Nonprofit and Reader-Supported: On the Future of Local News
How readers and reporters are coming together to keep local journalism alive.
Local journalism in the U.S. is experiencing a sea change. In addition to the cascading closures of small-town papers and print alt-weeklies, last year saw the shutdown of Gothamist and DNAinfo, two vital sources of local news online. But for every local print and digital publication that loses funding, there’s an intrepid community of dedicated journalists and loyal readers forging a new path forward. Just this month, for example, the local outlets LAist and DCist have launched new projects on Kickstarter.
We sat down with Gothamist founder Jake Dobkin, Block Club Chicago editor-in-chief Shamus Toomey, and Brooklyn Deep executive editor Mark Winston Griffith — all creators behind successful Kickstarter Journalism projects — for a roundtable discussion on the persistent value of neighborhood news and what’s in store for the future of local storytelling.
— Maura M. Lynch
Mark Winston Griffith is the executive editor of Brooklyn Deep and the executive director of its parent company, Brooklyn Movement Center.
Shamus Toomey is the editor-in-chief of Block Club Chicago, a neighborhood news site founded by a group of journalists who previously worked for DNAinfo Chicago.
Kickstarter: Jake and Shamus, your publications were shut down by the same entity in 2017; this year, both of you came to Kickstarter to either relaunch or launch a different phase of your previous projects. When Gothamist and DNAinfo were shut down, what prompted you to keep going and move forward?
Jake Dobkin: I believe so much in the work that Gothamist does, and when we couldn’t do it anymore, I felt like it left a hole in the coverage in New York City that was not filled. I knew that the best place for it would be at a strong nonprofit. WNYC already had a strong basis in news, so it was one of the first places I thought of; [partnering with them] was a natural thing.
Shamus Toomey: Our readers were the ones who pulled us up off the mat and said, “We’re still out here, we’re still into it. We would read you if you were still around, we would support you if you asked.” We put our heads together and said, what sort of organization can we build that we have hopes of sustaining? Something smaller than what DNAinfo was, but something that can support a lot of the same coverage. One hundred percent of the motivation for it was our actual readers saying, “Hey, that was worthwhile, you should try it again.”
For all three of you, what was the thinking that led you to Kickstarter?
Mark Winston Griffith: I’ve been fundraising all of my adult life. I’m constantly challenged to find new and creative ways to raise money outside of the foundation world. [Kickstarter] made a lot of sense for Brooklyn Deep because it’s a creative project; there’s a great story and narrative that we can tell, and there’s a product at the end of the day.
We have a lot of challenges. Creating good content is obviously one, but even more so is distribution. The idea of stating our case and having us reach a wider audience beyond our immediate geographical area was really exciting.
Shamus Toomey: It was really a logistical thing, to be honest with you. We wanted to do this, and we wanted to get the word out there. Looking at the way Kickstarter is structured, it fit exactly what we were looking for, particularly the rewards system. We thought that would be a good way for people to give us five bucks if they just wanted to say, “Hey, I used to like what you did,” or go higher if they wanted to buy a subscription or become a member, or go really high if they wanted to really show that, “Hey, what you guys are doing is valuable.”
Jake Dobkin: We had a similar problem to Shamus, which was that we needed to start something without having it already running. We had always wanted to do membership stuff at both Gothamist and DNAinfo. A big pillar of our [new] business model is going to be membership, so the question was, how do you start a membership program before you have a website?
Our favorite readers were contacting us and saying, “We miss you, we want to help. What can we do?” We thought, how can we harness this power? The answer, which we also saw borne out by Block Club Chicago, was that Kickstarter is a perfect vehicle for this.
When we came together with WNYC, [nonprofit] sites were the ones that I was looking towards, thinking carefully about how they raise money, how much of it comes from readers, how much comes from foundations. I really believe that the future of news, especially local news, is not-for-profit and reader-supported.
“The future of news, especially local news, is not-for-profit and reader-supported.” —Jake Dobkin, Gothamist
Why do you think that’s resonating with you?
Jake Dobkin: Look outside, and notice how the for-profit business model has really started to decline. Some of it has to do with Facebook, some of it has to do with the way the internet started and how we gave away the content for free. We didn’t really get younger people habituated to paying for it, and that, of course, now has to change.
Speaking as a business person, to make a profit, you can’t spend all of the money that you make on the product. So, a nonprofit literally has an edge in that they can spend more money on the product. They do not have to please their owners, or investors, or anything like that. They can really think about the work and the readership. Nonprofits have many, many years of experience running membership models that for-profit businesses — with the exception of maybe The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal — really don’t have across media.
