United States Project

Alt-weeklies look for lifeline from nonprofits

July 7, 2017
Image via Pixabay

JULIE ANN GRIMM was at an annual convention of alternative news organizations last year when it struck her: Why not start a nonprofit?

Grimm had just been named publisher of the Santa Fe Reporter, the self-described “scrappy” alternative weekly paper that she had edited since 2013. And she was already thinking about ways to do more and better journalism with a small staff and a tight budget when she heard Chris Faraone talk about creating the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. (Faraone wrote about his project for CJR back in 2013.)

This summer, Grimm launched the New Mexico Fund for Public Interest Journalism, whose goal is to produce longform stories on topics of social justice and environmental, economic and community health.

More than half of commercial media organizations are collaborating in some way with nonprofit community organizations, foundations or news outlets, according to a 2016 survey by the American Press Institute. Since the 2016 election, nonprofit groups like the Center for Public Integrity, the Marshall Project and ProPublica have seen donations balloon.

Meanwhile, many alternative papers (and websites) are fighting harder than ever for a share of dwindling ad budgets and battling more established daily papers that have bigger staffs. Weeklies remain committed to time-consuming longform journalism in an era of push notifications and listicles. The ascent of nonprofit journalism has inspired several alternative weeklies to explore new streams of revenue to fund ambitious, innovative reporting projects.


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“BASICALLY, I WANTED TO create a miniature ProPublica, a collaborative, free-floating incubator that would be a Make-A-Wish Foundation for all of these news outlets to help them do what they couldn’t afford to do,” says Faraone, who is also the contagiously enthusiastic editor and co-publisher of the alt-weekly DigBoston.

Faraone’s model is simple: pay freelancers to produce news stories and columns that are distributed through independent, ethnic, alternative and community news outlets.

For example, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (they call it BINJ) paid a reporter to spend months investigating the inequities of the liquor license system in Boston. The result was two-part, 5,000-word deep dive that ran in DigBoston but also in the state’s largest Spanish language paper, El Planeta. Then BINJ created localized sidebars tailored to small community papers.

We’ve done everything from concerts to comedy shows. It’s really about throwing shit at the wall.

Some of the funding for the project came from a nonprofit community development organization that had lobbied for fairness in liquor licenses so that minority restaurant owners could have a better shot at them. The stories incorporated some data the development group, Epicenter Community, had gathered from liquor license hearings. After they were published, BINJ co-hosted a public discussion of the topic with representatives from Epicenter.

“They sponsored the event for $5,000 and we wear that on our sleeves,” Faraone says. He’s perfectly comfortable taking money from groups that have a direct interest in the coverage, and he insists that transparency removes any odor of impropriety. Of course the topics tend to fit with the progressive perspective of alternative news media, and the advocacy groups they work with are largely liberal, too.

Faraone has been very willing to experiment with ways to raise money. “We have like 20 different streams of revenue,” he says. “We’ve done everything from concerts to comedy shows. It’s really about throwing shit at the wall.”

BINJ also brings in cash from sponsorships and from subscriptions on Medium, but the bulk of its early funding has been from foundations. For Faraone, that’s the stuff that sticks.


Thinking Big in Little Rock

ATTRACTING FOUNDATION MONEY was also a lure for the editor of the Arkansas Times, Lindsey Millar. In order to do the kind of journalism his community needed, Millar realized, his free paper would have to raise more money than it could bring in with advertising alone.  

“Like any small news team we struggle to do the kind of public service, deep investigative work that everybody wants to do,” Millar says. “This came to a head several years ago when there was a big oil spill down the road from us. There were all sorts of stories that required a lot of time and being on the scene, and we didn’t have the resources to do it.”

For it to work, you had to know that Ark Times wasn’t bringing in a lot of money, that we really needed the money to do the work.

His solution was to partner with an environmental nonprofit. Through crowdfunding and a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, the Arkansas Times and its nonprofit partner raised about $36,000—enough to bring an Inside Climate News reporter to Arkansas.

