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The rise of civic, nonprofit journalism

May 26: The long-awaited Bay Citizen launched online today in the San Francisco Bay area. This much-anticipated nonprofit news site gained fame over the last year when it was announced that billionaire and local philanthropist Warren Hellman’s Family Foundation would provide $5 million in seed funding. According to the New York Times, websites of this kind are often lucky to get $1 million in foundation funding.

Although the Bay Citizen may be the biggest nonprofit to make its debut this year, it is just one of at least seven nonprofit news sites that has launched since the beginning of 2010. This number includes the Connecticut Mirror, Tucson Sentinel, FairWarning in Sherman Oaks, Calif., Maine Center of Public Interest Reporting, Austin Bulldog, and Sacramento’s Cal Watchdog.

The nonprofit news model started to gain popularity when retired venture capitalist and former San Diego Union-Tribune metro editor Neil Morgan launched the Voice of San Diego in 2005. The frequency in which nonprofit news sites have launched over the last year has only gained ground. “It’s tough enough for for-profit ventures to sustain themselves, even the established ones,” said Michael Regan, editor of the Connecticut Mirror. “It seems to me that some variation of a nonprofit model is kind of essential to get a new startup going these days. I don’t know what for-profit model that would work in this climate.”

The investigative disposition of nonprofits

By nature, the nonprofit news model often provides investigative and enterprise news. This comes as the result of traditional media reducing their coverage of what Regan called “accountability journalism.”

The same need to fill missing gaps in coverage holds true for the Bay Citizen, which notes on its website that local newsrooms have cut almost 50 percent of their staff in the last five years, as well as coverage of civic news. “Professional journalism is worth saving. The Bay Citizen aims to provide unbiased and independent coverage of news, which we believe is critical to a functioning democracy and the information health of our communities,” notes the publication’s mission statement.

The problem with investigative reporting is it is often not supported by the market, noted James T.  Hamilton, director of the Dewitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University. “It is costly, may not generate a story every time, and has benefits that are hard for a newspaper to monetize,” he said in an e-mail interview. “There are many spillover benefits to society when a story about corruption is published, but those who benefit may not read or appreciate the paper. The lack of a strong market for investigative reporting means it is something that nonprofits may focus on.”

Despite the civil service many of the nonprofit sites may be providing, former arts editor of NPR and Salon.com Bill Wyman recently penned in his blog Hitsville that nonprofits are a “dead end.” The foundation for his argument was that there is little money in even paid journalism, and only a small percentage of people are actually interested in reading in-depth news.

But Hamilton believes that they have staying power: “Foundation grants can help cover the fixed costs of setting up organizations, and show the public what types of content can be produced. In the long run, diverse streams could support the sites, including advertising, memberships/donations, and money from events and conferences.”

In the spirit of teamwork

Last year, Norberto Sanatana Jr., editor of the Voice of OC, a nonprofit site that launched in December covering California’s Orange County, said he envisioned nonprofits acting as a supplement to other news outlets. “I think some functions like investigative reporting are well-suited for the nonprofit in conjunction with the daily newspaper,” he told inVocus. “I think that is the best model, working side by side.”

Although Regan believes that journalists will always compete with one another to get the story out first, he agreed with the sentiment. “We’re not trying to reduce coverage by outdoing traditional media, we’re trying to complement coverage,” he said.

For Cal Watchdog editor in chief Steven Greenhut, competing against other media with only a full-time staff of three is unrealistic. Instead, the Cal Watchdog staff tries to work with other media and get stories placed in publications. “There are a lot of people, old media and new media that are doing all sorts of things. I think it’s a new, competitive, exciting, fun and sometimes collaborative media environment,” he said. “It’s not like in the old days when you wouldn’t work together. There’s more of a willingness to share and link to our stories. So it’s a different world.”

The Bay Citizen is taking this spirit of collaboration even further. In January, it was announced that the nonprofit would actually provide two pages of San Francisco news for the New York Times. Then more recently, SF Weekly reported that the Citizen is planning on featuring news from local media on its website and will actually pay $25.00 an article.

Is nonprofit the new working model?

Hamilton believes that over the next year, we are bound to see more sites popping up in new cities, while the current network will only grow stronger. Greenhut agrees, but went on to note that the country will probably be seeing “a lot more of everything.”

As we move forward, Greenhut believes newspapers will continue to sustain themselves, while nonprofit sites will also continue to launch. Some will surely fail, as is the way of things. “When people say this is the new model, I don’t buy that for a minute,” he said. Instead, there will be all different kinds of models entering the marketplace, promising a diverse evolution of news.

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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