Shamus Toomey: For us, we’re hoping it’s going be an effective model to tell people, “Be a member. We’re not in it for the money, we’re just trying to sustain good salaries for our reporters and get as many [people] out there as possible. We’ll dump all the money back into the reporters and the editors.”
Mark Winston Griffith: It’s heartening to hear Shamus and Jake talk this way. Maybe four years ago, I did the entrepreneurial journalism program at CUNY; it was for journalists who were trying to jumpstart digital projects. I almost didn’t get into the program, and I was discouraged because there was an immediate bias against the fact that I’ve been running a nonprofit. The people who were the gatekeepers were like, “We don’t want you talking about any of this nonprofit stuff. We want to see how you’re going to generate revenue, earn income.”
As a person who’s been organizing all my life and who has a nonprofit that is a membership organization, that is the way I look at my work. It’s about engagement; it’s about having people be stakeholders, not just passive participants.
Jake Dobkin: That’s a really good point about involving the readers in the product. That was something we tried to do at Gothamist and at DNAinfo: get the community involved and have them generate ideas and give us tips. Long-term, these projects are going be successful only if we really get the entire community involved and motivated. No matter how much money we have, there just isn’t enough to put somebody on every block of the city. But if you have 5,000, 10,000, 50,000 readers, you probably could do it.
Shamus Toomey: That’s something that we’ve always pushed at DNAinfo and Block Club: “Let us know what’s going on in your neighborhood.” You can’t believe how many stories we would get straight from the people who live there. That’s where the best news comes from, at least in terms of neighborhood news. We made a point to follow up on all of those tips, so we were known as reliable: you can call us and we will call you back, or we’ll chase that story down. We’re coming around to what Mark’s probably known all along, which is that you really need buy-in from your readers and your community. That we’re all in this together, let’s figure out a way to keep this going.
Mark, because Brooklyn Deep is not a day-to-day news platform, I think you have an advantage to tell deeper stories. What’s your take on focusing on longer narratives as opposed to the daily news?
Mark Winston Griffith: It doesn’t feel like an advantage. [laughs] Telling the stories in that way is difficult. I think you need both in order to really tell a 360-degree story of a particular neighborhood. You need to be able to give broad context to tell stories over time, told by local people. What DNAinfo and Gothamist do, the grind that creates daily content, I appreciate it not just from a journalist point of view, but as someone who runs a community-based organization, who is begging for news outlets to recognize us and see what we’re doing.
I almost cried when I heard what was happening with DNAinfo and Gothamist. They were a lifeline for us in many ways. The journalists there really took us seriously; we knew their names, we had their telephone numbers, and they respected our stories.
With the trend of local outlets and papers being shut down, where do you see the future of news going?
Jake Dobkin: I believe it is nonprofit and reader-supported, but I also believe that it doesn’t make sense to have a dozen large, heavily funded news nonprofits in the same city. In New York, I expect that we’re going see the evolution of [a few] really powerful news nonprofits that will be really enduring. Most of the local news brands that I know about probably won’t be here in ten years, but I know for a fact that public radio and public television will be here in twenty years, and probably much longer than that.
Shamus Toomey: The idea of asking people to support [news] directly makes a ton of sense. I hear this over and over again: we used to get TV for free and pay for the news, and now we pay for TV and get the news for free. Now, we need to get back to the point of asking people to pay a reasonable amount. It’s hard to cover journalism effectively if you don’t have people out there snooping around for stories; editors can’t do that much without reporters. Reporters are the lifeblood for news organizations, and if you can’t pay ’em, you certainly can’t keep ’em for very long.
Mark Winston Griffith: You’ll see a lot of collaboration. A lot of us are not going to be here in a few years, and we’re going to have to rely on one another to make it. You’re going to see more of that as time goes on.
Shamus Toomey: We’re super excited about trying to figure out a way to collaborate, whether it’s teaming reporters together, or at the very least supporting each other’s work. Show up at each other’s events, retweet each other’s stories, throw them in a newsletter, let people know that these groups are out there and they need your help just to get more and more eyeballs on this copy.
What’s your advice for building community around a project?
Mark Winston Griffith: For us, building community is really what [Brooklyn Deep and Brooklyn Movement Center] are all about. [Running a Kickstarter project was] a networking exercise. It was systematically going through every single universe that we integrated with and talking about the importance of what we did. We asked them, “What would the world look like if we weren’t around?”
You’ve just got to be willing to work the entire campaign. It’s not like you get it all set up and you press “send” and you sit back and watch all the money roll in. You have to constantly work those groups, those channels, and have it be as viral as possible. It really looks very much like our day-to-day organizing work that we do door-to-door. It’s all about relationship-building.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.