“Fundamentally, our work is about building relationships and trust”

A conversation about public media in the Garden State with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s Molly de Aguiar

WATERSHED: Your organization is a longtime, mainline public-media funder — and a household fixture in North Jersey in the ’70s and ’80s, via the public-broadcasting anchors WNET and WNYC. How has the emergence of the small news nonprofits shaken up a public-media landscape that’s traditionally been oriented around large, centralized public-media institutions?

Molly de Aguiar, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation
Molly de Aguiar, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

DE AGUIAR: The Dodge Foundation has indeed made many grants to public media over the past 35 years or so, but we didn’t actually have a specific “media” or “journalism” focus until about five years ago.

We felt compelled to do more comprehensive grantmaking in support of local news here in New Jersey in light of the dramatic shifts in the media landscape and an ever more urgent sense that we need strong local journalism for our communities and for democracy to thrive.

New Jersey has a very challenging media landscape — local news has always been in short supply because much of the news we get comes from New York or Philadelphia. You referenced WNYC and WNET as staple public media stations in your north Jersey household — those are both based in New York.

In fact, the state of New Jersey eliminated its support for public media in 2011 and transferred the public radio and television licenses to WNYC and WNET in New York and WHYY in Philadelphia.

However, over the past several years, a network of locally-owned and operated community journalism sites has been emerging alongside the remaining legacy media. These sites are being helmed by diverse local stakeholders, from former newspaper journalists to concerned community members and citizen reporters.

And this ecosystem of sites — large and small, nonprofit and for-profit — presents an opportunity, we believe, to better serve communities by being more collaborative and connected to one another, and by meaningfully engaging the public around the news and information that communities identify as being most important to them.

It’s fascinating how ideas about networks, news commons and news ecosystems have taken root in New Jersey and not, for example, in the cutting-edge, entrepreneurial Bay Area. What are the conditions in the Garden State that have produced this focus on innovation in practice and organization, rather than on technology and killer apps?

Our efforts to support and strengthen the local news landscape in New Jersey have grown out of necessity — a sense of alarm for losing what few local sources of news and information we had as the digital age disrupted the business of journalism, but also a sense of excitement and opportunity for reimagining what a 21st century news ecosystem looks like and establishing New Jersey as a leader in local news innovation.

Full_Color_Dodge_Logo_for_Websites_and_OnlineWhen we launched our focus on journalism funding five years ago, I think we were lucky to have an incredible mix of smart, talented people like Debbie Galant and Jeff Jarvis, willing to lend their expertise to help guide this experiment.

And I don’t think this effort could have happened without philanthropic dollars to launch such an ambitious effort, including our partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

There are too few funders in the U.S. who see journalism as crucial to strengthening the fabric of our communities.

You mentioned technology and killer apps — those are tools, as you know, that are often helpful and sometimes not. But fundamentally, our work is about building relationships and trust among and between news organizations and communities.

We have done this by establishing the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, which provides an incredible array of support, services, learning opportunities, and a collaborative community for journalists in New Jersey.

We are also working hand in hand with a number of partner sites to better understand what sustainability looks like for a local news organization, which we believe includes a diversity of (earned and contributed) revenue sources as well as robust and meaningful community engagement.

All of this work takes a massive amount of time and patience — building relationships is very labor intensive. Technology and apps can certainly facilitate and improve the work, but people power and human connection will always be needed too.

In terms of impact funding, with its need for data, how does the foundation’s theory of change quantify and define that sense of urgency? Does the foundation’s fundamental work of “building relationships and trust” make it necessary to expand our understanding of the actual information needs of communities?  

Our metrics for success are multi-layered, so there’s not a simple answer to this question. We care about the individual health of the partner sites we work with: are they creating new, solid revenue streams? Are they expanding their audiences? Are the owners of these sites able to pay themselves? Do they have to work 80 hours a week just to make ends meet?

But also, is the ecosystem itself healthy and growing? And, are we successfully facilitating better, deeper relationships between local news organizations and their communities? Is that resulting in more community investment in local news?

Philanthropy requires a lot of patience. This work is just starting, and I don’t think we’ll have clear answers to most of these questions – at least not the macro level questions – for some time.

To your second question, understanding the actual information needs of any community is fundamental to the sustainability of local journalism whether in New Jersey or elsewhere — it needs to be relevant to people’s lives.

A transformative factor for small producers is low-friction backbone services. How do ideas of networks, ecologies and the commons open up possibilities for shared services in operations, technology, marketing, development?

Sharing and collaboration are the new currency in this digital media landscape, and that includes content as well as the back shop functions you pointed out.

The Center for Cooperative Media has done a great job facilitating content sharing among news organizations across the state through its Story Exchange. My Dodge colleague Josh Stearns is currently exploring shared back-shop functions with our six local partner sites.

We launched a shared website tech-support back shop, which our partners thought they wanted, but after some experimentation, they realized that what they really wanted graphic design support more than IT support. So we’re looking into that.

We’ve also set up some legal support with a partnership with Rutgers-Camden, and the Center has an OPRA Sherpa which will help news sites craft and submit OPRA requests as well as staff who can help make legal referrals.

We are exploring a number of other shared functions including ad networks, sales support, accounting and events coordinators.

This is a huge area of opportunity for the sites as well as for entrepreneurs looking to build businesses serving the NJ news ecosystem.

Another Knight grantee along with the Dodge Foundation is Radiotopia, which amounts to a very interesting investment in pure infrastructure and program development. How has the philanthropic landscape changed for journalism-infrastructure projects? Should the other service and membership organizations out there be paying attention?

This is an interesting question. The trend in philanthropy is not to fund infrastructure — not to give general operating support and capacity building grants. It’s often more attractive to fund discrete projects with clear goals, outcomes and a set timeline.

Funding infrastructure requires patience, and philanthropy often doesn’t have enough patience.

I’m grateful that one of the Dodge Foundation’s core values is to make general operating support grants, recognizing that nonprofit have to pay rent and salaries and all the other costs of doing business.

