As legacy media organizations come crashing to their knees across the world, new models of information sharing are taking their place, chief among them is the non-profit news model. In Europe, this trend is slightly behind the U.S., and thus there was a need to bring information, best practices, and insightful conversation to the young journalists who are getting ready to enter the field.
To that end, the Global Center for Journalism and Democracy (GCJD) teamed up with the University of Applied Sciences, Magdeburg-Stendal (UMS) department of Communication and Media to bring four leaders in the non-profit news industry together for a day of conversation on the rising role of non-profit journalism.
Kicking off the conference was Paul Steiger, the founding editor-in-chief, CEO and president of ProPublica. Steiger gave an overview of non-profit journalism from a global perspective to more than 30 students, journalists, and faculty.
In keeping with the popular trend of ‘listicles,’ Steiger then went on to give the audience nine key tips for launching or running a non-profit news organization: 1) Don’t start until you’re ready (meaning- have enough money to operate for a year before launching); 2) Aim for impact with the projects you launch with; 3) Don’t make mistake- it takes decades to build credibility, but one bad story can destroy it; 4) Budget discipline- every organization needs someone to say “no”; 5) Read the fine print of all funding agreements- don’t be afraid to ask for general purpose cash; 6) You WILL need contingency funding; 7) Make sure you have leadership continuity; 8) Collaborate with others news organizations; 9) Do everything you can to protect your staff.
Steiger’s session ended with a round of questions from the audience, ranging from how to get people to donate, to what topics to handle, to how to handle funders with partisan interests.
Next up was Ayan Mittra, the Managing Editor of the Texas Tribune. Mittra, who had a long history of working in legacy media organizations before joining the non-profit Texas Tribune in 2012. He led the audience in a discussion about funding, the ethical challenges that arise with accepting donations, and how to measure success in a field like journalism. Using the Texas Tribune as a model, Mittra gave concrete examples of how one of the leading topic-based non-profit organizations in the United States does business.
Mittra echoed some of Paul Steiger’s earlier comments that a successful non-profit news organization must not solely rely on one type of funding. Mittra showed how over the course of the Tribune’s history, it has continued to diversify its revenue streams, utilizing an almost even combination of advertising, memberships, foundation grants, and events. Mittra also emphasized that to be successful, organizations must “be clear with your business…stay true to your core mission.”
Again echoing Steiger’s tips for successful non-profits, Mittra explained the importance of partnerships to the Tribune’s model, lauding their most recent relationship with the Washington Post as key to increasing the Tribune’s national reach.
During the Q&A session following his presentation, Mittra went into more depth on the Tribune’s use of crowdfunding, the syndication deal with the Washington Post, and the reasons national foundations were giving to an organization with a single-state focus.
After an engaging lunch break, where the attendees were able to speak informally with the trainers, NPR’s Director of Web Engagement, Patrick Cooper, delved into the modern world where journalists and coders are thrown onto teams together, and radio can be delivered online, with accompanying video, text, and pictures. Cooper talked about National Public Radio’s transition from radio onto the web, and the challenges of determining how to modify each story to fit each platform. “The magic of non-profit media,” said Cooper, “is making a polished product with limited funds…and not getting into people’s faces with sponsorships.” Funding, member engagement, and a continually evolving set of platforms are all challenges non-profit organizations have to deal with, and as Cooper explained, NPR uses numerous data-informed techniques to ensure the organization stays in the forefront of their audience’s user experiences.
The final presenter of the day, Chuck Lewis, has been a leader in the non-profit journalism industry from the beginning. He is the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, along with several other well-known non-profit news organizations, and now teaches at the American University in Washington. Lewis spoke about the future of non-profit journalism, and where he thinks the trends will take the industry. Chief among his suggestions and predictions were collaboration, accountability, and diversity in funding- all things echoed by the other speakers. Additionally, Lewis spoke about the trend of audiences moving from loyalty to a specific news outlet to interest in specific topics, and he suggested that more news organizations would move in the direction of being content specialists rather than general news aggregators. In addressing a question from the audience about what his concerns were, Lewis delved into the world of computer-assisted-reporting, and expressed concern that more and more news would soon be produced by machines.
Lewis also spoke before a group of more than 50 journalists in Berlin, gathered together at CORRECT!V, one of the first non-profit news organizations to emerge in Germany. During the conversation, Lewis spoke about his experiences in launching and leading non-profit news organizations, and the attendees asked questions in the interactive evening of discussion.
Two Sam Houston State University students accompanied GCJD on the trip, Amshatar Stephenson and Cesar Jimenez. They joined with UMS students to interview the speakers. The UMS student interviews were published in the UMS student online newspaper.
Attendees expressed overall satisfaction with the conference, leaving mostly positive comments on their evaluation forms. Many were intrigued by the discussions on funding, donor relations, and partnerships with legacy media organizations. The students in the audience all expressed satisfaction at getting to hear from professionals in their chosen field .
Altogether, GCJD trainers worked with more than 80 aspiring and current journalists, and sparked conversations about non-profit journalism that hadn’t occurred in Germany before.
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