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What makes a nonprofit news org “legit”? Here’s one six-fold path

Back in February, I posted an essay in this space posing the question: What makes a nonprofit news organization legitimate? It’s a question that nonprofits and their critics have been wrestling with for some time now. And as more nonprofits launch into the news business, having a good answer — one better than Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” — will be crucial to their survival as credible providers of news.

In that post, I raised the idea that journalism nonprofits could use something like a Good Housekeeping seal — a test of relatively simple, objective standards to which compliance could be demonstrated plainly. Not that checking boxes provides an iron-clad guarantee of anything. But like the Good Housekeeping seal, it would indicate in a public way that the nonprofit in question is making every effort to produce reporting that qualifies as journalism. I kicked off the conversation by suggesting some indicators that could be considered indicators of legitimacy, and the feedback I got helped guide my research in the months that followed.

One of the best comments came from NYU’s Jay Rosen. He took issue with some of the journalistic standards I suggested, such as whether a given nonprofit news organization adhered to the SPJ code of ethics or had been accepted into a major prize competition — “shortcuts,” he called them.

Then, in a follow-up email to me, Jay made a great suggestion: Try looking for steps that nonprofits can take if they want to be legitimate news providers (emphasis, Jay’s). That inspired me to look at nonprofits and journalism from a different perspective than I originally had planned.

A new checklist for legitimacy

This almost certainly was not Jay’s intention, but the first thing I did was ditch the idea of trying to evaluate journalism or practices within the editorial process. For example, I’d suggested the presence of an advisory board as one possible marker — but one newsroom’s advisory board may have teeth, while another’s might not. There’s no way to tell from the outside what impact, if any, that kind of structure or any other have on the final product. Plus, most criticism of nonprofit journalism goes to the question of funding — not reporting, writing, and editing. (You can read Jack Shafer’s September 2009 Slate piece here; it concludes that nonprofit journalism is compromised because it relies on “handouts” as its primary revenue source. And here is my rebuttal.) So I focused on the relationships between publishing entity and newsroom, and between publishing entity and readers.

That leap freed me to think about legitimacy in broader terms. I began looking beyond organizations that defined themselves as producers of journalism. All sorts of nonprofits are in the business of publishing as part of a mission to educate the public, and they also seek legitimacy as contributors to the broader news ecosystem. What might we learn from them?

I began my search for best practices by talking with some of the best minds in the business. Among those I consulted were The Washington Post’s Len Downie, Center for Public Integrity founder Chuck Lewis, John Yemma of the Christian Science Monitor, and Ron Schiller of NPR.

Then, armed with their wisdom, I looked closely at a dozen nonprofits that operate inside the news ecosystem — how they’re funded, what they disclose — and I kept coming back to two core questions: Does the nonprofit align its case for philanthropy with a journalistic mission, if not journalism itself? And does it make its funding and operations transparent to its stakeholders, including readers?

For each question, I found three common, easy-to-identify practices among nonprofits that aspired to be legitimate sources of news and information. I put them in the form of a checklist similar to the new IRS Form 990, which requires nonprofits to disclose whether they have certain governance practices in place.

The six practices

Here are the best practices I found:

Resource/mission alignment:
— The case for philanthropy is linked to editorial independence and objectivity.
— The organization solicits small donations and/or other forms of grassroots support.
— The organization’s board of directors operates on a volunteer basis.

Transparency of mission and operations:
— The organization’s financial statements are posted online.
— The organization’s major donors are named online.
— The organization has clear accountability measures for its publications.

Which nonprofits incorporate all six practices? Just a few. ProPublica was one. No surprise there; the organization was built to operate under a microscope. Given its high profile, ambition and achievement, it should set the pace.

But some of the other nonprofits that went six-for-six might not be the first you’d guess.

