Two More Ways to Fund Local Investigative Journalism

Since my post Saturday
about funding local investigative journalism through a non-profit local
ad network, a few people have pointed out other ways to accomplish the
same goal. Here’s a run-down of my thoughts on each of the options:

Non-Profit Online Newspapers
Dan Kennedy and Adam Gaffin pointed out The New Haven Independent and MinnPost.com
— local online news sites structured as non-profits. These are
interesting projects producing high-quality work, but I think they’re
trying too hard to be daily newspapers. A lot of the material they
publish — human interest stories like this and this
— is already being published on blogs. I think non-profits should
focus more exclusively on what isn’t appearing on blogs, hard news and
investigative reporting.

An Endowment for Journalism
Another
approach is to create an endowment that funds local investigative
journalism. A process for selecting and editing the investigative
projects would need to be developed, but that’s it. The only risk is
that contributors to the endowment expect control over the choice of
investigative projects. Maybe this risk could be mitigated and costs
could be saved by wrapping the endowment into an organization like MassInc or The Boston Foundation.

A Non-Profit Local Ad Network
This
would be the most self-sufficient, community-controlled means of funding
investigative journalism. An ad network would have lower-startup costs
than an endowment, and once it’s operational, publishers in the network
would control the funding decisions. The risk is that the network isn’t
competitive with commercial networks, and can’t generate enough money
to sustain itself or achieve its funding goals.

I would love to see the endowment or ad network model developed in the
Boston area. The endowment model is probably the safer and more tested
of the two, but I think the local ad network could be more robust.
An endowment would be a top-down solution controlled by a small group
of people. A local ad network would be more like an open source
software project — a messy bottom-up solution controlled by its
participants.

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7 thoughts on “Two More Ways to Fund Local Investigative Journalism

  1. The New Haven Independent may be filling a real need, though. The established daily, the New Haven Register, is a Journal Register paper, which is usually another way of saying that it’s not serving the community.

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  2. Dan, I don’t know the situation in New Haven well, but I’m sure you’re right.
    My point is just that if you have X dollars to pay a reporter for a three months, I think you want him/her working on one big story that requires more time than most bloggers have, not a series of small stories similar to personal blog posts.

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  3. Interesting concept… two questions I see. One is that the sense I have is that in the grand scheme of things, a lot of investigative pieces don’t even break even for a lot of folks, who for all their faults have pretty well-established ad networks in place. Bloggers can certainly do the work with less overhead, and it may just be that truly investigative doesn’t give the high margins most media giants require.
    The other one is a legal issue. I would think it would be good to include a legal review component (even pro bono assistance), to help bloggers avoid liability issues and exposure.
    And of course, some of the dailiness of sites like the ones mentioned above is that we’re still all stuck on things that are more impression or adsense driven, which requires higher traffic to raise revenue.
    But there is something here… it’s a good topic to be batting about, and maybe I’m being too corporate about it.

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  4. Ted, thanks for the comments.
    Just to be clear, I’m talking about using revenue from a local competitor to AdSense to fund investigative journalism. The ads on these reports won’t cover their costs (as you point out), so we would use profit generated on a network of other local sites.
    Right now, with AdSense, that profit is being sent to California and Google shareholders. On a basic level, I don’t see why a local business advertising on a local site using commodity software should send a cut to California.
    Google would argue that it has a larger market of advertisers that generates more revenue for publishers. That may be true for low-quality sites, but I don’t think it’s true many of the high-quality sites where local brands want to be.

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  5. MinnPost.com does focus on hard news and analysis, and it’s important to understand our business model to see why we don’t put all our effort into investigation. Though not-for-profit, our goal is to break even as a business, and that requires building traffic, advertising and memberships. High-quality stories every day do that. But we do aspire to do more investigative work. In fact, we’ve established a Watchdog Fund and raised more than $22,000 for it last month.

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  6. Hi Joel, Thanks for the comments. Just to be clear, I’m a fan of the work you guys are doing, and think that all these experiments are very important.
    A question for you: Why focus on building traffic on your site? I assume there is already a significant group of independent publishers/bloggers in your region. With a new site publishing daily stories, you’re competing with them for a finite amount of attention. Why not instead sell ads on their sites and use any margin you make to support your investigative journalism.
    I’m probably simplifying, but I’m interested in the tradeoffs here. I’m trying to get a sense of the kind of model that would make sense for us here in Boston.
    The more I speak with people, the more I think that if the goal is funding local investigative journalism, the simplest approach is to raise an endowment for it.

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  7. I, too, appreciate all the experiments, and I’ll root for your endowment model of financing investigative journalism. As for your provocative idea about what we might have done instead of the MinnPost model:
    1. Our goal is not just local investigations; it’s high-quality metro and state journalism. That includes investigations, but also includes breaking stories, analysis, exploration of big-picture issues, and a combination of professional reporting with a commitment to fair-minded truth-telling rather than balance. We believe that a community benefits when work of this quality, which respects the intelligence of readers, is published every day — not just in the form of an occasional investigation.
    2. We do compete for readers’ time, but our target audience is news-intense people willing to seek out multiple high-quality sources of news and journalism. Most of our visitors do not view what the bloggers and other independent publishers do as interchangeable with what we’re doing.
    3. There could be some benefit from one local operation selling ads onto other publishers’ sites, but if your model is premium-rate, as ours is, it’s not a gimme. Advertisers pay to be in a certain environment, and they may not be willing to pay as much — or appear at all — in certain other environments.

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