As newspapers across the country struggle, the journalism industry has been working hard to reimagine itself — often with the help of Princetonians. Journalism is a labor-intensive process. Reporters sit in local school board meetings, hound state officials, and stalk the halls of Congress.
For decades the publication of newspapers bulging with facts those reporters collected was paid for mostly by advertising. But advertising has largely moved online, and news organizations have been experimenting with new models of funding.
New journalism organizations are attracting both veteran and young journalists. Bill Keller, who taught a Princeton journalism course on profile writing in the fall semester, spent 30 years as a journalist at The New York Times — including eight as executive editor — before becoming founding editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project, an independent nonprofit news site that focuses on criminal justice. The Marshall Project collaborates with news outlets including the Times and NPR and shared a Pulitzer Prize with ProPublica. “Twenty years ago, the idea that a big, robust news organization would share credit and share the labor with some little nonprofit was kind of unthinkable,” says Keller, who retired from the project last year.
Some for-profit news outlets have added revenue streams by charging readers for digital subscriptions and ventures such as consulting and the hosting of events. Meanwhile, over the past decade nonprofit news outlets powered in large part by foundations have sprouted at a pace of about one per month, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN). In November, the 148-year-old Salt Lake Tribune became the first “legacy” newspaper to become a nonprofit. Nonprofit media organizations aren’t new: Magazines like Harper’s, The American Prospect, and Consumer Reports have survived for decades. The INN says its 230-plus members now employ 2,000 journalists and pulled in $450 million in revenue last year.
A 2018 report by Northeastern University and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard identified grants totaling $1.8 billion distributed by 6,568 foundations supporting journalism and media-related activities, including journalism education and support, between 2010 and 2015. About 20 percent of that funding directly supported national, local/state, and university-based digital news nonprofits. But the report noted that grantmaking “remains far below what is needed, even in an era of increased journalism giving following the 2016 elections.”
CLIMATE CENTRAL climatecentral.org: Founded in 2008
Annual revenue: $8 million, of which 90 percent comes from foundations and high net-worth individuals; nonprofit
Reach: Works with a third of the country’s weathercasters to integrate science-backed climate-change information into their programming. Climate Central would not release the average number of site visits.
A New York Times headline in October read, “Rising Seas Will Erase More Cities by 2050, New Research Shows.” That research, published in the journal Nature Communications, was produced by Climate Central.
Based in Princeton, Climate Central has a mission to translate climate science so that it’s accessible to the broad public, says CEO Benjamin Strauss *07. In the beginning, that meant producing articles and videos about the impact of climate change. The nonprofit also started working with meteorologists, showing them how some of the extreme weather they were seeing was related to climate change.
“Journalism was the startup strategy,” says Paul Hanle ’69, who retired as CEO last year.
The “big innovation” came from Strauss, says Hanle. As a young employee fresh from graduate school at Princeton, where Climate Central board chair Stephen Pacala had been his professor, Strauss pushed the idea of doing research specifically for communicating climate change to the public.
That has meant, in addition to the organization’s usual news stories and collaborations with meteorologists, academic papers on sea-level rise like the one published last fall in Nature Communications. The three-year research project found rising seas could put three times more people at risk of flooding by 2050 than previously thought. That revelation has generated more than 2,600 stories in 109 countries, Climate Central says.
INSIDE HIGHER ED insidehighered.com: Founded in 2004
Annual revenue: Unavailable; privately held company
Reach: 2.2 million monthly unique visitors
In the early 2000s, Doug Lederman ’84 saw that the internet’s rise could have dire consequences for print journalism. The venerable Chronicle of Higher Education, where Lederman was then managing editor, needed to move more quickly, he thought. Ultimately, he and two other top managers at the Chronicle decided to strike out on their own, adopting a new approach to journalism that was “built for the 21st century.”
“A lot of people thought we were kind of nuts, including some of our family members,” says Lederman, who raised money for the new venture from family and friends.
