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March 11, 2010, 10 a.m.

What makes a nonprofit news org legit? Three other questions to separate journalism from advocacy

Last week, Jim Barnett raised a question about nonprofit journalism: What makes it legit? How do we know if a nonprofit news outlet shares the ideals and culture of traditional journalism, and how can we make sure we don’t get fooled by advocacy groups disguised as objective journalists?

It’s a difficult question — the Internet makes publishing wide open to everyone — and at the end of his post, Barnett lays out a list of what he thinks we should use as a starting point when deciding what is and isn’t a legit nonprofit news outlet. He lists various IRS and accounting standards, a number of vague measures of professionalism, and what I’d consider an unfair standard, whether an organization is credentialed by federal or state government.

This is one place where Barnett and I disagree. Before coming to the Lab, I used to edit a nonprofit news site, The Washington Independent, where for two years I dealt with the reality of who gets considered “legit.” If you’re not, you lose out on the privileges given to traditional media outlets. Take Congressional press passes: The Washington Independent was denied admittance to both the daily and periodicals galleries because the site was not chiefly supported by subscriptions or advertising. (Our support came from donors and foundation grants.)

The Independent’s reporters are resourceful, but not having that credential sometimes put stories out of reach. When Republicans released their alternative budget in a credential-required portion of the Capitol, we didn’t get to attend. We were shut out of an event where we would have had access to ask lawmakers direct questions. Congressional credentials are the toughest to get in Washington (compared to White House credentials, or campaign plane credentials, for example) and as such are sometimes used by other groups as the standard for access. For example, when Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at the American Enterprise Institute in 2008, our reporters were not allowed to attend because they didn’t have a Congressional credential.

Legitimacy is a tough word when it comes to journalism; here I’m using it just to refer to the limited set of privileges that come with an external journalistic seal-of-approval. (Legitimate reporting can come from outlets without that seal of approval, of course, and illegitimate work can come from the biggest names in the business.) But as far as organizational legitimacy goes, I’d argue that instead of looking at a nonprofit’s structure, or vague markers of professionalism, we should think about criteria that more directly capture what a nonprofit news outlet should be.

I thought about what I thought made the Independent trustworthy, and what distinguished us from other journalism-like nonprofits that were more like advocacy groups — the ones who might use their access to lawmakers for lobbying. I came up with three questions I think distinguish a nonprofit as a legit news organization:

1. Does the nonprofit create original news or commentary on a regular schedule?

2. Does it directly reach an audience (or does it fuel news outlets)?

3. Does it spend its money on and dedicate the bulk of its resources to journalism?

Producing news

Does your organization produce news and/or commentary daily, weekly, monthly, or in some other regular interval? It’s a simple criteria that weeds out nonprofits that sporadically put out reports. It also excludes transparency groups, many of which do excellent work, but are not in themselves journalists. (To help clarify this point, imagine that instead of transparency, these groups were focused on any other topic. A searchable database is useful and interesting, particularly to journalists. However, providing access to information is not the same as producing news and commentary. It’s a service or a tool provided to allow journalists to build narratives, which is part of a broader strategy of using the media to advance their cause.)

Directly reaching an audience

I struggled to think of how to sift out a phenomenon Mark Bowden took on in The Atlantic last fall: the rise of opposition research disguised as journalism. Oppo-research has been around forever; campaigns leak dirt on the other side to reporters hungry for a quick, easy scoop every cycle. But as Bowden points out in the instance of Sonia Sotomayor, within hours of the announcement of her nomination, videos of her “wise Latina” comment were all over TV news and the Internet. Opposition research wasn’t just behind the story: It was the story. However, the Judicial Confirmation Network doesn’t reach an audience on its own. They function to fuel news organizations and influence coverage; they aren’t a news organization themselves.

I’d distinguish nonprofits like ProPublica and Center for Public Integrity from nonprofits with no direct audience. Both of these groups have established partnerships with other media to reach an audience. A public content agreement is different than leaking a salacious tidbit. And of course having a website with a loyal readership counts, too.

Putting your money where the journalism is

I borrowed this third question from my old boss and publisher of the Independent, David Bennahum. Our efforts to get Senate press credentials were denied because of our funding model of foundation grants and individual donations. Bennahum came up with the interesting idea that perhaps the gallery could look at how an organization’s money is spent, rather than how it is raised. If you’re an advocacy group with a magazine, your tax records will demonstrate that the bulk of your money is going to things other than reporter salaries or other news costs. If you’re a nonprofit dedicated to news, your spending will reflect that.

There are plenty of other questions to ask in thinking about a nonprofits legitimacy, but I think these get the conversation started. What do you think?

Photo by John Abell used under Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 11, 2010, 10 a.m.
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