We severely handicap nonprofits when we refuse to give operating support. Dodge also provides a variety of capacity building workshops for our grantees on how to build and develop a nonprofit board and also how to improve your organization’s communications; these wrap-around services are really critical for nonprofits.

So, it was a logical move, when we launched our Media grantmaking program, to focus on the infrastructure needs of the New Jersey news ecosystem — given the need for infrastructure support as well as Dodge’s willingness to give that kind of support.

In order to best support the whole ecosystem in New Jersey, it was clear that we needed a centralized system/hub to offer that support, which is why our first grant was to establish the Center for Cooperative Media.

Service and membership organizations are also vital to providing support — although I think there are perhaps too many separate service and membership organizations, and that they should join forces to provide more robust services for the field.

I very much appreciated INN’s focus on sustainability for news organizations under Kevin Davis’ leadership, and I hope INN doesn’t move away from that.

It makes sense that service organizations could network or join forces in some manner, but on the flip side, the member organizations in the journalism field emerged to serve distinct needs, and especially the smaller, newer ones (such as INN) lack scale to derive revenue from members to develop high-impact programs across geographic regions.
I don’t know that I agree that member organizations emerge to serve distinct needs. There are lots of nonprofits out there that duplicate efforts because they’re unfamiliar with or unaware of what already exists in the field. Or believe that they can provide services better than others, so they start their own organization rather than trying to improve upon what exists. (This is true of all nonprofits — I’m not limiting my comments to just the journalism field or membership organizations).

Is the future of journalism-service organizations one of large centralized institutions or of networks of small, highly focused bureaus?

I doubt the future of journalism service organizations is either or — it’s both large and small, centralized and decentralized, but I would like to see more connections and collaboration between them. There are probably some mergers that would make sense too.

Public media has a long history of content commissioning, especially on the film and video side. Do you see any opportunities for commissioning to take on a more significant role for all the “new public media” coming up in the digital medium?

I’m going to punt on this question primarily because I’m not focused on content at all right now — although I get many many requests to support content for public media.

I will say this: if I transition to funding content, I would seek out work that better reflects the diversity in our communities than the requests I currently get.

The public-broadcasting divestment by the state of New Jersey in 2011 took place under Gov. Chris Christie, and the subsequent emergence of the community-media projects you describe seems like an almost organic response. What are the characteristics of the “information ecosystem” in New Jersey that is making (and will make) it possible for these community media organizations fill in the gaps?  

The divestment was perhaps a catalyst to what was already a shifting landscape, but the upheaval in the media sector — the democratization of publishing tools, newspaper industry layoffs, unemployed journalists, the major gaps in coverage — is what shaped the ecosystem we have in New Jersey.

I would recommend this blog post by Jeff Jarvis which is a very clear explanation of what we mean by the ecosystem concept and what it looks like in New Jersey and elsewhere.

Let’s close with a question of deepening concern — that of what I’m calling, for lack of a better phrase, “information inequity,” in which issues of social import and communities with acute information needs are more often than not overlooked by the systems we have built. What do we need to learn and understand in order to turn this around? What needs to change?

I’m glad you asked this question — it’s a big issue and one that I care about deeply. In fact, it’s probably what I care about the most.

The recent Pew research (“Local News in a Digital Age”) that studied Macon, Sioux City and Denver showed that while Hispanic residents in Denver and African-American residents in Macon follow local news at significantly higher rates than white residents in those cities and expressed a “greater sense of agency when it comes to improving their community,” there aren’t nearly enough news outlets and sources serving their needs.

Also, we partnered with the Democracy Fund to support research led by Rutgers looking at access to and availability of news and information in three cities in New Jersey — we’ll be releasing this research soon, but what we found about the disparities of access to news and information is both revealing and troubling.

We are currently trying to tackle this issue on several fronts in New Jersey (although there’s so much more I want to do):

On the journalism-education front, we support Dr. Todd Wolfson at Rutgers to help journalism students become better listeners and community members through community-based storytelling projects; this project also trains community members how to be media makers themselves, empowering them to tell their own stories.

Related, we fund Media Mobilizing Project on a just-launched project to work in several communities in New Jersey on citizen media/storytelling training, as well as The Citizens Campaign, which conducts comprehensive citizen journalism training.

We also support Free Press, in partnership with the Democracy Fund, to build relationships between local news organizations and their communities, which we believe will lead to greater participation and inclusion of diverse voices from our communities. The Knight Digital Media Center recently wrote a good piece summarizing that work.

We also have a new grant to New America Media to help build relationships with foreign language news outlets in New Jersey and nurture collaboration between them and the English language media.

I would also point out that ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting (both grantees) do tremendous work fighting for those who are the most overlooked and the most impacted by the systems we have built.

There’s so much work to do on this front. We need a bigger pipeline of journalists of color and more opportunities for them to take leadership roles in news organizations. We need more diverse news rooms at every level.

We also need to support and lift up community voices and have community-led (not just journalist-led) conversations.

There are many opportunities for philanthropy to support work that breaks down these entrenched systems we have built.

We welcome discussion and feedback on our work via the Local News Lab and also on Twitter:

  • Molly de Aguiar: @grdodgemedia
  • Josh Stearns: @jcstearns

Your readers might also want to sign up for Josh Stearns’ weekly newsletter The Local Fix which offers practical tips and advice, trends, and thoughtful conversation about local news.

Soup kitchens of the information superhighway — journalism’s inequity problem

One of the best things that has come out of the futurist vision for journalism has been the idea of the “information needs of communities” — a bland, technocratic but ruthless turn of phrase, full of demands and expectations.

Demands for information enfranchisement. Expectations of equal access, and of relevance.

Yet information inequity is persistent and widespread in the United States, and around the world.

Market-based models for news production can cover a lot of ground, can go deep with diverse communities — but they are full of economic imperatives that all too often keep the watchdogs of the public interest on short leashes.

Information inequity is the outcome of this. Communities and issues are neglected by an economic model that simply can’t deliver coverage of a spectrum of public-interest issues with the consistency and ambition that a democratic society demands.

There’s that word again. Demands.

One can be optimistic about journalism’s prospects, but without factoring in the demands of information enfranchisement and the problem of information inequity, that optimism for the future becomes Panglossian.

