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Aug. 9, 2021, 2:54 p.m.

With a tight focus on inequality and a new CEO, the Center for Public Integrity plots a path forward

“I’m not worried about the journalism. But if you don’t have the business and technical infrastructure to support the journalism, then it’s just not going to thrive.”

The Center for Public Integrity, one of America’s oldest and most storied nonprofit investigative news operations, has a new CEO.

That’s a sentence, for better or worse, I could have written quite a few times in recent years. CPI was founded in 1989 by legendary investigative journalist Chuck Lewis, who ran the place for its first 15 years. But since then, it’s gotten new leaders in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2014, 2016, 2019, and now 2021, and not all of those departures were happy ones.

(Even that relative stretch of stability from 2007 to 2014 featured what I’d consider a finalist for Worst Idea in 21st-Century American Journalism: converting a deep-diving investigative newsroom that published a few times a month into a win-the-morning machine that would publish “10 to 12 original investigative piecesa day (!), all of it to be monetized with ads (!!) and a $50-a-year membership for an ad-free site (!!!). Oh, and giving it the cringeworthy name “iWatch News.” Internal projections said they’d get 50,000 paying members within a year and be pulling in $16 million in annual advertising within five — all of which would more than pay for a planned $80,000 TV studio. And who should run this “Center 2.0”? How about John Solomon — a guy known at the time for putting The Washington Times “into a near-death spiral” and writing the sort of misleading stories that your employer’s ombudsman call “‘gotcha’ without the gotcha”? Not to mention a guy who’s since been known for turning Circa into a right-wing farm team for Fox News, prompting a staff revolt and management review at The Hill over sketchy pro-Trump exclusives, being labeled a “disinformation” vector by Fox News researchers, and becoming a main driver of pro-Trump, anti-Ukraine “smears” and “architect of Trump’s Ukraine conspiracies.” Yeah, that guy. iWatch News died a quick death.)

Ahem. Where were we? Anyway, despite still producing lots of great journalism (including two Pulitzer winners since 2014, not to mention a gazillion other award-winners), there has long been a sense that CPI wasn’t quite reaching its potential. To put it in numbers: In 2004, CPI had a full-time staff of 40. In 2009, ProPublica launched with a staff of 36.

Today, ProPublica’s staff page lists 174 people. CPI’s has 26.

Under its previous CEO, Susan Smith Richardson (now at The Guardian), CPI recentered its journalism on a single topic (though one that touches a thousand others): inequality. You can see the change in how the center describes itself. Before: “The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom investigating democracy, power and privilege.” Now: “The Center for Public Integrity inspires change using investigative reporting that reveals the causes and effects of inequality. “

The new CEO is Paul Cheung, best known for his role the past three years as director of journalism and technology innovation at the Knight Foundation, the largest philanthropic player in the field. Before that, Cheung worked in various journalism management roles at NBC News, AP, the Miami Herald, and The Wall Street Journal; he also spent four years as president of the Asian American Journalists Association.

I hopped on Zoom last week to chat with Chueng and current CPI editor-in-chief Matt DeRienzo, who joined the center a little over a year ago and has been part of that shift to inequality. Cheung was just finishing up his final days at Knight (today’s his first day in the new job); our conversation has been edited for length, clarity, and the false impression that none of us say “um” or “like.”

Benton: The good thing about leaving Knight is that no one ever really leaves Knight, since Knight has tentacles everywhere in the industry. It’s like everyone works for them or with them in one way or another. [CPI, like the Nieman Foundation, has been a Knight grantee.]

Cheung: In some way, yeah. You know, I was talking to Alberto [Ibargüen, Knight’s president and CEO] and I told him I’ve been watching this panda documentary. So my sort of hypothesis of the journalism world, especially for nonprofits, is that national philanthropy has created a sanctuary for a lot of journalism to live in. And that’s left some of those outlets without the ability to hunt in the wild on their own and survive. And my thinking is: Yes, it’s good that there is this sanctuary. But if the sanctuary doesn’t prepare you to thrive and survive in the wild, it’s bad, because we can lose those instincts.

Benton: And it’s usually really hard to get them to reproduce, to continue the panda metaphor. Well, congratulations on the new gig. Paul, how did you first hear about this position being open? Did you hear about it through Knight circles? Were you approached their job?

