Joel Kramer, who was editor and publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune during the 1980s and 1990s, recently unveiled an alternative source of information for readers of his former newspaper — an online daily-news site called MinnPost.com.
Kramer, who says his mission is to provide “high-quality journalism for news-intense people who care about Minnesota,” raised $1.1 million for the project. But the money did not come from investors. It came from donors. Kramer is not courting subscribers, he’s courting “members.” And he does not talk about profits, he talks about serving the public good.
“High-quality journalism is not primarily a consumer good,” he wrote in a recent e-mail message to supporters. “It’s a community asset, the base on which democracy and community are built.”
Kramer’s nonprofit news site, which debuted in early November, reflects a growing interest among philanthropists in finding ways to help rescue journalism — or in loftier terms, a pillar of democracy — from the brutalities of the market.
$10 million grant
In one of the most ambitious examples, a wealthy California couple, Herbert M. and Marion O. Sandler, have agreed to pump up to $10 million a year into a nonprofit investigative-reporting venture headed by Paul E. Steiger, the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal.
While the size of the gift from their family foundation in San Francisco dwarfs any others that are remotely comparable, the Sandlers — co-founders of Golden West Financial Corporation in Oakland, Calif., — are not alone in believing that philanthropy can help fill the void created by cutbacks at newspapers across the country as readers flee to the Internet and advertising revenue shrinks.
When their project, ProPublica, started operations in New York in January, it joined a raft of other nonprofit news ventures that have popped up in recent years — and others that are in the works.
MinnPost.com, for example, will follow an approach similar to that of Voice of San Diego — a daily online news site that was started in February 2005 by Buzz Woolley, a retired venture capitalist, and Neil Morgan, a veteran columnist and editor who was fired from The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2004.
Andrew Donohue, an executive editor of the site, says its founders believed the local newspapers had not been serving San Diego residents well and that readers needed an alternative source of information. Woolley provided most of the money — about $400,000 — to start the site, which gives priority to investigative reporting. “Our board is not interested in doing something on a record number of kittens being born in the suburbs,” Donohue says.
Using a model very similar to that of public radio, the site has an annual budget of $565,000. Half of its revenue comes from foundations — including the Girard Foundation, Panta Rhea Foundation, Parker Foundation and San Diego Foundation, all in California — 20 percent from big donors, 20 percent from ads and corporate sponsorships, and 10 percent from individuals who pay at least $35 to become members.
Voice of San Diego employs eight full-time journalists, and Donohue proudly points to the journalism awards the organization has won for projects including investigations into a city neighborhood-development agency and a shantytown for migrant workers.
“People sometimes have the idea we’re in our mom’s basement wearing sweatpants and drinking Diet Coke,” he says. “We’re serious professional journalists.”
Nonprofit journalistic ventures are nothing new. National Public Radio, The Christian Science Monitor, Mother Jones magazine, and Harper’s Magazine are all nonprofit operations. The St. Petersburg Times is owned by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Center for Public Integrity, in Washington, D.C., and the Center for Investigative Reporting, in Berkeley, Calif., are nonprofit groups that produce investigative reporting.
But recent moves to start new entities reflect a growing concern that the news-media landscape is changing in ways that imperil the ability of citizens to get the information they need to run a democracy. Worrisome changes include recent job cuts at daily newspapers and magazine companies; sharp cutbacks in foreign bureaus by newspapers and television networks; saturation coverage of celebrities and entertainment at the expense of serious news; and what many donors see as a failure to cover critical stories well.
Some philanthropists are troubled by the tumult they have witnessed in their own cities. For example, when the fate of The Philadelphia Inquirer was unclear after it was put up for sale by the McClatchy Company in 2006, the Pew Charitable Trusts paid for a study to learn whether it would be feasible to start a nonprofit or for-profit online news site if “the Inquirer ceased to be or ceased to be in any form that it was,” says Rebecca Rimel, Pew’s president.
The foundation shelved the study, which it has not made public, after a group of local business people bought the paper, because it did not want to appear to be competing with the new owners, Rimel says. But she remains deeply concerned about the state of the nation’s newspapers and has agreed to serve on the board of ProPublica, the new investigative-reporting project.