The best of all possible journalism futures may yet be ahead, but right about now our democracy would really benefit from some soup kitchens on the information superhighway.

More to the point, the emerging nonprofit news sector needs to focus on charitable purpose and public service in order to build the foundation for more robust public support of their information services and practice.

Yet they’ll need investment to do so. People who care about journalism’s role in our democracy need to invest in productive capacity for journalism producers working in and with neglected communities.

To fully address the issue, nonprofit journalism organizations and their advocates need a new set of tools for understanding, advocating for and advancing their mission, including:

  • A rigorous and replicable assessment model for identifying, measuring and prioritizing the information needs of communities — and likewise for the most needful communities, a key diversity issue.
  • Some quantifiable standard for what constitutes a meaningful public-interest outcome for journalistic enterprise. Otherwise, there’s no accountability around philanthropic and entrepreneurial priorities.

Building out this knowledge base can produce a solid foundation for reimagining — and investing in — public-interest journalism as a baseline community service rather than a competitor in a product- and attention-driven marketplace.

Information inequity is a complex problem that requires us to reassess our business models and focus on charitable purpose and public service.

More than a worthy challenge, successfully confronting the information inequity of our media economy is a point of breakthrough that opens up new prospects for journalism as a driver of civic enfranchisement — and new opportunities for building healthy new relationships between relevant, trustworthy news media and the communities they serve.

Content commissioning evolves (a little) with Knight/VICE/CUNY fund

Germane to Watershed’s recent call for more commissioning of independent news content, a small sign of the times is Knight Foundation’s $500K investment in an innovative-storytelling fund operated by VICE Media and the City University of New York.

The funding (described as an “investment” in the press release, presumably due to the fact that VICE is owned by News Corp.) is unusual for its focus on storytelling as a vehicle for innovation.

A resurgence of story?

If Knight’s funding infusion is not an anomaly, then the funding represents a fundamental shift of the paradigm — albeit a subtle one that in this instance isn’t put to the task of equitably serving community information needs.

But the philosophical heart of it is transformative — that first and foremost, journalism innovation happens in practice.

Knight’s journalism grantmaking tends to focus on technology, business models and engagement. They like tools and rarely if ever focus on story.

And their philosophy tends to set the pace in journalism grantmaking nationally.

VICE, however, is deeply story driven, from the brand level on down. It’s much more than a news portal, it’s an immersive mass-media experience that delivers content, information, style, culture and critical reporting.

Does this represent an evolution in Knight’s thinking about journalism funding?

Or, perhaps more likely, does technology provide a backdoor into content commissioning?

One could imagine, for example, a new class of production grants focused on covering technical costs of news-narrative production, similar to the various filmmakers’ funds that subsidize the expenses related to documentary production.

In fact, the Localore project (produced by the Association of Independents in Radio) has already blazed a trail that links innovations in practice, and funding for that practice, with story commissioning relevant to community needs.

In this regard it’s distinct from the VICE/CUNY project for its more equitable focus on strengthening public-media assets rather than a commercial endeavor.

New space for commissioning — and influence

This issue of equity in funding is critical.

It is true that funding VICE is a great way to conduct content/technology/audience experiments with a successful commercial-news outlet.

Just don’t stop there. Don’t be satisfied with just that outcome. It’s not enough.

Similar to its grantmaking to middle-class-facing entities such as Texas Tribune, Knight’s funding transfer to VICE represents an endorsement of its content, audience and market-driven business model.

If so, it is necessary to work for and demand equity in service to underserved and marginalized communities, which will never be adequately served by free-market models.

Journalism financial priorities have a long way to go, and it’s an open question as to whether Knight will seed narrative innovation in other news organizations and other communities — and whether the VICE/CUNY funds will raise the bar for civic philanthropy, journalism grantmaking and mass-media investment.

But it’s great to see journalism practice start to edge into the penumbra … because practice offers a path toward equity, starting with this necessary question:

How can your practice of journalism drive change in journalism funding, subsidy and community service?

Read more about the Knight/VICE/CUNY program:

VICE Media, Knight Foundation and CUNY Graduate School of Journalism Innovators Fund now open for applications

$500,000 Fund to support and train journalists on new storytelling techniques

Applicants can visit http://bit.ly/1DuYSEP for more information and to apply for the program

NEW YORK, NY (Apr. 22, 2015) — The Knight-VICE Innovators Fund is now open for applications from journalists and others seeking to adopt new ways of storytelling for the next generation of news consumers. VICE Media and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced an investment of $500,000 in the new initiative in collaboration with City University of New York’s CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in December with the aim of propelling innovation and experimentation in journalism.

Today, the application is live at http://bit.ly/1DuYSEP.



Changing journalism philanthropy — and practice: A shared metamorphosis

Nonprofit journalism — and in particular its public-interest practice in neglected and marginalized communities — is critically underfunded, and journalists and their advocates are in a great position to lead systemic change.

This change has to go deep. It must affect journalism’s value proposition, its enterprise — the mechanism journalists use to organize and work together — and its relationship with “audiences” and with subsidy.

Journalism leadership — from below

This change is more than an alteration in processes — it’s an evolution and refinement of the nature of the organism, from rationale and paradigm to means and methods.

And it is a shared metamorphosis. Journalism practice, audiences and economics are deep in transitional phases. Community needs are growing more pronounced. Philanthropy (institutional and individual) needs to observe and respond — but journalists (myself included) must articulate and advocate for their own needs as service providers more effectively.

If we journalists want our working conditions to improve, we have to organize, and we have to lead the conversation about our role and value in the United States today.

But we can’t do that without listening, and this may be the most difficult thing of all. I’m not sure we know entirely, or in some cases at all, how to listen to the most important people of all.

We’re trying to monetize UGC, we’re trying to build membership funnels … but somehow we’re not listening. We’re not essential to their daily lives. We’re just an optional product on a shelf.

What’s not working here?

More to the point, how can we turn this situation around?

