The Evolving Ecosystem: Nonprofits on the Rise

The journalism industry is transforming and evolving minute by minute. The legacy media now operates in a competitive environment that includes many new players – some for-profit and a growing number that are nonprofit. The nonprofit journalism field is growing fast – very fast.

A few weeks ago in Washington, D.C., the Online News Association held its annual conference. The conference always brings in a lot of great speakers from around the country and the world to discuss the latest trends and issues in online journalism. In particular, there was a panel discussion on “The New Investigative Journalism Ecosystem.” As part of this panel, Charles Lewis, executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University School of Communication, presented a report that he and his research team (Kate Musselwhite, Brittney Butts and Philippa Levenberg) put together to capture the current nonprofit journalism ecosystem across the country. The report profiles 60 nonprofit journalism organizations, which are a mixture of both new and not so new organizations across the United States.

The report is quite comprehensive and a useful tool for anyone interested in knowing what the current nonprofit media landscape is and how it is developing. It’s also quite beneficial for those who are thinking of and/or starting up their own nonprofit journalism organization – as the report provides a lot of details on each organization – from their operating budgets to their staffing to their editorial policies. Despite this amount of information, they have not captured all of the nonprofit journalism organizations out there. However, Lewis and his research team recognize that their report is not a full representation of all nonprofit journalism organizations in the country, but they recognize it provides a snapshot of the field in this transformative time.

Lewis provides some interesting facts of the overall set of 60 nonprofit organizations. For example, about 63 percent of the organizations are fairly new since many of them have begun only in the past five years or so. Transparency and disclosure of information is also an interesting trend in which many are open to providing their information about their operations to the public. For example, Lewis mentions “78 percent disclose their donors on their website.”

The report provides a lot of great facts and figures about the 60 organizations profiled. However, there are a few other things I found in reviewing the profiles of the organizations posted on their site:

    Of the profiles included, the largest concentration of nonprofit journalism organizations are located on the east and west coasts. Washington D.C. has the most nonprofit journalism organizations – at 13. California comes in a close second at 11. New York then comes in third with 6 nonprofit journalism organizations operating in their state.

    As for full-time staffing, being a lean operation is common for all these organizations. About 7 percent have no staff at all, 10 percent have one person at least on staff, 33 percent have a full time staff ranging from 2 to 5 people, another 33 percent have a full time staff ranging from 6 to 20 people, and 17 percent have staffs ranging between 21 to 80 people.

    A majority or the organizations (63 percent) in the report have only been established within the past five years. In this five-year timeframe, 2009 showed the most growth – 17 new players entered the field.

    Who are the newcomers this year? Of the 60 profiled, there are only five that began operations this yearThe Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, Michigan News Center, Wyofile.org, and The Bay Citizen.

    Running a nonprofit journalism operation is not easy and is costly. Of those who disclosed their budget information – about 17 of the 60 have operating budgets in the millions. Another 23 of the 60 have operating budgets between $120,000 and $850,000. However, others seem to be operating on much less – as mentioned in the report, about 8 of the 60 organizations “have annual operating budgets of less than $100,000.”

    The report contains a lot more information than I can cover here. Of course, the report does not cover all nonprofit journalism organizations in the United States, but it does provide a small glimpse of what is happening. The report can be useful to read for the journalist, the journalism educator, the nonprofit journalism startup, and the news consumer in order to learn more about who these organizations are and more importantly, to know their mission in transforming journalism for the communities they serve.