HOW TO START A GRASSROOTS NONPROFIT JOURNALISM INCUBATOR FROM SCRATCH
A 10-Step Starter Guide
In the interest of developing a blueprint before hollering about our model from the rooftops, in our first year, while initially tooling the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, I kept (relatively) quiet about my team’s experiments. Until recently. At this point, with more than two-dozen features and 150-plus columns in the can — plus the experience of hosting several events in the communities we cover—it’s time to pay it forward. Some people have asked about our process, and we’re already speaking with journalists in two other cities who are starting similar incubators to boost media in their regions. With them in mind, along with anybody else looking for answers outside of traditional paradigms, I am excited to share lessons from our launch in Boston through posts (like this one) and videos (coming soon).
Government support can revive American journalismmedium.com
I believe that there are countless ways to skin this cat, none of which involve hiring salespeople to push advertisements the Neanderthal way. What follows here just happens to be the path that my squad took. There’s no hard science driving our development and evolution — just an endless cache of heart and hustle. Plus the underlying idea to build an incubator that, unlike many comparable university-based models, actually works with freelancers, engages and listens to readers, and primarily distributes to alternative and local publications that need the most help. In any case, here are 10 rather simple starter steps — any one of which I could probably write a whole book about — for filling gaps in any eroding media market.
I’m guessing you acutely understand the need for more investigative reporting and for quality journalism in general if you’re seeking this advice, but really — if you’re going to take on this kind of challenge, you should be studying the media religiously. As for basic homework, you should pay close attention to the staples — Columbia Journalism Review, On The Media, Nieman Lab, etc. — but also read white papers about issues like ethics and funding, while watching closely every article and project that emerges from sector leaders like ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. The nonprofit journalism world is an awfully exclusive club, but if you stay in tune with trends and turns and actually have something to contribute you will find people who are willing to collaborate and (hopefully) kick you some funding.
If you think the cause of media can be advanced through competition, then this probably isn’t for you. To start a free-floating nonprofit journalism operation like BINJ, you will have to play nice with everyone, or at least almost everyone — from college and alternative papers and sites to any mainstream friends who can help disseminate your stories and build awareness through larger audiences. My co-founder and I sat with dozens of editors, reporters, publishers, and anybody else who would listen to us before we commissioned a single word (one of those meetings was with Jason Pramas, now the BINJ network director, who we convinced to come on board). In the year that’s followed, we have syndicated in and distributed content through more than 20 of those partners, and have several more relationships in progress. Don’t limit your reach to English-language publications either; ethnic outlets are prime places to reach significant new readerships, and in many cases have spent decades tooling the kind of engagement models that nonprofit media geeks are now buzzing over.
Once you put the word out on the street with editors and publishers, it’s time to build your team. Your crew. Your tribe. Your squad. As the news and features editor of DigBoston, the alternative weekly in these parts, I already had a roster of contributors wanting solid pay for important work. But even without such a Rolodex, if you’re studying the game already you should have no problem finding potential freelance media makers. Between social networks, local journalism schools, mastheads of existing outlets, and word of mouth, it should be easy to round up a posse. You will still have to motivate and pay them — we’ll get to that — but at first I recommend hosting a meetup to air your intentions. At the time of our first get-together, which attracted more than 50 freelancers, we had yet to raise more than $1,000. Our message: If you ride with us, we’ll be able to develop and sustain a resource that will simultaneously generate income for reporters and fill gaps in the eroding local media.
Unpacking the first-ever meetup of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ)medium.com
Climb up on your roof. Print a thousand flyers. Make that two thousand. Call into every college radio show and podcast that will have you on as a guest. Make Facebook and Instagram announcements, and email all the assets to your team so they can blast the word out from all angles. If you’re going to be an effective media nonprofit, people are going to have to know that you’re there. Get those social media pages cranking, start building email lists, and shout the news all over town. I could write a book on this one step alone — for BINJ, we did everything from spray-chalk stencils in the street, to paid Facebook advertising, to a barter deal with a T-shirt company so that people would be showing off our logo around Boston. Bottom line: This is not the time to be bashful. In my personal experience, the more it sickens me to shamelessly promote my cause ad nauseam, the more people emerge from the woodwork to support us.
Unless you come from a sales background, which is probably unlikely if you give a damn about saving real journalism, this will surely be the hardest part. Especially if you’re like me, and almost everyone you know from years of reporting on oppressed communities is poor or working class. It still has to be done though, so tuck any shame you have into a drawer and start making a list of everyone who might have something to give you. It’s definitely critical to connect with wealthy people, but you will be surprised at how many ordinary folks are happy to hand over a tax-deductible donation of a hundred bucks or more. Which reminds me — in order to raise money, you will need to find a so-called fiscal sponsor, which can be any existing nonprofit. All arrangements are different, but basically you pay them a percentage for the right to raise funds using their federal tax number. I recommend finding a natural fit; for BINJ, we were fortunate to become an Innovator-in-Residence with Press Pass TV, a youth media-oriented organization with which we work closely. Down the line, you may want to establish your incubator as its own nonprofit, though even some of the larger investigative centers stay under the fiscal sponsorship of their host universities.
