The first thing you should know about the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism is that none of us are trying to get rich off the nonprofit industrial complex. Personally, after more than 10 years in the newspaper business without a single raise, I don’t even expect to reach the middle class, and that’s fine, I chose this life. Among other reasons, these expectations are an important starting point because if we are going to help save journalism, 501(c)(3) administrators can’t bank six-figure salaries. There won’t be enough money left for such extravagances. At least not if we’re spreading whatever wealth we can wrangle around to a diverse crop of promising media makers.
The second thing that may help people understand BINJ — and how we actually believe our industry can save or at least help itself — is to imagine the romanticized existence of reporters in your favorite films and television shows. Now slash their salaries by two-thirds, confine them to much shittier apartments with bed bugs, pay them $100 four months after publication for their articles which take a week to write, and don’t forget to call their cells relentlessly demanding they make payments on their student loan debts. That’s your average daily pickle for an independent journalist; so while it would be awesome to get every last reporter a respectable full-time gig, at BINJ we’re just trying to fill bellies. It’s really that fucking cold out here.
Anyone who wants to help save journalism first needs to acknowledge that we no longer live in an age when mediocre book ideas catch hundred-thousand dollar advances, and when incredible proposals put nonfiction authors in a place where they can actually have time to pen a proper manuscript. For my generation, those days never really existed; if you’re a writer in a city like New York or Boston, then chances are you have a number of friends who, while under contract for a book, were forced to hustle at an additional if not undesirable service job of some sort to make rent. As for the kind of ordinary contracts that (hopefully) keep the lights on; in 2015, a $1,000 freelance check can be a game-changer for someone living month to month, and those paydays are increasingly hard to come by.
TIME FOR SOME ACTION
If these seem like big words, it’s because BINJ has taken some big actions and already kicked a couple of doors down — and because I’m proud to say we’ve done it with relatively little money. In our first five months, for less than $20,000, we produced a significant amount of critical journalism and engaged readers on a number of occasions that we used to generate leads and content. For starters:
- We asked editors and reporters in the independent and ethnic media how we can help support them, and heard that outlets need everything from crime reporters who can navigate bureaucracies, to photographers and better arts reporting. From there, we got to working on fulfilling their wish lists.
- So far we commissioned and generated five features — on topics ranging from the environment and natural gas, to surveillance and government contracts, to public records laws and police militarization — that ran in three publications, involved more than a dozen contributors, were shared several thousand times on social media, and have already reached more than 100,000 readers between print and online.
- We adopted and are cultivating three regular columns — two weekly, one biweekly — with local journalists, and are helping them to build their brands and subsidize their work through merchandise and events.
- We started a campaign on Instagram to encourage people to share images of surveillance cameras in their communities. In addition to helping our reporting on these issues, the exercise helps raise awareness about privacy and civil liberties. And it costs very little.
- We produced a full-color quarterly about tech and innovation called the Boston Bubble. We also had a party and customized an effective direct mail campaign to promote the premium palm-sized publication, sales from which help fund BINJ projects.
- We surveyed 100 freelance media makers in Greater Boston, which not only confirmed my personal experience and hunches about the slumping industry, but also showed me things are worse than I imagined and in part inspired this invective.
- We fashioned a pop-up newsroom to bring our reporting directly to the people and find sources on the ground. In another case, we included with one of our projects a subsequent panel discussion in the community the feature was about.
- We’re empowering readers to engage beyond the final paragraph with something called an Action Box. We conceptualized, designed, and programmed the image map in-house for a total cost of nothing.
The point isn’t just that we produce hard and compelling journalism for a fraction of what it costs major newsrooms to do the same amount of work. The point is that neither those outlets nor university reporting teams are doing what we do, or covering the stories we are covering in the way we are writing them. They’re by and large not working on the front lines, and they sure as hell ain’t living on the margins. Journalism won’t be saved inside the ivory tower.
In addition, we are providing opportunities where they didn’t exist, as most creatives in our stable barely even get their queries returned from editors at major publications. Likewise, college programs rarely work with writers from outside their institutions. Left to their own devices, people on the fringes and with daytime jobs that pay the bills may tweet or blog for no monetary compensation, but very few are willing to perform the hundreds of hours of research that are often needed for deep dives. This is tragic, since in my experience as an editor in Boston, independent contractors are often closer to both neighborhoods and hyperlocal sources than their well-paid full-time counterparts who tend to live out in the suburbs.