Cheung: I was approached by the folks who did the search for CPI. I think, as they were doing the search, a few folks had recommended me and my name was floating around. So that’s how it came to me.

Benton: Had you had much engagement with CPI during your time at Knight — you know, in terms of grants or anything else? Have you worked with them before?

Cheung: Well, so not intimately. So I did inherit a CPI data journalism grant when I first got here, so I was the one to close out that grant in my first year. And then, of course, when Susan was named CEO, you know, the journalism team [at Knight] was really thrilled because it was her and also Matt Thompson had been named the editor-in-chief of Reveal [from the Center for Investigative Reporting]. We thought it was great that we have two African Americans in those high-level positions. So we had some interaction, but CPI is not my grantee.

Benton: To be clear, I’m not alleging any corruption here — I just want to hear about what impressions of the center you might have had before this process began.

Cheung: I think anyone who’s been in journalism for a while, they know about the work of CPI. And I would say my impression was thinking of it more as a B2B-type player — that they’re really well known within journalism circles, but they might not be if you talk to the day-to-day consumer. They probably don’t know about it.

Benton: Does that sound right to you, Matt, in terms of how CPI is perceived in the world?

DeRienzo: I mean, it was structurally set up that way, right? They did a lot of grant-funded work, where at the end you’d hand the story off to another publication, so people read it in The Washington Post or USA Today or wherever instead of reading directly from us. And that’s created challenges about developing a direct audience.

Benton: Yeah. I remember when ProPublica started, I was pretty skeptical that they would be able to develop a big native, first-party audience, and it took quite a while, but it seems like they’ve been able to pull that off well. Is shifting towards more of that direct audience a goal of either or both of you?

Cheung: Here’s what I will say: Because of our focus, our mission on covering inequity, we want to think about who are the people who really care about those issues? So it could be policymakers in our five sort-of verticals — health, education, jobs, housing, and access to democracy. But we want to think about who are the folks that are most impacted by these inequity issues. If you’re talking health, that could be anyone from inside-the-Beltway policymakers to health insurance companies, to health advocates, right down to the consumer themselves.

So when we think about the audience approach, I’m not thinking it would be for everybody and anybody, but it will really be focused on the folks who are most impacted when health inequities surface. We need to think about who that sort of core audience is, and then from there think about the extended audience.

DeRienzo: It’s not just a financial thing or a distribution thing. It’s about the quality of the journalism. And so when you’re writing in service to people who are affected by what you’re writing about, it’s different than sitting in your ivory tower inside the Beltway in D.C. And so I think that’s a transition that we’ve been trying to make over the past year.

Cheung: Yeah. Because when we have the audience that’s The Washington Post, or AP, or Gannett, that’s a very different center of gravity than thinking about, you know, the changemakers. So I think ultimately, our distribution channel could be through partnership, could be direct — but we want to center the content to the audience that we want to serve.

Benton: I don’t know if you guys have ever talked to Rodney Benson at NYU — he does a lot of work around studying nonprofit news as well as public media. One thing he wrote some years ago, that has always kind of stuck with me was — the United States doesn’t have this huge public-funded media institution like, say, the BBC. We have this booming nonprofit sector, which is wonderful, and performs some of that role a big public service broadcaster would.

But public service broadcasters are generally pretty attuned to the idea that they need to reach everybody. Like, the BBC has very much a mission that it is supposed to be universal, that it should try to represent and to reach the entire British community. And Rodney’s complaint was that a lot of nonprofit outlets in the states have been more satisfied reaching an audience that’s mostly highly educated and upper-middle-class — elites, by whatever definition of that term. It’s a tough problem for nonprofit outlets, I think, to reach outside the Beltway and New York, people who have no Acela stop anywhere nearby.

Cheung: I think that’s definitely true. And I think the way CPI was in the past was reaching that kind of audience. But I think when we think about the revised mission, it’s a broader mission to reach a new type of audience, right? And when we think about who are the people who care about taking down inequity — like when we think about the movement that we’ve seen in TikTok, right, post-BLM and #StopAsianHate — we’ve seen that there’s more ground movement. And we hope to reach that audience who could use our content and create that movement for themselves.