Three inflection points

(1) We can start by rethinking our value proposition. Are we selling products or providing a service? Can the deep public-interest work we want to do really compete against lolcats and runaway llamas? What’s the real value we as journalists ideally provide? How can we best articulate and demonstrate that value in a manner that inspires the trust and enthusiasm of the people we want to serve?

(2) We can follow-up by repositioning our practice with a focus on enterprising missions, not commerce-oriented entrepreneurship. The former is about providing an ongoing, regular service for a community that needs it. The latter is about trying to build and monetize non-commercial products for a market that is distracted by shiny commercial products.

(3) We can bring the change home by building, and seeking investment in, shared infrastructure to provide scale and efficiencies. These would include critical services in distribution and marketing, fund development and technology platforms.

With regards to this final inflection point: The lack of significant and appropriate infrastructure for journalism practitioners doing public-interest work is a deep pain point in need of realistically designed solutions and immediate investment.

Data — the missing link

Measuring audience engagement alone is insufficient and to determining journalism’s public-interest outcomes.

There’s missing context, namely, what does the funding want?

In a democratic society notable for its widening wealth and inequity gaps, the needs of capital (to use a trendy term) cannot be ignored.

Journalism philanthropy (as well as commercial investment) is driven in large part by theories of change based in economic dogma native to the legacy commercial-news industry.

What are the impacts of this market-oriented dogma on journalism’s service to its community?

These are specific and real phenomena that can and should be identified and measured — to provide tools for responsible investment, and to provide some form of accountability.

Here a few such data points that a roomful of grad students could really tear to pieces over the course of a semester:

  • How the type and source of funding — grants, ads, crowdfunding, subscriptions, small donors, major patrons or brand-driven subsidiary businesses (events, training, data services, etc.) — affects a journalism outlet’s mission and appeal to diverse audiences
  • The functional, fungible, economic value of public-interest reporting across news organizations in the commercial market — providing critical context for discussions about subsidy and public-interest reporting
  • The specific unfulfilled information needs of neglected communities — and standardized/adaptable methods of identifying and responding to those communities and those needs
  • Longitudinal data — at least five years, but ideally encompassing more than one election cycle — tracking the impact of quality, accessible journalism in diverse communities over time

Philanthropists: To invest in a business model you need a complete picture of the conditions on the ground for the producer, and of the actual information needs of the community. Otherwise your public-interest mission is flying blind, and the prospects of impact funding are undermined.

Journalists: The economic sustainability of your practice depends on your work being indispensable on a lifestyle level — a vital source of information that people use to make a spectrum of critical choices. What issues of scale, relevance and accessibility must you resolve in order to achieve this?

Strategies and actions

Consider this a call to action for journalists and their advocates in all their diversity.

Leadership, listening and multi-tiered advocacy can open the way for a more level playing field for public-interest reporting practice.

Consider the following strategies and actions as starting points for a conversation that needs to be owned by many other people who care about journalism in our democracy.

Strategy: Develop data-driven measurements of the public-interest outcomes of journalism funding.

Action:  Identify the influence of types of funding in relation to types of news coverage produced and communities served, in order to set a baseline of accountability around journalism’s public-interest outcomes. This is an encompassing and complex data set that can sustain a critical, national conversation about the civic performance of the Fourth Estate.

Strategy: Support collaboration and network-building between independent news producers.

Action: Develop, fund and iterate shared/distributed/horizontal/p2p tools and infrastructure services to support independent news production, distribution and operations by diverse, accomplished public-interest news producers — individuals and organizations — that lack the connections, resources and scale available to mass media.

Strategy: Help communities organize to get and support the quality journalism they need.

Action: Shift from thinking about markets to focus instead on constituencies and community organizing. Re-imagine your promotional activities more fully as a public-information campaign — a type of cause campaign, really. There’s no room for paywalls here, but lots of room for developing a strong charitable foundation for public-interest work people need in their lives.

The 2016 general election, with its billions in influence-dollars, is a great lens to look at this through. What does community engagement with vital civic information really look like in such a crowded, low-quality information ecosystem?

(And remember that “community” is an encompassing term that includes more than specific geographic regions.)

Strategy: Identify and encourage philanthropic leadership

Action: (1) Philanthropists and foundations that put money down on journalism subsidy and infrastructure need to take more prominent roles as advocates for increased overall largesse nationwide. This can be achieved through a program of data-driven advocacy targeting the philanthropic community, complete with PowerPoints and panels, articles in the trade publications and some coalition building.

There are plenty of problems with the patronage of the wealthy. The support of individual sustainers — very large numbers of them — is in fact the only meaningful outcome of the entire business-model conversation. But institutional charity has its place, and until Fourth Estate has fully reconstituted its social contract with its constituency, such funding is critical.

 Action: (2) Philanthropists and microphilanthropy communities — including giving circles and crowdfunding programs — should take the lead in supporting an emerging culture of commissioning in journalism.

Just as commissions drive great works in the arts and humanities, commissioning provide a great opportunity to activate journalistic productivity around specific topics of interest to communities with unfulfilled information needs.

Strategy: Rehabilitate journalism before individual donors.

Action: Again, think about a cause campaign. It needs to be as easy and as logical to give to public-interest reporting in your community as it is to donate to your local PTA, public library, fire department — or the Red Cross, March of Dimes or United Way.

Yet the brand of “Big J Journalism” is damaged. Repairing that damage and improving the practice’s public image is worthy of a “Got Milk?”-style PR campaign, and would require coordinated fundraising and sector-wide enrollment.

The imperative of change

Executing any of these grand schemes would require nontrivial energy and funding inputs.

But given the protean moment we are in the midst of, given the entrepreneurial energy, given the exhortations to “go big or go home,” I really want to make the case that for all the good that’s being achieved, we all have to get way further out of our comfort zones than we have so far.

Healthy information ecosystems and news ecologies are complex and fragile — but if cultivated they can be become resilient and enormously productive.

The metaphor of the market and its brutal, reductionist worldview is not appropriate for this level of charitable human service. The information needs of communities transcend the vicissitudes of the market and the attention economy. Our mission, ingenuity and commitment as journalists all demand more of us.