Another that employed all six practices was Human Rights Watch. It doesn’t try to do journalism, but its advocacy depends on producing work of the same — or, arguably, higher — journalistic quality. I recently found this comment from HRW associate director Carroll Bogert that explains how journalism fits the group’s mission and its case for philanthropy:

We’re hiring award-winning journalists and winning [W]ebbys for repackaging the material that our researchers collect all over the world. And we have more than 70 researchers — more than the NYTimes and the WashPost have foreign correspondents, put together. You can call it journalism, or you can call it something else, but we’re helping to keep the American public informed. And we ain’t making a profit.

The third six-for-six nonprofit was the Council on Foreign Relations, publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine. The organization is supported by 4,300 members from across the ideological spectrum, Chuck Hagel to Angelina Jolie. The group and its publications are more oriented toward opinion and analysis, but the debate is based on facts that a highly educated and diverse membership can agree on. As NBC news anchor Brian Williams says on a promotional video: “It’s a reference shelf of everything going on in the world.”

Unexpected winners

And here was another surprise: The American Red Cross, which often provides some of the first video and on-the-ground reporting from scenes of humanitarian crises such as the January earthquake in Haiti. The group rated five of six, but it came very close to meeting all six criteria. The one piece missing: It does not link its case for philanthropy to objective journalism. In its mission statement, however, the Red Cross commits itself to neutrality and impartiality — two primary tenets of journalism — in all its dealings with the public.

I spoke with media relations director Jonathan Aiken, who said that the Red Cross makes no attempt to present its work as journalism. But it uses the tools of journalism to provide information as a public service — its video feeds are regularly featured by major TV networks around the world — and as a means of making itself accountable to donors.

“If I’m a donor, I want to know that the $25 I sent is going to the people I saw on TV,” he said. “Your transparency becomes a real issue, and your handcuffs get tighter as to what you can do with your money.”

The Red Cross has made a deliberate move toward greater organizational transparency following accusations of mismanagement in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Aiken said. He believes that transparency can be a better indicator of legitimacy than advisory boards and mission statements of nonprofits that were organized specifically to produce journalism. “If I’m looking at an organization that is using journalistic tools, what I want to know, what is your point of view? What colors what I read or see or hear?” said Aiken, formerly of CNN.

Despite such examples, some leaders within the nonprofit sector of journalism rejected the idea that news organizations can be judged by any standards other than those of journalism.

Perhaps the most emphatic of those was Dick Tofel, general manager of ProPublica.

In an interview, Tofel said he believes it is very difficult for an advocacy organization to maintain a truly independent newsroom because of the conflicts that inevitably would emerge. “Eventually it would publish something that would say that the people who are pursuing the organizational mission are wrong,” he said.

He added:

The hard question is, can advocacy organizations do news? I think the answer is that it’s highly problematic because if you’re an advocacy organization, you have answered the question that news poses…An advocacy organization should be advocating. Where do we get the idea that Human Rights Watch should have to undertake some sort of objective concept of journalism? They shouldn’t. If they are misrepresenting themselves as completely objective, then I think it’s troubling.

Independence within advocacy?

As part of my review, I also talked with Yemma, editor of the century-old Christian Science Monitor, which is wholly owned by the Church of Christ Scientist. Based on his experience operating under church ownership, Yemma comes to a different conclusion. He thinks it is indeed possible for an advocacy organization to achieve legitimacy as a provider of news, but that the news enterprise eventually must pay its own freight.

The church’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy, saw the journalistic mission as central to the work of the church, Yemma said. Eddy had been burned badly by the yellow journalism of her day, and she wanted to position the Monitor as an alternative with greater legitimacy. Over the decades, the Monitor has been free to report on the operations of the church, Yemma said, and its legitimacy as a news source has been confirmed by its seven Pultizer Prizes. But he conceded that Tofel’s concern might apply to other advocacy organizations.

“There are ways a newspaper could run at cross purposes to the interests of its sponsoring organization,” Yemma said. “For nonprofits now getting into the business, it may be that you need a very clear articulation of that role within the overall organization. If you’re a foundation and you decide that not enough information is being provided about the area you care about, then it might make sense. But you’ve got to think fairly deeply about why it’s important that you do this and what the purpose is. You’re not just keeping journalists employed or keep something going. It has to be part of your mission.”