Benton: Tell me a little bit more about the shift into an inequality-focused editorial model. Matt, what was the thinking behind that? And how has that transition shown itself in terms of your staffing, your workflows, how you think about stories, partnerships, and so on?

DeRienzo: I think Integrity — a broad-based investigative news outlet, national scope — we were one of the original nonprofit models. We would write about overfishing of tuna in the Atlantic Ocean one month, and then Medicare fraud the next month, and then education. So not only do we hand our stuff off to other people to publish, there was also no consistency — and not necessarily any follow-up on stories. We’d write the definitive piece on something, and then just drop it.

So one thing is just focus, and getting deeper impact through that focus. And then it’s just a recognition that inequity is fundamental to the story of America, and that we’re at a historic moment. So much stuff has happened to widen the wealth gap in the past couple of years, and then a pandemic on top of that. It’s actually a very broad lane because it touches across so many aspects of society.

The shift in terms of this group of investigative reporters? One is that investigative journalists are used to catching the bad guy who breaks the rules. Right? And what we’re focused on when we’re talking about inequity is the rules that are working just exactly as they were were meant to.

Some of them were designed to be discriminatory, and some of them weren’t — they were designed to be neutral, but “neutral” turns out to be discriminatory because of everything that happened in the past. There’s a good recent example of this: the PPP program. It was set up to be based on businesses’ existing relationships with bankers. And so if you didn’t have an existing relationship with a banker, or you were in a red-lined community, you were screwed. And that’s how you end up with the outcomes that we see.

The other change for us is — we’ve always done deeply data-driven work, we’ve always done great narrative reporting. You know, won a Pulitzer for Breathless and Burdened, which told the stories of coal miners. We’ve done those two things really well over the years.

The two elements that we are really emphasizing adding to our work are solutions and historical context. You can’t tell the story of inequality without historical context — as all the 1619 Project backlash and Critical Race Theory stuff going on right now highlights.

We were talking this morning on Slack — our reporting might be banned in some states now from being used in classrooms!

Benton: Yeah, you might not want to be the teacher who assigns a CPI article in some classrooms.

So Paul — let’s say it’s a couple years from now. You’ve just celebrated your second anniversary as CEO. What are the things that I should be looking for then that would tell me you’ve done a good job, that you’ve done the things that you wanted to do? What do you want to have accomplished by then?

Cheung: I think I started out with the panda sanctuary — I would say what success looks like for me, for CPI, is that we have a clear, diversified strategy with our content that is grounded on audience, and also that we have a diversified revenue strategy to support that journalism. I think that’s what success looks like.

And for us to be, you know, truly independent — in the sense that, let’s say we piss off a funder or a donor, that the place will still be able to do the journalism and thrive. And I think to me that’s the ultimate success for an independent nonprofit. That’s the path, editorial and financial independence, because unless we have that, then we’re forever beholden to some other factors.

Benton: What does the revenue pie chart look like now, in terms of large grants, individual donations, earned income, other sources?

Cheung: Without having calculated the percentages, I would say a majority of CPI support, very much like many other sorts of nonprofit institutions, is funded by philanthropic grants. And then there is a small but growing set of individual donors, and then very limited earned income.

Benton: How do you earn income? Is that from selling stories to outlets, something else?

DeRienzo: An example would be — you know, we have a pretty sophisticated data team and data resources. We can provide a service to other news organizations, local news organizations. For example, we’re partnering with The Washington Informer through a GNI program where we’re providing the data journalism and they’re contracting with us to do that.

Benton: Am I correct, you guys don’t have a membership program, do you?

DeRienzo: [nods to indicate I am 100 percent wrong]

Benton: Ah — well, then I apologize for that, because I get your emails and apparently I never noticed that, sorry.

[To defend myself a bit: CPI doesn’t really promote it as a membership program; the copy on the homepage hides it under standard “Donate” and “Support Us” buttons, rather than something like “Join Us” or “Become a Member.”]

Memberships have certainly been the big move for news nonprofits recently to add an independent revenue source. How do you guys think about that, how’s it been going, and what are your plans going forward?

DeRienzo: So we built an audience team earlier this year. That’s kind of a nascent thing. And part of that is we want that membership program to be more than, “You’re a member if you give us money,” you know? For them to be involved in our journalism. We feel like when we can identify the people who are affected by slash passionate about or working on the ground on these issues, to have them be partners with us in every sense, that will improve our journalism. That’s the approach. And it’s a work in progress. But we’re adding services and levels of engagement every month.