Priority problems: Journalism’s position in the charitable-giving ecosystem

Amidst the news industry’s many challenges, and the hopeful flowering of a new nonprofit-news movement, the low position of public-interest news reporting in the charitable ecosystem is a troubling puzzle.

It also speaks poorly of our cultural and democratic priorities. Billions are spent on media that sell and influence, producing messages that serve vested political and commercial interests — yet the room sure clears out fast when the conversation turns to the topic of paying for public-interest journalism.

Where’s the soup kitchen for the information economy? Image: The New Yorker / Franco Pagetti

It turns out, in fact, that for all the declamations and examinations of journalism’s importance to our democracy, actually funding its noncommercial, public-interest practice is one of the lowest priorities of the charitable sector — inclusive of major and individual philanthropy.

Priority disconnect

This lack of subsidy has crippled public-interest journalism, which is not competitive in the commercial attention economy, and not easily or ethically monetized, particularly at the local level.

The good news is that such harsh conditions have produced a tough strain of nonprofit survivors. These organizations — members, for example, of the Media Consortium or the Institute for Nonprofit News — are drought tolerant. They take root in niches and keep blooming.

In organizational terms, they’re high-achieving, efficient, networked and media savvy. Their potential as engines of public-interest information is off the charts.

Yet the opportunity and mission they represent has not yet been fully recognized and embraced across the spectrum of philanthropy.

The sap may be rising for the new crop of news nonprofits — but a garden will not grow unless you water it.

In today’s parsimonious funding economy, that means infrastructure for new news nonprofits is rudimentary, newsrooms operate on shoestring budgets, founders heroically take on operations as well as editorial roles, and their ventures only thrive relative to their ability to sacrifice and work for free.

Their dedication is beyond question, as is the lack of support. Let’s look at the numbers for a better sense of journalism’s low position in the current funding ecosystem.

Journalism as a subset of media funding

Up-to-date numbers for journalism philanthropy are elusive. A good benchmark comes via a Foundation Center report that tracked $1.86 billion in grants of $10,000 or more to “media” projects of all sorts in the United States from 2009 and 2011.

That alone, however, did not necessarily add up to more money for news production.

Of that sum, 55 percent — about $1.02 billion — went to developing “media platforms” across the Internet, broadcast, film and video, TV, mobile, etc.

Actual journalism production (and training) received about half that — $527 million, accounting for 22 percent of all media grantmaking during the three-year period under scrutiny.

Journalism’s position in the individual-giving spectrum

Individual Americans gave $335.17 billion to charity in 2013, according to Giving USA, the majority of which went to religious organizations ($105.3 billion) followed by education ($52.07 billion) and human services ($41.51 billion).

In fact, Journalism itself doesn’t come up as a category, at least in the public summary of the report.

The nearest you get is arts, culture, and humanities — all noncommercial arenas of discourse, narrative, study and exchange — with an estimated $16.66 billion in giving in 2013.

For perspective, that’s a bit more than 30 times in one year what nonprofit journalism was given over three years.

Profits, politics and influence money

The forthcoming 2016 elections, with billions of influence dollars lining up for media prime time, reframe journalism’s funding struggles in the context of a full-blown ecosystem crisis.

One projection expects election-ad spending to hit $12 billion next year — a tide of influence messages choking media channels like an offshore toxic-algae bloom fed by unregulated fertilizer runoff.

That $12 billion in influence funding is a bit more than 22 times the $527 million in charitable funds invested in journalism and media from 2009 to 2011.

It will also make up a handsome 18.4 percent of the estimated $65 billion in revenue the U.S. news industry as a whole is expected to earn in 2016.

Mass media are are handily adapting to the information economy and developing all sorts of marketing and revenue streams. The philanthropic sector remains enormously wealthy. And individual giving remains a deep and largely untapped wellspring.

Yet nonprofit journalism — and specifically public-interest news production in communities that lack it — remains a neglected, and even unrecognized, priority.

Where is the imagination, the conscience, the commitment and the will to strengthen this emerging, and desperately needed, charitable sector?


Deserts, droughts and funding streams

Ecological metaphors have been put to effective use for journalism critique and advocacy by The Ohio University’s Michelle Ferrier and Tom Stites of the Banyan Project (both of whom I know through the Journalism That Matters community).

“News deserts” are what Stites describes as places on the map where “original reporting has dried up.” The result is a lack of essential reporting on public-interest issues, and a degradation of a community’s engagement in its civic life.

There’s no better way to describe the impact on communities of the crisis of journalism. A news desert is a degraded ecosystem, stricken by a funding drought that has caused public-interest reporting to wither on the vine.

The result is a community that is underrepresented and disconnected — except, perhaps, as a set of marketing demographics.

Ferrier’s “media deserts” are a little more complex in that the concept includes the medium (print, electronic, broadcast) that transmits the media, as well as the meta landscape of policy, language, literacy, etc., that affects audience access to the content itself.

The idea is most intriguing in this post net-neutrality era, in which courts and FCC rulings create the prospect of tiered Internet access and “pay for play” as matters of policy.

In this potential future content is no longer universally and equally accessible, and institutional news and information for lower-income and marginalized communities diminishes even further.

It’s easy to imagine that these twin processes of desertification in news and media would ultimately produce a Dust Bowl. Resources depleted, topsoil tearing skywards in great scouring clouds.

This is the unexpectedly relentless logic of the ecosystem metaphor.

If we take for granted terms such as “news ecology” and “information ecosystem,” then it would make sense that they would need funding watersheds in order to exist and flourish.

Yet journalism lost its watershed with the collapse of the ad monopoly, and so far subscriptions and donations haven’t really served to recharge the aquifer.

The idea of “watershed media” is a strategic response to this ecosystem collapse, and as such it has to be way more than an individual-donor model.

It has to address more fundamentally why the public — the most important watershed for public-interest news reporting — isn’t more invested in a free press.

What are the issues of relevance, trust, value and attention that, to use the industrial metaphor, have so degraded the market?

It might be helpful to think of this as a matter of ecological restoration. The old industrial landscape is littered with mass-media brownfields, sumps and mires in need of remediation.

