As Newspapers Reinvent….
Are nonprofits key to keeping Florida informed?
By Ron Cunningham
Two reports of Florida marine entrepreneurism, separated by a century and a half:
“The wrecking vessels are usually small schooners. They anchor within sight of each other along the Reef, and readily exchange signals when a wreck is seen. So promptly do these vessels come to the rescue they are likened to the condor that swoops down upon its prey.”
—Harper’s New Monthly Magazine: 1871
“Two and a half years after the Sea Ray plant shut down off Colbert Lane, eliminating some 440 high-paying, manufacturing jobs, the plant will reopen very soon under the banner of Boston Whaler…Boston Whaler will bring back 300 to 400 jobs within 24 months.”
The eyewitness account of salvagers pouncing on shipwrecks along the great Florida Reef came by way of one of America’s oldest periodicals.
The story about the return of boat manufacturing jobs to Palm Coast was delivered with a digital immediacy that perhaps only an online community news source can manage.
Worlds apart in their methods of information delivery, Harper’s and Flagler Today share an unlikely bond.
Harpers, now the oldest general-interest monthly in the U.S., would have gone the way of the old Florida wreckers nearly half a century ago, if the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation hadn’t rescued it from bankruptcy and provided it a non-profit safe harbor.
And Pierre Tristam might not still be a working journalist if he hadn’t used his severance pay after being downsized at the Daytona Beach News Journal to launch the non-profit FlaglerLive in 2010.
“I knew I was going to be losing my job,” Tristam recalls. “It was very clear in my mind” that a non-profit news business start-up “would be a viable way to go as long as it was driven by local news content.
“Frankly, the newspapers in our area were not doing what we are doing in Flagler County, producing meat-and-potatoes journalism.”
Tristam is among veteran Florida journalists who have launched or joined nonprofits after being laid off by newspapers forced to shed staff and reduce content in the face of diminishing ad revenues.
Dan Christensen’s investigative reporting for the Miami Herald helped send a Broward County sheriff to jail on corruption charges. After being laid off at the Herald, Christensen was obliged to re-envision his future in 2009, when he founded the Florida Bulldog.
With the help of generous ongoing support from fellow ex-Herald-reporter-turned-novelist Michael Connelly, and smaller donations from notable Floridians, such as former Gov. Bob Graham and one-time Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence, Christensen is able to pay a handful of stringers $400 a story to write about the state’s new anti-protest law, conflicts of interest among Florida legislators, runaway development in Coral Gables and much more.
“I’ve got some very experienced people,” he says. “I know their capabilities because I used to work with them. And we’ve got what I consider to be one of the best reportorial staffs in the south.”
Craig Pittman, longtime environmental reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, saw his job of 30 years eliminated, along with those of 10 other employees, last year. Now he writes a monthly column about the environment for the Tallahassee-based Florida Phoenix.
“I’m not going to say (the compensation) is what I was getting paid at the Times,” he says. “On the other hand, we hadn’t had pay raises in 10 years.”
Florida Phoenix, which covers Florida government and politics, is perhaps the best financed of Florida’s non-profit news producers. It is an affiliate of the national reporting network States Newsroom, with annual revenues in the $7-million range thanks to support from several private foundations and individual donors.
“Every quarter we do a fundraising appeal” locally, says Phoenix editor Diane Rado, a 30-year news veteran who spent the bulk of her newspaper career at the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times. “We’ve gotten small donations, but obviously, States Newsroom covers salaries, the bureau lease, laptops, pretty much everything.
“I think it’s the new model. We’re not going to have what I had for almost 40 years (in journalism) – advertising-supported news.”
Rado heads a full-time staff of two editors and three reporters. In addition, the Florida Phoenix draws on the columnist talents of Pittman and Pulitzer Prize winner Lucy Morgan and Florida author Diane Roberts.
“I don’t know if the Phoenix (non-profit) model is the one that’s going to succeed, but it seems to be working so far,” says Pittman. “I only wish they were bigger, had more reporters and could cover more things.”
Other Florida non-profit news organizations are living a more hand-to-mouth existence. FlaglerLive gets by on about $60,000 a year. Another online local news source, LkldNow in Lakeland, raised about $100,000 last year and hopes to take in $150,000 this year.
Like Tristam, Barry Friedman launched LkldNow after losing his managing editor of digital position at The Ledger in Lakeland.
“I was 61 at the time and no conventional jobs were forthcoming,” he recalls.
LkldNow focuses strictly on local news. “Newspapers used to be the glue that held a community together,” he says. “What appealed to us about the non-profit model is that it tells readers we aren’t beholden to anybody but readers. We are a public service, we have a mission.”
