Talking with the Pros: Q&A with Brant Houston

This week’s Hub feature is a special Q&A with Professor Brant Houston, who is the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois. He teaches investigative and advanced reporting at the College of Media in the Department of Journalism at the University of Illinois. Houston is also the Chair of the Board of Directors for the Investigative News Network.

He was the executive director of the Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) organization for about a decade. Houston has had a long career in journalism as an award-winning investigative reporter who worked at various daily newspapers for 17 years.

Houston took time out of his busy schedule to chat with us to give advice to news start-ups and established nonprofit journalism organizations:

Amy: How did you become interested in the area of nonprofit journalism?

Brant: I took a job at IRE (which is a nonprofit) in 1994 to head up the new training program in Computer-Assisted Reporting. Then I thought I would just return to a newsroom two years later. (Brant didn’t return to the newsroom and stayed on with IRE for over a decade).

Amy: How did you become involved with the Investigative News Network?

Brant: I was already involved with talking with people who were starting up (nonprofit journalism) centers who are now members of the network. One of the reasons why I became so involved is that I knew a lot of the people starting from the years when I was at IRE. The other part was that I was one of the people they knew that had actually been an executive director of a nonprofit. So I had been in the newsroom as an investigative reporter and I was deeply involved in running a nonprofit and raising money and figuring out different revenue streams. I appreciated being asked for the advice because I had all this knowledge and experience that I accumulated for some time and it’s always good to be able to share it.

Amy: Where do you think the nonprofit journalism industry is heading? What are three key trends you would identify?

Brant: Well, you see a lot of start-ups now entering their second and third year now and now people see what they need to do to be sustainable. They realize they need to have different streams of revenue…. I think a lot of knowledge has been gained on the business side and there have been some really good programs that have helped with that – the Knight Digital Center at USC has done workshops and it has really helped people get more of a business sense about running these centers, these groups.

I think everybody knows how difficult it is to be an administrator of a nonprofit. There is so much to do. There are so many different kinds of tasks everyday. With a greater appreciation of administrative duties, I think people are figuring out how to divvy those duties up or how to raise money to take care of some of those things so they can continue to do what they want to do – which is to produce really good public service or investigative content.

Amy: What tools do you think nonprofit news managers should have in their back pocket?

Brant: People are looking for more tools to more accurately measure impact and the difference they are making. You can have Google Analytics to see your traffic and that is all well and good – but we are looking for more ways to measure effectiveness, the range and the impact. We are being asked what kind of difference are we making from funders and any kind of supporter.

People are looking for more tools for visualization of data and for content for stories. Also, easy-to-use accounting tools, easy-to-use administrative tools and things like that.

DocumentCloud is a wonderful tool to have, for example, because we are dealing with a lot more text.

It’s also good to have some kind of mapping software – whether it’s GeoBatch or using Google Maps – it’s much more needed than before.

It can be as basic as having templates – such as excel spreadsheet templates that are available for people. They don’t have to redo a template for your (budget) burn rate. Or a basic, uncomplicated template for your budget…if you are just starting out and you don’t have accounting help, having templates makes a huge difference.

One of the powers of the (INN) network is that people are talking about what tools may be handy. There has probably been thousands and thousands of dollars saved on conference calls throughout the network because someone told everybody about freeconference.com. We are talking about all these little things that help get you through the day.

Amy: There is a lot of discussion online of how to help start-up organizations, but what would you suggest to established organizations to help them remain sustainable?

Brant: Being efficient in your business practices. You have to know what good business practices are and look for the legitimate discounts when you can.

You have to have different groups of donors. If you are a local, state or regional kind of organization, you have to get local support. You need local donations and local foundations to be sustainable. You have to have the support of your local home court. You can’t rely forever on national foundations. There are too many nonprofits now that do that.

(In regards to having one foundation grant) Under nonprofit rules, you’ll become different kind of nonprofit if you don’t have more than one funder. There are even laws and rules pushing you to make sure you have more than one funder.

Maximize your expertise. There may be special reports you can do that people are willing to pay for in addition to any syndication plans you may have.

Don’t undervalue your content. Realize how valuable your work is.

Look at the makeup of your board and make sure you have people that have business experience and also have good digital experience. You have to have good board support, board knowledge, board skills and they have to be very comfortable with fundraising.

Amy: What do you think nonprofit news managers should consider in relation to revenue and advertising strategies?

Brant: The network is working on some things to help people with revenue and advertising strategies but I think there are a number of possible archetypes to follow. For example, take sponsorship/advertising. That has been done within the public broadcasting/NPR world for some time. Don’t reinvent the wheel – talk to the NPR station you may be already working with on editorial collaborations and look at some of the models they have had for membership and sponsorship.

Maybe there are special reports you can do that you would charge for as

opposed to what you may be doing under Creative Commons license.

There are nonprofits in the media world that have existed for quite some time. There are some ideas already there.

Do local training – whether it may be in association with a university or high school. For example, do a camp for high school students.

It doesn’t take long to realize that you need several different kinds (of revenue) because if one dries up, you don’t want that to be the end of the road.

Amy: Aside from discussing tools, revenue strategies and sustainability plans, what do you think is the biggest ethical challenge that nonprofit journalism organizations need to consider?

Brant: Making sure the money you take is for your mission and not that you are changing your mission for the money. When you are trying to make sure you are staying alive and are doing the good work, there’s always the temptation – it’s always hard to not stray from the mission some in order to get some of the money – but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do new programs, that you can’t evolve, that you can’t do different things but that you are always making sure that the (funding) match meets with your mission. Not that your mission is matching the money.

In working with the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison we have done a couple of conferences talking about best practices when it comes to ethics. One best practice is to communicate as much transparency as possible. Where your money is coming from, where you are attracting money from and whom you are taking money from and to be transparent about that. For the most part, you don’t want anonymous donors. There are certain times you might do that. But overall, you need to have methods and practices to ensure that the donors are not secretly steering the organization.