What is nonprofit journalism, and is it the answer to media's woes?
Posted December 9, 2016
With public distrust in the news media at an all-time high and a president-elect who heavily criticizes flagship media outlets as biased and corrupt, it may seem like dark days are ahead for American journalism.
But even as journalism looks ahead to regain the public’s trust, there's some hope. Many outlets, including The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal saw a boost in subscriptions.
Postelection support also benefited nonprofit news outlets like Mother Jones, ProPublica and The Nation, as The Washington Post reported. So, what is nonprofit journalism and how does it work?
To some, a nonprofit business model for news outlets is a hopeful answer for an industry that's been largely upended by the internet. Conservative content analysis firm the Media Research Center estimates that traditional newsrooms and publications have laid off roughly 40 percent of American journalists over the last decade.
Pew Research Center found in 2013 that while nonprofit news organizations are a small portion of the news business — Pew identified 172 that have launched since 1987 — about 81 percent of them reported being “confident” that they could maintain solvency for another five years.
The model has also been praised by some in the industry, like clean energy news website InsideClimate News, that argues the nonprofit model is an ideal fit for journalism because such outlets are "immune to external pressures that can compromise editorial independence" and have "no other mission than the practice of journalism."
While a nonprofit business model might seem like a great solution for the news business that's trying to find a more stable business model than advertising or paywalls, it's a much more complicated solution than many may know.
Are nonprofit publications more economically stable?
A 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that while two-thirds of nonprofit news outlets are founded at least, in part, on startup grants (the majority of which were for $100,000 or more). Depending on the grant, that could give a publication economic stability for a set amount of time, and not having to continually make advertising sales.
But being a nonprofit means the organization would rely on public support and fundraising, which can be very difficult.
“Fundraising is actually trickier (than advertising). Of the major foundations, only one, the Knight Foundation, of Miami, has journalism as a primary mission,” Nicholas Lemann wrote in The New Yorker. “Many other potential supporters of nonprofit journalism see it as a means to an end (usually, bringing public attention to whatever issue is their main focus), not as an independent social good.”
Limited resources could mean fewer media outlets overall. Of the two-thirds of nonprofit outlets Pew reported were founded on startup grants, just 28 percent reported that their backers agreed to extend or continue financial support.
And if a large number of outlets switched to nonprofit status, it would likely mean individual publications would dispense with general reporting in favor of niche reporting on specific topics. For example, if an outlet chose to report exclusively on environmental issues, it would make them more able to receive funding from foundations and trusts dedicated to that cause.
Pew data suggests this is what many nonprofit news outlets are already doing.
“About one-fifth (21 percent) focus on producing investigative reporting, which can look at a range of topics, while another 17 percent concentrate specifically on government,” the Pew study states. “Other areas of focus include public and foreign affairs (13 percent), the environment (4 percent), health (3 percent) and arts and culture (3 percent). And the geographic orientation tends to be either state (38 percent) or metro level (29 percent).”
Are nonprofit publications more balanced?
There is no official industry barometer for journalistic bias, but skeptics of the system say nonprofit outlets may become more biased along political lines if their funders champion liberal or conservative causes.
An organization’s need for funding opens the door to what one Media Research Center administrator called “the rise of advocacy journalism under the guise of nonprofit journalism.”
The potential growth of nonprofit news organizations also ups the ante for outlets to become biased out of necessity, Lemann argued in The New Yorker.
“The traditional major newspaper advertisers, like department stores and auto dealers, didn’t want to have a conversation about what work the City Hall reporter would be doing before they signed a contract, because the reporter usually wasn’t going to be covering their business,” Lemann wrote. “But that’s exactly the kind of conversation donors to news nonprofits want to have about the reporter on campaign finance, or education reform, or environmental policy, before they decide whether the gift they’re being asked for fits their mission.”
Are nonprofit publications more trusted?
As Pew Research Center found in 2014, we don't really know.
Pew found that CNN was the most trusted news outlet with 54 percent saying they trusted the cable channel. But Pew was quick to point out that measuring trust was limited based on how well-known a news organization is. To put that in perspective, of the 95 percent of Americans who had heard of CNN, 57 percent said they trusted it. Contrast that with the publicly funded, nonprofit news outlet NPR, which has what Pew called a greater ratio of trust to distrust — of the 53 percent of respondents said they had heard of NPR, 55 percent trusted it.
So while long-running nonprofit media giants, like NPR, may rate high on the trust scale, younger but highly respected nonprofits like ProPublica (founded in 2008) didn’t even make Pew’s cut among outlets at least 50 percent of participants had heard of. That means that people simply haven't heard of many nonprofit publications, but not necessarily that they mistrust them.
While the way ahead may seem uncertain for quality journalism, it’s not all bad, either. Following Election Day, the reported uptick in subscriptions and support for flagship publications and nonprofits alike indicates that there’s still healthy support and interest in journalism yet.