Yemma also sees financial independence as crucial ingredient to legitimacy. Throughout its existence, the Monitor has operated with a sizable subsidy from the church. The Monitor is taking aggressive steps to bring its revenues in line with its costs — including moving its daily print publication online — and plans to trim the annual subsidy to $3.8 million from its current $10.7 million over the next three fiscal years.

“For journalistic operations within a nonprofit, the first order of business has to be to move toward sustainability,” Yemma said. “Whatever you do, you have to figure a way to justify your journalistic mission because someday there’s going to be somebody on the board who’s going to say, why do we have this? It’s clear then that your news operation is in jeopardy.”

So what’s the takeaway from this exercise? Does this mean that the Red Cross does a better job of covering news than self-proclaimed news sites because it employs these six practices? No. But nonprofits all types are filling the void being left by traditional media — particularly in un-sexy places such as city halls and state capitals, and costly, far-flung places such as Baghdad and Port-au-Prince. Even if a nonprofit doesn’t bring you the news directly from these places, chances are greater than ever that a nonprofit provided value as an expert source or first responder. Given traditional media’s dwindling capacity to vet its sources, nonprofits can provide leadership by taking on that role and providing an example to emulate.

For nonprofits seeking legitimacy, actions do matter as much as words. ProPublica, Human Rights Watch, and the Council on Foreign Relations all stake their reputations — and their revenue sources — on providing accurate news and information. When they do so in a highly transparent way, they make the news ecosystem a safer place for readers.

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Joseph Lichterman    July 22, 2014
The site known for social media and tech coverage has hired nearly 30 more editorial staffers since October and, like BuzzFeed before it, is expanding into more general interest news.
  • Dick Tofel

    Jim, I want to put my quote above in context. What I think I said– and certainly what I meant–is that advocacy organziations are to news as the traditional editorial page is to traditional news pages. Both practice journalism, but only the latter does “news” in the sense I think you’re trying to define it. Great editorial pages, like the ones at the WSJ (where I used to work) practice journalism and advocacy, but they often start, as I said, with answers rather than questions. I happen to think very highly of the journalism of Human Rights Watch– recognizing that I may one of the few on any political spectrum who would celebrate both them and the Journal edit page in the same post.

  • Joel Kramer

    I like your six practices, with one amendment: You say:
    — The case for philanthropy is linked to editorial independence and objectivity.
    I suggest it be editorial independence and commitment to accuracy and fairness.
    MinnPost’s Eric Black is eloquent on the subject of the “spent force of the phony objectivity paradigm.” He argues that people and entities claiming the mantle of objectivity are not lacking in bias, but merely declining to acknowledge their biases. All journalism, like all history, is written by individuals with world-views and frames of reference that inevitably inform their choice of facts. The trick is to be open-minded, fair, accurate and transparent — but this is not the same as being objective.

  • Scott Leadingham

    A thorough look at an increasingly important topic. Well done.

    You mention transparency, and I’m curious of the entire field of nonprofits (12 in total) you explored. Why, for that matter, so few, if for any reason other than time? Obviously you weren’t going for any statistical relevance, and that’s not the point of such a case study approach. How did you pick those 12 in the first place, other than they “operate within the news ecosystem”?

    I’m glad you skimmed more than the surface when discussing the Monitor and its relationship to the Church of Christ Scientist – that’s necessary information to fully contextualize how the Monitor operates. However, the tacit implication seems to be – and maybe I’m really over-analyzing – is that the Monitor is okay given the passage of time and their assurances of editorial independence. Thus, we give them a pass and say, “okay, you’re legit.” What about, say, the Desert News and the LDS Church? How about Freedom Magazine and the Church of Scientology? And what about the myriad outlets – print, online, broadcast – owned or otherwise connected to the Catholic church? Is there somehow less legitimacy with those? In the minds of many purist journalists, I think so, especially compared to the Monitor.

