Comparing non-profit news org models in the US

Alan Mutter is one of those rare creatures who has both editorial and business sense and writes lucidly, analytically and rationally about the business of news. Alan says this about himself:

Alan D. Mutter is perhaps the only CEO in Silicon Valley who knows how to set type one letter at a time, just like his hero, Benjamin Franklin.

He has a great post comparing the different funding and business models of non-profit news organisastions in the US. Several have started in the last few years to address the decline in traditional reporting capacity due to the turmoil in the US newspaper industry. Some are boot-strapped, scrappy operations that operate very leanly. Others, such as ProPublica and the Texas Tribune have very substantial foundation support.

The MinnPost in Minnesota is definitely in the lean and scrappy camp. Alan thinks that the MinnPost might just have a successful model for non-profits looking to operate without major foundational funding. That kind of funding can come with strings attached. How is the MinnPost succeeding:

First, by keeping costs low. Second, by raising money almost continuously through such diversified initiatives as advertising, NPR-style user contributions and even an annual gala featuring organic-vodka martinis.

From my point of view, the MinnPost as opposed to the Texas Tribune and  ProPublica are different editorial propositions, different funding models aside. The Texas Tribune is much more like a Politico for Texas.  Both the Texas Tribune and ProPublica are intended to support the high-end Porsche of public interest journalism: Investigations. Investigations are expensive,  time-intensive projects often with very little commercial return, and ProPublica currently gets “$10m a year from a single benefactor”. Investigations are the height of public service. They garner awards and attention but often are difficult to get a return on investment alone from a strictly business point of view. ProPublica is definitely doing good work and has just won its first Pulitzer.

The MinnPost is much more of a traditional news site, covering a range of issues including politics, sports and arts, just to name a few.

Alan points out a major difference between the big foundation-funded non-profit news operations and the MinnPost: Pay.

Although Kramer and his wife, Laurie (of the MinnPost), have worked tirelessly on the project since they launched it in 2007, neither ever has drawn a dime of pay. Their commitment, which includes personal donations in excess of $120,000, contrasts to the hefty six-figure salaries paid at Pro Publica, where editor Paul Steiger makes $570,000 per year; the Bay Citizen, where CEO Lisa Frazier earns $400,000 annually, and Texas Trib, where editor Evan Smith gets $315,000 a year.

Alan points out the the another foundation supported site, Bay Citizen just leased “stylish offices in downtown San Francisco” even before it publishes a single story.

Pay for journalists

Putting aside for a moment the different models at these non-profits, I have to admit that I’m really of two minds here about the pay at these large foundation funded non-profits.

I’ve never made a lot of money being a journalist. My first full-time reporting job was at a small newspaper in western Kansas, and I made $2000 less than a first year teacher in the town I lived. Fortunately, the cost of living was pretty low. Although I have written for newspapers and done radio and TV reporting and commentary, my main income has been as a digital journalist and editor. The pay has been low compared to my colleagues focused on the traditional media. I’ve managed to make a living wage, but there have been times when it took efforts to make ends meet even though I was employed full time. The idea of making six figures is just a completely foreign concept to me, as I’m sure it is for most journalists. (There is a myth that journalists make a lot of money. That’s only for TV anchors and well paid columnists. Most of the rest of us, especially those in local journalism, are paid poorly.)

When I started out as a journalist in the mid-1990s, I complained on a mailing list that I wouldn’t be able to pay my health care bills if I was injured. (I am a American, although I’ve worked for British journalism organisations for more than a decade.) I was told by senior editors and journalists on the list that ‘you didn’t get into journalism to make money’. No, I didn’t, but I also didn’t take a vow of poverty.

There is only so much foundation funding to go around, and I have applied for foundation funding in the past (largely through the Knight News Challenge). I have to say that it makes me feel more than a bit uncomfortable about some of the pay levels at these non-profits.

Whether in the non-profit or for profit world, I feel like one of the few journalists to care about costs. My view has always been that a every pound or dollar I save on travel costs, tech or accommodation is another pound or dollar we can spend on journalism. I care deeply about journalism and public engagement, and I have always sought ways to do that as inexpensively as possible while having the greatest impact.

I take on board that to get the best investigative journalists you have to pay a premium, and I’m pleased that the editors at these well funded non-profits have the resources to pay themselves well and pay for talented journalists. However, I do wonder if the foundation funding cannot be sustained at these levels whether these heavy cost structures at these non-profits can be supported in any other way.