Saturday, October 10, 2009

Non-Profit News Getting Day in Sun Amidst New Media Landcape

Practitioners on the front lines of special-interest, non-profit news organizations told their stories at Saturday morning's plenary during the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Madison, Wisconsin. The bottom line is that it's a lot of work but also a thriving model as mainstream news organizations drop like flies in the new media landscape.

Rob Davis, environmental writer for Voice of San Diego, is an exemplary model for non-profit news. Coming up on 1,000th donor, Davis seems to have a pretty good gig. Unlike many mainstream reporters, he doesn't have to cover city hall meetings just to cover them, he doesn't have to work every weekend, and he doesn't have to cover "the airshow." He said his outlet would fail if it tried to be the paper rof record. He said that other organizations can replicate this model, and that Voice of San Diego is making it clear to everyone that this kind of work is having an impact and it is a model worth funding. It is a very nice looking product worth reading.

Nick Penniman, executive director of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, which is walled off from the Huffington Post, said he hopes the model will be replicated throughout the mainstream media. He said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or other news organizations could create similar editorially walled-off investigative units. The HPIF has a $2million budget and a staff of 12.

Abrahm Lustgarten is the energy reporter for ProPublica, which is an even larger effort that has the largest investigative non-profit newsroom, about 50 staff operating in New York under a $10 million annual budget. He said it will not be easy to duplicate ProPublica's model because the amount of money it raised and continues raising is a large chunk of the pie currently available for these kinds of endeavors.

Finally, Melinda Whittstock, founder and executive director of Capitol News Connection, discussed how she found a niche seven years ago when many local radio stations were simply forgoing their coverage of DC policy issues that affect local populations. So she raised the money to begin covering Congress for these local outlets who could only afford occasional coverage of DC when it was really necessary. She added that, to make up for the fact that the organization has fairly poor clients, it made up the rest of its operations funding by getting grants from foundations. She admitted that raising money and being a journalist is very difficult, especially since foundations, perhaps ironically, never give her the money to have a foundation director to keep sustainable momentum going.

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