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July 7, 2009, 7 a.m.

Nonprofit news organizations form network but bring different priorities

An unprecedented meeting of nonprofit news outlets at the Rockefeller family’s estate in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., last week may lead to a nationwide network for investigative journalism. But establishing that network may require navigating tensions between established groups seeking to expand their reach and a new crop of local outfits still uncertain about their long-term prospects. 

Leading the former camp was Chuck Lewis, founder of the 20-year-old Center for Public Integrity, who favored a broad network of nonprofits that could produce joint investigations and establish itself as a major news brand. “This reflects a major shift in how journalism will be done in the 21st century, and that shift is from the word competition to the word collaboration,” said Brant Houston, former executive director of another stalwart, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and now a professor at the University of Illinois.

The Nonprofit Investigative News Network, as it’s being called, is the sort of ambitious, new project that typically appeals to funders like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which helped organize the Pocantico summit. But that raised red flags for some of the smaller nonprofits at the meeting. “It’s a valid concern to ask if it will take money away from the local members who participate in it,” Joel Kramer, the CEO and editor of MinnPost, said in a phone interview, describing one question he raised in Pocantico.
 
As Lewis recently observed, nearly half of the $128 million in foundation giving to news projects since 2005 has gone to three of the biggest players in nonprofit journalism: CPI, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and ProPublica. (That’s excluding public broadcasting.)

To be clear: Everyone I spoke to, from nonprofits large and small, was optimistic that the network could serve all of their interests. Survival of individual news outlets, through group financial strategizing and collaboration, appears to be the top priority. Kramer and several other attendees from local outlets said they came away confident that the network would help their businesses while requiring only a modest amount of funding to keep itself going. But establishing the network’s brand with a group investigative project will also be a central order of business.

Support network

Kramer and others who lead local nonprofit news sites said they were most interested in a support network that could assist in stabilizing their own finances. “If you’re going to rely on foundation money to keep you alive, you’re done for,” said Trent Seibert, who runs Texas Watchdog in Houston. “Right now, government transparency and nonprofit investigative journalism, it’s the flavor of the month. There’ll be another flavor of the month pretty soon.”

“I’ve been hearing about ‘the flavor of the month’ since 1989,” CPI’s Lewis told me when I asked about that concern. He said the need for a support network to secure the future of the smaller nonprofits was “extremely real,” but: “At the same time, no offense to anyone, that seemed to me by itself to be a somewhat solitary and shortsighted consideration.”

This tension between the needs of local startups and established national centers wasn’t readily apparent in the the flourishing rhetoric of the Pocantico Declaration released by attendees on Wednesday. A steering committee formed by the declaration is charged to “seek and obtain sufficient grant funding to develop a plan for sustaining and strengthening nonprofit investigative journalism.” A conference call was scheduled for Monday to discuss the next steps, according to Houston, who’s on the committee.

Back-office collaborations

Several network members from small, local nonprofits emphasized that the network, however helpful, was not going to change their need to actively pursue funding. “I view it more as a safety net than as an entitlement program,” said Andy Hall, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

The network’s back-office collaborations may include teaming up for payroll and accounting, health care, libel insurance, web development, or legal and other services, as well as creating common templates for time-consuming documents like a memorandum of understanding. The collaborations, in addition to aiding exisiting news sites, could make it easier for startups to enter the field.

“We get a call a day, maybe a little bit less, from somebody, a journalist, somebody across the country that wants to know how to form something like this,” said Scott Lewis, CEO of Voice of San Diego, which launched in 2005. “We’ve gotten to the point where we have trouble responding to emails on this, there’s so many of them.”

In joining the network, said Lewis, who is now part of the steering committee, “One of my goals was to provide a place for these people to come and learn and figure out if [launching a nonprofit news site] is possible in their region.”

ProPublica demurs

Perhaps the highest-profile nonprofit in investigative journalism, ProPublica, chose not to attend the Pocantico conference and won’t be joining the network. “It doesn’t fit in with everything we’re trying to accomplish,” ProPublica communications director Mike Webb told me. He added: “It was basically a decision made because of time. We wanted to focus on building our own news organization.”

Webb said ProPublica was open to sharing content and software and conducting joint investigations with members of the new network. “We’ve made several offers to do things to help, and we think it’s a great thing,” Webb said.

Image of the Pocantico Conference Center by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

POSTED     July 7, 2009, 7 a.m.
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