Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

August 8, 2011

Nonprofit label for news can mislead

By Todd Cohen

With the American newspaper industry on its deathbed, nonprofit news sites are sprouting.

They have received a lot of attention, often positive if not swooning, from media “experts” and from the news media itself, as well as funding from the philanthropic community.

Yet many of those sites are little more than propaganda mills with no kinship to the newspapers they claim to want to replace, lacking not only the breadth and depth of traditional newspaper journalism but also its quality and integrity.

Meanwhile, as they continue to post sinking revenue, lose print readers and lay off employees, few newspapers have provided serious or candid reporting on their own decline, with many continuing to whistle through the ward for the terminally ill, trying to convince their readers – or just themselves – that their vital signs remain robust.

What happened?

Once, newspapers were thriving and highly competitive sources of news and opinion, having historically functioned as such pillars of democracy that freedom of the press got its own constitutional protection.

But newspapers have dug their own graves.

Big newspaper chains, greedy for profits, gobbled up one another, taking on huge debt that has become an overwhelming financial burden in an economy on life-support and an information marketplace transformed by the web and digital technology.

And in the face of intense competition from broadcasters and the internet, newspapers were painfully slow to recognize they needed to treat their websites as products worthy of at least the same investment of resources and attention they devote to their print publications.

In their fierce battle for readers, newspapers also were shamefully quick, like their rival local broadcasters, to pander to the voyeuristic tastes of readers for sex and violence, sensationalizing the latest trashy scandal, murder trial or tragic car crash instead of reporting on the fundamental and urgent community issues that once were their heart and soul.

Why should we care?

Newspapers back in the day were the civic glue that helped hold our communities together.

Regardless of the politics of its owner or editorial page, a local newspaper served as a kind of public square where members of a community gathered to trade news, information and gossip.

Readers could turn to their local paper for reliable, trustworthy news about their government and schools, business and sports, and civic and social goings-on.

Unlike today’s sprawling and fragmented information marketplace, newspapers served as a central source of news that gave readers a common point of reference fundamental to the civic health of a community.

Newspapers, in short, played an indispensable role in a society in which we aspire to govern ourselves and need a trusted source of news to help us make informed decisions about who to vote for, where to shop, and how to spend our free time.

Where will we get news?

Americans increasingly are turning to the web, a seemingly endless digital mosaic where news can be found at untold numbers of sites that typically are highly specialized in their focus, often through the filter of a particular ideology or perspective.

At least part of the void created by the demise of newspapers already is being filled by nonprofit news sites that, sadly, often deliver a lot less than they promise.

Digital-media and news-media insiders, and the charitable foundations that fund nonprofit news sites, have cranked out a lot of self-congratulatory hype in recent years about the emergence of nonprofit news media that cover local, state and national news.

The implication often is that calling a news site “nonprofit” guarantees the quality, accuracy and fairness of its content.

Who’s behind nonprofit news sites?

A new report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center offers a sober and much-needed look at exactly what those nonprofit news sites actually produce, how they operate, and who is behind them.

A lot of the 39 nonprofit news sites Pew studied are “clearly ideological or partisan in nature,” the report says.

And sites with more ideological content, it says, “tend to have fewer funders and revenue streams, are less transparent about their mission and funding, and produce less content than sites with more ideologically balanced coverage.”

The least ideological sites, in comparison, “operated entirely on their own and had multiple funding sources and revenue streams.”

And while some sites “may have been forthcoming about who their funders were,” the report says, “often the funders themselves were much less clear about their own sources of income,” an approach that “effectively made the first level of transparency incomplete and shielded the actual financing behind the news site.”

At traditional newspapers, by contrast, it was clear that advertisers and subscribers picked up the tab.

The Pew report says reporting resources for nonprofit news sites tended to be limited, most news stories “presented a narrow range of perspectives on the topics covered,” and those topics “often correlated with the political orientation of the sites and their backers.”

The fact that a news site is nonprofit, the report says, “does not define what kind of news it produces.”

The hypocritical or ironic icing on the cake: Many nonprofit news sites, Pew says, “purport that they were started precisely to fill the gap left at the state level from cutbacks in traditional media, especially newspapers, and thus present themselves as functioning much as traditional media once did.”

How can we assess news sites?

When they worked for newspapers, many if not most reporters and editors failed abysmally to report on the nonprofit world, and often were clueless about it and the fundamental role it plays in society.

Yet some of those journalists suddenly have discovered philanthropy as a possible source of sustenance now that they are out of work, looking for jobs and discovering or creating nonprofit news sites.

For their part, foundations traditionally did a terrible job of communicating with the news media, and often held newspapers in contempt.

Yet some of those foundations are investing in nonprofit news sites that preach the importance of local and state news but practice little more than partisan propaganda.

Nonprofit status, in short, often may be little more than an opportunistic and seductive gimmick that old-media journalists and partisan advocates use to secure support from philanthropies that are smitten with the idea of nonprofit news sites yet less than critical about the ability of the people running the sites to manage their nonprofits effectively.

The bottom line: Labeling itself as “nonprofit” does not guarantee the quality or integrity of a news site.

It also can be a misleading strategy for attracting readers and philanthropic investors.

So in the brave new world of "nonprofit" news sites, the tried-and-true principle remains: "Buyer, beware."


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