Foundations and other donors, rather than subscribers or advertisers, are supporting the fastest growing segment of journalism today, nonprofit public interest news organizations. As the members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association gathered for WNA’s 158th annual convention at the Madison Marriott West on February 23, 2012, the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists kicked off the discussions with a pre-convention workshop entitled “NonProfit News: What You Need to Know About ‘Free’ Media.”
The workshop was moderated by UW-Madison journalism ethics professor Stephen J. Ward. Panelists were:
- Bill Lueders, Money and Politics Project director for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, which focuses on government integrity and quality of life issues. Its mission statement: Protect the vulnerable. Expose wrongdoing. Seek solutions to problems.
- Steven Greenhut, vice president of journalism for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, parent organization of Wisconsin Reporter. Franklin Center media focuses on corruption, incompetence, fraud, or taxpayer abuse by elected officials at all levels of government.
- Lisa Graves, executive editor and editor-in-chief of the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy, publisher of PR Watch, SourceWatch and ALECexposed.org.
The workshop can be listened to or downloaded by clicking on this link.
“This is the cutting edge of journalism,” said Lueders. “We tweet and we have a Facebook page but what we do is really old-school investigative reporting.” Lueders said that the Wisconsin Center’s goal is to increase the quality and quantity of investigative reporting in the state of Wisconsin. The Center has produced 65 major reports since mid-2009, which have been used by more than 150 media outlets from the Crawford County Independent weekly newspaper to the online Huffington Post.
Greenhut called nonprofit journalism “a relevant model…a much more nimble way of doing things.” Critics of nonprofits sometimes accuse them of leaning left or leaning right based on the perception of where their funding comes from. All three panelists said that perception was wrong and said that their organizations maintained a wall of separation between funding and reporting just as newspapers separated advertising and reporting.
“We’ve been called partisan foot-soldiers,” Greenhut said. “That’s a critique I don’t appreciate. We’re not at all partisan.” He said that the Franklin Center was committed to ferreting out waste, fraud, and abuse, no matter which party was in power.
Lisa Graves added, “If we have a bias, it’s one of great skepticism about press releases, corporate press releases in particular. We believe it’s important to know where the money comes from.”
Graves and Lueders said their organizations were very open about the identity of their donors. Both chided Greenhut for the Franklin Center’s decision not to reveal its funders. “We’re a private organization so we’re privately funded,” Greenhut responded. Greenhut maintained that there was no pressure by any of Franklin’s donors dictating what stories should be covered.
Lueders acknowledged that all of journalism has to get funding from external sources in order to support the reporting. Even for commercial broadcasters and print media, managing that operation can be tricky. He quipped, “Here’s a story you’ll never see a news outlet do: ‘Our ten sleaziest advertisers.'”