Cheung: Yeah. And I would say that, in the next couple months, what we’ve probably got to do is look at the type of products that we have and think how do we tie the journalism and products to different tiers of memberships, right?

I want to make a distinction between what is the member and what is the donor. I think sometimes, in nonprofit journalism, we really conflate the two. Member, donor, and subscriber sometimes blur. So I really want to make that delineation. This is not a subscription service. Membership entails a relationship beyond just contact. I think that’s what our focus is looking at, based on our strengths and weaknesses: What is it that we could provide for, you know, the most rudimentary member all the way up to a higher level member? And as we look at that engagement, we’re probably going to think about new types of products and services.

Benton: That’s a particularly fraught set of questions if your entire editorial theme is inequality: “Rich people can get these things if they give us lots of money, and people who don’t have money get less.” There’s some risk there, I suppose.

Of the things that you guys have published in the past year, Matt, what are some of the projects or stories that you’re most proud of? Or that had the biggest impact?

DeRienzo: So I think one of the things that we’re in a good position to do — you know how last year, there was a lot of emphasis in newsrooms about diversity and staff and leadership and writing stories about inequity? There were people who called it a reckoning — I’m not sure if it was a reckoning, but there was a lot of emphasis. Because of my job and because of my personal interest, I follow that work pretty closely. And I’ve seen already a drop-off — maybe it’s the summer — but I’ve already seen a dramatic drop-off in those kinds of stories.

So I think one of the roles we can have is to help enable local news organizations to understand and write about these issues of inequality. We can build national data sets. So one of the things I’m proud of is we spent a year making 1,200 records requests — hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of data analysis — building a national database on polling place closures since the Shelby decision. That fueled our own reporting in a project called Barriers to the Ballot Box last year, and it turned out to be quite a year for voter disenfranchisement conversations.

But the other thing is that enabled others’ reporting, you know, from NPR, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, to local news organizations like Wisconsin Watch and Georgia Public Radio. That dataset will probably be used in a future Supreme Court argument, I expect, because it just didn’t exist before — because it was hard to put together. So that’s the kind of thing that I’m really proud of, when it has impact that goes far beyond us.

Benton: What does your staff size look like these days, and how’s it allocated?

DeRienzo: About 30 people, and about 25 of them are in the newsroom — 24, 23, something like that.

Benton: Paul, given everything that you’re saying about pandas, does that strike you as a good ratio, 25 of the 30 in the newsroom?

Cheung: No. [laughs] That’s one of the first things I point out. Look, I think CPI is really blessed in a way that Matt and team are doing a great job on the journalism. I’m not worried about the journalism.

But if you don’t have the business and technical infrastructure to support the journalism, then it’s just not going to thrive. So I think that’s the work that I will be focusing on: How do I make sure that the journalism has proper distribution channels? What is the right sort of business strategy and monetization strategy behind that?

And I also want to point out that point of differentiation. And what really attracted me to CPI from the get-go is that we’re not just dedicating a team to cover race and equity. What really attracted me is the whole organization, the board, made a conscious decision to say we’re going to do this, and we’re gonna dedicate the entire organization to it. And I just cannot imagine anyone else making that step.

Right now, you see a lot of mainstream outlets say, like, “we’re going to hire a team of four,” “we’re going to hire a team of five,” right? A team of five is not going to take down inequity. Neither will a team of 30, you know, but I think that because our whole mission is now on it, I feel like even when no one else cares about it anymore, we’ll still be here. We’ll be that annoying voice, reminding people that this still exists and this is important. That’s the flag we’re planting in the sand.

Benton: You have had a very interesting perch at Knight to be able to see all the folks that you fund from the perspective of what we’re talking about, about increasing sustainability and making the panda better able to fight, I don’t know, the koala? Or wherever pandas are supposed to fight in the wild? Who are the news outlets out there that you look to as having been successful? Who has an idea or a strategy that you’re going to be interested in stealing for CPI?

Cheung: I would say it would be a combination of folks. I really like what some of the work The Markup is doing, you know, because of their specialization — they’re thinking about what is the technology that they create that could then be a SaaS service? That’s something that’s unique and germane to them and a good point of differentiation.

