that the site is approaching long-term health, now funded by a majority of individual donors, as opposed to institutional grants. Tofel also says that ProPublica isn’t necessarily interested in competing with, or beating, those, like AINN, who have similar approaches and missions. “We’re trying to build a field here. We’re trying to blaze something of a new path. We don’t want to be alone for this,” Tofel says.
Some neutral observers, meanwhile, have remained cautiously optimistic about the field’s future. “Nonprofit news media has been with us for a long time,” says Jack Shafer, a media columnist for Reuters. Shafer cites the continued strength of print nonprofits like Mother Jones (which has also focused heavily on its website in recent years).
“I suspect that the nonprofit newcomers will be with us for some time,” Shafer adds. But for AINN, that means residing in an uncomfortable middle ground, between being an elder statesman of online media and having to be the new kid on the block with legacy outlets. “We really just have to continue moving with the times,” Rifaey says.
CJR’s Guide to Online News Startups profiled now-defunct AINN state news sites The Iowa Independent and The Florida Independent in 2011 (those links direct to the profiles). The stories give a deeper sense of what AINN’s state-centered, bottom-up model looked like before its recent change in strategy.
The American Independent News Network Data
Name: The American Independent News Network
City: Washington, D.C.Erik Shilling is a reporter at The Record.