Navigating Non-Profit News

Peter Osnos
Jun 27 · 10 min read

From 2006 until 2014, Platform was the name of a regular column on journalism, publishing and developments in technology hosted by The Century Foundation where I was a media fellow. The column also appeared at The Daily Beast and then theatlantic.com where I was a contributing writer. These columns are on the Beast and Atlantic.com sites.

Platform will now resume and from time to time be posted on Medium under the icon above (with thanks to Maryellen Tseng for its design). Other columns on Medium beginning in 2017 can be found under my name.

Credit: flickr/Glen Bledsoe

In Miami last February about 600 people convened to consider tackling the great challenges to local journalism (and journalism generally) with non-profit models. It was, by all accounts, a major occasion attracting representatives of the most formidable new enterprises including The ProPublica Local Reporting Network, Report for America and the American Journalism Project and funders led by the John N. and James L. Knight Foundation which announced that it “would be doubling our investment in strengthening journalism to $300 million over the next five years.”

Anyone who even casually follows the media scene knows how tumultuous the last decade has been. “Legacy” media has been battered, especially newspapers and magazines that have seen print advertising and readers sharply decline. Names that were obscure at the start of the millennium — Google and Facebook to start with — are now inextricably part of our lives and the source of increasing concern because of their power and the impact they have in defining what the media has become.

It is easy to forget that the iPhone was only introduced in 2007–12 years ago –and became as or more pervasive than television in the first decade after 1948. The “device” or the “phone” is all-in-one: news, entertainment, games, video, books, music, weather, email, texts and oh-yes, a phone. Even with Find-A-Phone and the Cloud, the prospect of losing yours is a form of wide-spread anxiety. I know.

The pace of media upheaval has been frenetic with nearly equal parts despair and excitement; collapse and success. Saviors have emerged: Jeff Bezos at The Washington Post; Marc Benioff at Time; and heroes including the Sulzberger family at The New York Times which held on when so many others gave up and reinvented its business model. There are villains, the private equity and allied “investors” that hollowed out papers from coast-to-coast. Consider Tronc and what it did to the Tribune and Times-Mirror dailies as an icon of what went so very wrong.

In a New Jersey congressional race in 2018, Tom Malinowski had to campaign (successfully for congress) without any meaningful local media, he said. He was covered mainly bloggers and a paragraph in a New York Times roundup, although the paper did eventually endorse him.

On the other hand, in what is one of the better elements of American character, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and news people of all kinds have started to engage the crisis and made some astonishing gains. There is a sense of creating a whole new way to organize the news universe. Yet non-profit journalism is not altogether new. National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) are both in established middle age. Morning Edition and All Things Considered are still the top two daily national news programs. Frontline is a perennial champion in documentary awards. The News Hour has maintained standards too rarely seen on the network and cable news shows.

Among the newer enterprises, ProPublica, The Marshall Project and Texas Tribune (and others) have made so distinct an impact that in a matter of years they have emerged as among the most highly respected news organizations in the country, rounding up prizes by the bushel.

American journalism — what we now correctly call the media; ‘the press” is quaint — has evolved in much the way the country has since its founding. From the outset, newspapers in even the small towns spread the word on events near and far adding opinions, reasoned and vituperative. Each technological innovation made the news more available more quickly. As a reporter in Moscow in the 1970s, my contact with the foreign desk was an occasional phone call and a terse daily telex exchange when stories were filed. Today, reporters, editors and publishers are in incessant contact for better and, as old timers might say, to excess. I reveled in a three-day old Herald-Tribune mailed from Paris and scratchy BBC and VOA.

My own forays in the non-profit news world began in the late 1970s when I became a regular contributor to Morning Edition and a co-host of a weekly NPR foreign affairs show called “Communique.” I also flew to New York once a week to read foreign affairs commentary for a local WNET news show (at $100 a piece plus Shuttle airfare of $18 each way). I was thrilled to occasionally appear on Washington Week in Review for $200.

In 1997, after 18 years at The Washington Post and 12 years at Random House, I founded PublicAffairs books which was a for-profit (I called it seeking profit) venture with a non-profit sensibility. Our audience, I believed was a cross-over with NPR, PBS, C-Span and major national print publications like The Atlantic and The New Yorker. In 2006 I started the Caravan Project, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur and Carnegie Corporation of New York enabling small and non-profit publishers to learn how to make digital books and audio. And for six years I was the admiring vice-chairman to the great Victor Navasky at the Columbia Journalism Review.

In 2009 challenged by a friend from Chicago to do something about deteriorating local journalism there, I helped launch the Chicago News Cooperative which was run by Jim O’Shea, former managing editor of the Tribune and editor of the Los Angeles Times. CNC accepted an agreement to supply The New York Times with four pages a week of Chicago area news for editions printed there. The enterprise raised about $4 million in a few years and O’Shea reminds me that he managed to shut it down without debt. I stepped back when I realized that my residence in New York was and should have been a disqualifying factor for leadership. Jim guided CNC until its board succumbed to the attractions of Michael Ferro (later master of the aforementioned Tronc) and abandoned the non-profit concept for a costly, very costly venture, that started with buying the Chicago Sun-Times and lost its investors about $80 million, according to a story in Crain’s Chicago Business in 2017.

At CJR we tried one year of what we called Encore Fellows, established journalists no longer working at their organizations and paid to write for the magazine with a grant from The Atlantic Foundation program for “aging.” It was a good idea, hobbled in my view by CJR’s calling them “downsized” journalists. The Encore concept stayed with me, however, recognizing the legions of experienced news people who were being laid off or taking buyouts and still very much interested in staying in the field. The “boomer” generation was after all, the largest in history.

