Environmental nonprofit newsroom reorganizes in face of funding reduction

The Virginia-based nonprofit Environmental Health Sciences is reducing its editorial staff and will refocus the content of its websites away from enterprise reporting in favor of aggregation, publisher Peter Dykstra announced last week.

Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) is the publisher of Environmental Health News (EHN) and The Daily Climate covering “environmental issues that may affect the health of people, ecosystems and wildlife around the world.” EHS is an independent, nonprofit member of the Investigative News Network.

In a statement, EHS said it was eliminating several editorial staff positions and that the Environmental Health News and the Daily Climate websites will be streamlined and redesigned. It says the “focus of the websites will shift away from generating in-depth reporting and toward commentary and perspective,” but it remains to be seen where that content will exist and how it will be produced.

Dykstra says the changes and staff reductions are a result of loss of funding from a few foundations. He says he will no longer hold the title of publisher but will remain on staff in a reduced, part-time capacity.

The staff cuts include award-winning environmental journalist Marla Cone who served as the organization’s editor in chief; Dana Dugan, Social Media Editor; Pauli Hayes, Senior Editor; and Lindsey Konkel, Editor. The cuts also include many of its part-time researchers who aggregate more than 50,000 stories per year.

Brian Bienkowski, Senior Editor, and Douglas Fischer, Editor, will remain on staff to run aggregation. Marianne Lavelle will remain as the science reporter for the Daily Climate.

The nonprofit’s financial woes began two years ago when it lost two major funders—Sea Change Foundation, and the Kendeda Fund. Together, these funders accounted for a bit less than half of its budget, Dykstra told INN.

The Kresge Foundation had also announced discontinuing its support for the organization, but Dykstra noted that it later came back and are a current funder.

“It’s what happens with six-figure philanthropy,” says Dykstra. “People tend to like long-term projects. It’s just pure coincidence that all three funders liked our work but they had to move on.”

As a result of the loss of those funders, EHN and Daily Climate had to put its expansion plans on hold. Earlier this year it went on “crisis mode” when an individual donor rescinded a $500,000 offer to support the organization, Dykstra said.

“We were just trying to keep heads above water,” said Dykstra, adding that the loss of that money “was a mortal threat to us.”

Its operating budget for 2014 was $1.6 million. And as handsome as that figure seems to be, Dykstra says that’s not enough to keep his staff employed or support the in-depth kind of journalism that it wants to do. Losing foundation money prompted them to pursue other sources of revenue.

Last year it launched a reader donation program that brought in $70,000 in 2013—not nearly enough to make up for the hundreds of thousands in lost funding, he said. Last month, it ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise $25,628 but fell short by nearly half its goal.

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The Daily Climate ran a Kickstarter campaign in October with hopes of raising $25,628.

“We decided to embrace a plan that would be painful in the short run, ending several jobs, and reduce our enterprise investigative reporting and the size of our aggregation,” he said. “But it is a model that our funders could sustain and a model we could hopefully grow from.”

By January 2015, we should expect a leaner EHN and Daily Climate. He says we shouldn’t expect much to change in terms of editorial content, even though aggregation will be cut from seven days a week to just six. Aggregation, under Fischer, will continue Monday through Friday, and Dykstra will oversee a once-a-weekend edition.

Its enterprise journalism “will be spun off into a separate entity” and EHS will launch “an effort to secure separate funding” for that type of work, according to the announcement.

Dykstra believes EHS has more than enough money to keep the lights on. A complete shut down is unlikely because it still has a number of smaller funders and a few new funders that are sustaining the operation, he said. But he recognizes that the operation needs a redesign, and that includes making necessary changes.

“It would be great to get the staff back and get the resources to acquire as many positions, but they wouldn’t look the same as they do now,” he said.

Although the exact details of a new revenue model remain to be seen, Dykstra says EHS is making changes that echo a trend in news media: streamline content in a mobile-friendly website.

And perhaps the key takeaway is more accurately represented in this sentence found in last week’s statement: The revolution in the way information is gathered, analyzed and disseminated on the Web requires changes in web-based, nonprofit news.