THE COLLEGE TRY
Up until the day my former employer, the Boston Phoenix, went out of business in March 2013, the enduring alternative weekly — which had been around since 1966 — was producing anywhere from three to five features a week, mostly between 1,200 and 5,000 words, written by both in-house reporters (everyone from staff writers to editors and the web team contributed) and freelancers. The Hub has a couple other outlets that help up-and-coming journos develop long and involved articles, but more than even any larger publication like the Globe — which uses stringers but is famously exclusive and does not in any demonstrable way serve as a training ground for outsiders — the Phoenix provided that essential laboratory. Since the weekly closed, there’s been a void.
If we sit idle waiting for armchair longform journalists to emerge, then we might as well give politicians permission to steal. That was my thought when, along with a colleague from DigBoston, where I’m currently the news and features editor (I have three jobs, plus write liners notes for Wu-Tang on the side to make ends meet), I started BINJ earlier this year. At the Dig, we have the resources to generate one or maybe two investigative features every month. I wanted to do more, and so I formed the nonprofit (under a fiscal sponsorship by Press Pass TV) in order to fund stories and pay writers. I sometimes call it a local version of ProPublica, which has incubated award-winning work with giants like the New York Times. Only instead of teaming with the biggest newspapers on earth, we aim to support small existing infrastructure by providing outlets with the kind of laborious journalism they can’t otherwise afford.
Since we’re trying to serve publications and populations that don’t always have the resources to support the kind of work that’s needed in their areas, we don’t ask for any payment from said outlets, but rather fund all projects through a mix of small foundation grants and individual donations (we also just raised $10,000 through a Beacon Reader campaign, and have a holiday party coming up for those of you in Massachusetts who would like to help and see us in action). And this is where we differ from most university-based newsrooms. I’ve always known they existed, but only since I founded BINJ and started poking around the nonprofit journalism sector have I realized how much money — that could be going to struggling reporters and news organizations — gets lost in the college system, and goes to paying the exorbitant salaries of academics and Baby Boomers.
You may be saying, “But what about all the important work done by these college incubators paid for by the big foundations? How can you begrudge them?” Easy, because most major academic institutions can afford to finance such essential programs on their own, and because while their journalism is often top notch, it’s rarely rooted in the neighborhoods in which these universities are based. Forensic data digs and fancy applications are admirable, but such bells and whistles don’t need to be paid for by foundations, and probably should not be if the underwriting charities are charged with actually reaching impacted parties.
College students are already privileged (as I once was as a journalism grad student myself), and so are many of their professors who enjoyed significant media salaries in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and who occupy the majority of full professorships today. While spoiled faculty members everywhere will probably resent any reshuffling of resources from campuses out toward the real world, students would be better off for it, since all the formal training in the world will not prepare you for an ecosystem in which there is no work available. Schooling students in state-of-the-art technologies and prepping them for something greater than the demoralizing slog that is their best prospective scenario on some Manhattan content farm — perpetuating this new media myth and leaving countless struggling but valuable community newspapers to wither and die — is no more useful or less cruel than temporarily housing a foster kid in a penthouse only to evict him in mid-winter at the height of his delusion.
I have no real ax to grind with academia in general; I have an MS in journalism from Boston University, and teach communications at Salem State University. While I’d like to see those places benefit from grants and from the generosity of their alumni networks, I’d only be defending future tenure prospects by pretending that either program is turning out qualified feature writers. From what I’ve seen, no college in America produces fully capable long form artists. That’s always been the job of editors at publications with the wherewithal to coach the farm team.
I know this rant comes off like an obnoxious startup manifesto. I did publish it on Medium after all. Nevertheless, I hope some of the lessons I learned during these last couple of months come in handy for those in the media who are searching for solutions. At BINJ we don’t have all the answers, but we’re willing to ask questions that nobody else is asking, like, “How much funding for journalism goes to colleges, and never manifests in the community?” There is an unbelievable amount of talent out here, and there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of readers or stories. Our job now is to convince more of the people and foundations who support journalism to water the grassroots, and to foster a shift in which wealthy colleges and universities help tend the journalistic landscape on their own dime.
P.S.: I hope even those who disagree with my perspective — I’m sure you’re writing angry letters to me in defense of your careers and salaries right now — respect my decision to not call out any college journalism programs by name. It’s not a fight I want; as it is, I may have jeopardized certain relationships and strained a few potential funding arms by writing this. What I want is for people to realize that while there are many people doing a lot of great things for journalism, far too little of their progress is reaching the people who need it the most.