And then when I think about some of the for-profit stuff, when I think about The Juggernaut, which is a site focused on South Asia. They got a lot of VC funding, and they are really leaning into sort of the intersection of being South Asian and entertainment as a way to really look at how do we create content for all these different intersectionalities. I think of that when I think about, for CPI, that yes, we are covering inequity, but there’s also a lot of intersectionality and nuance there, and how do we lean into that as a vehicle to get us to be financially independent?

I think some of the work that CalMatters and the 19th are doing is also super interesting. The way they think about partnership, the way they think about events, the way they’re expanding is something that I’m taking note of in terms of the nonprofit sector.

But I also really don’t want to get too hung up on nonprofit or for-profit. In some ways it’s just a tax status — there are only so many ways you can make money. So I’m also like looking beyond the nonprofit sector and thinking about how some of the more successful journalism outfits — like Axios, right, and how they were able to quickly not just establish themselves but also acquire all these different local assets? What does that strategy look like, in terms of newsletters? And so I think I’ll be taking a multi-disciplinary approach to figuring out what might work for CPI.

Benton: One last thing I wanted to talk about. Having been at Nieman Lab since 2008, I’ve seen a lot of things happen in the digital news industry, and one thing that’s always struck me about CPI has been a lack of stability. It’s gone through quite a few different CEOs and editors over the years, and often their stays weren’t all that long.

I don’t pretend to know the deep internals of the organization, but is there a reason that you think CPI has had those — I don’t want to say struggles with direction, but maybe why it hasn’t had a more direct path forward? I mean, I think back to the whole John Solomon thing, which seemed like a terrible idea at the time. Is there something about CPI that might be behind that last decade or so — and how do you want to change it?

Cheung: What I would say is, when CPI was first founded, it was one of the few nonprofits in journalism, and Chuck was the CEO for a very long time. So there was quite a long period of stability. I think part of the changes has been that the sector is also changing a lot. And as the sector changes, you know, people with different skills are needed.

If you think about the growth of nonprofit journalism, it really went from like this tiny, tiny piece of journalism into this bigger, much bigger piece over the last decade. And CPI, being one of the original investigative nonprofits, others are coming in, and I just think CPI was just trying to keep up with the times. And that’s much like strategy changing, right?

If you go back to some of the other early nonprofits, you also see that sort of revolving door of changes in strategy, right — except that those nonprofits were able to ride through because the founder was making the changes, right? Similarly, if we move that timeline back, the founder of CPI was around for how long, more than a decade? So I feel like there was that long stability. And for me, if I look at my own track record, I’m usually at a place for like a minimum of six to seven years. I mean, inequity is not something that we will be able to say, like, “Okay, we’re done” after, like, two years — where we can just say, “We dismantled inequity, we’re good to go.”

Benton: Although if you do, hey, I will shake your hand and say thank you for your service to America.

Cheung: We’re in it for the long haul.

DeRienzo: I think when CPI started off, the news cycle — deep-dive investigative work was not as common as it is today. And that’s it’s a good thing, that it’s more common today. There are other factors like, I think, metro newspapers that have cut the hell out of covering the school board have still invested in data teams and investigative teams and stuff like that. It’s a shift.

So I can’t speak to the past about CPI. But I think what we’re doing now, in terms of getting really close to the people who are affected by what we’re covering, is the way to be adaptive in the future. And we won’t have to go through major changes of approach because we weren’t close to what was happening.

Cheung: You know, when I was talking with the founder, with Chuck, what really struck me was this line that he had: that he founded CPI saying that when others want to zig, we want to zag. He really founded the place with a lot of imagination and innovation in terms of what investigative journalism can be. And I thought that aligned with some of the work that I did at Knight, in terms of focusing on innovation.

So I would say, moving ahead, that we want to be imaginative about what journalism, especially investigative journalism, can be. And so we’ve got to go back to some of the original ethos, to why CPI was founded. So there might be things that we’ll be trying that you might say, “Hey, this is not your typical 5,000-word investigative project.” I would say be on the lookout for some of those. Maybe some Easter eggs or surprises. It might work, it might not work, but I would say we’re ready to play.

POSTED     Aug. 9, 2021, 2:54 p.m.
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