And what about all that factory infrastructure? How can legacy ideas about competition, business economics, audience demographics and production processes be decommissioned or repurposed to produce more sustainable outcomes?

Can these essential systems be dredged, undammed and sluiced through with clean, community-sourced funding streams?

Imagine the flora and fauna. The diversity and productivity. The fish would be jumping!


“Media Deserts with Michelle Ferrier, Elon University”
Elon University page on Ferrier
March 26, 2013

“Layoffs and cutbacks lead to a new world of news deserts”
By Tom Sites, Nieman Lab,

Journalists, navigating by moat and star

Media critic Jack Shafer makes an interesting connection between Ezra Klein’s post-Wonkblog chances with Vox Media and some crusty old investing advice from Warren Buffett that dates back to the archaic era of 2001.

In the era of “personal brand journalism,” Vox Media (“Talented Voices. Passionate Audiences.”) is putting money down on Klein’s star power.

The problem, says Shafer, is that the news business on the Internet is too hypercompetitive and mercurial. An upstart bloghouse like Vox, he says, can offer elite producers like Klein no secure redoubt on a hill, surrounded by a moat and safe from encroaching peasants with wifi-connected laptops.

This concept of a “moat” — which Shafer ascribes to Buffett — describes a set of market conditions that make an entrenched industry (or company) unassailable. Sez Warren in a 2001 interview:

“I want a business with a moat around it. I want a very valuable castle in the middle and then I want the duke who is in charge of that castle to be very honest and hard working and able. Then I want a moat around that castle. The moat can be various things: The moat around our auto insurance business, Geico, is low cost … 30 years ago, Eastman Kodak’s moat was just as wide as Coca-Cola’s moat …”

Keep in mind that the Kodak of legend has since gone bankrupt and repositioned itself as a commercial imaging company. Moats are most certainly not unassailable (and some technology does truly become obsolete).

So, too, the newspaper industry’s moat (Shafer notes) has been enthusiastically breached by the laptop-wielding masses, causing all sorts of interesting power shifts.

And, from a watershed perspective — by which I mean that of the public interest — the destruction of the moat is a very good thing.

It may mean, as Shafer insists that Klein and Vox have their work cut out for them.

Yet it also means that the resource that the moat represents, formerly locked up in a closed loop, has been liberated, and can trickle (or cascade) out into arid terrain, thus provoking a wide variety of ecological productivity at a time of desperate need.

Maybe Klein and Vox don’t need a moat after all. Maybe they simply need to live near the water.

With journalism in the grips of a deepening funding drought, the public’s interest, and the public’s support, can provide an admirable watershed.


“The limits of Ezra Klein’s star power”
By Jack Shafer, January 27, 2014, Reuters

“Buffet explains economic moats in investing”
Interview with Warren Buffett, ca. 2001

Jet packs, Petri dishes and the future of radio

Ask Pete Tridish about the future of radio, and he’d likely say “barn raisings.”

As founder of Prometheus Radio Project, and now of International Media Action (“a nonprofit radio engineering crew”), he’s put up countless local-radio transmitters in such far-flung locales as Nicaragua, Colombia, Tunis, Idaho and Spokane.

Wait — radio transmitters? Isn’t the conventional wisdom of the radio industry that the future is Internet radio? Fiber networks and mobile data services?

Yet, with the FCC opening up new low-power FM bandwidth to community broadcasters nationwide, Tridish proposes that digital futurists have misread the tea leaves:

“The former president of NPR, Vivian Schiller, caused a big stink among her network of stations when she said in an interview: ‘Radio towers are going away within 10 years, and Internet radio will take their place.’ This was met with guffaws from engineers and radio folks everywhere; one compared her statement to The Jetsons, the old cartoon show which glibly predicted fantastic technological innovation with flying saucer cars and robotic appliances. The Jetsons is much more demonstrative of the blithe values of the early ’60s than predictive of the future.”

In fact, Schiller’s apparent hyperbole is a blogger’s gloss on a more complex interchange between herself and Kara Swisher, then of All Things D:

Schiller: The broadcast tower will be gone in . . . I don’t want to say ‘gone,’ but in the next five to 10 years —
Swisher: Put cell phone things on it.
Schiller: . . . well the point is, Internet radio will take its place, and there’s no reason we should be fearful of that. In fact, we should embrace it. Especially on mobile . . . mobile is the second coming of radio.

Schiller is right, to the extent that Internet radio and mobile are breaking terrestrial-broadcast monopolies.

Yet this is probably more alarming to broadcast corporations and institutions than to information- and culture-seeking human beings.

In the post-Net Neutrality era this power shift may turn out to be rather good news. It opens up new prospects for re-establishing radio as an accessible medium that nurtures diversity, civic enfranchisement and cultural engagement at the community level.

As institutional radio increasingly ponders digital convergence and mobile delivery, grassroots radio organizers helped local nonprofits file 2,800 low-power FM broadcast applications with the FCC across the nation last October and November.

It was the culmination of 15 years of grassroots campaigning, which included shepherding through an act of Congress (the Local Community Radio Act of 2010) that ultimately prodded the FCC to open an LPFM filing window last winter.

With that window now closed, we’re in the opening moments of what Tridish says may be the largest expansion of community-driven FM radio in U.S. history.

It’s playing out in realtime right now, and very much at the grassroots, as the FCC grinds through decisionmaking on hundreds of applications at a time. The very fine news blog Radio Survivor is a great place to keep up on the action, drama and beauty of it all.

Perhaps the real utopian ideal is terrestrial radio’s dirt-cheap economics and accessible technology — it is the first truly wireless medium, and no space-age silicon required.


“The radio, the Internet and the Jetsons”
By Pete Tridish, October 12, 2013, International Media Action

Why not just pay more journalists? The crisis of journalism as metaphor

In which a vision of the future creates drought and desiccation in the present.

Let’s talk about metaphors. “The future of journalism,” for example.

It packs a punch! It’s powerful and inspiring, suggesting continuity and achievement. The past — gears, ink and union pressmen. The future — mobile media, apps and seamless user experiences.