Rick Edmunds, media business analyst for the St. Petersburg-based Poynter Institute, has been writing about the rise of non-profit news for several years. By some accounts, he says, there are now more than 700 digital news startups in the U.S. and Canada — this occurring at a time when thousands of daily newspaper jobs have been lost.
Many of these nonprofits are springing up in areas that are being called “news deserts.”
“The ‘news desert’ metaphor is a very good one,” Edmunds says. “There are places that have just lost their newspapers, and these startups are being driven by perceived holes in local coverage.”
Still, in Florida, non-profit news remains a relative novelty.
LION (Local Independent News Publishers) lists just eight Florida members out of a total of more than 275. And the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), has only seven Florida affiliates among some 300 members.
“I think Florida is a bit behind the curve,” in terms of non-profit news, says Janet Weaver Coats, director of the University of Florida-based Consortium on Trust and Media Technology. “Part of the reason it’s been slow to grow is because Florida newspapers managed to stay stronger here longer.”
A former executive editor of the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Tampa Tribune, Coats also founded Coats2Coats Consulting, in which capacity she advised several non-profit news organizations. And her first question was, invariably, “What’s your business plan?”
“What separates the ones that succeed from those that don’t is the realization that you can’t just be a journalist, you have to be a business person,” she says. “You’ve got to have a business strategy. You figure out pretty quick that non-profit is a tax status, not a business model.”
At LkldNow, Friedman has yet to pay himself a salary. “I wanted to get the organization to the point that it was sustainable,” he says.
That’s why LkldNow’s only full time staffer isn’t a journalist, but rather a fundraiser.
“To build the organization what I really needed was a revenue person,” said Friedman. “Basically we have been able to either double or come close to doubling revenue each year over the last three years.”
By some accounts, there are now more than 700 digital news startups in the U.S. and Canada — this occurring at a time when thousands of daily newspaper jobs have been lost, says Rick Edmunds, media business analyst for the St. Petersburg-based Poynter Institute.
Friedman hired Trinity Laurino as LkldNow’s community engagement director. “It’s really been a game-changer,” he said. “Before she came, most of our revenue was from sponsors who usually contacted me and donations that trickled in. Since she came on board we’ve diversified our revenues with several grants, more sponsors and a much more targeted approach to getting donations.”
Laurino wrote a grant that got LkldNow accepted into the Google News Initiative Sustainability Lab. “Through the lab we are developing a membership program that is putting more structure and rigor around our efforts to expand support from individuals.”
Friedman’s decision to hire a fundraiser “is the smart way to do it,” says Coats. “You want to hire a reporter, but where is the person who is going to find the money for that? The people who have figured that out have had success on a widely varying scale.”
Nationally, she points to the Texas Tribune and the Voice of San Diego as two nonprofits that have managed to prosper thanks to their business plans.
Although the future of non-profit news as a viable business model is still up in the air, Poynter’s Edmunds has pointed to two important developments in non-profit funding over the last five years.
For one, both Google and Facebook have launched initiatives to help digital start-ups build their businesses.
“The second positive is that news is now on the radar for community and family foundations, whose traditional focus has been on causes like health and education,” Edmunds has written for Poynter. “Big journalism funders like the Knight Foundation have been trying to seed that interest for many years — the clear crisis in local news has helped make the case.”
“About 35,000 daily newspaper journalism jobs have been lost from a peak of more than 57,000,” he continued. “Resources are migrating from metros and smaller locals to the biggest national outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today. The herd of city magazines and alt-weeklies has also been thinned.”
And while much non-profit news is currently being turned out by veteran journalists who are looking to stay in the game, UF’s Coats says the biggest challenge facing nonprofits may be recruiting the next generation of reporters — younger people who want a career in journalism but also want to raise families and make a living.
“Journalism schools would serve their students well to do more training around entrepreneurial approaches to journalism,” she says. “Starting your own news site is a big hill to climb. And where foundations should be putting more support is not just thinking about the issues of the moment, but how to build a future that will allow people in journalism to pay their bills.”
So is there a future for non-profit news in Florida?
“The short answer is yes,” says Coats. “Community foundations are starting to recognize that news and information is a public good, just as helping children in poverty or supporting the arts is a public good.”
She points to the Sarasota-based Patterson Foundation and its Aspirations Journalism initiative as a good example. “They were early in trying to figure out the local news environment.
“The advantage we have now is that there are lots of non-profit news examples to look at. The people who were doing this in 2008 had no model. Now there are a lot of models.”
Ron Cunningham was a reporter at the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, higher education reporter at The Gainesville Sun, and Tallahassee bureau chief for The New York Times Florida Newspapers, before serving as editorial page editor at The Gainesville Sun until 2013. He is a University of Florida graduate and former editor-in-chief of the Independent Florida Alligator.
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