January 28, 2019; Rivard Report
In a recent article in the Rivard Report, a nonprofit outlet in San Antonio, Bill Birnbauer contends that, like the rest of the nonprofit world, journalism funding tends to be highly concentrated among a few high profile organizations while most of the rest appear to have trouble attracting foundation and big donor dollars. Birnbauer, who is also the author of The Rise of NonProfit Investigative Journalism in the United States, says:
This situation should concern those who are looking to nonprofit news organizations to provide serious journalism in areas that have been diminished, neglected or abandoned by newspapers, such as statehouse coverage, specialist reporting on topics such as the environment and health, and reporting for minority communities.
This revelation, of course, is far from new, but the numbers and the on-the-ground reality of a grinding but passionate starvation cycle for smaller local news operations can be pretty stark. In Birnbauer’s book, he cites Mc Nelly Torres, an Emmy award-winning journalist and co-founder of the small Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, who says that she figures that her chances of receiving a big grant from a national foundation are “one to a million. [sic] The big guys are always on top…so the little guys always struggle.”
In terms of the numbers, in analyzing the IRS 990 returns of 60 members of the Institute for Nonprofit News members, Birnbauer found that just three of those operations—ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and the Center for Investigative Reporting— took in $185.4 million, or 40 percent of the philanthropic money. In turn, that money has also allowed those operations to do better in building audience and earned revenue. Contrast, for instance, ProPublica’s total revenues of $43 million in 2017, and its 34,000 donors who contributed almost $7 million, to Pasadena’s FairWarning, which had about 200 individual donors.
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This reinforces what we already knew: Without a healthy stake, it is nigh on impossible to take on both quality editorial work and the building of a news business. But philanthropy’s unwillingness to look at the situation systemically has created an unlikely environment in which to build a diverse field.
While the number of nonprofit news organizations has increased over the past decade and the sector’s funding has grown overall, many city and state-based news organizations that are filling gaps in local reporting have not yet persuaded enough foundations without a tradition of funding media, wealthy philanthropists, and smaller donors to back them.
Unless that happens, in my view, nonprofit journalism will not reach its potential, no matter how valuable its coverage, nor will it abate the spread of “news deserts” across the United States.
—Rob Meiksins and Ruth McCambridge