Fifteen years later, Inside Higher Ed has assembled what Lederman describes as the biggest audience of academics in the world. To stay profitable, the for-profit site relies on a variety of revenue streams, including online advertising, a higher-education job board, and sponsored surveys.
In the past year, Inside Higher Ed has started a conference series, for which it charges admission, and in-depth “special reports” that are available for purchase. A new membership program gives paid subscribers discounts for these conferences and reports.
All of Inside Higher Ed’s news stories, however, are free. That’s partly to differentiate the site from the Chronicle. But Inside Higher Ed was also born out of a sense of duty to cover community colleges and other less wealthy institutions, says Lederman, who is the publication’s editor. While he has followed, with interest, the rise of nonprofit news organizations in recent years, he says he thinks the for-profit route is more sustainable in the long run.
“Funders can change their minds pretty quickly,” he says of nonprofits.
THE CONVERSATION theconversation.com/us: Founded in 2011 (U.S. edition launched in 2014)
Annual revenue: $3.7 million from foundations, higher-education memberships, and individual contributions; nonprofit
Reach: 10 million monthly page views
As trust in the media ebbs, The Conversation says it’s trying to help people come to an agreement on what’s truthful by sharing the knowledge of leading scholars.
“There is way too much opinion out there in the world, and what we need are more facts — and that’s what we do here at The Conversation,” says Naomi Schalit ’79, senior editor of politics and society.
Articles published by The Conversation, which was first launched in Australia, cover a wide variety of topics in the news and are written by academics in partnership with professional journalists; the articles then run on the website and in publications around the world. The site has been helped by a growing movement for scholars to be more publicly engaged, says Schalit. That their research is often publicly funded only adds to the sense of obligation scholars have to present their work to a general audience.
“It’s fundamentally a democratic instinct that leads me to want to do this,” says Schalit, who previously founded the nonprofit Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. “There are facts out there, people, that you need to know about, and I’m going to work with the folks who generate them to bring them to you.”
The Conversation is funded in the United States by a wide assortment of charitable foundations, universities, research institutes, and academic presses.
PROPUBLICA propublica.org: Founded in 2008
Annual revenue: $30 million; nonprofit. The website lists 35 large donors, including the Carnegie Corporation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Reach: 1.6 million unique visitors per month, on average
ProPublica tore up the traditional blueprint for national investigative outlets when it launched as a “creature of the internet.” Today it’s run by editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg ’79, a former reporter and editor at The New York Times.
Despite the risks involved in joining a nonprofit startup, the idea of helping to create a news organization from the ground up appealed to Engelberg, who left his job as managing editor at The Oregonian to work at ProPublica. “It was utterly bonkers as a decision,” recalls Engelberg, whose children were still in school at the time.
Today, The Oregonian is just a quarter of its former size, estimates Engelberg, while ProPublica — which has won five Pulitzer Prizes — has become a model for nonprofit news organizations across the country. Greater interest in journalism has allowed ProPublica to double its budget since 2016, says Engelberg.
The secret sauce? Sharing. To amplify its reach, the nonprofit has partnered over the years with 200 news organizations including local papers through its new Local Reporting Network. That sharing has resulted in a wealth of “probing, skeptical, factual journalism,” Engelberg says. “I think there is nothing more essential to democracy.”
POLITIFACT politifact.com: Founded in 2007
Annual revenue: $500,000 in contributions from individuals and foundations, online ad revenue, and revenue from the sale of content to media publishers; nonprofit
Reach: 4 million to 6 million monthly users
PolitiFact publishes articles evaluating the accuracy of politicians’ claims, similar to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker and FactCheck.org, which is part of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. In PolitiFact’s case, a six-point “Truth-O-Meter” rates statements from “True” to “Pants on Fire.” The group’s senior correspondent is Louis Jacobson ’92, a PAW contributor.
Founded in 2007 as part of what was then The St. Petersburg Times, PolitiFact is now separate from the newspaper (now called The Tampa Bay Times) but remains part of the Poynter Institute, the St. Petersburg-based journalism-research nonprofit that owns the paper.
