With all the changes going on in journalism right now, many industry leaders are thinking about how less traditional business models may carry publications into the future. Recent non-profit ventures like ProPublica and The Huffington Post Investigative Fund have been touted as a possible way forward for journalists.
My first job after graduating from journalism school was working with a San Francisco-based non-profit publication called WireTap magazine. Last year, a fellowship made it possible for me to work closely with the staff of the youth-oriented news and culture online magazine, and in the process I sampled what non-profit journalism is like for young journalists. Some of my most rewarding professional experiences to date came from the non-profit world. New journalistic models have some big advantages, but they also come with their own challenges.
I spoke to a few people with more experience who could give me greater clarity on how non-profit journalism will affect young journalists. When I asked them to compare non-profit publications to more traditional models, they confirmed something I’d experienced at WireTap: Newer non-profits offer younger journalists more room to explore unusual stories they care about, but at the same time they usually have fewer resources with which to do it.
RESOURCE CHALLENGES BIG AND SMALL
“Switching to a small start-up organization does have dramatic differences as far as resources,” said Adrian Uribarri, a political reporter at start-up online publication Chicago Current. He left the 4-year-old non-profit news site Chi-Town Daily News to help launch the for-profit Current late last year. A graduate of the University of Florida, the 25-year-old had worked for publications like the Orlando Sentinel, Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle. His non-profit couldn’t provide things like free access to LexisNexis like a larger organization could.
There were intangible challenges, too. The Chi-Town Daily News was a well-known, award-winning organization, but it still wasn’t one of the dominant news organizations in town. Uribarri had to work harder to win respect from the people he interacted with on the job. But in some ways Uribarri says even the lack of resources can provide valuable experience. “It can make you stronger as a journalist because you have to be more resourceful in your reporting,” he said.
Kristina Rizga, former executive editor of WireTap and editorial board member for The Nation magazine, said non-profits can rarely provide in-depth, one-on-one guidance for young journalists. Rizga, 34, has worked closely with other non-profit media organizations, like Alternet.org, Media Alliance and the Pulitzer Center, and has written for for-profit publications like the San Francisco Chronicle and The Huffington Post.
“[Non-profits] are such small, underfunded newsrooms,” she noted. “Editors are working under a lot of pressure.” But less hierarchical organizations like WireTap allow young writers to have a lot of input on the kinds of content the magazine published.
With non-profit support, Rizga could forge a bottom-up connection with low-income and minority audiences and worry less about whether they drew the sorts of readers who appealed to advertisers.
NON-PROFITS INTO THE FUTURE
Though non-profits promise to play an increasingly important role in the journalism industry, Rizga and Uribarri say the idea of non-profits completely replacing for-profits is over-hyped. And they understand the financial challenges better than most. Both of their non-profits were recently forced to lay off their entire staffs (the Chi-Town Daily News in November and WireTap in January).
“Every non-profit newsroom is experiencing this recession, and they’re making cuts,” Rizga said.
Both struggled to become less dependent on foundation support and lost too much funding to continue producing content like they had before.
“The challenge for non-profit news organizations today is sustainability,” Uribarri said. “You have to be prepared for anything to happen.”
Journalists can benefit a lot from non-profit ventures, but “ideally I think you should do both at some point in your life,” Rizga said.
Uribarri agrees: “There’s a place for both. News is being consumed differently now, and that’s affecting the whole news industry regardless of whether it’s non-profit or for-profit.”
Those of us with a whole career ahead of us will need to be flexible, whether we find ourselves in a for-profit or non-profit newsroom.
Geoffrey Dobbins, a member of SPJ’s Generation J Committee, is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati. He’s a former Nathan Cummings Arts and Culture Journalism Fellow at WireTap magazine. His work has appeared in Cincinnati Magazine, The Nation magazine, SPIN.com, and TheRoot.com.
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