Sunday, November 15, 2009

Seattle news site gives up advertising for non-profit journalism

Inevitable in many discussions I have about local journalism are quizzical responses to my suggestion that an untried model for sustaining good reporting pioneered at a few places elsewhere is 501-c-3. Last month Seattle's local news site announced its conversion to non-profit status and enumerated the benefits:
In the summer of 2008, I began to suspect that an advertising-only model for revenue was not going to support high-quality journalism. The migration of advertising to the Web had slowed and the rates were staying low. The board weighed further investment against other models, notably the public-broadcast, member-supported model. We engaged Mike Crystal, my longtime colleague as publisher of Seattle Weekly, to look into the nonprofit model, noting encouraging examples in other cities .... Late last year, the board and owners voted to shift to this new model, and the owners of Crosscut LLC generously donated all assets of the company to the newly formed Washington state nonprofit corporation, Crosscut Public Media.

Setting all this in motion has taken some time as we assembled a new board, the case statements, budgets, and business plans, as well as securing our tax-exempt status and lining up early seed funding. Last November, we had to furlough much of the staff while we regrouped. Our contributing writers, now about 40 strong, continued to produce fine stories, and you readers have stayed with us and helped the site to grow. Another factor during the past year has been the very unsettled media landscape, particularly after the Post-Intelligencer stopped its print edition and many journalists were cut adrift by layoffs at other publications.

That landscape is still tossing about and discovering new fault lines, but I do think that one clear model (among several) that has emerged is the Crosscut model: serious about quality journalism, independent, nonpartisan, broad in its range of topics as well as geography and demography, and dedicated to "journalism in the public interest" as a mission-driven, community-supported nonprofit. This model has greater stability from three sources of income: annual memberships, grants and major gifts, and advertising and sponsorships. (No government funding, though; a difference from public broadcast.) Diverse sources of revenue translate into greater sustainability and flexibility. Community ownership means mission-driven and not tempted to be sold to other owners or out-of-town companies.

As an editor, I love the new framework for picking stories and writers and focusing coverage. In the commercial context, particularly in Web journalism, there is great pressure to run stories that get a lot of hits (gossip about Sarah Palin, for example), and also to do stories that reinforce a niche that advertisers covet (technology breakthroughs, for instance). Now those pressures are reduced, and we can think primarily of running stories that the public needs to know, including somewhat longer and therefore more nuanced stories that lead people out of their comfort zones.
Nashville really has a limited number of alternatives to the traditionally funded media. The Tennessean still operates on the wilting advertisement and subscription model of news gathering. So, does its competitor SouthComm, which also may be leaning on the state to infuse its source of venture capitalism in the near future.

We don't have a non-profit alternative news source here in middle Tennessee but there are plenty of models for founding one:
There are similar efforts around the country. The closest parallels are Minnpost in Minnesota; VoiceofSanDiego in San Diego; the St. Louis Beacon; the New Haven Independent; NewWest in Missoula and other Rocky Mountain cities; TheTyee in Vancouver, B.C.; and Chi-Town Daily News in Chicago. The general definition of these sites is: all-local, Web-only, locally owned, news-oriented (as opposed to ideological sites), publishing daily, and broad range of topics.

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