In 2016, in conversations with my close friend, John Darnton, the writer/editor who was now curator of the George Polk Awards at Long Island University we drafted a proposal for an Encore program to be affiliated with the Polks to support investigative reporting and opportunities for mentoring L.I.U. students. The university passed on the plan. Basically, I think, because administrators didn’t see what advantages it could bring to the already lustrous Polk Prizes that Darnton directed.

I then took the Encore idea to my college alma mater, Brandeis University where there was The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. The project got a very warm initial reception at the highest levels of the university. (I was committing to arrange the funding). But the notion started to come a cropper when the general counsel of the university said that because Brandeis accepted federal funds it could not provide non-profit status to a program that had age requirements (deciphering the jargon that was used). The proposal, however, merely said it was for “experienced” journalists. The lawyer’s mistaken reaction soon led to a mutual decision to drop the idea.

When I met Sarah Bartlett, dean of the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York at a dinner, she was intrigued by the Encore concept and together we designed a proposal for an exchange to match Encore journalists with news organizations in the five boroughs that needed assistance with editors, reporters and advice. Sarah had a school to run, so raising the money was to be my role. We did secure an initial grant from the Leon Levy Foundation of $50,000 towards our goal of enough money to operate for two years. But my pitches at the major foundations where I had what I thought were close and successful relationships went nowhere. What I got were polite but unequivocal turndowns. After three tries, I realized that Encore was something I wanted to see happen but didn’t need to pursue given how much else was going on in the field. So, Sarah (a brilliant builder on the legacy of the school’s founder, Stephen Shepard) and I put Encore into “turnaround” as the process is called in Hollywood.

Instead, I decided to try to share here some of the guidelines I developed in my three decade encounters with the burgeoning field of America’s new media frontier. Here are a few:

What Tends to Work:

1-Start with a benefactor. Three of the most successful enterprises had a single benefactor who provided a significant (and in the case of ProPublica enormous) amount of money. The Marshall Project and Texas Tribune were clearly enhanced by the contributions of Neil Barsky at Marshall and John Thornton at Texas Tribune.

The Chicago News Cooperative’s equivalent of that was the commitment by The New York Times of $350,000 for the Chicago pages in a unique partnership that the Times also tried in San Francisco and Austin. None of these could be sustained. After the first year, disappointed with advertising sales, the Times cut support back to $15,000 a month.

2-Find a newsroom partner of demonstrated skill at all aspects of the job. At ProPublica there was Paul Steiger, the ex-editor of The Wall Street Journal and Richard Tofel, a lawyer with brains, news savvy and business judgment. Neil Barsky hired Bill Keller, the former executive editor of The New York Times as editor-in-chief and later Carroll Bogert as president whose background in journalism and non-profit communications was doubly valuable. The Texas Tribune hired Evan Smith from Texas Monthly. His charisma enabled a Texas-sized behemoth to take shape with events and data collection that made the coffers whole.

3-Provide visibility. ProPublica and Marshall quickly established bona fides by partnering with other news organizations, which doubtless has some financial benefit, but more importantly made their stories visible in respected places like The New York Times and The New Yorker. This is supposed to be the age of digital-first, but my sense is that appearing in print still carries more cachet than a pixel presence. That may change but it is still the case. When I discussed Encore with funders, they always asked, “where will the stories appear” and a self-branded website was not enough.

4-Have a Sustainable Model. Funders want a time line. They will not keep paying if the enterprise cannot raise its own money. With advertising so much less of a factor supporting news, there is a need for subscribers, memberships, pay-walls, events and specialized products. A budget for out-years is essential.

We have all learned that without a way to support your efforts, no matter how good, you will eventually fold. In the past newsrooms left the business side to others. One characteristic of today’s world is that collaboration and mutual respect for different functions is essential. This can be as risky to maintaining standards and values as it is necessary.

5-Assemble a meaningful board. A mix of people with multiple assets and not just financial. There needs to be a “give-or-get” mentality when it comes to money and enough understanding of the journalism being practiced to keep it going. At CNC, O’Shea and I recruited a big-money board that eventually decided our little non-profit wasn’t worth the trouble.

What to Avoid:

1-Starting from Scratch. What I call “standing on the street with a roll of quarters” is exceptionally hard. That was the case with the Encore initiatives. Without a significant early commitment, no matter how estimable you may think the idea is, it is very hard to break through. Those massive university funding campaigns always go through a quiet phase with announcement of the drive held back until the process is financially well along.

2-The perils of bureaucracy. You need an institutional affiliation of some kind to get 501c3 status. You need people to manage administration and finance. Working with the largest institutions — universities, for example — inevitably means being embedded in what are arduous discussions of systems and regulations, which anyone involved would agree, are not designed for efficiency. These are not meant to be malevolent, but they are cumbersome enough to be discouraging. A better option is #1 above: having enough money to create your own management structure or pay someone to do it for you.

3-Substituting click metrics for quality and clarity. Because the number of readers is now essential to establishing a financial base, the temptation to go for the sassy and sensational is very strong. That tends to be like too much fast food. It makes you fat and feels hollow.

We are still in an early stage of the rebuilding of news gathering. One major change: for most of us, the news in the past was delivered by enterprises that came at specific times of day — the morning paper, the weekly magazine, the evening news. Today you have what you want, when you want it and can pay for it in a variety of ways. For the first time we are all editors-in-chief, choosing to design our own media portfolio. That is a magnificent opportunity to be well informed and a great responsibility to make the right choices.

An adapted version of this article appeared at CJR.org in June.

Peter Osnos’ Platform

Perspectives on journalism and publishing from a longtime journalist and publisher

Peter Osnos

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Founder in 1997 of PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books at Hachette Book Group

Peter Osnos’ Platform

Perspectives on journalism and publishing from a longtime journalist and publisher