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Jan. 8, 2015, 11:33 a.m.
Business Models

Why Philadelphia’s Gun Crisis Reporting Project couldn’t make it

The site stopped daily publication in November, but founder Jim MacMillan says he’s learned how his priorities will need to shift for his next startup to last.

ithin the first few weeks of his participation this fall in the Philadelphia Social Innovations Lab — a semester-long program run by two University of Pennsylvania professors that helps social entrepreneurs incubate ideas to improve the city — Jim MacMillan had a sense of where he could have improved the Gun Crisis Reporting Project.

MacMillan founded the Gun Crisis Reporting Project to cover underreported gun violence in Philadelphia and to report on possible solutions to reduce it. But on November 4, he announced that after two-and-a-half-years of operation the site would cease publishing on a daily basis. MacMillan said he planned to continue sending out a monthly newsletter tabulating gun violence in the city, but that’s yet to materialize.

“When I launched this project, I used everything I had ever learned as a journalist. Everything,” MacMillan told me when we met in a Philadelphia coffee shop. “It’s just unfortunate that I hadn’t learned something about economic sustainability. I’m not even kidding. I heard everyone saying that you have to start with the business first and now I get it — I just didn’t have all the knowledge.”

The site featured a mix of reporting styles. It would track gun violence statistics, but beyond the numbers of how many people had been shot, the Gun Crisis Reporting Project also covered events like community vigils in memory of people who were killed. The site also examined the societal causes of violence while also detailing the efforts community groups, the police department, and other city leaders were making to curb gun violence in Philadelphia.

Through just the beginning of the Philadelphia Social Innovations Lab program, MacMillan realized he had not spent enough time focused on building the business side of the operation and that he misunderstood how foundations and other funders look to support nonprofit journalism endeavors like the Gun Crisis Reporting Project.

In his post announcing the cessation of daily publication, MacMillan wrote that it had become “impossible” to find funding for the project, which he had bootstrapped from its start.

“We have pursued grants large and small, and investigated underwriting, partnerships and crowdsourcing, but with little success, in spite of generous and expert grant-writing support from friends and colleagues who have volunteered their time,” he wrote.

Including MacMillan, the site had four contributors, none of whom were paid. Three interns and a fellow from South Africa also worked for the Gun Crisis reporting project at different points. (The interns and fellow were actually the only ones getting paid, as they were funded through universities.)

At the outset, MacMillan had hoped to raise $500,000 to support the project for two years. The site did ask for contributions from readers, but MacMillan said that raised less than $10,000 in what were mostly small donations. In the end, though, he said he was able to run the site over its two-and-a-half year run for less than $100,000 total.

“You can look at that as us just pouring our own money into it or, organizationally, you can look at that as in-kind contributions, which would certainly add up to many tens of thousands of dollars,” MacMillan said. “So in a way we did it — but on the other hand, I’ve got less money in the bank, and that wasn’t my plan.”

When he first started the site, multiple people told MacMillan he should spend at least half of his time on business development. But it was the content that excited MacMillan and his team. Between its launch in March 2012 and shuttering last November, the Gun Crisis Reporting Project published about 2,000 posts.

That’s a common refrain among nonprofit news outlets. Sixty-two percent of nonprofit news organizations have difficulty “finding time for business operations,” according to a 2013 Pew Research Center report on nonprofit news organizations. The same study found that most nonprofits spend between 10 and 24 percent of their time on business matters.

While it’s impossible to precisely quantify any impact, MacMillan says he believes the site helped contribute to a drop in Philadelphia’s homicide rate. (According to Philadelphia Police data, there were 248 homicides in Philadelphia last year, down from 332 in 2012 when the Gun Crisis Reporting Project launched.)

“Every moment that I spent chasing money was a moment that I wasn’t chasing impact,” he said. “So I don’t know. If I had to do it all over, I could’ve learned the fundraising game and built something that’s still standing, and had much less impact.”

The site got attention globally with CNN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and others reporting on its work. With its positive media coverage and a supposed impact on decreasing gun violence in Philadelphia, MacMillan was hopeful that those factors would be appealing to foundations or others who could potentially support the Gun Crisis Reporting Project. Instead, he realized that “publicity is meaningless to funders.”

Instead, MacMillan said, they’re interested in specifics. Foundations and other potential funders want a news organization to have a detailed business plan that shows a path to sustainability and highlights exactly how their potential support fits into that plan.

“If you want to have the seed money, you need to have a theory of change — that what you’re doing is going to meet the mission of the foundation, for example, or the philanthropist, and then they want to see a very explicit explanation description of how you’re going to pay the bills at the end of that seed period,” MacMillan said. “And I didn’t have that, because I didn’t know that.”

Many of today’s news nonprofits started during or right after the recession, as plenty of journalists who lost their jobs started new ventures. So by the time MacMillan launched the Gun Crisis Reporting Project in 2012, he felt that the market for funding for new nonprofit journalism endeavors was beginning to dry up — especially in Philadelphia as a number of local news startups have closed down in recent years.

The catalyst for starting the site was a December 2011 conference on covering youth violence organized by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. MacMillan left a full-time job at Swarthmore College to take a part-time position at Temple University, which allowed him to focus the rest of his time on the Gun Crisis Reporting Project.

But it became clear by last spring that financial resources were dwindling, and MacMillan ultimately had to make the decision to stop full-time reporting. Still, MacMillan wanted to continue his work to curb gun violence, and his participation in the Philadelphia Social Innovations Lab is an extension of that effort.

Throughout the course, MacMillan worked with Dorothy Johnson-Speight, the founder of Mothers in Charge, a Philadelphia nonprofit that stresses violence prevention and youth education. The two created Moms for Peace, what they hope will be a national effort to engage mothers by developing intervention skills to curb gun violence.

The course finished up last month, and MacMillan said he’s optimistic that they’ll be able to get funding to grow Moms for Peace using the skills obtained in the Innovation Lab as well as the connections the program helped them make.

In the meantime, MacMillan is also looking for a full-time position, and last week he launched another side project: Wash West News, a hyperlocal news site covering the Washington Square West neighborhood in Philadelphia where he lives.

No matter what his next move is though, MacMillan said he’s approaching his next endeavors by applying the lessons he learned from the Gun Crisis Reporting Project.

As he told me via email: “My thought process for this new project is driven by my recent fellowship with the Philadelphia Social Innovations Lab and understanding that nothing will last without a monetization plan from launch — but it’s not yet clear how much time I will be able to afford.”

Photo of a memorial to Tykeem Law, a 14-year-old Philadelphian killed by gun violence in 2007, by dwwebber used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 8, 2015, 11:33 a.m.
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