Big News Times for Nonprofit News

On New Year’s Eve, The New York Times highlighted voiceofsandiego.org’s partnership with NBC San Diego and recognized that we had suddenly been catapulted into the middle of a national discussion about whether NBC should be allowed to merge with Comcast.

I was quoted eloquently elaborating in the Times piece that our partnership had been a “huge deal.” Well, this news is too but it was only one bit of a stream of major revelations about the nonprofit news sector I wanted to take the time to collect in one place.

More on our partnership and the Comcast-NBC merger in a second. Let’s track some of the other developments.

You’re Asking for Money? You Must Have Failed

If you didn’t catch it a fascinating little media bubble expanded and burst over the holidays. On Dec. 26, San Francisco Chronicle columnists Matier and Ross sent a shudder through the new-media circuit when it revealed that the Bay Citizen was supposedly out of money and was begging on the streets.

Philanthropist Warren Hellman seeded The Bay Citizen with a $5 million donation. The columnists claimed that was a one-time gift, it was running out and the strategy to stay afloat focused on an intriguing man-on-the-street membership plea.

Romenesko tweeted the story as did NYU professor Jay Rosen, some of whose more than 48,000 followers began pelting the Bay Citizen for its waste of the $5 million and high salaries.

Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, called it “unequivocally irresponsible.” So began a new round of harping about the Bay Citizen CEO’s much-publicized $400,000 salary.

Bay Citizen Editor Jonathan Weber started to combat the meme on Twitter. But in the process, he broke some big news: Not only had the Bay Citizen not run out of money, but it had broken all previous records for our little sector and raised an eye-popping $9.4 million in addition to Hellman’s original $5 million. Also, he said it was an open question whether Hellman would donate again.

Check out PaidContent.org’s write-up of Weber’s news.

But Weber and the Bay Citizen are so far silent on where the $9.4 million came from. If it is from diverse sources, it is a major achievement in this sector. If not, it still presents the possibility of an investment and organization building unlike one we’ve seen in this sector yet.

A couple of things to keep in mind: I don’t have any evidence, but I doubt Hellman will stop giving money to the Bay Citizen after that initial gift. The Bay Citizen, ProPublica and the Texas Tribune are the three most impressive organizations of this model to start up yet. They recruited expensive and well-known leaders. Their founders are not going to throw up their hands after one or even two years unless the product they put together is just atrocious.

Now, no philanthropist wants a nonprofit to think his or her donation is guaranteed year after year. Hellman, I would guess, will consider supporting the Bay Citizen again. His lack of expressed commitment to do that may fuel bursts of worry and recrimination, but that’s just the price of doing business like this.

Also think about this: How many news organizations can guarantee they’ll be around in a year or in two years no matter what they do or how they pursue funding? Not many. We all have to fight for each month. Nonprofits, for-profits and neighborhood blogs unfortunately all are working for every payroll.

A Million Dollars!

More than that, actually. The St. Louis Beacon announced Jan. 3 that it received a $1.25 million grant from the Danforth Foundation.

And it looks like they’re planning to use it to diversify revenue sources.

“The gift is a cornerstone in the Beacon’s initiative to balance philanthropic support with other sources of revenue,” said Nicole Hollway, the Beacon’s general manager, in a statement. “Our goal over the next four years is to become less dependent on philanthropic funding while sustaining a robust and profitable news organization.”

Now, as for NBC and Comcast

I’ve been swimming in emails from across the country from people inquiring about our partnership with KNSD/NBC San Diego and its newfound prominence in the FCC’s decision whether to approve the merger between NBC and the cable company Comcast.

I’ve written a response to some questions here for the Investigative News Network, of which we’re a part.

INN’s CEO Kevin Davis asked me three questions I tried to answer:

• Q: What were your objectives when you first started your relationship with KNSD? How would you rate the success of your relationship now against those objectives?
• Q: How long did it take for you to put the deal together and what time/resource commitment does it take?
• Q: When did you become aware of Comcast’s new stated objective to leverage nonprofits in their localized journalism strategy and what guidance would you have for INN members in taking advantage of this development?

But in short, by far the most common question is what’s in the way of setting up partnerships like this across the country?

First, you have to understand a few things. Newspapers partnering with television stations is not a new thing at all. It happens in all kinds of markets. A newspaper will send over its headlines or its reporters and offer the news station a bit of an advantage on some of the less TV friendly news coverage.

What makes this different is first that we’re a nonprofit news outlet and not a paper. Second, we’re actually helping produce three segments a week and be the on-air talent for NBC San Diego in addition to the regular features of a good news partnership. San Diego Explained, the San Diego Fact Check and Behind the Scene of local arts efforts are all new features for NBC and we’re the primary driver of them.

Next, people also have to keep in mind that we’ve been working with NBC for now five years. We’ve developed a unique rapport. We feel almost as comfortable in their newsroom as we do in ours. Our working relationship grew organically from what was much more like the news partnerships of the past.

Finally, I have to hand it to KNSD’s news director, Greg Dawson. He’s understood for years that with resources for newsrooms dwindling, he has to form partnerships to maintain coverage and to innovate new features. We’re hardly the first group he’s been able to construct a productive relationship with.

I don’t think it’s impossible to recreate this in other places, but I think outlets could start by recreating those segments, particularly the Fact Check. Most importantly, though, partnerships are dependent on each entity recognizing what it can and can’t do. Once you admit you can’t do something, you look for a partner who can.

You can contact Scott directly at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!): twitter.com/vosdscott.