If you believe in non-profit journalism, it is time to support it. And if you support non-profit journalism it’s time to go public with that support.
The end of the year is a hugely important time for non-profit fundraising — many organizations raise major portions of their budget between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. This year may be even more important for charitable giving because of the debates in Washington about amending the rules around tax-exempt donations.
Given the increasingly visible role of non-profit journalism on the national stage and in local communities this should be a great time for newsrooms to be fundraising. However, unlike their non-commercial brethren in public radio and television, most non-profit journalism startups don’t have a well-oiled fundraising machine. I don’t mean to suggest that public broadcasters have it easy, but there is a well-established culture around pledge drives and people have come to expect and plan on giving to their local public radio and TV stations throughout the year.
But most people don’t think about non-profit journalism sites the same way. It’s time to change that.
We need to raise the profile of non-profit news and remind people why it is so important to support this kind of journalism. So this week I launched #give4news. I’m asking Twitter users to tweet me at @jcstearns and tell me what journalism non-profits they are donating to and why. Then tag it Here’s what it looks like.)
In essence, #give4news is a crowdsourced pledge drive for the entire non-profit journalism sector. There are no pledge breaks on the Internet, so instead we need to create a social media buzz by encouraging people to go public and talk about who they are supporting and why. At the end of the year I’ll choose two of my favorite responses and I will donate to those newsrooms as well. Plus I’ll give the two people with the best tweets a subscription to one of two great non-profit journalism magazines - Orion Magazine and Mother Jones.
We are at an exciting moment when it is now possible to imagine non-profit journalism becoming a much more prominent part of America’s media ecosystem. But to make the leap from start-up to sustainability we need to step up our support for non-profit news and inspire others to do the same.
The seeds of this idea were planted on election day when I was handed my “I Voted” sticker. Studies have shown that public proclamations like this can help motivate others, especially in terms of civic engagement. “The ‘I Voted’ sticker is a signal and an advertisement,” Derek Thompson writes in a blog at the Atlantic. “It binds people together in solidarity and reminds others to join the group.”
Non-profit news: A Renaissance
While non-profit journalism has long been a part of American media, it has been experiencing a renaissance in the last few years. However, for the most part, individual giving has not kept pace. As Ken Doctor has noted, while many organizations have a donor/membership model as part of their business strategy, building that base of support is slow. Doctor talked with Phil Balboni, the CEO of the for-profit Global Post, who predicted it would take a “five- to 15-year effort to get consumer behavior changed” when it comes to membership-based models in online journalism.
While there is likely some truth in that timeframe I think there are things we can do now to help push that change along. That’s where #give4news comes in. News as a charity is still a new idea. If you support your local food pantry, consider supporting your local newsroom to ensure you have meaningful coverage of hunger and homelessness in your community. If you support your local Red Cross, why not also consider supporting the local indy journalist who is reporting on disaster relief?
Non-profit journalism comes in all shapes and sizes: all-volunteer local community radio stations, data-driven government watchdogs, big investigative newsrooms, online streaming operations and more. What they all share is that they can’t survive on grants alone. While foundations have helped to jump start non-profit journalism — and will always be critical allies in this work — we need communities to sustain it over the long haul.
Josh Stearns is a journalist, organizer and community strategist. He is Journalism and Public Media Campaign Director for Free Press, a national, non-partisan, non-profit organization working to reform the media through education, organizing and advocacy. He was a co-author of “Saving the News: Toward a national journalism strategy,” “Outsourcing the News: How covert consolidation is destroying newsrooms and circumventing media ownership rules,” and “On the Chopping Block: State budget battles and the future of public media.” Find him on Twitter at @jcstearns.