How to start a news project or organization

The impulse of many frustrated and enterprising journalists is to take the entrepreneurial plunge and try to start a new organization, bureau or project. This is, however, a non-trivial task, so let’s check in on your goals, means and methods.

What you want — and what you can do about it

To make it this far you will have to be a journalist (or student) of some formal accomplishment, and you already know, or at least have an inkling, of what kind of working conditions you need to do your job. Generally speaking these would include:

  • Fair pay
  • Health benefits or insurance
  • Access to facilities, IT, equipment and support
  • Institutional services, such as general liability and media insurance

It’s possible, and even likely, that you’ve also put in time as a freelancer, and therefore are aware that most of these things are nice to have, but hard to come by.

It’s also possible that you are willing to forgo these nice things in pursuit of your journalistic mission. This is a noble and oft-productive sort of masochism — but don’t let it get out of hand.

Planning — keep it simple

Maybe you have that perfect combination of adequate financing, lots of free time, enterprising spirit and the profound sense of masochism required to successfully build something big and complicated right out the gate. Awesome! Remember our names when you hit the big time …

For the rest of us, maybe it’s best to keep things simple. Pick a minimally complex goal that serves your mission and has potential crowd appeal.

In the startup world, this is called Minimum Viable Product (irksomely abbreviated as MVP).

Commercial or nonprofit?

Is your project about the profits or the mission? If the former, there are an abundance of small-business resources out there. If the latter, you can explore the various corporate vehicles for your mission. Here are six slides to help you along this path.

There is a place in between mission and profits, where we find the various benefit corporations. This is a new field and perhaps one worth exploring — if you can finance it.

Financing

Financing media projects are distinct sub-fields across the commercial and nonprofit sectors.

For commercial endeavors, you can try to raise capital personally (friends, family, or your own bank account), and there’s also the potential for the various sorts of venture capital and earned income. For nonprofits, you’ll be wrestling with grants, major gifts, and individual small gifts.

You can also try a crowdfunding campaign and raise four, five, or even six figures to bankroll one project or another. A great example is Matter, a long-form science journalism website that raised $140,000 on Kickstarter. They had the advantage, however, of a professionally produced video, and celebrity endorsements.

Crowdfunding can look variously like a subscription, sustainer, micro-investment or pre-order model — or it can also happen in the nonprofit sector and contribute to a donor’s annual tax deduction.

Nonprofit news projects can also seek major gifts and grants, though that is a difficult path to purse.

Organizational structures

Depending on your intention, especially if you’re working on your own, you may not need anything more than a good blog interface, some social media and a snappy email newsletter that’s optimized for sharing.

However, some work requires more infrastructure, and some separation between the individual and the endeavor.

When you work with a group of peers, even without any organizational structure, you have formed an unincorporated association, which could be considered the larval form of a future for-profit or nonprofit organization. There are some IRS rules that apply, particularly once you bring in more than $5,000 — and notably, members of the association are all personally liable in case any legal claims are made.

If your activities in either case eventually start generating enough cashflow and longevity, you’re going to want to take the next step and incorporate. The Digital Media Law Project Provides an excellent breakdown of your organizational and legal options for publishing the news, including the various corporate structures, LLCs, partnerships and sole proprietorships, as well as nonprofit options.

If you want to take the non-profit plunge, the Institute for Nonprofit News has an excellent set of educational guides for would-be 501(c)3 entrepreneurs.

Caveat-wise, keep in mind that the nonprofit path is particularly demanding. Philanthropic investment in 501(c)3 newsrooms is low, and tends to focus on traditional newsroom structures that require intensive investment in key operational needs that take time, money and energy away from fulfilling the journalistic mission.

However one of the more exciting opportunities in nonprofit journalism is the promise of individual giving as a renewed source of funding for public-interest reporting.

Crowdfunding for journalism is still in its infancy, but one thing is for certain —  the current boom in digital-news subscriptions and donations is an encouraging indication that people will donate to support media that reflect their democratic values and fulfills their information needs.

Bigger picture, individual giving in the United States remains the leading source of charitable funding nationwide. In 2015, Americans donated a record $373.25 billion.

Clearly, journalism needs to prioritize getting into that sweet spot.

Fiscal sponsorship for independent news media

In between launching a fully fledged news nonprofit and working solo off of crowdfunding donations is fiscal sponsorship — a service in which independent news producers can receive tax-deductible donations and receive grants under the auspices of a likeminded 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.

At Watershed media, we advocate for fiscal sponsorship as a means of pushing media reform beyond policy advocacy.

Fiscal sponsorship provides a lightweight alternative financing platform for independent, mission-driven media. It deepens independence for news producers and news teams — and connects them more directly with the communities that want to support them.