“Everybody from the Founding Fathers on have said we need a free, robust press, and a market failure in journalism is a deep public-policy problem,” she says.
MinnPost.com will also enter a bumpy newspaper market, one in which both the Minneapolis Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press have been sold to new owners in recent years and have laid off dozens of journalists. Kramer first pursued the idea of setting up a for-profit group, telling potential investors that the company would be mission-oriented, with low profit margins. Their response, he said: “This doesn’t really feel like a for-profit — the risks are high, the rewards are low.”
Kramer raised $1.1 million in startup money — $850,000 from four local families (including himself and his wife, Laurie) and $250,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, in Miami. He hired Roger Buoen, a former deputy managing editor at the Star Tribune, as managing editor — one of seven staff editors — and lined up more than 50 experienced journalists, many of them formerly employed by the two local papers, to contribute on a contract basis.
MinnPost.com, as of mid-October, had raised $107,000 from 220 individuals in six weeks — well above the $75,000 that was projected for all of 2007 in the group’s financial plan, Kramer says. He hopes the organization will eventually earn all of its revenue from advertising, corporate and other sponsorships, and donations by individuals, Kramer said.
While MinnPost, which will distribute free print editions in “high-density” areas such as downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, is the most ambitious online daily-news venture in the Twin Cities, it is not the first. Minnesota Monitor — one of four local news sites published by the Center for Independent Media in Washington — started operations in August 2006.
David Bennahum — a former journalist, advertising executive and venture capitalist — started the center in 2006, after deciding in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that he wanted to create something with a “sense of social mission.”
Upset about gaps in news-media coverage, for example, the failure of many journalists to challenge the Bush administration’s rationale for invading Iraq, he concluded that “we need more diverse sources of news.”
“We can’t have a democracy without it,” he says.
In addition to Minnesota Monitor, the center publishes Colorado Confidential, Iowa Independent and Michigan Messenger — each with 10 “fellows,” or journalists, working on contract, who earn from $1,500 to nearly $5,000 a month.
Virtually all of the center’s revenue comes from foundations, including about $100,000 a year from grant makers such as the Open Society Institute, Rockefeller Family Foundation and Surdna Foundation, all in New York; and the Arca Foundation, Sunlight Foundation and Wallace Global Fund in Washington. The sites have also been selling ads as an experiment to test their potential, but so far revenue has been a trickle, Bennahum says.
He notes that Internet technology made his project possible, as he did not have to find the millions of dollars it would have taken to start a newspaper or television network. Instead, he asked: “What can we do for six figures?”
Bennahum says about three million people have viewed at least one of the four news sites, which offer both blogs and original reporting with a liberal point of view — something that has drawn scrutiny from conservative groups such as DiscoverTheNetworks, an online “guide to the political left.”
But Bennahum says the center adheres to strong journalistic standards and provides regular training for its fellows.
The group is now about to expand to the national scene. It announced in October that it had hired Jefferson Morley, a 15-year veteran of The Washington Post, to supervise the center’s 40 journalists and start a new national-news operation.
In addition to providing money to MinnPost.com, the Knight Foundation is a major donor to a wide range of journalism projects, including other online news sites, such as the Chi-Town Daily News in Chicago and the Gotham Gazette in New York.
Now the foundation is gearing up to create a major grant program to help community foundations support local journalism — and will invite them to attend a conference next year to discuss possible projects, says Alberto Ibargüen, Knight’s president.
Ibargüen cites a recent opinion article in the San Francisco Chronicle by Dan Gillmor, director of the Center for Citizen Media in Berkeley, Calif., who urged community foundations to consider paying the salary of an investigative journalist at a local newspaper, provide money to start a network of local blogs, or pay for media-literacy education to encourage people to look for and support high-quality journalism.
“A community foundation wouldn’t hesitate to attack a basic need like poverty, emergency housing after a storm, or even education,” Ibargüen says. “Information is as essential to a community and democracy as those things, maybe in some way precedes it, because if you don’t have shared information, it’s difficult to figure out how to deal with the rest of the problems.”
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