In addition to money from donations and the sale of ads on its website, PolitiFact generates revenue by training other news organizations in its methods; by partnering with E.W. Scripps on the television show What the Fact, which runs on the Scripps pay-TV channel Newsy; and by fact-checking for social-media giant Facebook.
The work is exciting, Jacobson says, because of how prominent questions of truth have become under President Donald Trump. “It’s really quite central to the political debate,” he says. “So the ability to help referee that puts me at the center of the political discussion.”
CHALKBEAT chalkbeat.org: Founded in 2013
Annual revenue: $12 million, 90 percent of which comes from national and local foundations; nonprofit
Reach: 525,000 unique visitors per month
Education-news site Chalkbeat was created by the merger of two local education-news blogs, in Denver and in New York City. Public education was going through a period of change, experimenting with new forms of school governance, funding, and methods of assigning students to schools. Local news coverage, however, was shrinking, leaving fewer outlets to cover those changes.
Chalkbeat stepped in to fill the void, says editor-in-chief Bene Cipolla ’95, who had worked as a reporter for more than a decade in New York City and Rome. The nonprofit’s mission is to cover efforts to improve schools for all children, especially those who have historically not had access to quality education. It covers both the news in local school districts — funding, labor issues, student protests — and national trends, and has expanded to include Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Newark, and Tennessee.
Today, 90 percent of Chalkbeat’s revenue comes from foundations, though Cipolla is working to pull in more from individuals and from sponsors of Chalkbeat’s newsletters and events.
“We believe that Chalkbeat can be a convener in an era when basically everything has become more polarized — and education is one of those topics,” Cipolla says. The organization is exploring adding a Silicon Valley location, she says.
MIDSTORY midstory.org: Founded in 2018
Annual revenue: $60,000 from grants, individual contributors, and corporate sponsorships; nonprofit
Reach: Average of 6,000 daily content views, including social-media posts
Midstory wants to attract millennials to its founders’ home city of Toledo, Ohio. It aims to find new ways to tell the story of Toledo’s history and its prospects — for example, a GIF-filled summary of television references to the city and a glossy master plan for using the American lotus to solve Lake Erie’s toxic-algae problem.
Sam Chang ’16 says he and the three other founders — his sister Ruth Chang ’12, Logan Sander ’18, and MIT graduate Alex Lim, a native of Kalamazoo, Mich. — dropped promising careers on the East Coast to give the Midwest a second chance. “The number-one issue you see in cities like ours is that young people are leaving,” he says.
The founders insist that readers shouldn’t think of Midstory as a public-relations arm of Toledo’s city government. “What makes us distinct is not only are we independent, but we are very intent on talking about real issues our city faces,” Sander says. “Of course, we always have a positive outlook. Not in the sense that the things we talk about are always the good things, because they’re not. But we are always looking toward a solution.”
CIVICSTORY civicstory.org: Founded in 2009
Annual Revenue: $85,000, about half of which comes from individual donors and the rest from foundations and sponsorships; nonprofit
Reach: 2,900 newsletter subscribers; 1,000 unique visitors per month to website
The conductor of the South Orange (N.J.) Symphony Orchestra, Susan Haig ’76 has an unusual background for a news-site founder. But her frustration with the short shrift local outlets gave to arts stories led her to start New Jersey Arts News, which has evolved into CivicStory.
Initially the site focused on producing two-minute videos about local arts. Her goal was to “show you could have arts stories on evening television news,” says Haig. The project found an audience on local television, prompting Haig to want to do more. “The aim was to change the news rather than be another news entity fitting into conventional journalism,” Haig says.
She changed the name of her organization to CivicStory as she strengthened the website and biweekly newsletter and sought to cover humanities and “citizen action” more broadly. Today, most stories at CivicStory are about sustainability and the environment. In November, CivicStory helped start New Jersey’s “Sustainability Reporting Hub,” designed to amplify the work of environmental reporters across the state.
Alfred Miller ’11 is an investigative reporter at The Courier Journal in Louisville, Ky. His work this year is being subsidized through a Local Reporting Network fellowship from ProPublica.
Illustrations: John S. Dykes