Genre erosion in nonprofit journalism

“The lines between what we think of as public media and nonprofit journalism are beginning to blur, organizational culture and history notwithstanding.”

From my vantage point as a researcher, I sometimes have to draw boundaries around things. Defining categories of measurement, circumscribing them, and making a transparent attempt to defend those categories. What does and does not count as “news”? What is and isn’t a “news organization”? Sometimes it seems blunt or harsh, but you have to spell out your terms — it’s the honest thing to do.

Anyway, things are always changing in the media world, but there are inflection points that give people like me a headache. I think we’re at one of those moments in the sector that broadly comprises nonprofit and public-service journalism. Namely, genre erosion — an artifact of the maturation of the field.

The digital nonprofit field as we know it has been around for about a dozen years, and public broadcasting for quite a bit longer. A handful of years ago, partnerships and collaborations between these two sectors began to form. But today, those relationships are even more complex, entangled, and in many cases, rich. Think about Crosscut, I-News, the St. Louis Beacon, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting — each of them well-established digital newsrooms that have found a home in or become absorbed by public media. The organizational culture and branding has worked itself out differently in each case.

As a result, the lines between what we think of as public media and nonprofit journalism are beginning to blur, organizational culture and history notwithstanding. And now that some newspapers are going 501(c)3, or securing more philanthropic dollars without changing their tax status, things will get even more complicated.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even if there will be pain points along the way. One positive outcome might be a sharper focus on mission as the unifier. But I do expect some acceleration of “What is it?” in the year to come.

Jesse Holcomb is an assistant professor of journalism and communication at Calvin University.

From my vantage point as a researcher, I sometimes have to draw boundaries around things. Defining categories of measurement, circumscribing them, and making a transparent attempt to defend those categories. What does and does not count as “news”? What is and isn’t a “news organization”? Sometimes it seems blunt or harsh, but you have to spell out your terms — it’s the honest thing to do.

Anyway, things are always changing in the media world, but there are inflection points that give people like me a headache. I think we’re at one of those moments in the sector that broadly comprises nonprofit and public-service journalism. Namely, genre erosion — an artifact of the maturation of the field.

The digital nonprofit field as we know it has been around for about a dozen years, and public broadcasting for quite a bit longer. A handful of years ago, partnerships and collaborations between these two sectors began to form. But today, those relationships are even more complex, entangled, and in many cases, rich. Think about Crosscut, I-News, the St. Louis Beacon, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting — each of them well-established digital newsrooms that have found a home in or become absorbed by public media. The organizational culture and branding has worked itself out differently in each case.

As a result, the lines between what we think of as public media and nonprofit journalism are beginning to blur, organizational culture and history notwithstanding. And now that some newspapers are going 501(c)3, or securing more philanthropic dollars without changing their tax status, things will get even more complicated.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even if there will be pain points along the way. One positive outcome might be a sharper focus on mission as the unifier. But I do expect some acceleration of “What is it?” in the year to come.

Jesse Holcomb is an assistant professor of journalism and communication at Calvin University.

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