The metaphor here is primarily technological, and as such industrial, albeit in the clean-room spirit of chip manufacturing rather than a sweaty old pressroom floor. It tells us that there is indeed a future for “journalism,” the same way that there’s a future for media technology.

And as far as futures go, media technology seems like a great one to hitch your wagon to — it’s vastly empowering, and comes with a high-productivity, innovation-driven business model. Things anyone would love to see in a journalism enterprise as well.

So far, however, this particular future does not seem to be one in which journalists actually get paid, which is rather a bad thing.

An industrial crisis

Let’s break that down a bit, starting with the nonprofit side — we’ll save commercial media for a future posting (and make only a passing reference to the nonprofit industrial complex).

According to a Foundation Center report, between 2009 and 2011 donors gave $1.86 billion in grants of $10,000 or more to “media” projects of all sorts in the United States.

The good news here is that media grantmaking in general grew at an inspiring rate of 21 percent over that period — although that alone does not mean “more money for reporters.”

Of that sum, 55 percent — about $1.02 billion — went to developing “media platforms” across the Internet, broadcast, film and video, TV, mobile, etc. Actual journalism production (and training) received about half that — $527 million, accounting for 22 percent of all media grantmaking during the three-year period under scrutiny.

Does this three-year funding gap indicate an affinity for techno-futurist grant making? Or perhaps an aversion by grant makers to actually funding reporting?

These are worthy questions, though a bit existential given the depth of the crisis.

What actually matters — the outcome on the ground and in communities — is that the practice of journalism is in the grips of a deep funding drought that’s showing no signs of breaking.

Drought is not an economic formula to crack — although it is often exacerbated by industrial activity.

Drought is devastation. It is hostile to growth and development. It turns people out of their homes, degrades populations, creates opportunity for fraud and abuse, and even produces wars.

And that’s not a very happy future of journalism at all.

While there have been some glimmers of hope — a hardy spring crop of news nonprofits battling to take root, some interesting new commercial business ventures — the news industry is not in any real way positioned to rebuild lost capacity.

And if it does rebuild that capacity — perhaps by via robust, diversified monetization strategies — would a thousand labor beats then bloom coast to coast?

Would environmental-health stories and money-and-politics investigations begin appearing above the fold, on the front page, throughout the week?

Would third-party candidates be routinely featured in debates and reporting?

The crisis of journalism is more complicated than the collapse of the ad model, or the need for new monetization strategies. It strikes more fundamentally at the issue of where the money comes from, and what journalism is for.

At least with regards to the Fourth Estate — that idealized embodiment of civic empowerment in a democracy — the point is simply to pay journalists to cover issues in the public interest, right?

And the problem, apparently, is that no one seems to want to do that.

The depths of the drought

Commercial news organizations are paying fewer and fewer journalists each year. Newspaper employment numbers dropped from 57,000 in 2007 to 38,000 in 2013. In 2011 job cuts surged 30 percent.

This ferocious, national-scale teardown of an entire industry also reveals the relative value of public-interest journalism in the commercial marketplace: Not much.

Foundations don’t pay journalists. Sure, there are a handful of specialized grant makers, plus the odd reporting fellowship. But, as noted above, even within the field of journalism grant making, “media platforms” get the lion’s share of largesse.

Apparently, individuals also don’t want to pay journalists. At the very least, there are plenty of obstacles to doing so. Given issues of trust, brand, visibility, and competition for donations and subscriptions, it seems as if there never will be enough donors or subscribers to sustain a thriving journalism sector.

Then again, there never were. Industrial journalism’s primary subsidy was always advertising, and the breaking of that monopoly with the emergence of networked digital media was when the drought began in earnest.

Even top-shelf news nonprofits get only a fraction of their funding from individual donations, subscriptions and memberships — a most vexing reality given the quality of the journalism they produce, and the depth of civic need.

But the numbers do not lie.

In 2013, for example, ProPublica’s $11.9 million income budget came almost entirely from major gifts and boardmember-related contributions. Online donations, presumably from individual small donors, amounted to $215,000 — 1.8 percent of its total income.

Among regional nonprofit heavies, 16 percent of the Texas Tribune’s $4 million income budget in 2012 came from its membership program, to the tune of $643,935. That same year the Voice of San Diego, known for its potent membership program, boasted 26 percent of its income from membership dues — that’s $366,877 out of an overall income budget of $1.4 million. It’s the healthiest level of individual support we’ve seen so far, but it’s still just one-quarter of VOSD’s overall budget.

It’s not like these organizations aren’t doing good, relevant work that needs to be in circulation. They’re doing all that and more — winning awards, building donor bases, cultivating ancillary income streams, maybe even tweaking the business model.

These are the cream of the crop, the roll-up-your-sleeves “journopreneurs” blazing a trail for the industry into the electronic frontier of the 21st century. So where’s the popular upwelling of support?

This disconnection — or at least under-representation — of individuals from the journalism funding formula is all the more boggling when you consider that they are the drivers of the charitable economy in the United States.

A wellspring gone dry?

Individual Americans gave more than $228.44 billion annually to charity in 2012, out of a total of $316.23 billion donated that year. According to Giving USA, the majority of that went to religious organizations — 32 percent — as well as education and human services (13 percent each).

Yet journalism or media don’t even come up as categories in the survey. The closest you get is “arts, culture, and humanities,” which claimed five percent of the overall annual haul — an estimated $14.44 billion. That’s a 7.8 percent increase from 2011, and many times more in one year than the discouraging trickle the Foundation Center survey identified as going to media (and a bit of journalism) from 2009-2011.

How did the Fourth Estate, redoubtable fortress of the public interest, end up outside the fundraising sweet spot? With a public so given to good causes, and a demonstrated interest in supporting expression, inquiry and discourse?

One theory, proposed by Tom Stites of the Banyan Project (full disclosure: I am a Banyan adviser), is that the public, and lower-income audiences and readers in particular, have been “discarded” by a commercial-news business model that doesn’t value their civic, economic and cultural condition.

The result, he says, is that news media produce coverage of greater value to more affluent audiences, which have greater appeal to high-paying advertisers. For everyone else, journalism presumably loses value and relevance.