    I’ll leave with what I increasingly hear regarding the “new news ecosystem” (including bloggers, nonprofit outlets, “citizen journalists” and the like): It’s time we judge the content, not the creator – or, more broadly, the church, brand or philanthropist behind the checkbook. After all, we’ve lived over the past century or so on the mantra of a wall between editorial and advertising, assuming the latter will never influence the former.

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  • Jim Barnett

    Hi, Scott —

    First, my apologies for not appending the list of 12 nonprofits. I’m attaching it here, at the bottom of of my note.

    How did I pick the 12? As you guessed, it wasn’t a scientific process. I limited the list to nonprofits with a national reach (thereby excluding regionals like MinnPost, VOSD, Texas Tribune, which are great models, but different animals entirely) and then took suggestions from journalism elders, including the ones I mentioned in the piece. For example, David Westphal wrote last year about how Human Rights Watch was doing work that met or exceeded journalistic standards, so I’ve been tracking them for a while.

    I thought the Monitor deserved a look precisely because of the reason you cited — we have given them a pass because of their unique history. But as it turns out, they do a pretty good job of aligning their mission and resources. The only reason they didn’t hit six of six criteria is that some of their financials are available only in print, not online. But I suspect that will change. At the same time, I think some of the other church-affiliated pubs you mention might not be so forthcoming. If you find out more, please let us know.

    Lastly, I appreciate your point about judging the content. But I think that takes us right back where we started — at the Potter Stewart test. I’d love to see some kind of parsimonious, easily identifiable criterion applied to the work itself. But after nearly a year of searching, I can’t find one that is simple and also is fair and broadly applicable. So while I’m absolutely willing to be persuaded otherwise, I’m sticking with the funding and governance.

    Now, here are the 12 nonprofit publishers I studied, in no particular order. My goal in studying them was to recognize best practices, not to criticize anybody for falling short on some test they didn’t know was being administered.

    National Rifle Association
    National Geographic Society
    Kaiser Family Foundation
    Human Rights Watch
    Council on Foreign Relations
    Clean Skies Foundation
    Church of Christ, Scientist
    American Red Cross
    American Civil Liberties Union

  • Scott Leadingham

    Hi, Jim.
    Thanks for your detailed response and greater perspective. It’s interesting that of the 12, the only one that is an outright news/investigative organization is ProPublica. The others, as you note, have journalistic tendencies to varying degrees. Why not Center for Public Integrity or Center for Investigative Reporting? But I’d surmise they’d have the same or very similar characteristics as ProPublica.

    Anyway, thanks, and keep up the good work.

  • Pamela

    Why can’t they have a well respected ombudsman on staff? Wouldn’t that solve this whole problem. They used to call this the honor system. Isn’t this still common practice ? I truly would be interested in knowing. Thank you for your thoughts.

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  • buyer beware

    The FTC has looked at what constitutes editorial in the new world of bloggers. It’s decision was to focus on who is paying for dissemination of content.

    This brings the US closer to EU law which divides editorial from marketing communication according to who pays. Content that is disseminated and/ or paid for by a company and its agents (e.g. an advertising agency or retailer) is marketing communication not editorial. In the eyes of the FTC, bloggers paid from marketing programmes are not publishing editorial no matter how impartial or objective their content.

    Focusing on who pays rather than trying to establish rules for objectivity or impartiality makes sense to me. It fits with non-profits too which as your research shows are not labelling their content editorial. It catches the race to the bottom that is content labelled editorial the purpose of which is not to inform you but to tell you what to think or what to buy.

    I think we are at the botom though.

  • Barry Johnson

    Weirdly, no for-profit journalism company that I know of meets those criteria (after we convert the language to the for-profit world). Or not so weirdly: Until they are as transparent as you want non-profits to be, they deserve the desperately low ratings the public gives them.

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  • reverse lookup

    I’ve never really believed in the whole non-profit idea. Money must come from somewhere to fund things for the long-term

  • simply canvas

    Well that’s interesting news, thanks a lot!