By now you should be able to deliver your elevator pitch in your sleep. Hopefully you will have written and rewritten one-sheets and PowerPoint presentations, have a mission posted online, and are focused about what you want your operation to look like. Good, because you’ll need to use and recycle and tweak those assets endlessly as you apply for every opportunity that might yield some scratch for your startup. There are lots of books and resources that show the way to money like a treasure map (we subscribe to GrantStation, for starters, and this Media Impact Funders map is pretty amazing). But instead of leading readers to specific funders (you will have to buy me a beer for that one), for now I’ll simply say that you will not get grants unless you apply for them, so you should try for as many as possible. Anybody who has dabbled in nonprofits will tell you that survival in the sector is a numbers game, and that thoughtful and more frequent applications reap the best results. You can blaze all the new trails you want, and it’s always prudent to diversify revenue streams, but none of that sheds the importance of persistence in applying.
It’s time to start reporting. As far as BINJ went, we had some stories and ideas in the pipeline while we were in the process of opening up shop. But we didn’t let that get in the way of the basic organization and housekeeping that we needed, and which consumed most of our first several months. At the same time, we knew it was important to show and prove, and to not have people wondering when we were going to start dropping features. Everything is project-based at BINJ, so we took issues that we wanted to investigate — encroaching pipelines in our state, the history of liquor license disparity in Boston, and constitutionally questionable surveillance measures, to name a few — and formed teams around each of them. Before long we had our first feature, and then another one, and then another one, and before we knew it we were a functioning editorial entity. This also seems like an appropriate place to note that it was relatively simple to start publishing quickly because: 1 — We primarily publish through existing outlets, so we essentially just have to create and then hand over content; and 2 — We use Medium.com as a clearinghouse for our material, so there was zero money blown on web development and no programmer lying to us about when our site/app would be finished.
At this point you probably need more money, and that first round of handouts is running dry. Perhaps it’s time to give something to people in return — not necessarily a material gift, though cool merch and swag help, but at least an experience — in order to sustain their support. We learned quickly that while not everyone is willing or able to cut a check, there are many awesome store and restaurant owners who are happy to help. We were fortunate that a favorite Cambridge watering hole offered its back room for a weeknight, and the excellent reception to that early party offered welcome proof that our concept could work. In addition to generating an initial couple of grand that we used to seed the aforementioned first projects, the fun and light event gave people a chance to see and chat about our plans and ambitions in person. And while I hate to be garish, I have to acknowledge the importance of sharing images from these festivities. The more FOMO you can trigger, the more successful your next event will be.
Since not everyone is into the bar scene, or on social media for that matter, you’ll have to physically get into the neighborhoods that you want to cover. You need to meet people. Lots of them. Over the past year especially, even the most privileged and detached mainstream atrocities have at least superficially mounted the engagement train. But forget about the hype for a second and ask yourself one thing: Where can you reach people that they will be comfortable sharing information with you? When broadcast news outlets “engage,” so to speak, it’s often in the bullshit form of a poll. Which is fraudulent, since they don’t genuinely give a damn about what their audience thinks. If you want to grow a grassroots reporting incubator, however, you shouldn’t just be finding sources in your readership, but also reaching deep into the crowd to identify new media makers. Among other approaches, to this end we have set up pop-up newsrooms to engage the public. Whatever your approach, just don’t overthink it. Engagement, as it turns out, has been the bedrock of community reporting since the Sons of Liberty were inking tracts at the Green Dragon Tavern.
You’re nowhere close to finished. From what I can tell, none of us will ever be. Which is fine with me, as I’ve come to rather like having the duty of perpetually reminding people about the importance of local journalism. I type several letters a week to potential donors using my old Royal typewriter, and in addition to the personal touch, we have an unofficial motto for the BINJ fundraising front — you’re all free to use and co-opt it, so please do — which is that supporting nonprofit reporting is like backing all your favorite causes at once. From environmental protection to Big Brother and metastasizing threats to privacy, we’re on it! Oftentimes, the bulk of editorial work plus fundraising — on top of other jobs we all have since BINJ isn’t paying anybody’s rent in full just yet — pushes into overnights and weekends, but it’s worth every hour since we are increasingly able to break major stories and foster the change that we hope to see in the media. Busy as we all are though, there’s nothing I love more than seeing journalists escape from traditional models and newfangled content farms alike, and I’m always happy to answer any questions about my path toward the nonprofit promised land.