With the devaluing of audiences — and certain types of audiences in particular — comes a most curious phenomenon Stites describes as a “news desert”:

“Elites and the affluent are awash in information designed to serve them, but everyday people, who often grapple with significantly different concerns, are hungry for credible information they need to make their best life and citizenship decisions. Sadly, in many communities there’s just no oasis, no sustenance to be found — communities where the ‘new news ecosystem’ is not a cliché but a desert.”

Metaphors are conceptual frameworks that help interpret facts, express ideas and convey opinions. Take a step further back and look at the metaphor itself as an artifact, as something to study (its epistemology, I suppose) and one can break down how that metaphor functions in society, and the values it represents.

The crisis of journalism is a crisis of metaphor. A technological, industrial business model’s unsustainable economics are desiccating news ecologies and information ecosystems nationwide.

Journalism is not an industry. Not any more. There’s a media industry. An entertainment industry. A publishing industry. There’s even, as mentioned previously, a “nonprofit-industrial complex.”

Journalism definitely happens between all these players — and not just ambulance-chasing, Hollywood-obsessed puff pieces, mind you. We’re talking serious, amazing, I’m-eating-my-vegetables-because-they’re-so-damn-good journalism.

But journalism as an industry — once the jewel-studded waistcoat to American industrial democracy — is now most notable for its rust belt. The Fourth Estate itself has entire wings gone derelict.

Maybe we need a new metaphor — it is, after all, the future. We have better tools and deeper experiences with which to survey the landscape.

This new conceptual terrain is ripe for sustainable, adaptive systems design. It yearns for new irrigation methods that can sustain healthy information ecosystems and thriving news ecologies.

In this new landscape, the people formerly known as the audience have a newfound recognition of their empowerment in civic life — but risk marginalization by only engaging through the metaphor of the marketplace.

In this new landscape, journalists, editors and publishers alike have been rather disoriented by the seeming evaporation of their watershed. The well-digging is getting a bit more industrious of late — but tapping into diminishing aquifers is hardly the path to building a more environmentally appropriate, sustainable, and widespread Fourth Estate in American democracy.

Watershed restoration

Here’s a metaphor to try on.

Journalism is a scraggly old cactus in the dry and ravaged desert that blooms gloriously — magnificently, transformatively — whenever the rain conspires with the sun.

The good news is, watersheds can be restored, and cultivated. The garden can diversify and proliferate. It’s a matter of systems design. Appropriate technologies. Complementary relationships. Journalists could learn a lot from the permaculture movement.

It’s possible, you know. To have the journalism sector we all know we really need. There are a lot of infrastructural knots to untangle, but it can be done.

Journalists simply need to better understand their funding watersheds, and more effectively and sustainably build their endeavor in relation to this ecological opportunity.

The public — being that watershed in the profoundest and most pure sense — also has an opportunity, and indeed a mandate and an urgent need. The public is the enshrined wellspring of democratic legitimacy, and it is also deeply vulnerable to abuses of democratic process.

Only engaged individuals and communities can truly “save” journalism — as donors, as subscribers, and most of all as advocates for their own information needs.

But they need better mechanisms to do this, and a new vision for journalism’s value in their lives, their communities, and their democracy.

The health and sustainability of the journalism sector is thus linked to its relevance and connection to the communities it proposes to serve, and who most urgently need it.

This is the opportunity and necessity that a watershed approach to journalism represents. It’s not merely deeper than a futurist metaphor — it’s the context within which a sustainable, healthy future will take root and flourish.

Cultivating information ecosystems: A bit of concept

Information is like water.

Our survival depends on it. It’s harmful or healthful depending on its origin, and on what people do to it before it gets in your system. Its use and availability is enormously profitable, and of the highest humanitarian and social concern.

From the community meeting hall and the local-news blog on up, the free flow of information is the water cycle of democracy, sustaining entire ecosystems of civic discourse and cultural exchange.

What’s your funding watershed?

Just as estuaries and watersheds are vulnerable to industrial activity and unsustainable development, democratic institutions and processes are deeply influenced by commercial and financial interests.

Terms such as such as “information ecosystem” and “news ecology” are common enough among media reformers and in future-of-journalism conversations. These are easy metaphors, even seductive, and yet taking them seriously begins to compel questions.

What, for example, are the funding watersheds that sustain these media-based ecosystems? How does one measure and ensure their health and sustainability? And what would constitute a healthy and sustainable funding watershed for public-interest journalism?

In that vein, it may be more valuable to think about building mass-media alternatives as a series of engineering challenges, rather than an attempt to reform, revive or reorganize a particular industry or business model.

Consider Fox News as a plumbing problem. How does one design a system that has a more healthy flow of funding for a more clearly civic-minded purpose?

Consider the shuttering of hundreds of newspapers coast to coat over the past decade, and the layoffs, buyouts and attrition that took tens of thousands of journalism jobs.

If traditional journalism is a dying industry, if the environmental conditions are changing, what are the alternative crops and irrigation models that are more appropriate to the ecosystem?

Designing better media for democracy

A watershed approach to media funding makes an assessment of the terrain and then engineers solutions that will most directly activate public-interest reporting capacity.

For journalists, this means investigating how the Fourth Estate is affected by its relationship with different types of funding. Is journalism subsidized by ad revenue different from reporting paid for by grants? Does institutional funding produce different content outcomes compared to small donations and subscriptions?

Answering these questions can help identify “healthy” funding sources that produce the best public-interest outcomes and the deepest public engagement — and provide a platform for more robust investment in cultivating those funding sources and relationships.

Bigger picture, however, this is about more than simply cultivating a larger base of individual donors or subscribers. Systems design is the key factor here — how the money is spent, what sorts of outcomes it produces …

The good news is, we already have hints as to how these sorts of systems can work. Co-ops set a major precedent. So does the Red Cross. So do churches and community-based human-services agencies. So do the right kinds of local arts organizations, or, for that matter, bands and performance troupes.

None of this is cut-and-dried, however. We are surveying some broad new terrain here. Let’s see what we can build on it.