“The journalism that we put out was really strong and well-received,” Millar says. “I was like, ‘Damn! This needs to be part of our model!’”

Over the next three years, Millar raised about $90,000 for a variety of reporting projects. Because the Arkansas Times is a commercial enterprise, most of the money was routed to writers through local nonprofits.

Despite his fundraising success, Millar came to realize that its growth potential was limited. In order to attract bigger donors—who were less likely to be intimately familiar with the Times’ shoestring budget—Millar knew he needed to start a nonprofit.

“For it to work, you had to know that Ark Times wasn’t bringing in a lot of money, that we really needed the money to do the work. Once you got outside sympathetic donors, people just didn’t trust you,” he explains. “People were like, ‘I don’t understand. This is weird.’”

So Millar created the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network (ANNN), which raises money from foundations, grants and some advocacy groups to bring talented reporters from outside Arkansas to work intensively on stories that “move the needle.” His next project is a year-long series written by a former Arkansas Times reporter, who came back to the state to spend 10 days of concentrated reporting that he will flesh out from afar over the coming months.

Those stories will be distributed free to newspapers, TV stations and other partners throughout the state. And every ANNN cover story the Arkansas Times runs frees up staff writers to focus on their regular beats, pumping more content into the pipeline.


Santa Fe Style

THIS IS THE SAME resource problem faced by Julie Ann Grimm in Santa Fe, and by many other alternative weekly newspapers who have struggled in the era of digital disruption. The Santa Fe Reporter has two staff writers who cover local news and write weekly cover stories that stretch to 4,000 words—which doesn’t leave Grimm much flexibility to divert them to other long-term projects.

The Reporter is part of a small chain of alt-weeklies that includes Willamette Week, which last year launched its own WW Fund for Investigative Journalism with the Tides Foundation. Grimm has studied the WW Fund and other like-minded projects and adopted some of their plans and goals, tailored to Santa Fe’s unique environment. It’s a small city with a population divided between the very rich and the very poor.

“When I heard about these nonprofit models, it got my wheels turning about how many people there are in Santa Fe who value philanthropy and believe you need to support things you believe in,” she says.

One of the areas she wants to focus on is criminal justice, a topic that her audience is interested in, but one that requires a significant investment of time and effort, particularly when wresting public records from law enforcement agencies.

People think of a nonprofit as having a charitable purpose, a public service. Well, journalism has always been a public service.

For example: Grimm wants to hire reporters on contract to look at police response times, do a data analysis and write about the consequences for residents. Such a story would run first in the Reporter, but also be offered free to other outlets. She hasn’t raised much money so far but she is negotiating partnerships with news organizations that can magnify the reach of those stories, including talks with the NPR and PBS affiliates.

Part of Grimm’s intention is to make sure that the work produced by the nonprofit is seen by people who may not ordinarily seek it out.

“We are a free newspaper and website and we want to make sure that the journalism produced by the Fund crosses the technology divide, so it doesn’t just reach people online, but people here who see the paper while they’re waiting for the bus to go to work,” she says.

If the nonprofit is successful, in Grimm’s view, it would have a steady funding stream that could support a permanent project editor, endowed positions to cover specific beats and stipends for college interns. It could also help pay to fight for access to public records. (The Reporter just finished a trial in its press freedom lawsuit against the governor.)

The New Mexico Fund for Public Interest Journalism had a slow, soft launch. Grimm says she’s OK with that.

“We’re trying to be humble and be reasonable,” she says. “I’ve been advised to think bigger, but it’s hard to know how people will respond.”

Grimm has faced questions about why a commercial paper would try to raise money for journalism by creating a nonprofit. And she has a ready response. “People think of a nonprofit as having a charitable purpose, a public service. Well, journalism has always been a public service,” she says. “You could argue that every bit of journalism we do has a charitable purpose.”

Gwyneth Doland is a multimedia journalist covering news, politics and culture in New Mexico. A former executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, she is the author of the 2012 and 2015 State Integrity reports for the Center for Public Integrity. She teaches writing, media law and ethics at the University of New Mexico.